Young Dalit Comedians Keen To Make It On Their Own Learn To Live With Trolling & Caste Discrimination

03 Mar 2023 9 min read  Share

Trolled for speaking about the discrimination they face in stand-up comedy, two young Dalit comedians from Bastar, Chhattisgarh and Beed, Maharashtra, explain how they deal with online hate and casteism, as people mock reservation for marginalised communities and question their talent.

Manjeet Sarkar, a Dalit comedian, performing in Mumbai in October 2022./JUST VIBING PRIDUCTION

Delhi: Manjeet Sarkar had just reached his village in Chhattisgarh's Bastar district for his elder brother’s wedding when he checked Twitter and saw the trolls coming after him for his remarks about casteism experienced as a Dalit comedian in his twenties in India. 

A few days earlier, Article 14 published Sneha Richarriya’s video where the 26-year-old and 25-year-old Ankur Tangadar, a queer woman comedian from the Dalit community, spoke about the discrimination they had encountered in stand-up comedy. 

The related tweet where Sarkar was quoted as saying, “If you are a Dalit comedian like I am labelled right now…I won’t get private shows, corporate shows, the shows in which comedians actually make money to live...”, elicited scores of messages saying these two comedians were not talented and mockingly suggesting reservation in stand-up comedy. 

After seeing a few such messages, Sarkar said that he knew the floodgates were open and that if he didn’t switch off his phone, they would ruin his brother’s wedding for him. Trolling he was familiar with to the point of indifference, but when messages were directed at his family, it would worry him for days.

“I used to feel sad about it.  They hate because they have been taught to hate. They are toxic. I feel sad for them, said Sarkar. “But then I thought, whatever happens, all I have to do is just switch off my phone for a few days and then go back to Twitter, and things will be normal again. A few people will continue trolling you, but you must ignore them.”

“There is no point to it. It is just hate,” he said. “They feel insecure to see a Dalit guy talk about anything.”

In an interview with Newsclick earlier this year, Sarkar said he was doing a show called “untouchables”, which was about his experience being Dalit living in a heavily affected Naxalite area and the discrimination he faced as a child. 

In his routine, Sarkar tells the story of a woman who purified the well with “gang jal” after he had used it but then went back and touched the holy water, making his audience laugh out loud. 

“There are things that I talk about on stage which were uncomfortable for me to talk about to anyone. I couldn’t speak about it to my therapist. I lived through it again and again,” he said

On the messages about him not being talented enough, Sarkar asked how many of those insulting him had seen him perform. 

“These trolls have no idea about my work. I connect with people during my shows. I don't think people behind anonymous accounts deserve our attention,” said Sarkar. “I’ve heard these kinds of things all my life. Upper caste people have this one story about a rich Dalit person taking reservations. But if you ask them if they have a Dalit friend, they will keep their mouth shut.”

Sarkar said that none of this would stand in his way of fulfilling his dream of becoming India’s best comedian, touring and writing his book. 


Anyone Except A Dalit Or Muslim 

In Beed, Maharashtra, Tangade, too, was calm, having heard people speaking against reservation all her life. Her first boyfriend, she recalled, always said derisive things about the reservation, and she did not know how to stop him. 

“He didn't know I was Dalit. Why would I tell people? I don't introduce myself as, ‘hey, I'm Ankur, and I'm Dalit’. They don't ask me, and I don't tell them,” she said. “Also, I didn't say anything because I've heard this stuff since I was a child. I just thought, ‘fuck it.’”

Tangade’s boyfriend realised she was Dalit the day he told her about his mother, saying that he could bring home any woman as a wife except a Dalit or Muslim. 

The words, “Koi bhi ladki ghar par le aana, par Muslim ya Dalit ladki nahi chaaiye”, felt like a bullet to her. 

“Maybe the shock showed on my face. My expression changed. He said, ‘I can tell from your name that you are not Muslim, but are you Dalit? I said, “Ya, I am.”

“So, that happened,” she said. 

Tangade cried herself to sleep every night for a week. 

Of all the ways she identifies today as a woman, queer, and Dalit, Tangade said the things people have said because she is Dalit have made her feel the worst. 

“I’m giving people different reasons to troll me,” she said. “I've never cried if someone treated me differently because I'm queer or a woman. But I've cried a lot of times because people have treated me as Dalit. It sucks that people’s expressions change right after hearing your name. The moment they hear your name, they don’t like you as much.” 

This hurts her even more than the “aunties” in Beed who tell her to make the tea when she visits because she is a woman, said Tangde. 

