Caste is arguably the most well-guarded secret in “progressive” urban spaces. Casteist practices are rampantly prevalent in all the spaces we navigate—starting from the houses we inhabit to the institutions we attend—but they are barely ever acknowledged. Caste is so endemic to the Indian condition that it girdles our structures, influences our interactions and informs our decisions. It dictates who we choose to speak to, how we speak to them and even who we are attracted to. This draws me to two truths that I wish to highlight. The first is that the “casteless” urban Indian is a savarna construct who resides only in the savarna imagination. The second is that given the omnipresence of caste-informed morals and actions, casteist practices inevitably seep into queer-affirmative spaces too. And this is a problem that needs to be addressed.
By and large, the tone of the Indian queer movement has been set by upper-caste Hindus. Queer individuals hailing from dominant-caste backgrounds have an unstated monopoly over the leadership of the movement. In fact, they are the face of the movement. They get invited to panel events, primetime debates and are often unduly pedestalised. Their social capital also accords them the privilege of getting their demands addressed first by policymakers. The demands of the mainstream queer movement, therefore, tend to be limited to the politics of legalising marriage. The harsh material realities of Dalit and Bahujan queer persons are not taken into consideration by the upper-caste leadership. The precarity of the positionality of Dalit-Bahujan queer persons must rightfully make them eligible for additional structural support. However, their day-to-day struggles surrounding their safety and livelihoods are rarely ever acknowledged, let alone formalised by the mainstream movement.
Discourses surrounding the intersectionality of caste and sexuality are either silenced or sidelined in urban queer spaces. Dalit and Bahujan assertions are invalidated by the “casteless” queers. The denial of one’s victimhood is in itself an act of oppression. Furthermore, Dalit and Bahujan queer individuals are even ridiculed for their choice of clothing and for their language. All these practices result in the isolation of Dalits and Bahujans. The queer movement only accommodates them in theory, not in praxis.
In recent years, India has borne witness to a surge in the political assertion of the private realm of sexuality. Queer assertions in the digital realm indeed have a transformative potential. However, these assertions have not been representative of the primary needs of Dalit-Bahujan queer individuals. Caste ignorance is rife in these spaces. Firstly, the lexicon of queerness is accessible only to the English-speaking, urban-educated queer person, who more often than not is caste-privileged. Secondly, there’s a peculiar sort of social currency that one gains as a consequence of being openly queer on the Internet, especially if one is a savarna Hindu. Queerness is celebrated, aestheticised and an undeniable coolness factor is attached to it. In stark contrast to this, the assertion of Dalit and Bahujan identities in these spaces is still met with uncomfortable silence at best or countered with abusive casteist rhetoric at worst. Queerness is associated with modernity while the Dalit-Bahujan identity is construed as backward. For the young urban Dalit-Bahujan individual, caste and queerness are inseparable. However, their caste identity is not as easily reconciled with by their upper-caste peers as their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Caste pervades the most intimate of digital spaces too. Both covert and overt forms of casteism are discernible on dating apps like Grindr and Tinder. While some users outrightly mention their preferences for upper-caste matches only, others take pride in their privileged-caste surnames. The casual usage of vile casteist slurs is not uncommon either. There have also been instances wherein people have unmatched with others upon getting to know the former’s caste location. Another sinister form of caste-based discrimination manifests itself on these platforms. Dominant caste individuals often tend to engage with Dalit queer people with the sole intention of getting to live out their casteist fetishes—the Dalit body is viewed as an object that elicits both fear and desire.
In the Indian landscape, both caste-affected groups and queer individuals are victims of the same barbarous system of power—Brahminical patriarchy. In light of this fact, queer spaces would logically be a source of respite for individuals from historically marginalised communities. However, the intersection of caste ensures that certain people within these communities are more privileged than others, and are hence loaded with casteist biases. Upper-caste queer people must actively work towards dismantling their discriminatory notions and must also concede space to Dalit-Bahujan queer individuals in the queer movement. Stronger solidarities must be forged for the liberation of the most oppressed among us, for therein lies the success of the movement.