I read your letter. The one you wrote right before you left. The one that’s been making me stay awake.
Admittedly, I wasn’t entirely sure of what happened to you. What I understand is that you were a PhD student in sociology who believed in social justice. That in your fight for change, students sympathetic with the right-wing confronted you. You were almost removed from the university, but fortunately, that didn’t happen.
However, whatever occurred between you and them, clearly made you feel alone and apart.
My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past.
Those are lines from your letter, tucked within. The words, however, glow like ember.
What did you mean? What were you trying to tell us, minutes before you decided to end your life?
My birth is my fatal accident.
A death is a death. For someone so young, it’s always a tragedy. But of course, after what you did, it was highlighted you were a member of the Dalit caste, and that perhaps, the misery you felt, the sense of depression and frustration, was sparked by the realization that the system was built to oppress. That, as a Dalit, no matter your class, or your educational background, you will be treated differently than everyone else, and reminded of your “place.”
Perhaps, you felt crushed by this truth, and saw no way out.
Honestly, as a South Asian American, I haven’t thought much about caste discrimination. I’ve been too focused on racism here in the U.S.
For instance, I didn’t know, until recently, that Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis make up more than half of India’s prison population.
Dalits, who consist of 16 percent of India’s population, are 22 percent of its prisons.
According to the International Dalit Solidarity Network, a three-year study of 500 Dalit women across four Indian states, “shows that the majority of Dalit women report having faced one or more incidents of verbal abuse (62.4 percent), physical assault (54.8 percent), sexual harassment and assault (46.8 percent), domestic violence (43.0 percent) and rape (23.2 percent).”
Attacks against Dalits, in states like Haryana, increased over the years. According to the National Confederation of Dalit Organizations (NACDOR) from National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) “a total of 3,198 cases related to atrocities on dalits have been registered between 2004 and 2013 as against 1,305 from 1994 to 2003.”
Just last week, a young couple was attacked, and the young man, who was Dalit, had been hacked to death because he married a woman of a higher-caste.
Don’t get angry on me. I know some of you truly cared for me, loved me and treated me very well. I have no complaints on anyone. It was always with myself I had problems. I feel a growing gap between my soul and my body. And I have become a monster.
I’ve read your letter close to a dozen times. I’m always trying to decipher, to find clues and hidden meanings. To find you inside.
As you can tell, I don’t exactly know what was going on in your mind.
And like I said, I never knew you or the plight that Dalits faced in India. I wasn’t unaware of how caste oppression is unjust. However, it never crossed my mind that often.
I know that a main reason why is because I am Brahmin.
My last name: Bhattacharya.
It’s ethnically Bengali, but also, signifies my caste.
I am part of the priestly clans, member of a group that’s been ranked higher than kings, the most powerful in the land for centuries.
We made the rules that said Dalits aren’t welcome in our communities, that if they touch our food, our well, our homes, we have been polluted by them. Tainted.
When I was 12 or 13, my parents took me to India, so I could perform the special Brahmin ceremonies.
It’s similar to a Bar Mitvah, except this is only for those in our caste. Basically, I was not only a “man,” but a Brahmin one, endowed with rights and privileges over others.
The event was overwhelming.
Most of my time was spent getting my hair shaved off, wearing robes, and trying not to fall asleep as a priest chanted mantras at me.
Our family are the caretakers of the temples nearby where I sat on the ground, and the village watched me as I stumbled through recitations.
But while crowds of people fawned over me, you were probably in your room, studying. While I received gold from relatives I’d never seen before, you kept your head focused on your books, trying to ignore the din of traffic, and the voices of those who would discourage you.
I always wanted to be a writer. A writer of science, like Carl Sagan.
We were only two years apart. And when I read that line, I could picture both of us talking, and laughing with each other. I could see you visiting me at Rutgers, and I’d show you the bookstore, and my poems, and we’d tour the parts that haven’t been gentrified yet.
But those visions are paper-thin. Not just because of your final decision, but simply based on our different realities. I have the money and privilege to follow my dreams, to be care-free and unburdened. You just had your sense-of-self and determination.
The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.
It’s difficult to read your letter. For every moment of hope that I can trace, there are others like the one above, where it seems like you were trying so much to feel whole, but couldn’t. Like a rocket ship unable to break the atmosphere.
As I’ve said, the society that deemed your life unwanted, is the same society many of us benefit from.
But we won’t let that continue.
Even though oceans divide us, caste discrimination festers. From dating websites where users can find a match based on caste, to the fervor many Indian-Americans express for narrow-minded leaders and policies.
As you were well aware, the ideology of Hindutva permeates modern Indian culture. Hindutva is a right-wing exclusionary nationalist project. Muslims, Adivasis, and Dalits are considered unwelcome under the banner of Hindutva. It is a political force that wants everyone to believe in so-called “traditional” values, such as marrying within your caste, getting rid of caste quotas, and believing in a puritanical version of Hinduism.
The BJP [Bharitiya Janata Party] is the party of Hindutva, and its leader is Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Even in the U.S., Modi and the BJP are popular. When Modi visited Madison Square Garden, thousands arrived to the event. The New York Times reported that posters supporting Modi and the BJP “could be seen in many Indian stores and restaurants in New York and New Jersey.”
I am saying this not to remind you of how big the problem is. But to show you, that we see the problem too, and that we, especially those who are upper-caste, will do more than we’ve done in the past.
Caste, like race/religion/creed, serves to separate. The way we oppose the dividing lines is to unify.
There are groups such as SAALT (South Asian Americans Leading Together) and DRUM (Desis Rising Up and Moving) who value intersectionality as a chief goal. SAALT raises awareness on issues surrounding religious discrimination for instance, for South Asian Americans who are Muslim and Sikh, while DRUM is focused on economic rights, and in the process, reaching out to other communities of color, and bridging the gaps.
We, as upper-caste Hindus, will volunteer and join these groups, as a way to break down these barriers and spread the message that any form of prejudice within our communities is immoral.
We will also mail letters to and call the Indian Embassy and make them hear us about the issues of Hindutva and caste.
Most of all, we shall challenge our family members and those in our circles.
As stated by artists/activists Thenmozhi Soundararajan and Sinthujan Varatharajah “It is time that those who are Savarna, or Upper-caste, begin to learn to name and own their privilege and take on the burden of educating and dismantling caste in your own families and social networks. For the hardest work is to confront those that are closest and most intimate to you in your personal and professional lives. In fact, this is where really allyship begins.”
Wherever you are, I hope this message reaches you.
People may dub me as a coward. And selfish, or stupid once I am gone. I am not bothered about what I am called. I don’t believe in after-death stories, ghosts, or spirits.
You speak for us.
If there is anything at all I believe, I believe that I can travel to the stars. And know about the other worlds.
* * *
Sudip Bhattacharya lives in Monroe Township, New Jersey. He is currently a Ph.D. fellow in political science at Rutgers University. Before that, he worked as a journalist.