“For me, everything started with my birth into an untouchable community in India”, Kamna Singh (26) said when I asked her when her struggle began. She explained that the Dalit communities in India are a group of various caste groups that fall outside the caste system because of the jobs that are assigned to them. These jobs include manual removal of human excreta, removing dead skin and carcasses of animals. “These groups”, she said, “survive on the fringes of society. By birth, I was boxed into being from an untouchable community. Only now that I am a research scholar, I have been able to connect the dots and figure out what’s happening in society, and what exactly the baggage is that comes with being born in an untouchable community.”
Kamna Singh explains that as a small child, aged 4 or 5 years old, she was excluded from religious ceremonies for girls, based on the dark colour of her skin, which functions as a marker for being from a Dalit community. She didn’t talk about it at home because it was considered normal and something that had to be accepted. She did talk to her parents about being hit by teachers in school and her parents changed her school, but that didn’t help.
The system of affirmative action enabled her to enroll in university. But she critically reflects on affirmative action as wel, saying: “This is one of the most stigmatized policies of India. Higher education, state, media, judiciary, those spaces are occupied by Indians from upper caste groups, or the oppressor castes. They see affirmative action as a charity model instead of a model to bring equality. They consider it unfair for the oppressor castes because apparently it compromises on the idea of merit. The top caste is only a small part of society but they are overreprestented in all spaces, so this can not be due to merit.”
When Kamna entered college, she said, she was constantly gaslit into thinking she was not good enough to be there. Kamna: “I constantly questioned myself and my abilities. I was made to believe that my history was a history of shame, while it was a history of oppression.”
People from her community, Kamna said, do not trust the state, because it’s dominated by one particular caste group. Kamna: “Also Muslims and other minority groups do not trust the state because they are not represented.”
Not only the colour of her skin is a marker for her caste identity, also her last name, Singh, is. Singh is traditionally an upper caste surname, but it is also caste ambiguous and many families have assumed it to escape caste stigmatisation – and so has Kamna’s family in the past. But the combination of her surname and the colour of her skin ‘rouses suspicion”, Kamna said. “So people ask me if I am an ‘original Singh’ or not, trying to force me into their box again.”
As an academic, Kamna is researching diaries of Dalit women, more specifically ‘Coming Out As Dalit’ by Yashica Dutt and ‘Ants among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India’ by Sujatha Gidla. Curious how that helped her find her place, and gives her hope for the future, in particular for her younger sister?
Listen to the whole conversation on Avaşîn Podcast!