HomeArts & EntertainmentBooksInterview: Sumit Baudh, queer Dalit scholar: “I felt like an outcaste in...

Interview: Sumit Baudh, queer Dalit scholar: “I felt like an outcaste in more than one way”

Your essay Reflections of A Queer Dalit (2007) is back in circulation thanks to the social media discourse around Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti’s show Made in Heaven. How does this make you feel? How do you look back at what you wrote?

Queer Dalit scholar and author Sumit Baudh (Photo courtesy of Temitayo Fayemi, Emory Law, Office of Communication)

Uneasy and dismayed, that’s how this makes me feel. The article of 2007 had emerged out of similar sentiments but in a very different context. At the time, I was uneasy and dismayed by the absence of openly “out” Dalit persons in queer social spaces, and a corresponding absence of openly ‘out’ queer persons in Dalit social spaces. Over time, I came to an obvious understanding of the elitism of gay spaces that disallowed entry to impoverished segments from among Dalit groups. More intriguing and inexplicably though, there was a silence from Dalit groups to my article. It roused intense anxieties in me, and I felt like an outcaste in more than one way.

The article of 2007 served as an important starting point for studying the intersection of caste, gender and sexuality. The only reason why that article was premised on the experiential grounds (of my “coming out” as Dalit and queer) is because I could not find secondary materials on the topic. The idea of “coming out” is only one part. That article goes on to discuss other important ideas – of similarities and differences – of being Dalit and queer. By itself, and as such, the idea of “coming out” could be an over-investment in narrow identity politics and it could also perhaps lapse into a self-obsession of sorts.

Why did you choose to publish that essay with TARSHI (acronym for Talking About Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues) instead of an academic journal?

The origin of the article is within social movement spaces. It emerged in conversations with fellow queer activists and thought leaders. I happened to be involved in an initiative that was supported by the Ford Foundation, The South and Southeast Asia Resource Center on Sexuality, which was only hosted by TARSHI. The magazine in which this article was published, In Plainspeak, was for limited circulation. This worked well because of the risk of stigma and discrimination that inevitably accompanies the conditions of being Dalit and queer. Nonetheless, the article was amplified in a widely circulated news magazine, Tehelka, by Nisha Susan’s article titled Bootstrap Astronauts in 2009. Among other references in academic journals, well-known feminist writer Nivedita Menon referred to my article in her published works in The Economic & Political Weekly (2015) and Feminist Review (2009).

You speculate about the possible alliances between Dalit politics and queer politics in that essay, wondering how they could draw strength from each other. Has your optimism in this regard increased or diminished between 2007 and now? What are some of your reasons?

Even at the time, there was a sense of healthy scepticism with the prospect of alliances between Dalit and queer politics. Well-known historian and writer, Dilip Simeon, had gently grounded these lofty prospects – in an informal side conversation with me. Seven to eight years later, the visibility of openly “out” queer Dalit persons in the Delhi Queer Pride of 2015 was the kind of visibility that I was hoping to see. This visibility had emerged in queer spaces, while predominantly Dalit spaces had still seemed out of bounds for openly “out” queer persons. By now there is relatively greater acceptance, visibility, and diversity in the composition of social movements and civil society spaces – in 2023. There is also a greater visibility in the media via OTT shows such as Made in Heaven, which has woven multiple narratives of the injustices and social exclusions on grounds of skin colour, caste, sexual orientation, religion, etc.

How has your imagination of these alliances been affected by the work of Akhil Kang, Dhrubo Jyoti, Dhiren Borisa, Aroh Akunth, Jyotsna Siddharth, Gowthaman Ranganathan, Saptarshi Mandal, and many others writing about the entanglements of caste and queerness?

It would be difficult to make any generalized commentary of individuals and their works that are located in a broad range areas such as journalism (Dhrubo Jyoti), arts (Aroh Akunth and Jyotsna Siddharth), and academia (Saptarshi Mandal, Akhil Kang, Dhiren Borisa, and Gowthaman Ranganathan). Aside from any self-positioning of these works on identitarian lines (such as queer Dalit), there has to be an understanding of the alignment of core subjectivities in these works. Let me explain. In an inadvertent rivalry of subject formation in intersectional ideation, liberal ideas of queerness are often placed in priority and positions of primary subjectivity, while egalitarian ideas of Dalit-ness are often relegated to secondary positions. There needs to be a balance of liberal and egalitarian ideas. Identitarian assertions that are devoid of experiential and ideological positions are therefore less persuasive.

