Dalit History Month - In Conversation with Jyotsna Siddharth
Updated: Apr 29, 2021
This Dalit History Month, The Rights Collective interviewed Dalit activists working within Dalit liberation and rights movements. This conversation takes place between Inaya Hussain and Jyotsna Siddharth - actor, intersectional artist, activist and founder of online platform Project Anti-Caste, Love, who is currently based in India. Jyotsna shares her thoughts on Dalit History Month, her journey into activism and her hopes for the future of Dalit communities.
TRC: In your opinion, what is the importance and significance of Dalit History Month?
JS: Dalit History Month is a reminder of the journey of dalit community has embarked upon in India and globally. Throughout April, we see amplification of voices, struggles and narratives of the community gaining prominence to strengthen anti caste discourse. It is significantly bringing out a parallel history of the community that played a crucial role and continues in building the country with their intellect, dissent, sweat and blood.
TRC: Remembering it’s roots, DHM was founded by a group of Dalit women in honour of celebrating and sharing Dalit stories. How important is it to you to centre the voices and experiences of Dalit women in liberation movements, especially during DHM?
JS: It is extremely important for Dalit women to reclaim their voices and agendas across anticaste, feminist, ecological and other national and international movements during Dalit History Month and round the year. We are constantly fighting intergenerational wars on our bodies, psyche and communities, which needs authentic, critical and nuanced solidarities. There is a need to consciously form bonds with other marginalised identities such as with queer, trans folks, religious minorities and people with disabilities. Our fights cannot be in silos, it is therefore urgent that Dalit women form collective voice and assertions with Dalit queer and trans folks to create anti caste queer society.
TRC: Your family has a rich history of activism and organisation, your mother being the late Rajni Tilak, who was a crucial figure in the Dalit Feminist and Dalit Liberation movements. Could you tell us a bit about this family history?
JS: I come from a family of rich history and political assertions. I was born to an important activist, feminist and a woman in the country Rajni Tilak- my mother. Both my parents and their parents come from Dalit community. My grandmother until my father, a trade unionist and die-hard Marxist, got university educated and found himself a public sector undertaking job at Indian Oil Corporation used to clean toilets in a government hospital. My mother came from a relatively politically charged background. Her father used to be a tailor who in the 1990s stitched clothing for television celebrities and my maternal grandmother compensated the household income by making paper bags out of old newspapers. Our family witnessed first generation inter caste marriages in the 1980s, when my maternal uncle got married to my aunt - a Brahmin woman - and my maternal aunt married my uncle- a Rajput from Uttar Pradesh.
Luckily, both my parents were able to break away from caste-based occupations in their lifetime. My mother’s public presence as a prominent Dalit feminist and activist in India allowed me a protection from blatant caste discrimination and first-hand experience of untouchability. It is because of her today, my soul and psyche perhaps not as crushed as many of my Dalit sisters, brothers and peers.
I am a second generation learner in my family who has been able to get educated and have had the freedom to live my life on my own terms. My parents separated when I was 5, hence I was raised single handedly by my mother in a commune of social activists, feminists and political workers across caste, class and genders, who have taught me that progressive politics must be generous, beyond one’s personal agenda and vested interests. My politics and resilience is informed all through my childhood and adulthood through witnessing my mother Rajni Tilak’s personal, political and ideological battles that have taught me to always stand for myself, and against wrong. Her unabashed, undying committment to Dalit feminism shaped idea of many in India to draw the connections of social issues with caste and gender in Northern India.
My uncle Ashok Bharti founded National Confederation of Dalit Organisations (NACDOR) in India, and is the Chairman of the International Commission for Dalit Rights in the US. He has served in various positions, such as Co-Chair for the Indigenous People International Action Team in Brussels, Belgium; Convenor at the Global Task Force on Social Exclusion, which was set up by the Global Call to Action Against Poverty; and Member of the Working Groups on Dalits, National Advisory Council, Government of India, among others. He is a recipient of the CARE Millennium Award 2011 for outstanding work on MDGs, CARE Deutschland-Luxemburg, Germany, and the Dalit Ratna Award. He, along with my uncle Rajeev Singh (an ex anti nuclear war and an environmental activist) and Rohit Jain, laid the foundation of “Centre for Alternative Dalit Media” (CADAM) founded in early 90s, which started a newspaper “Abhimooknayak” as an alternate newspaper to highlight the issues of marginalised sections, creating a discourse on India and global politics. It followed a similar path of “Mooknayak” and carried news that did not find a space in the mainstream media in India. Abhimooknayak was the first newspaper to use the Internet. It extensively used software such as Corel draw for design, illustrations and typography, and the internet in the 90s. My mausi, (maternal Aunt), Anita Bharti is a well known critic and writer in Hindi literature and has won a State award for Best teacher. During her time at college, she was actively involved with the famous theatre group, Alarippu, which was established in 1983 by Tripurari Sharma, well-known playwright and director in the Hindi theatre and faculty at National School of Drama, Delhi.
TRC: Did you always want to continue this legacy in your own life?
JS: I was not sure what I wanted to be and what I wanted in life but a deep commitment to society was inculcated in me by many others who associated with my mother’s work as well. My own fieldwork experiences of living in villages - during my Bachelors in Social Work from TISS, Rural Campus - bonded labour research across states in India, fieldwork that I did with Nautanki performers in Kanpur, and so on, taught me that marginalised sections in our society have been used for decades, by the bureaucracy and government for their own political interests. Interactions that I have with friends and fellow activists from different countries, contexts and backgrounds fighting for justice continued to inform my compassion, perspectives and focus into building a newer kind of anti-caste discourse.
