Building Anti-Caste Love

Jyotsna Siddharth

To say that activist, writer, and trainer Jyotsna Siddharth is a powerhouse is to say very little of her. The co-founder of SIVE and founder of Project Anti-Caste Love, Jyotsna is all about harnessing the power of pedagogies to make lasting change in intimate spaces. Here is her story.

The Birth of an Activist
I was born in Delhi to Rajni Tilak, who was probably one of the first active and political Dalit feminists in Delhi. She raised me as a single parent, as my parents had separated when I was four or five years old.

For as long as I can remember, my mother was very active in the Dalit movement as well the feminist movement. She is quite a relevant figure personally and professionally and she has shaped my whole understanding of caste and gender. She constantly pushed for advocacy on caste within the feminist movement while campaigning for the gender issue within the anti-caste movement, while exploring the boundaries within the Ambedkarite and feminist movements. Important as it is, I also think that this space is rarely championed among people.

I spent a lot of my time growing through these initiatives. After I completed my bachelor’s degree in social work from rural campus, I did my master’s degree at TISS in Mumbai. I finished my second master’s degree in anthropology at SOAS, London. I’ve been writing for a while and my writings have largely centered on caste and gender. I also work with a research organization, which is part of my professional engagement where I look at water and sanitation issues. I have been involved in activism for a while, I am also into theatre, and hope to move into it more professionally in the days ahead.

Taking on Caste through Love
Project Anti-Caste love is a very recent project, having begun in 2017. It began from a very personal space. Back in 2005-2006, I was in a relationship with my ex-boyfriend. It was a long-distance relationship and he is an upper caste man. I still remember this incident vividly. When we were about to make things official, I told him that I was from a lower caste background and I had no idea if it meant anything or not – but if he had to decide whether to be with me or not, that was the time for him to decide. I remember how he laughed out loud and told me that he didn’t expect me to say such things, given that I was to become a social worker. He said it didn’t matter to him at all. I asked him to talk to his family about it, nevertheless. He suggested that his parents were liberal and that it wouldn’t be an issue. A few months later, he shared my caste identity with his mother. Immediately, it all blew up. His mother was not happy about my identity as someone from a lower caste, and also went on to say that I didn’t look beautiful and I had dark skin. She was set against the marriage. I don’t think he expected this from his mother. It was a blow to him, as well.

It made both of us really think about our own positions, our caste locations, and despite the fact that I was more qualified than he was the fact that caste played a role. We decided to part ways for many reasons, of which this was major.

This became a sort of a stepping stone for my M. Phil Thesis, where I was trying to understand the impact of caste on love, romance, relationships, and its nexus with the bigger picture such as consent, honour killings, desire, bodies and the like. I couldn’t submit the thesis because I went to SOAS, but the issue has stayed with me for a while. It is so close and intimate to us, and yet, it is so powerful because it brings all the debates back to the family and the intimate space. It is easy for us to go to society and talk about things – but talking to your parents, lovers, friends, and relatives is all the more challenging. It is a very important place that requires intervention.

While I was a student, I was on the committee against sexual harassment at Tata Institute of Social Sciences and organised many discussions on caste and gender and their interlinkages with violence and harassment. Several issues kept coming up – we are all patriarchal, we are all misogynist in different ways and intensities. But that area was never being addressed because people think it is intimate – but it certainly is an important space where you can create change. This was where Project Anti Caste Love came up. I wanted to create space for people to talk about their intimate experience arguing that romantic experience in India essentially is a caste experience To bring together people from various caste, class locations to talk about their intimate experiences, build allies and solidarities as an approach to eradicate caste system.

Self-care, anyone?

I co-founded SIVE with a friend, Vidisha Fadescha, who is an artist and curator. SIVE put together a physical tool kits comprising researched objects and cards that can help us with self–care so that we remain resilient in constantly contributing. This came out of a place where we must take care of ourselves. We really need to be kind to ourselves if we need to do the work we do. The idea of SIVE is to touch upon softer elements and intersections with mental health. We thought that a lot of times, what happens is that our personal issues, anxieties and conflicts do spill over into our work and professional lives. Sometimes, we don’t know what we are going through and how that impacts our work. This makes it important to talk about personal relationships and work towards egalitarian, fulfilling, and deep relationships so that we can focus on the things we actually want to do.

