Therapy modules taught in universities are informed by feminism and are queer-affirmative but they do not actively recognise caste-based pride and shame.
Psychotherapy, counselling and psychiatry are in principle designed to help people realise their full potential.
However, is the practice falling short of its purpose in the Indian context?
Is it able to actively and consciously bring in the cultural, political and social context of its patients?
In a deeply caste-dictated society, what role can a discipline like psychology play in challenging the centuries-old caste system that continues to inform the Indian subconscious?
We talk to four people from the Dalit community about mental health, psychotherapy, psychology pedagogy in Indian universities, and alternatives to building safe spaces against caste discrimination.
For the context of this article, please note that the caste system is divided into two broad categories of savarna and avarna. Savarna refers to people whose caste finds a place in the caste system (Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra). Avarna refers to people whose caste falls outside the caste division. They were literally treated as untouchables and the practice continues even today. Today, avarna people assert their dignity by using the political term, Dalit.
Activists need to be trained in therapeutic counselling: Manjula Pradeep
Manjula Pradeep (51), founder of WAYVE Foundation and Campaigns Director for Dalit Human Rights Defenders Network (DHRDNet) has been working as an activist since 1992. As a survivor of sexual abuse, she finds herself inclined to work for (and with) Dalit women to fight cases against sexual violence.
“I was sexually abused by four men at the age of four. While growing up, I had fear of strangers, especially men and my family couldn’t understand why I was hiding behind the door or under the cot,” Pradeep says.
“I shared the incident with a few close friends but I was in my 40s when I spoke about it to my mother for the first time. As a child, you are not aware that this is a crime against you and your body,” Manjula adds that bonding with the community via activism helped her heal herself.
“It’s not just a case study for me. It is a mission, it is a commitment,” Pradeep says.
DHRDNet is a coalition of over 1000 Dalit Human Rights defenders from different states of India. The organisation deals with serious offences, atrocities, and discrimination against Dalit people. Their social media campaign #LockdownCasteAtrocities presents 30 atrocity cases in 30 days on digital platforms starting from 11 October 2020.
“We have thousands of people across the country helping us out. That’s very important support, which the community has at the moment. Otherwise, it’s difficult for us to survive,” Pradeep says. She also asserts that there are not many activists who listen to people marginalised or discriminated by caste and gender.
“Support is not being provided. People don’t think that mental well-being or healing of caste-based trauma is important. However, when you go to the court for justice, when you fight the case, you need to be mentally strong, and for that, you need a lot of mental strength. Having worked for more than 28 years, I realize the importance of having a close network of psychiatrists and psychologists in activism,” She says.
She goes on to say that psychiatrists and psychologists working with survivors of caste and gender-based trauma need to be trained specifically to handle these cases, especially given the geographical and language barriers that limit accessing mental health services.
“Even activists need to go through training of therapeutic counselling since they work directly with the survivors, victims and their family,” Pradeep says.
She asserts that trained psychologists and therapists from the Dalit community, specifically women, form an important support group for the survivors of sexual violence.
Only oppressed will understand the pain of the oppressed: Ekta Sonawane
Ekta Sonawane (21) consider their mental health and psychosocial issues as political. They come from a financially difficult background and shifting to Delhi for education was a struggle.
“I did not have money when I came to Delhi in 2019. People from the community raised money for me. So, it was a lot of pressure,” they said.
Sonawane is pursuing Master’s in Gender Studies from Ambedkar University, Delhi.
“I used to cry frequently without knowing why. I felt a lot of responsibility as a first-generation learner. I used to have nightmares and I have a history of child abuse. Then in the lockdown period, it got worse. That is when I decided to take therapy. I was clear that I will take therapy only if the person is Dalit and Queer,” they said.
Sonawane’s assertion comes from their engagement with the anti-caste movement since the age of 16. They said that they have seen extreme Buddhists to extreme communists, and even if the person claims to be a progressive liberal or queer-friendly, their core remains problematic.
“I can’t deal with savarna therapists. My experience of being in the movement gave me this clear idea that friends from outside Dalit circles, contacts in non-Dalit communist circles, classmates who are savarna, liberal professors, they will not really understand your pain. Like, to understand what you’re going through, someone has to have the same core, there should be some connection. Only oppressed will understand the pain of the oppressed. Caste is very deep-rooted and it comes up in our behaviour unknowingly. It’s in our consciousness,” they said.
Apart from money, it was a challenge to find a queer-affirmative Dalit therapist. Nazariya LGBT – a queer youth alliance and social justice advocacy group based in Delhi and Mumbai – helped Sonawane find a Dalit queer therapist.
“I told my therapist that I can’t sleep, please do something. Gradually, we figured that my situation was political, that there was power dynamic involved. And so, if my depression and anxiety or whatever I’m facing are so related to politics then why should my therapist not be a political person?” they said.
Sonawane emphasises that a lack of awareness about mental health is a big challenge.
“It took me about six months in therapy to understand what therapy is. So, that’s the basic level where we need to rethink and redesign therapy when it comes to accessing it. Why mental health issues exist, what are psychosocial issues? When I used to keep sleeping all the time, people and I used to think that it is because of laziness. Now, I realise that it was due to depression. I never thought that could be the reason. Awareness about mental health is the basic thing we need to begin with,” they said.
