Caste, Stigma, and Mental Well-being: From Transition to Conversion
Sushrut Jadhav, University College London, UK; Bhargavi Davar, Bapu Trust for Research on Mind and Discourse, Pune, India; Sumeet Jain, University of Edinburgh, UK; S. Shinde, Bapu Trust for Research on Mind and Discourse, Pune, India
Dalit “untouchables” in the Indian subcontinent are largely excluded from full participation in everyday social life. They have poorer health outcomes compared to the general population, and are subject to degradation, humiliation and violent atrocities. Yet there is a striking absence of research examining the stigma of Dalit caste identity and its impact on mental well-being of Dalit “untouchables.” The paper addresses the nature of stigma associated with being an “untouchable” and how this shifts following conversion to Buddhism. This pilot ethnographic and focus group study was situated in an urban Dalit slum of Pune city, Maharashtra state, India, by a multi-caste, multi-disciplinary team of health professionals and social scientists. Results suggest that the nature of distress related to caste discrimination is both psychological and cultural, with an internalization of the “gaze” of upper castes, and spatial-temporal dimensions within which both individual and institutional discrimination operates. Whilst Dalits who have not converted tended to aspire to a sanskritised identity, Dalit converted to Buddhism appear to have carved out a political identity to contest the stigma. The strategies employed to deal with discrimination include instrumental actions and political transformation. Dalit conversion to Buddhism suggests well-being is gained through the development of a dignity that results in a more articulate and political identity that contest existing ideas of modernity in India. The authors conclude that the phenomenon of conversion is not absolute. The paper suggest further research towards an examination of cultural landscapes that
mediate the stigma of “untouchability”; ethnographic studies of innovative movements that contest and invert Dalit caste identity; and comparison of caste-related and cultural-identity stigma, with stigma associated with more formal mental or physical disorders that have been extensively researched. Furthermore, a study of castes within Indian Buddhists may identify more chronic markers of caste-related stigma. This has implications towards interventions that directly address well-being of “untouchables” in India.