Writing for Change
The Me Too movement in the US and later in India with Raya’s list was a formative time. I thought what Raya Sarkar did with her list was powerful, but I didn’t subscribe to the approach because it’s not something I would do or even consider constructive. Tomorrow, anybody’s name could go on that, and it is difficult for them to disapprove it. At that time, I didn’t think it meaningful to give my opinions – I didn’t really pick a side and I wasn’t sure what to say especially since I didn’t entirely agree with the intervention. I began writing, and I realized that such a thing had not happened for the first time. Raya’s action was crucial, undoubtedly, and took a lot of courage.

The Me Too Movement is in itself is not new. Women like Bhanwari Devi have called out the system, and have dealt with severe consequences for doing it. It made me reflect that the whole movement has been elitist. It is not that what came out of it was not important – in fact, I am so glad that we had a movement that created space for women to share. But, what Dalit women go through in their lives, that is something entirely beyond reckoning.  I’ve seen my mother and other women in their communities – they have gone through so much. They know that the bureaucracy, the government,and larger society is are not going to stand with them. The disparities that we have make it harder for them to mobilize.
I thought that the feminist movement needs to take strength and derive that from the lives of Dalit women. This was a movement that resonated with the middle class mentality, and made it relatable. But when something happens to a woman in a village or a woman from a slum, or the informal sector, it is harder for us to identify with them because their narrative is not something they relate with.

On the Stage
When I was still very young, my aunt and mother were into theatre. My mother had a small theatre group of her own – Ahawan – but it was my aunt who was more actively into theatre. She wrote some scripts on Ambedkar and his work with the movement. I was very young then, so it didn’t really strike me as deeply, but whenthey began to do street theatre, I engaged in it despite not understanding much.

While at school and college, I did a bit of theatre, but never pursued it much. When I move back to Delhi, I was introduced to a feminist theatre group called Pandies. They’ve been around for 25 years, and it was started by Sanjay Kumar, who is an educator, but also works with marginalized children. This theatre group is into theatre while also being active in the activist space. I did two productions with them – The Balcony (French play adapted into Hindi, Haryanvi and English) and Stories of Manto.

Though I wanted to pursue theatre and fine arts, it was not something that could be taken up as a career. I didn’t have the courage to tell my mother that this was what I wanted to do. Knowing her struggle and background, it just didn’t seem right to tell her that I wanted to choose this as my vocation. After she passed away, I realized that there was nothing more that I had to lose because I had lost the most important part of my life, so I took the plunge into theatre. I hope to get into it more actively in the days ahead.

Everyone needs a creative outlet. For me, it’s theatre, writing, and listening to music. It lets me remain in touch with myself, and feel what I feel, and enable me to channelize things that I don’t feel comfortable sharing usually. It’s also important to have people who love and support you unconditionally. That support system is always important.

Looking ahead
Back in the 1990s, a group of people that comprised my mother, Ashok Bharti, Rajeev Singh, Anita Bharti, and Anita Gujarati, started a monthly newspaper called Abhimooknayak. It had an active involvement of Shambhu Prasad, Vipla and many others. It was probably the first newspaper to use the internet, and this truly is saying something because it was way back in the 1990s. The entire paper was put together to give voice to Dalit community as an alternative media, relying on the internet for pictures and information. At the same time, it became a platform for the Dalit community to voice out their opinions and concerns. An organization based in Delhi, called the Center for Alternative Dalit Media that was founded by Ashok Bharti, Rohit Jain and Rajiv Singh backed this. Abhimooknayak began like a family initiative, but later, it brought a lot of people on board. The Editorial Board was always in rotation and there was no fixed team in place. It had a circulation and membership all over the country, with over 2,000 subscribers across the length and breadth of the nation. The newspaper became a centre in pushing the dialogue within the anti-caste movement and beyond. It was in publication until 2014-2015 and was discontinued for financial and administrative reasons. 

I am currently looking into ways to archive this newspaper. My mother showed my friend and collaborator Vidisha the newspaper at some point, and Vidisha – being an artist and curator, saw value in it immediately. She suggested that this was a very important source of archives and should be archived as it had snippets about Dalit art and news from all over the world in the 1990s, and mapped an alternative history that may not have presence in the mainstream media. It deserves to be used by people.