Suraj Yengde was born in Maharashtra in India into the Dalit caste. His parents enrolled him into a Christian school where caste still mattered, but less than it does in the public system. India has a system of affirmative action in admissions to universities for Dalits and other lower castes, which he benefited from and was accepted to the University of Mumbai. He now has a LL.M. degree from the UK and a PhD from South Africa. At 30, he is now a fellow and postdoc at Harvard Kennedy School, one of only three caste members to be studying there as far as he is aware.
“As a Dalit, the only option you have, except doing your traditional occupation, is education. If you don’t pursue education, you go back to your caste-centered traditional job such as cleaning bathrooms and toilets, doing manual labour.”
Reflecting on education in his hometown, he explains that after the 12th grade, options are very much limited if you come from a lower caste. Most children end up in the same socio-economic situation as their parents even if they do not want to. They are unlikely to make it to college and extremely unlikely to study abroad like Yengde did. According to census data, only 2.4 percent of Dalits in India have a university degree.
A lot of this is because of discrimination, something that Yengde was not protected from along the way. He suffered from bias by teachers when at school and, even at university, students and professors belittled and discriminated against him. He believes they even artificially lowered his grades so that he was not top of his class. In England, as well as in the USA when at Harvard, he was also tracked down by fellow Indian students and mocked or verbally abused, leading him to seek out friendships with students with other nationalities.
“It crushes the heart, but even today I’m still an untouchable. Being at Harvard or anywhere in the world, my primary identity for some reason is not going away. Our caste problems in India have followed us here. I first joined the African and American departments. That says a lot about staying away from the Indian community. Today I do have some friends from Indian high caste but that could not happen in India. As a person, I look beyond any form of division, but not everyone does.”
He explains that growing up in a “Dalit ghetto”, a slum, was a traumatizing experience that still affects him today, with five of them in one room, living in poverty. Despite the trauma he experienced, he thinks constantly of India and is a vocal speaker for Dalits’ rights through initiatives such as the Dalit Film Festival and Caste Matters, a book he wrote uncovering philosophical and sociological dynamics of caste society. For him, India’s caste problems have followed Indian immigrants to the United States and, although he has friends from high castes, social mobility and interaction could not happen in India. While he looks beyond any form of division, not everyone does.
Much of his research now looks at the caste structures that produce Dalit oppression. He is also trying to increase the amount of scholarships that might be available for those from lower castes to study abroad as he does, where they might receive fairer treatment, and far greater opportunities than they might under the weight of discrimination at home.
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