This article is part of a series that will explore how marginalisation and oppression can affect an individual’s mental health.
Two days ago, a photograph surfaced on the internet of Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey holding artwork that read “Smash Brahmanical Patriarchy”. The artwork was created by Project Mukti, which describes itself as a ‘Dalit Bahujan Adivasi Minority women, gender non-binary, and trans-led technology start-up working to end digital caste apartheid in South Asia.’
The photo provoked immediate uproar. Influential figures in media and politics alleged that the CEO was propagating ‘hate speech’, showing how easily privilege can be bruised by it merely being questioned.
It also highlighted the deep-rooted biases underlying our practice of free speech, especially when exploring the heavily normalised systems of generational marginalisation in the country.
Brahmanical patriarchy addresses the intersecting forms of exclusion and violence perpetuated to the benefit of ‘higher’ caste communities, especially men, at the cost of ‘lower’ castes, especially their women.
It does not criticise or penalise individuals for being born into the Brahmin community (or any other historically advantaged jati or varna). It simply demands accountability for the oppression that is systemically, cyclically reinforced by the disposition of wealth, power and visibility in the country.
A history of exploitation and exclusion, recreated in a daily experience of stereotypes and micro-aggressions, can produce chronically high levels of stress – or ‘minoritised stress’.
Caste oppression in India has varying definitions of normal for the upper and lower caste communities. The disparity is not imagined, but normalised. The consequence of the systemic oppression is intergenerational trauma.
Intergenerational trauma is a legacy transferred from one generation to the next, especially when the traumatised community has no equitable hold on useful resources for healing and recovery. The transmission of trauma begins with the first generation that is directly impacted by the post traumatic stress, and is transferred to future generations through secondary traumatisation. This can be experienced through unhelpful attachment styles, violence within the community, emotional dysregulation, chronic levels of anxiety and somatic stressors, higher rates of physical illness that are impacted by mental stress.
As the next generation becomes acquainted with their first-hand experience of post traumatic stress caused by systemic oppression, new cycles begin. This leaves a debilitating effect not only on an individual’s mental health but on the entire community’s mental health. The suffering is endless and it leads to the collective trauma of lower caste communities in India.
Identity formation is driven by the impact of culture, beliefs, attitudes and societal norms. It is intersectional. Caste, race, gender, sexuality, ability status are all markers for where we hold membership in communities. The hegemony of the upper caste over other caste groups perpetuates an unequal distribution of resources. However, the blame for being oppressed continues to remain on the oppressed castes. This leads to further internalisation of poor self-worth and higher vulnerability to mental illness.
Jean Piaget is a Swiss psychologist who is well known for his study of child development, in which he proposed the concept of schemas. Schemas are building blocks of our mental world that help us make sense of information. They influence how we form opinions and how we behave as members of communities. If your introduction to music was Sinatra and Kishore Kumar, it’s very likely that your future interests will be influenced by similar styles. Schemas can also contribute to stereotypes and make it hard to retain new information that does not align with our interpretation of the world.
When I was in the seventh grade, a history lesson academically introduced me to the caste stratification in India: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. The Brahmins were the scholars, the Kshatriyas were the warriors, the Vaishyas were the merchants and the Shudras were the labourers and untouchables. Aware of my own caste identity, I felt a flush of pride in being associated with scholarliness. It informed my schemas and helped me internalise my privilege and utter caste-blindness.
These implications on an individual and community’s mental health is not new and recent. It has been persistent through history. The oversimplified ideas of equal opportunity and equity, perpetuated by the privileged castes only invalidate and stigmatise the traumatisation of lower caste communities in India. They structure triggers by increasing the power differential and penalise the oppressed by snatching their agency and silencing their resistance.
Ruchita Chandrashekar is a licensed clinician in Chicago where she works with participants of a federally funded programme. Her expertise lies in LGBTQ+ mental health, sexual trauma and complex trauma recovery, mood disorders and personality disorders.