How do you make sense of the casteism that you see in queer dating and activist spaces?

I have long transitioned from being an activist to an academic. I do not even inhabit activist spaces in the ways that I have done in the past. My experiences of queer dating are also dated. When I did both, queer activism and dating, of course, among other systemic factors, there were recurring experiences of racism, casteism, sexism, ableism, elitism, etc. White composition and sensibilities of the expat communities in Delhi were mostly charitable in hosting social spaces (via house parties) that also served as dating sites. The caste-blindness of these expat spaces was mostly ill-equipped to make any sense of my Dalit-ness, while inflicting routine microaggressions based on their racial prejudices. There was a different kind of caste-blindness among locally resident queers of Delhi, mostly from elite classes and dominant castes. There was an ignorance and denial of casteism. Inadvertently, I was tasked with educating my queer peers about caste. My role as a peer educator had to be delivered with a delicate balance of fun, frivolity and seriousness. Unknowingly, perhaps I served as an openly out queer Dalit mascot in these spaces. Note the disparaging self-reference here in the usage of the word “mascot”.

In your TARSHI essay, you note that “Women’s issues are often neglected in the Dalit discourse”. What are these issues? Who are the Dalit women writers that you look up to?

Many. Let me talk about the most outstanding neglect of women’s issues in the anti-caste discourse. I’m deliberately making a shift from the identitarian framing of a “Dalit discourse” to a broader framing of anti-caste discourse. Vishaka v. Union of India (1997) was a landmark decision of the Supreme Court of India that laid down ground-breaking guidelines for the prevention of sexual harassment of women. The actual incident of gang rape of Bhanwari Devi that triggered the class action was entirely lost in the juridical text of Vishaka. Bhanwari Devi had experienced sexual harassment and assault on the combined axes of caste and sex. Yet, the juridical outcome had considered the remedial operation of the law on the narrower axis of sex only. This is an example of “classic intersectional failure,” and yet it went unnoticed by feminist and anti-caste discourses for over two decades in India and elsewhere.

Among Dalit women writers that I look up to, I would say the names of Baby Kamble and Meena Kandasamy. I am also eagerly looking forward to reading and engaging with the works of a young Fulbright scholar, Disha Wadekar, currently enrolled in the Master of Laws (LLM.) program of Columbia University, School of Law.

What did you think of Yashica Dutt’s memoir Coming Out as Dalit (2019)? Did you feel that she was building on Reflections of A Queer Dalit?

Dutt’s memoir is an interesting mishmash of her personal narratives with a set of borrowed ideas from secondary sources. The personal narratives are cosmetic portrayals of the higher echelons and more elite segments of Dalit lives. There’s a conflation of caste with class mobility, without any attempt to parse out the two, and with an insufficient engagement with caste particularities. There’s also a blurring of timelines — when the memoir implicitly places the author within the temporalities of major anti-caste mobilizing moments — when she was actually “passing” and distancing herself from those very moments at the time.

While reading the book, I did not feel that Dutt was building on my article of 2007 because the surrounding context of that article is within social movement spaces (such as the World Social Forum of 2004, civil society organizations, NGOs, coalitions such as the Voices Against 377) and my one personal presence in those moments. The idea of “coming out as Dalit” in Dutt’s 2019 work might have been borrowed from my article of 2007, but there’s no explicit acknowledgement of this. Other than naming the memoir as such, there are few insights into the idea and experiences of coming out.

Radhika Apte as Pallavi Menke, a Dalit Buddhist academic, in Made in Heaven (Courtesy Made in Heaven Season 2)
Radhika Apte as Pallavi Menke, a Dalit Buddhist academic, in Made in Heaven (Courtesy Made in Heaven Season 2)

The episode of Made in Heaven that has been most widely appreciated in Season 2 features Pallavi Menke, a Dalit Buddhist academic, a law graduate from Columbia University, who is about to become a professor. What parallels do you see between her and Dutt’s life?

