• Quirk NLS

Graduating as an Upper-Class Bahujan Woman

This article has been published in celebration of Dalit History Month. Quirk acknowledges that we have a dearth of pieces by authors from the Bahujan community, and about the Bahujan experience at Law School. We hope for this piece to be a start of a change in this regard. The author expresses that the importance of this piece is to highlight that experiences of Bahujan women are different from those of Bahujan men, to call out the misogyny of Bahujan men and, to underline the necessity of Bahujan women speaking up.

This piece has been written by Manisha Arya (Batch of 2019). You can reach out to her at manishaarya021@gmail.com. Artwork by Mukta Joshi (Batch of 2019).

“I now see how owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do.”– Brene Brown

When I say ‘upper class’, do not mistake me to be born with that privilege. My father, having been born and brought up in a village, is the first-generation graduate of our family. I was born in a village, shifted to a town, and later shifted to a city in 2005, where I lived for 9 years before coming to NLS. Moving to a city was a conscious decision made by my father so that his children could get a proper English education. My father’s several promotions in his government job are what gave us the ‘upper class’ social standing. This is the background I come from. So, the next time you want to comment about Bahujans that “they have an iPhone, they do not deserve reservation” (glorious mess table conversations), remember the struggles our forefathers have gone through to give us a comfortable life. If you can afford an iPhone, so can we. Make peace with it.

Beginning of Law School

I was CLAT General Category AIR 639 and SC AIR 2. I entered NLS having no knowledge about what it meant to be from the SC category. I was not even aware about what being a woman means, leave alone an SC woman. Yet, I felt this constant guilt, a constant feeling of not deserving what I got. I was SC AIR 2, I should have been proud of myself, but I was not. This feeling of not deserving to be here deepened when I got three repeats in my first trimester itself. Eco was expected; History, I thought I would clear in the repeat; and LM, I was sure I would pass. Failing in 3 out of 4 subjects hit me so hard that I broke down, I felt like I would not survive. After much hesitation, I went to Prof. Elizabeth in my second trimester and told her how I felt about being from a reservation category and about my academic struggles. One hour of conversation with her helped me take one step ahead in feeling like I deserved to be at NLS.

No matter whether one fails or excels in academics, the stigma attached to one’s caste never leaves you. If you fail, you were bound to because you came via reservation. If you excel, you excel despite your reservation. The stigma attached to one being from reservation never goes away. Like an author once said, “you can leave your caste but your caste will never leave you.”

Friend Circle

Luckily, my friend circle was a mix of Bahujans and Savarnas and my friends never otherized me because of my caste. I say ‘luckily’ because not all Bahujans have the fortune to say the sentence I just said. We are all aware, even if we chose to ignore it, about the formation of friend circles based on caste, or committees taking people from their own caste and taking pride in being an all <insert caste> committee. In such a surrounding, I am extremely grateful for having the friends I did, and will always be thankful to them for making my Law School journey a path of roses even when it was full of thorns. 

Mentorship – or the Lack of it

The importance of mentorship in Law School can only be understood by someone who did not receive it. Unlike many other students, I did not get a mentor in the form of a rank parent, got no guidance on how to go about college, had no one to proof read my projects – no one to provide the support which could have made my journey a bit easier. I am not the only reservation student who has faced this problem, it is a vicious cycle, where the category students are so caught up in their own academics that they often do not have the time and energy to invest in another student. 

Savarna students often have strong rank families, which helps them make strong connections both in Law School and in the professional world. We Bahujans are often lost as to where to get internships from, under whom to intern, how to go about in the profession after our graduation, and so on. I do not say that seniors will not help us if we ask for it but what is served on a platter to the Savarna students, the Bahujans have to fight for. How much of this is the student body’s fault and how much of it is the institution’s is a long going tussle.  

The journey of Owning my Identity

Learning about my identity as a woman and as a Bahujan

2015-16 was the time when Savitri Phule Ambedkar Caravan (SPAC) was being formed and emerging as a committee working for caste rights at Law School. As far as I remember, I got involved with the initiative in 2016. By being in SPAC and engaging with fellow Bahujans I started understanding the spirit of community, the need to be there for each other, and the necessity to not let our juniors go through the things we experienced. In my third year, I started seeing myself as a Bahujan not with guilt, but with pride. 

In 2016, LawSoc conducted ‘The Indian Apartheid – A Conference on Caste’ where I spoke on the themes of changing one’s surname to hide one’s Dalit identity, the discrimination faced, and the impact of division of caste into sub castes on Dalit Women. That was the first time I realised that the journey of Bahujan women is not the same as that of Bahujan men. This realisation became a reality in 2017, when I was made joint-convenor of SPAC and on multiple occasions my views contradicted with those of the Bahujan men in SPAC. 