In times like these, Tangade said that she remembers the story her parents told her about how people resisted  Savitri Bai Phule, who, along with her husband Jyotirao Phule, pioneered education for women in the 19th century in India. 

“They would tell me that she used to carry two sarees because on the way to teach women, people used to throw stones and dirt at her,” said Tangade. “So, she would change once she reached the abhor and then teach women.”

“People have said a lot of things, but in the end, you just have to be strong and ignore that and focus on the good things people say,” she said. 

English Makes People Think You Should Be Heard 

Sarkar, born into a community of Bengali immigrants from Bangladesh in 1971, said they speak the Bengali spoken in Dhaka. 

Sarkar grew up poor with parents who worked as labourers, but he refused when he was told to give up his childhood and start earning money. Instead, he went to the government school with a midday meal scheme across the border in Odisha, where he learnt Oriya. 

“My teachers used to make fun of me for speaking Oriya in a Bengali accent,” he said, laughing. 

Sarkar was bullied in school and did not make many friends. But after his family got a television when he was in class 10, Sarkar fell in love with Bollywood movies and started learning Hindi. 

Determined to be fluent, Sarkar practised Hindi with his girlfriend, who was Oriya but spoke good Hindi. He also befriended two boys who spoke good Hindi in his college hostel.  

“When I started performing, I realised I had learnt the wrong language for north India,” he said. “If you speak English, people think you should be heard.”

Sarkar learnt English during the pandemic. 

Of the two places where he first pursued comedy, Sarkar said, “Bombay was expensive. Bangalore was classist.”

As for the trolls suggesting reservation in comedy, Sarkar said, “I’m planning to do the end show in Bangalore where I will reserve spots for Dalits. Let’s actually make it happen.” 

‘The Internet Is A Beautiful Thing’

From his college days, Sarkar remembers two things; falling in with a crowd of boys who were sexiest and misogynistic, and then disengaging himself from them and discovering the internet and, with it, stand-up comedy and American comedians like Dave Chapelle and Bill Burr. 

Sarkar spent his college years watching YouTube videos of black comedians like Chapelle and Patrice O’Neal.

“I was introduced to the internet, which is beautiful if one can handle it,” he said. “I realised this is something I wanted to do. I'm funny, and I need attention. I have real stories to tell.” 

“So far, comedy is accessible to the privileged. But the only thing I know how to do and love doing is comedy,” said Sarkar. 

Before closing his show with chants of Jai Bhim, a slogan for Dalit icon Bhimrao Ambedkar, Sarkar told the joke: “People are strange. Hindus make a group and say they are afraid of Muslims. I live in Bastar. There are no Muslims in a 500 km radius. A lion is five km away. The lion is also coming to say, ‘Yes, bro, there is danger.’”

Support From Friends & Family 

In her routine, Tangade joked about how she once comforted a Punjabi man who said women didn’t like him because he was thin and would never find love because he was too narrow. 

“I was raising his confidence, but I raised his confidence so much that he told me to lose some weight,” she said. 

In an interview with RJ Anmol last year, Tangade noted that being on stage can be “very scary”, “you can forget jokes, you have to make up jokes on the spot. If people don’t laugh, you feel the joke isn’t working, and you’ll have to try something else”. 

Many talented people around her had joined the workforce because they did not have the money to persist with their dreams, said Tangade, who studied theatre in a government college in Beed, works on women’s land rights for an NGO and does stand-up comedy. 

The daughter of human rights activists, Tangade told her parents and her friends that she was queer, identifying as pansexual, in 2019, and was overwhelmed by the support she received from her loved ones.

Earlier, Tangde recalled, some of her friends would jokingly say things like, “Look, he is walking like a gay”, but after she came out, the casual homophobia stopped.

“Everyone was like ‘, hey, I want to support you.’ It was amazing,” she said. 

Insensitivity & Ignorance 

While there is less open discrimination, Tangde noted there are other ways in which queers are otherised, recalling an incident when a fellow comedian wanted to pretend he was gay or bisexual to get a spot on an all-queer comedy line-up. 

There may be less intolerance, Tangde said, but the insensitivity and ignorance were also deeply painful. 

“I'm happy that people are comfortable speaking about the LGBTQ community, but people have become more comfortable joking around. Earlier, it was taboo, so people would not talk about it,” said Tangde. 

“Now they are so comfortable that they don't take it seriously,” she said. “They are always making fun of it.” 

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(Betwa Sharma is managing editor of Article 14).