When Mental Health Collides With Caste Identity

Divya Kandukuri photographed in Mumbai, India.

Source Photographs and Video by Viraj Nayar for OZY

Why you should care

Because mental health is not just a problem for elites.

It started on her first day at college in 2014. When Divya Kandukuri, then a first-year student at Delhi’s elite Lady Shri Ram College, suggested going to the canteen during a break, other freshmen immediately cut her short and chastised her: “It is not a canteen. It is called a café.” No one objected to “canteen” back home in her coastal town of Ongole in Andhra Pradesh, but the girls here used a fancier word. Kandukuri remembers that slight vividly. It made her feel alienated. 

“From Day One you could see the caste discrimination,” she says. “I was made to feel different, because of how I dressed, how I spoke and how good my English was.” Kandukuri comes from an intercaste background: Her parents are from the Scheduled Caste and Other Backward Class. In her college, every interaction with higher-caste students chipped away some of Kandukuri’s confidence and left her feeling alone, isolated and depressed.

About 80 percent of India’s population belongs to historically disadvantaged castes and tribes or religious minorities. “Imagine yourself in front of a very condescending upper-caste person who looks down upon you, no matter how confident or talented you are,” Kandukuri says. And she couldn’t find any support system. That’s why last year she founded Blue Dawn, a mental health support and facilitation group targeting the intergenerational trauma of these communities, who she refers to as Bahujan — literally, “the many.” It’s the first initiative of its kind in India. “I believe in community healing, especially for the marginalized,” she says. 

It is like racism in America but like a thousand times more complicated.

Divya Kandukuri

Surveys indicate India has only about 9,000 psychiatrists for its 1.3 billion people. (By contrast, the U.S. has 28,000 psychiatrists for a population of 325 million.) Few, Kandukuri says, are Bahujan. “How many understand the intersection of caste and mental health?” she asks. “I have had therapists tell me that I need to work hard and not be lazy.” But work is impacted too. The World Health Organization estimates that the economic loss from mental health conditions in India from 2012–2030 will top $1 trillion. 

Blue Dawn connects people from marginalized communities with affordable and accessible mental health services through an online portal. As an ally, one can also sponsor a therapist for a Bahujan person. One year in, Blue Dawn has helped 180 Bahujan youth get therapy.

Those numbers are small compared to the need. While the Indian government doesn’t release caste-based data on the subject, historically disadvantaged castes typically overlap with low-income communities. The National Mental Health Survey of 2016 suggested low-income Indians had a 40 percent higher rate of depression than the national average.

In May, Payal Tadvi, a Mumbai doctor from a tribal community, killed herself because of harassment by “high caste” seniors at her hospital. In January 2016, doctorate scholar Rohith Vemula, a Dalit, killed himself in his hostel room after the University of Hyderabad suspended him and stopped giving him his fellowship stipend. He had challenged casteism on campus. In his suicide note, Vemula wrote, “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity.” According to Amnesty International, 65 percent of hate crimes in India in 2018 were against Dalits, the lowest in a complex ladder of castes in Hinduism.

“It is like racism in America but like a thousand times more complicated,” Kandukuri says.

3D embossed triangle horizontally sliced to five parts on light

As part of her mission to make mental health accessible to one and all, Blue Dawn organizes workshops and is developing a training module for therapists on dealing with structural oppression. Blue Dawn is also working on expanding beyond the bigger metros to tier-three cities like Kandukuri’s hometown of Ongole.

“Divya never switches off,” says Srinidhi Raghavan, a gender and disability rights activist who has known Kandukuri for the past few years. “She is always aware of everybody’s needs — knowing when someone needs support and putting their needs front and center.”

Besides mental health and generational trauma, Kandukuri, who identifies as queer, is also passionate about intersectional feminism and representation of the Dalit community in the Bollywood movie industry. A critic of savarna (high caste) feminists, Kandukuri is vocal about passing on the mic to marginalized communities.

Her confrontational stance gets her a lot of nasty messages on social media, from critics of her brand of feminism and even from vegans. (She once tweeted, along with a photo of her dog Tara, that “feeding vegan food to Doggos and Cattos is atrocious.”) Kandukuri knows Blue Dawn is only a small step, especially given that only Bahujans who have access to the internet can benefit.

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Neighborhood kids visit Kandukuri’s dog, Tara, every day.

Those who do have found solace. Taking part in Blue Dawn, says Pranjali Kureel, a student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, means “no therapist can negate your lived experience.” The trick for Blue Dawn now is to figure out which therapists to work with. Not all appreciate the connection between casteism and mental health.

Kandukuri knows she’s got a long journey ahead. The best way to look at the path, she says, comes from poet and activist Kalekuri Prasad: 

I am the wound of multitudes, the multitude of wounds

For generations, an unfree individual in a free country

Having been the target

Of humiliations, atrocities, rapes and torture

I am someone raising his head for a fistful of self-respect

In this nation of casteist bigots blinded by wealth

I am someone who lives to register life itself as a protest.

OZY’s Five Questions with Divya Kandukuri

  • What’s the last book you read? Urmila Pawar’s Mother Wit.
  • What do you worry about? Growing fascism in the country and worldwide. Casteism.
  • What’s one thing you can’t live without? The internet, because the internet made community healing possible. Also, because it keeps me connected with the community.
  • Who is your hero? This 9-year old girl I used to teach English to. She is from the Dalit community. Her name is Vibhavari.
  • What’s one thing on your bucket list? To sleep peacefully. I have not slept in a long time. I keep worrying.

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