In this essay, I want to tell three personal stories; that is it, no big deal.
I do not remember many things from my childhood; however, three things that my father told me I could never forget. First, if I did not study hard, I would go to work on someone’s farm, and that scared me to death. Second, the pen is mightier than the sword; use it wisely. Third, you do not need to worship God; serve people if you can. These warnings/bits of advice shaped me and my dignity experiences, which I will share below. These experiences have been shaped mainly by my social identity – caste. As a lower caste, survival is difficult in general; however, I was privileged enough to have support and encouragement from my family to pursue whatever I wanted to. Partly because of their ignorance and lack of awareness, they did not know much about career paths.
First, I took the first piece of advice seriously and studied hard to secure the 17th position in the 12th standard/class in the State of Punjab (India), only to be told by my friends and teachers that I must have cheated in the examinations. It was disheartening, dignity challenged, and I felt reduced to nothing despite spending hours and hours inside the books and not seeing the playground for almost a year. There were not many people around me I could talk to or share how I felt in those moments, but these experiences were an essential lesson for me – sometimes, when things are not in your control, you have to move on without paying much attention to what others say. Be deaf when others say you cannot do something and continue to work; you know your worth.
Second, as I entered engineering college for mechanical engineering, I realized my father was probably wrong with his first advice. It is not hard work that gets you far; your social and economic capital and cultural upbringing play a significant role. Almost everyone at college was better dressed or had studied in English medium schools, and I felt lost. So, to find solace, I started writing and reading Dalit literature, spending probably more time on that than my engineering books, and began to dislike machines! Other students started taunting me and nicknamed me Pradhan of the Bhaichara Committee (Chief of Brotherhood Committee). There was no such committee in reality, but it was their way of looking down upon me. However, I took this label as one of pride. Years later, I discovered that research shows that self-labelling helps the marginalized feel powerful by weakening the stigmatizing force of labels.
Subsequently, in 2006, anti-reservation protests entered college. These protests were against the reservation accorded to marginalized caste persons in education and job. And I participated in those through my writing. However, the most troubling comments and resistance I got were from other backward classes I supported through my writing. Despite statements such as “either you can have dignity or reservation,” it was decided that I must stand for what is, write on my terms, and not let any misrepresentation of the marginalized stand its ground. This was a realization that my dignity also lies in others’ dignity. Even when others do not understand that their dignity and collective rights are being attacked, one must stand for and with them.
The third story concerns the workplace where I was a senior and had trained a junior to run a thermal power plant. This person went on to rant about the caste reservation and that I would not have gotten the job if it was not for the reservation. And then the conversation continued on the WhatsApp group, where it was again traumatizing to listen to illogical arguments. My whole identity was reduced to the reservation, ignoring everything else. In this situation, staying silent and moving away was the best way to remain sane.
I knew I could reach more people through social media groups/pages/handles (AmbedkarCaravan and Velivada on Twitter and Facebook), broadcasting my thoughts, with a reach of over 2-3 million monthly. Since then, I have written multiple research-based articles for The Hindu, HuffPost, The Print, and FirstPost, among other leading news portals, and started one of the leading websites – Velivada – among Dalits to share their experiences. At Velivada, over 2000 articles have been published in the last five years, primarily written by marginalized people, and users from over 190 countries have visited the site. In addition, we have organized multiple webinars with leading scholars. I have used my experiences and skills to publish for the academic community by writing various case studies and book chapters and presenting research papers on caste at international conferences, with some research papers under review in leading journals. So, this story is a lesson: your dignity will be challenged, no doubt about that; pick your battles wisely.
Pardeep Singh Attri is a PhD Researcher in Business Administration at the Central European University.