Everyday, I see a many of my peers, both younger and older, especially from Dalit community, who are still trying to break away from their immediate family traumas of caste-based occupations and violence. The weight of my legacy only became apparent when I lost my mother in 2018, which shifted my practice, politics and emotions. For the first time, I realised what it meant to be her daughter and also a young Dalit woman living on her own in a deeply patriarchal, casteist and traditional society in India. I am acutely aware that I will never be able to take her space, my purpose is to amplify her ideologies while I continue to do what I do. My calling therefore, is to shift and subvert historical and existing narratives around marginalised people in India - and hopefully globally some day - who are at the intersections of caste, race, religion, gender, disabilities and sexualities.
Through my work, I wish to reiterate that the world still hasn't seen the best. There are stories, voices, individuals and communities in the world that come from various contexts and bring with themselves rich insights, rigour, nuances and lessons that are deeply embedded in their lack of social, cultural and political privileges for us to learn from. I constantly find myself in vulnerable situations because of the intersections of my caste, gender and sexuality locations, while I also enjoy a certain kind of cultural privilege. I have only recently begun to take my legacy quite seriously.
TRC: You are the founder of community project, Project Anti-Caste, Love, which is a collection of discussions, stories, narratives and discourse on the intersections of love, caste, sex, relationships, romance, gender and more. What was your impetus for creating this space?
JS: I started Project Anti Caste Love in 2018 - the first digital platform on Instagram which centred love as a political strategy, while exploring tensions with caste, religion and gender. The project allowed me to connect with people and have a view into their most personal lives - people who live in smaller cities and towns, metropolitan cities and the west, battling caste apathy in their romantic relationships. In the past three years, I have interacted with several young people via texts, offered consultations to few struggling to make sense of their family’s objections towards their partners.
Project Anti-Caste Love started in 2013 as an academic work during my Mphil at the Sociology Department of Delhi School of Economics, Delhi. I was desperate, confused and heartbroken. I had suffered many years of backlash within my own relationship with an upper caste man. At that time, I identified myself as a strictly monogamous, heterosexual woman in love with a heterosexual, an upper caste Bengali man. This articulation defined my enquiry and restlessness pivoting me into the dark world of caste and love.
My firsthand experience of learning better about the caste discrimination and abuse, unfortunately, came wrapped as a love package. Throughout our relationship, I had seen him go out and about trying to make his family understand how much he wanted to be with me, marry and have a family. I was 18 and he was a year older. We were still too young to be going through such hatred, mental and emotional abuse by his family because of my caste.
TRC: Why is centring love in the Dalit liberation movement so important to you?
JS: Love in Dalit liberation movement as a political tool has always been important which can be traced back to Sufism. I find love deeply political in the contexts of India and South Asia where people’s primary identities are locked in caste and gender, where all romantic experiences in South Asian contexts are also caste experiences. Love, therefore, is the most healing, powerful antidote in the face of hate. However, we have all grown up with certain stereotypical, Bollywood-fed fantasies about what love means.
Through the project, I wish to reiterate that choosing to love people beyond their identities and stereotypes is radical. In contemporary times, when we are constantly hit by hate and fascism, it is love that provides us refuge. Our love for our partner(s), therefore, must extend beyond our self centred, indulgent ideas to love fiercely, passionately and politically. Here’s to loving not just our lovers but also ourselves, friends, family and nature.
TRC: Of course the focus of this month is on Dalit History, but I think that understanding and embodying history is a great way to lay down the roots for a self-defined future. What does Dalit Future mean to you?
JS: Future for Dalits in India and globally is shaping right now. For a very long time, dalits have been sidelined from mainstream platforms across fields and the community ended up rejecting to mark their dissent. While it was an important assertion, I state this often that the mainstream is not a property or space of dominant castes alone. Dalits have shaped India equally, if not more, with their physical and intellectual labour and dissent. It is the only marginalised community that has consistently fought, asserted and championed the rights of other disadvantaged groups while constantly enduring intergenerational trauma and violence.
I often find myself alone fighting some of these battles, as I find lack of solidarity within the community. We have been in deprivation for so long that we all have similar aspirations and needs that we find it difficult to share opportunities with others. At times, we forget that as much as it is important to reclaim the space for oneself, it is also important to support fellow peers, comrades and other leaders within the dalit community.
For me, the future for Dalits lies in prioritising self healing, self reflections, addressing our personal angst and traumas, sexist and transphobic mentalities, holding space for oneself but for others too but most importantly, to not claim power in the ways dominant caste people - especially men - resort to. There is a lot that we need to still learn, unlearn and relearn and extend our limits of compassion, love and resilience.
As a Dalit queer woman, my power lies in knowing I am enough and I don’t need to claim toxic power that others aspire to because my politics, compassion and empathy stands to critique exactly that. For Dalits as well as non Dalits, it is important to work deeply, rigorously and empathetically to annihilate caste and other oppressive systems of power. To fight political battles with our close ones as well if required, who stand in the way of maintaining caste, gender binaries and toxic brahmanical patriarchal power.
TRC: What is one thing you’re grateful for during this month?
JS: This month I am only grateful and more. To be alive, breathing and living in distressing times such as these when people are dying all around. I am in gratitude to be working, asserting and supporting individuals and collectives. Never before we have seen such horror in India, the country that always maintained a dignified space in the world is dying in the hands of fascism. I wake up everyday feeling deep loss and love for my loved ones and strangers who I never met but have died at the hands of state. Everyday to be alive is a blessing and I only hope I am able to make use of everything I have towards a larger cause.
Jyotsna on Instagram
Jyotsna on Twitter
Project Anti-Caste, Love on Instagram
Inaya Hussain is a London-based freelance writer and Project Associate at The Rights Collective. In her writing she explores themes such as culture, identity and politics, but when she is not writing about these things, she enjoys writing poetry and spoken word. You can reach her on instagram, @__inaya.