“Are you really an SC? I never knew!”
“You don’t sound Dalit.”
“You don’t look Dalit.”
“You are not like those other reservation people.”
“We never thought you were a Dalit man.”
These are some of the phrases that I and many other Dalits have heard throughout their life, often but not always from savarnas. I believe that I am one of the thousands who face these questions once they- to borrow from Yashica Dutt, come out as Dalit. But I never knew that I had to come out as Dalit for I look like a stereotypical Dalit man- dark, rugged, unkempt, slightly timid. At least that’s how Dalits, if at all, have been portrayed in mainstream media. But people would and still are shocked to know that I am Dalit. This confusion continued to haunt me until recently when I came across the term ‘passing’. It took me some time to realise that I had a privilege- I could pass.
The act of passing is a queer term that is used to identify individuals who can ‘pass’ as stereotypical cis-gendered, heterosexual people. Or in other, wildly offensive terms ‘normal’. Passing is considered to be a privilege, especially by people who do not adhere to societal gender norms, by either choice or nature. People who can pass are seemingly safe from the physical, mental, and social violence that is generally directed toward the other members of the same community who cannot pass. While the term is a fairly contested one, it has been used for a long time to comment upon heteronormativity and the tax it levies on society.
I was introduced to the term quite late in my life. It was the cult documentary about the American Ball Culture- ‘Paris Is Burning’ where I came across ‘passing’ and this exposure proved to be epiphanic. I realised that I had been passing all my life not just as a straight, cis-gendered man but also as a savarna, upperclass man.
My realisation about my passing came with a plethora of other realisations- realisations that made me look at myself and the people around me in a different light. I was passing not just as a straight man, but as a savarna straight man. Granted that there were always a few chinks in my ‘straight’ armour, while my husky voice and masculine looks and gait made me seem like your average heterosexual, cis-man, my multiple piercings, eclectic fashion sense, long and ‘alien’ coloured hair made people suspicious. But this suspicion was only voiced through sniggers and infrequent jabs. I continued and still continue to pass as a straight man- a privilege that many queer cis-men do not have. But what does passing have to do with being a Dalit?
Ask any Dalit person about their experiences living in a casteist society- you will hear horrendous stories of violence of mental, physical, social, and various other kinds being levied upon individuals just because they happen to be born with a label. But keeping the violence aside, every Dalit person would confirm that everyday and casual casteism too is quite dominant in society. What my privilege of passing did was it freed me from this casual casteism. I was free from the snide remarks about reservation, about Dalits being lower, looking a certain way, being undeserving and whatnot. I was treated as a savarna. I am treated as a savarna. One of their own. I was nothing but a regular, albeit dark-skinned savarna man.
The rains of Bhopal can be quite scary. They are sudden and can go on for days. On one such particularly rainy morning I entered my mess, battling the oppressive winds with my black umbrella. I wake up early and have breakfast early too, so I would generally eat alone in the mess. But today I saw a group of people sitting in my usual place. I knew some of them, so I just piled a couple of dosas on my plate and sat with them. Of course, if I had known what they were talking about I would have sat somewhere else, but then, sometimes things must happen in a certain way.
The science graduates sat comfortably, stuffing their faces with sambar and bread talking about reservation and caste. The conversation circled around Bahujans being lazy, usurping the positions and ‘seats’ of the ‘general category’, why reservation should be banned, how bahujans don’t care for their own people, and many other similar ideas.
This is a common conversation that most of us have heard, but generally, it is dealt with as a direct attack. Not in this case. Here I was invited to join the conversation and complain about the issues. I was asked, not explicitly, to be implicit in this indirect casteism. These people, I understood, failed to realise that they were demeaning bahujans and denying caste and caste experiences right in front of someone who had had first-hand experiences of these.
My caste, I realised, unless revealed explicitly, stays under covers. It is perhaps the presumptions that people, here savarnas, have or the stereotypes that they hold that they cannot simply comprehend that I am not one of them. A well-to-do man, studying at an esteemed institute in India, speaking fluent English, and wearing not so shabby clothes-all these do not paint the picture of a typical Dalit guy. The fact that my identity can stay hidden enables me to have a better, deeper, look at the ideas of my peers and the rest to understand the discreet and falsely unidentifiable casteism that persists.
Is passing a privilege? Or is it a bane for countless individuals like me who perhaps feel alienated from everyone? I would be foolish to not acknowledge my privilege as a man who can pass as a savarna. But it would be foolish to say that I am free from the stigma of caste. As soon as I come out as Dalit, things change. Errors which were considered to be silly mistakes now come to be seen as attached to my caste. The stereotypes come flowing, and so do the myths. I come ‘crashing’ back to my roots, something that I never deliberately hid.
My passing had other repercussions which I did not understand- or rather I still don’t understand. I have been labeled a fake in my own Dalit circles- someone who is bookish, some who has not experienced the wraith of caste, someone who has not experienced the pangs of torment. My own brethren treat me as an outsider. What does this make me? An outsider in savarna circles and an outsider in Dalit circles too. I have always had radical ideas about caste and discrimination, yet I am often ridiculed as a ‘brahminified Mahar.’ So, are these stereotypes so ingrained in our collective conscience that my passing cannot be accepted by my own either? Can I feel welcome anywhere? Or am I making everything too much about myself? I don’t have answers to these questions, but I am surely seeking them.
I never had to hide my caste, nor do I want to do it now. But I want to continue using the privilege of passing- not because it makes me feel good about myself but because it allows me to enter a domain that is generally reserved (haha) for savarna ears. It is sort of locker-room talk for all your upper-caste friends for who Dalits are and will always be the other. Here, in a room of their own, I can hear things that I would not be able to, see things that stay invisible, and feel experiences that I could not experience otherwise. I cannot say that I am using this privilege to dismantle casteism from within- it is too strong for that. But I do believe that I am gnawing at it, bit by bit. But this gnawing is pointless and I understand that I need to do a lot more. I am yet to understand how I can use this ‘privilege’ of passing to do more, but I am working on it every day.
Nikhil Baisane is an early-stage researcher working on Hypermasculinity and Hindu Myths at IISER Bhopal. He is a budding writer currently working on his first Marathi novel.