I do not know much about Dutt’s personal life outside of the disclosures that are made in her memoir of 2019. Based on this limited understanding, the two major parallels that I can find between Dutt’s and Menke’s lives are:

1. that they are both said to have studied at Columbia University in New York, and

2. both describe their disclosures of being Dalit as “coming out.”

A third and less explicit parallel between Dutt’s and Menke’s could be assumed on the lines of both being heterosexual and cis-gendered women. There is little to no insight into any sort of queerness of gender and sexuality in Dutt’s memoir. To that extent, both Dutt and Menke appear to have appropriated the idea of “coming out” from queer discourses, and capitalized on it in their respective careers. Fourth and last, both women are disconnected from social movements. In one scene of Made in Heaven (Season 2, Episode 5), rather than have any conversations with her family, community, or social movements, Menke seeks validation from the protagonist character of Tara, when she asks her, “Have I gone too far?”

Zoya Akhtar, Reema Kagti, Alankrita Srivastava and Neeraj Ghaywan from the Made in Heaven team put out a statement saying that the episode draws on multiple published sources, not only Dutt’s but also Sujatha Gidla’s, Suraj Yengde’s and yours. What kind of credit/compensation do you think you and other Dalit writers deserve?

I cannot speak on the behalf of others. I think it is gracious of the Made in Heaven team to acknowledge the influence of anyone else’s work in theirs. More than the matter of credit and compensation, there has to be an engagement with pressing matters of representation in the media. The idea of “coming out as Dalit” is peripheral to the character of Pallavi Menke. There are more interesting lapses in the caste consciousness demonstrated by this character. When Menke says, in her opening scene, “here [in the US] I was just a woman of colour,” she demonstrates an ignorance of the ways in which caste operates – especially within the South Asian American diaspora. There are other inconsistencies in the ways in which Menke qualifies her wedding — alternatively as a Dalit wedding (which is incorrect) and a Buddhist wedding (which is correct). These are just some illustrations of the kind of representation issues that are more worthy of public conversations than the kind of bickering that is going on over credit and compensation.

You are working on a monograph titled Law at the Intersection of Caste, Class and Sex. What can readers look forward to? Who is publishing it? When will it be available to read?

My monograph is based on my doctoral dissertation at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Law. Parts of this dissertation have been published already under the titles of Demarginalizing the Intersection of Caste, Class, and Sex (2021) in the Journal of Human Rights, and Invisibility of ‘Other’ Dalits and Silence in the Law (2017) in the journal Biography. My monograph is currently under contract for publication with Routledge UK, and I am hoping to complete it by next year.

To what extent is anti-caste advocacy making a dent in US and UK academia?

These are the early years of anti-caste advocacy in some English-speaking academic institutions of the world. Several well-known educational institutions, such as Brandies University, Brown University, California State University, Colby College, Harvard University, and University of California, San Diego, have added caste as a protected category under their respective anti-discrimination policies. Alongside the progress of this anti-caste advocacy, there is also substantial pushback from some conservative sections within academia. It is a site of intense engagement that carries profound implications for higher education and knowledge production.

What kind of challenges might Pallavi Menke run into after she becomes a professor?

The character of Pallavi Menke seems to have transitioned from studying law to a tenure-track position in the sociology department. Disciplinary transitions like these are less common in reality. Alternatively, this could be a subtle commentary on the systemic barriers within legal academia in the US: that somebody who studied law at Columbia University could not be appointed to a tenure-track position in the law school there. Let me explain this barrier by way of an example. Despite my selection as 2022-23 Fulbright-Nehru Visiting Chair on Civil and Human Rights at Emory University recently, and despite having clearly communicated my interest, eagerness, and requests to teach at Emory Law School, somehow my law course was offered as an “interdisciplinary” course at the Institute for the Liberal Arts (ILA) at Emory College of Arts and Sciences, not at the law school. There are exclusionary forces that operate on the basis of race, caste, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc. in American academia. These are systemic challenges that are likely to operate in all career trajectories, including that of the hypothetical Dr Menke’s.

Sumit Baudh is Professor and Executive Director at Jindal Global Law School’s Centre on Public Law and Jurisprudence. They are also a visiting scholar at the Centre for International and Comparative Law at Emory University in the United States. Their views are personal.

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.

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