In November 2015, during the Delhi Queer Pride March, three individuals held up signs that read, ‘Dalit, Queer, Proud’, establishing a framework that connects caste, gender and sexuality. In this issue of In Plainspeak we interview one of those three people, Dhrubo Jyoti, a journalist who self-identifies as a Dalit gender queer person and works on issues of caste, gender and sexuality. In a recent online article, Dhrubo says, “The caste-queer struggle has been carried on for centuries, if not more, by lower caste trans persons, who have never been lauded for their contribution. Cities like Hyderabad and Chennai have had a long history of caste-gender-sexuality connected struggles and such solidarities have existed through people’s movements, without much fanfare.”
Shikha Aleya (SA): Dhrubo, thank you for taking time out for this interview, for sharing your observations and experiences with us. Please tell us a bit about yourself and your experiences growing up that have shaped your approach to issues of caste and sexuality and led you to your articulation of your identity.
Dhrubo Jyoti (DJ): I am a gender queer, queer, Dalit person who struggles with love, body and flab. I grew up in a small town, brought up by two mothers. I grew up poor but in an environment where admission of poverty was also defeat. On most days, our identities were shaped by how much we were willing to lie. That shaped how I looked at queerness.
SA: Tell us a bit of the background to how you, Akhil Kang and Dhiren Borisa decided to identify and highlight the intersections between caste and sexuality in the 2015 Delhi Queer Pride March where you carried signs saying “Dalit, Queer and Proud” and also made a statement about caste and sexuality on stage.
DJ: Akhil, Dhiren and I had been increasingly disquieted about the absence of Dalit articulations in queer spaces that were otherwise very caste-d – that dominant caste individuals could hold forth about queerness and sexuality without reflecting upon the kind of violence that their caste positions brought forth. But most importantly, we wanted to say that this de-casted pride isn’t ours. We cannot feel proud of our sexualities when we have to be ashamed of our caste.
SA: How did others participating in the Pride March respond to your articulating and underlining queer Dalit identity and what are your experiences of inclusion or otherwise within these spaces?
DJ: The reaction was mostly positive. But many people thought we were arrogant and that we were bringing personal issues to pride, and that this was irrelevant to queerness.
I don’t want to offer a uniform narrative of inclusion or otherwise: queer spaces are like any other spaces that have violence and hierarchy embedded within them. To be consciously queer and challenge this status quo is the fight.
SA: What, according to you, are the key issues and behaviours that need to change when looking at the intersections of caste and sexuality?
DJ:I don’t think there is any intersection. Caste is sexuality and sexuality is caste. Without the controls on sexuality, especially those on the female body, caste wouldn’t survive – especially its most potent reproducer: endogamy. And caste is the framework within which sexuality operates in South Asia. The challenge, then, for queerness, is to break this framework and yet not be subsumed in its debris.
SA: Amongst the most visible issues of the intersection of caste and sexuality is the issue of inter-caste marriage and relationships that so often lead to brutal violence and killing, such as the case of Kausalya and Shankar that you recently wrote about. What is your assessment of what needs to be done, and how, to address this issue?
DJ: The opposition to inter-caste love is both brutal and visceral because it has the power to break caste. But the solution, as Ambedkar envisaged, has to go beyond advocating inter-caste marriage. One, there needs to be a ramping up of the prosecutions under the POA [The Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989]. Two, stricter and caste-sensitive policing, that systematically doesn’t act against the couple. But three, and most importantly, we have to work socially on reducing the hold of religious dogma and texts, to abandon Hindu theology and shastras, as Babasaheb wanted.
SA: Regarding the proposal of setting up the first Dalit University in Telangana, you have written“An all-Dalit university will finally show us that the things that are killing our Dalit students in premier universities – loneliness, isolation, depression – are not disjoint individual things but intrinsically linked to how our campuses are built on caste.” Do you feel that the creation of segregated spaces such as this may also perhaps contribute further to isolation?
DJ: The creation of a separate university might be helpful if backward and Dalit faculty are hired who understand the backgrounds these students come from and don’t harass them like in many institutions – but the chances are also high that these places will be seen as a silo, that it is alright to continue monopolising mainstream institutions now that aDalit university has come up. The creation of a Dalit university shouldn’t be reason enough to stop social justice policies at other places.
Lastly, isolation and intermingling are two different things. If students are merely mingling, with social hierarchies intact, then isolation can be high. What we need are nurturing grounds for our many SC/ST students who simply aren’t able to cope with the hostility of the mainstream.
SA: Dhrubo, one last question. Do you have other thoughts and strategies of inclusion that you believe would help deal with the challenging intersection of caste and sexuality?
DJ: To not think of this imagined intersection as only existing in the bodies of Dalit people. We all transact our sexualities with caste, so we can start from our own bodies, our own lovers, and bedrooms. Let us abandon this language of inclusion because this is the language of the dominant caste –that this is our house where we shall let you enter. That violence isn’t just in pogroms, but also in slurs, in denial of personhood, and in insulting another – acknowledging these things is important.