Politically informed listening circles as safe spaces against caste-discrimination in academia: Koonal Duggal
Koonal Duggal (36), a Research Fellow at University of Edinburgh, says that even though non-Dalit therapists may be caste-sensitive, the level of comfort and understanding will be different with therapists who have lived experience. Even though the former may comment generally, they may not understand the politics and complexity of the experience that Dalit people go through.
“My therapist is from an upper-caste but I never felt she brought caste privilege into the conversation. She always seemed open-minded and even though we talk on a general level, her observations do touch on the problems that I have. She has helped me recognise patterns in my behaviour, which lead to problems,” Duggal says.
“Caste was there in the conversation from day one itself. I told her about my sexuality, parents’ inter-caste marriage and the childhood trauma I went through because of seeing domestic violence in the house. I was always clear about my Ambedkarite, anti-caste politics,” Duggal added.
Duggal says that treating another person as an equal is a difficult task. Internalised casteism instils self-doubt about one’s creativity and potential.
“We doubt ourselves whether we are meritorious enough. Young people, especially, need to realise that these are structural problems and that if one is not being so-called productive, it is because of casteism hampering one’s potential and confidence,” Duggal says.
When asked what he thinks would help Dalit people, especially young people who are first or second-generation learners in their family, who are stepping into academic spaces like universities for the first time, in finding a safe-space against caste-based discrimination, Duggal says that community-oriented listening circles would be a good place to start.
He further adds that education is a foundational time in a person’s life and unfortunately, casteism is an inescapable thing. In one’s youth, which is a moment of transformation, an anti-caste safe space for the younger generation to engage with each other and impart self-respect and dignity would prove to be a healing space.
“In academia people would either be overtly casteist or patronising. They often lack empathy or an understanding of how people can have different experiences coming from different locations of gender, sexuality, sub-caste, language and so on. What one should rather try to achieve is not to judge anyone for their experience but connect on a humane level to help one another realise their potential,” Duggal says.
He asserts that there is radical hope in community healing and community therapy for people from all castes.
Mental Health economy benefits from caste violence and its victims: Neeraj Kumar
Neeraj Kumar (26), a research scholar in Gender Studies at Ambedkar University, Delhi, share an incident of blatant casteism they faced at an on-field project.
“I went to Rajasthan on a fellowship where we stayed in a village and worked with schools. First, the headmaster asked me about my caste and then caste became a major issue while looking for accommodation. I was trying to play along and said that I am an upper-caste but it didn’t work well because of my dark skin colour and thin body. I also spent a night at a woman’s house who used to clean one of the schools. She was from chamar caste and it became a big deal that I stayed with a lower-caste person,” Kumar says.
“There was a notion about me and I had to literally leave the fellowship because I couldn’t deal with the idea of the gaze and everything that happened to me because there was too much caste on my face,” Kumar adds.
Kumar, who did Master’s in Psychology and Social Work in Public Health, say that their mixed feelings about their sexuality and bullying in school led to suicidal ideations, multiple relapses and depression.
Seeking mental health services was not an idea they were familiar with either. The first time Kumar came across counselling was via YP Foundation, which is a youth-led intersectional, feminist and rights-based organisation in Delhi.
“I come from a government school. We only had science and commerce, and I had no idea there was something called psychology or counselling where one can go and figure out things. Even in my cultural background, I did not come across anyone who accessed mental health services,” they said.
“Even after I came to know about it, it was very difficult to find a queer-friendly counsellor and I could never speak about my caste because I was still figuring it out that maybe I’m okay with it or, you know, I can hide it well. I lived a dual life. I was someone else with my family and someone else when I used to be out in the public,” Kumar said.
Kumar said that they did not want to take the additional labour of explaining their experience of caste-based shame and discrimination while doing the internal labour of warding off real consequences of caste violence.
“When the fear does not find an outlet, it keeps accumulating in the body resulting in psychosomatic symptoms. I am certain that my psychosocial disabilities are the product of my caste and gender, and that it’s all external, which has gotten into me. It’s always been the structural issues,” Kumar said.
They go on to add that psychology students do not study about caste in the curriculum. Therapy modules that are taught in universities are now informed by feminism and are becoming queer-affirmative. However, they do not actively recognise caste-based pride and shame.
Kumar argues that the mental health economy benefits from creating customers out of psychiatry patients. As long as caste-based discrimination keeps giving rise to the number of people seeking mental health services, therapy modules informed by the annihilation of caste will not become a financially viable option.
“We need to propagate that if an ideal therapist is touted to be empathetic and detached, it is essential to also train them to be politically conscious. Just like queer-affirmative therapists are trained to not look at gender in the form of a binary, Dalit-affirmative modules need to be designed to aim at annihilation of caste,” Kumar asserts.
They also believe that even though anyone should be able to get trained in and execute the anti-caste therapy model, it will remain the labour of Dalit people to push for such models and to design them autonomously.
Neeraj Kumar has shared some preliminary readings, which they believe would contribute to the understanding of how the mental health of Dalit people gets structurally affected by the caste system. Through this, they also make a case that the caste system needs to be a structural part of psychology-pedagogy.
The readings can be found here – Mental Health and Caste
The author is a freelance writer that touches on topics ranging from NRIs experiences aboard, gender and the caste system in India.