In 2016, a Bahujan man committed a sexual offence against a Savarna woman in law school. The Internal Complaints Committee gave an order convicting the perpetrator. Appealing against the order, the perpetrator misused the process of law, revealed the identity of the woman, and made many derogatory remarks on her character – going to the extent of making her responsible for the suicide of one of my batchmates. The authorities he approached were not authorities who could pass orders in such matters. All evidence was against the perpetrator – there was documentary proof of him abusing the process. With all of this, the woman approached SPAC to support her, so that she could get a final conviction against him. Most men in SPAC (especially the Convenor of that year, 2017-18) did not support her — even with all of this proof, they did not want to step up. They feared that NCSC (National Commission for Schedule Castes) would come after SPAC. To be honest, they were just cowards.

SPAC had a close association with one of the Bahujan alumni of the Batch of 2014. A batchmate of mine had shared with me the experience of her emotional and sexual abuse perpetrated by him and requested that SPAC stop associating with the alumnus. I discussed the same with the SPAC Convenor. In return, he defended the senior by stating ‘the fair process of law – audi alterem partem’ and no action was taken. In 2018, multiple testimonies of sexual abuse against the alumnus were published. After so many attempts at discussions and fights, I understood the misogyny of these men and that strengthened the feminist inside me.

It is an ongoing trend in SPAC and in the Bahujan community at NLS that the women are not vocal, they do not speak up, they do not fight. Why? I still ask. Later, at Strawberry Fields-2019, the aforementioned 2017-18 SPAC Convenor sexually harassed three Bahujan women and we came to know that the same thing happened with all three of us only after discussing it – one spoke first and then the other two. That’s the importance of sharing our stories – if we had not discussed it, most probably none of us would have confronted him. I do not know why I did not call him out in public back then. I just do not know! He was a friend of mine, an ally, a person I often looked up to — and then he turned out to be a harasser.

Corporate Internships and Placement

In my third year when Corp internships began and it was time to think of placements for the next year, my CGPA was 3.08. When I saw my CGPA and my class rank, my confidence took a steep drop. I was convinced that I would not get a Corporate internship. I did not want to do a corporate job – this I was sure about – but this was also an excuse I made to not sit for placements. In reality, I was shit scared and extremely under-confident because of my CGPA. I just could not muster the courage to sit for placement with a CGPA of 3.08. After graduating however, I deeply regretted stealing myself of the opportunity of learning from the experience of sitting for interviews which could have helped me later in job interviews that I actually wanted to sit for. Take this piece of advice, no matter what your CGPA is, do not give up without trying, do not reject yourself, because someone else might not. 

Mental Health

I suffered from severe anxiety and depression throughout Law School. A lot of it was because of my past, but the academic pressure and the feeling that I did not deserve to be at NLS also contributed to it. As a Bahujan, I always wanted to excel in academics, so that no one could question my merit – the pressure was immense. As a woman I wanted to be at my best in committees, be at my top game in sports, I never ever wanted to hear that “she lost because she is a woman” or “she could not perform because she is a woman”. I remember exerting myself so much more than the men of the committees that I was a part of, or choosing work of infra – lifting more than men would, even when I knew that I was physically exerting myself. I just did not want someone, any man, to say “she cannot lift mattress/tables/tie ropes/carry a hundred things at one go because she is a woman”. I know for sure many women at NLS feel the same. 

Two of my batchmates ended their lives, and both of them belonged to the reservation category. I hesitate to write about it as the struggles they suffered in their minds can only be known to them. However, what I would like to discuss is the academic pressure that they were going through before they decided to take that step. One of them, due to their illness, had to leave mid-trimester and when they came back in the next trimester, they had to hustle with the Exam Department for attendance, beg again and again to schedule their vivas – they were afraid of losing the year because of this. The other one just needed one or two marks to clear a subject which could have saved their one year, and the institution just declined to do so, being well aware of their illness. 

Do one or two marks or a year matter to the institution more than someone’s life? Could a little sympathy on the part of the Exam Department and the institution have saved their lives? Both of them were bright, they had so much potential in them, they could have contributed so much to the legal profession and society at large. But, sorry, we need to keep up the name of the institution, we need to keep up the academic rigor. If a few lives are gone, especially the lives of Bahujans, what does it matter? 

On another note, to all the students I want to say it gets better, it always gets better. Do not give up on yourself, because your friends and your family will not. You matter the most, above grades, above a degree, above this fucking, sorry, glorious Law School, YOU MATTER THE MOST.

Concluding Note

Law School is the place where I first heard of Ambedkar, Savitiri Bai Phule, Jyotiba Phule and read their works. Law School is the place where I first owned my caste identity and spoke openly about it. I would like to extend my heart-felt gratitude towards Prof. Elizabeth and Prof. Sumit Baudh for teaching me these subjects and for the manner in which they taught. They have been my friends and my mentors, for that I am always thankful. Law School is the place which gave me the courage and the confidence to be who I am and be proud of it and for that I owe Law School a lot. 

Parting my ways with Law School as a student, I am sad to find out that only 5 category students out of 17 (excluding the person who was a sexual offender) who came to Law School in 2014 graduated with the batch. Eight have a year loss or year losses, two students dropped out, and two we lost. 

In Solidarity,

Manisha Arya.

*Disclaimer — the description/information of the sexual harassment case has been shared with the permission of the complainant and has been proof read by her. 

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