Caste Isn’t Just Confined to Rural India, It’s Also an Urban Reality

It had been a few months since I shifted to Bangalore.

One evening, I stepped out with my friends to grab something to eat. On our way, we talked about the Gujarat elections and how Jignesh Mevani’s victory is important in the current political wave, specifically referring to the importance of a Dalit leadership.

Suddenly, one of my friends said, “We do not have any [such] thing as caste here in Bangalore, it’s mostly a rural affair.”

I stumbled for a second because that’s not true. Like my friend, many of us think caste disappears in cities.

Generally, discussions about caste only revolve around what is projected in the media, such as Dalit atrocities and college reservations, and not as having any role in the modern educated society.

Is that really the case? Are these urban spaces as inclusive as we think?

Caste in developed cities

In 2016, the department of town and country planning in Karnataka approved a housing project named ‘ The Vedic Village – SankarAgraharam’, meant only for Brahmins.

Their website says the project aims to revive the lost traditions of Brahmins – trying to imply that purity can be achieved only if people live in an exclusively self-claimed environment.

What’s more startling is that the government of Karnataka approved such a discriminatory project. Does it not tell us how our basic societal structures themselves are unabashedly casteist?

The website also mentions that they chose the city of Bangalore for the project because it is the birthplace of Brahmins like N.R. Narayana Murthy, who started the IT revolution in the country, “…making it a land of opportunities”.

By saying that, they are not only laying claim to the city and taking credit for the growth of the modern IT sector, but are also are indicating that they’re the only ones entitled to power.

The discrimination often manifests in subtle forms too. For instance, the renters always enquire about the food habits of prospective tenants before leasing them accommodation.

In south Bombay, Jain vegetarian societies have ensured that the meat-eating population is kept away from areas around them.

Similarly, in Malleswaram, some hotels boast of serving ‘100% Brahmin Idli’ and are also popularly known as a purely vegetarian neighbourhoods.

Researchers like Sukhedo Thorat have studied the Urban rental housing market in the Delhi-NCR region to understand how discrimination persists.

He used a standard set of CV’s for each home seeker with different names to reflect their caste/religion: upper caste Hindu, Dalit, and Muslim.

The outcome of the research showed that, on an average, Dalit and Muslim names had a less positive result as compared to the names indicating upper caste Hindu in successfully finding accommodation in the Delhi.

Caste exists in almost every social realm – in our homes, in big cities, in the food we eat and so on.

While I was growing up, I had no idea what it meant to be a Dalit.

Whenever I would say the word Dalit, my father would scold me in a hushed tone, saying that our neighbourhood will get to know about us. Hence, we trained ourselves on how to not pass off as Dalits.

Even in schools, teachers would continuously demoralise students of certain castes through humiliating questions and remarks.

Now when I’ve grown up, these things do not surprise me anymore because I’ve understood that social mobility in India is still based on the old Varna system.

Studies have been conducted on urban labour market discrimination where job applications of candidates (upper caste Hindu, Muslim and Dalit) with the same qualifications were sent to the private sector.

The result of the research was just like the rental housing study one. Here, too, the outcomes favoured applicants with upper caste Hindu names.

Thus, we once again see how even in modern spaces, which are supposedly based only on merit, caste-based discrimination is an ever-present and everyday reality.

What this example shows is that there is a real need for people to rethink their notions about caste and its existence in the modern urban setting.

These examples show that caste-based discrimination is not just confined to rural India, but surrounds us in many forms, some of which are invisible, in our cities.

The way forward

Cities offer avenues to leave behind old hierarchical structures and gain prosperity, and anti-caste radicals like Baba Saheb Ambedkar also thought of cities as spaces where caste would be eradicated.

However, reality is diametrically opposed to what he envisioned.

The Dalit communities in Ahmedabad had to form a separate ghetto in Azadnagar Fathehwadi because they were either refused accommodation or discriminated against in other parts of the city.

Hence, merely shifting to cities doesn’t solve the problem because caste identities are still rooted in our everyday practices.

There is a long way to go before we achieve Ambedkar’s vision of social justice. We need to ask: if Ambedkar were to see our cities now, would he have proposed the same thing he did in the 1940s?

At the end of the day, I am still here, writing this article in times of hope.

In spite of the dominant Hindutva forces, Dalit political leaders like Jignesh Mevani won in the Gujarat assembly elections, and the mass mobilisation of Dalits in Koregaon first celebrated their history of courage and later, when attacked, could assert their power and bring the city of Mumbai to a standstill.

However, right when all of this started to feel like a victory, I began to realise that we still have a long way to go.

There were discussions about Mevani aligning with the left and the centre.  We were disappointed in him for not fighting the war in the way Ambedkarites have been dreaming of.

He might be representing us and our hopes, but will he be able to express our agony?

These questions force me to think about what mobility are we talking about? Is a half victory the only mobility we can think of? Will our mobility always be determined by electing one Dalit MLA or enabling a Dontha Prashanth to reach the highest educational degrees?

I am still here, figuring out what mobility means. How should I feel as I have reached a position where my defiance is brought about by writing this article? But even then, will the topics that I choose to write about always be determined by my identity?

Evita Das is an urban researcher who works on issues of caste and housing. She graduated from Tata institute of social sciences, Bombay and Indian institute for human settlements,Bangalore.Currently working as researcher and advocacy officer in Indo Global Social Service Society.

Featured image credit: Unsplash