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Caste-Based Discrimination Is Still An Everyday Reality In India’s Modern Spaces

It had been a few months since I shifted to Bangalore. One evening, I stepped out with a few of my friends to grab something to eat. While on our way, I was talking about the Gujarat elections and Jignesh Mevani’s candidature being an important move in the then current political wave, specifically referring to the importance of a Dalit leadership. One of my friends remarked, “we do not have anything like caste here in Bangalore, it’s mostly a rural affair”.

A housing project approved by the Department of Town and Country Planning in Karnataka came up in 2016 on the outskirts of Bangalore. The project is named ‘Vedic Village—SankarAgraharam’ is a Brahmin-only housing project which specifically mentions on their website that it aims to revive the lost traditions of Brahmins and has built a liveable environment only for them. In other words, this communication seems to indicate that purity and compatibility can be achieved by living in an exclusively self-claimed environment. On one hand, this issue has received acknowledgement from the press, and resistance and outrage by people, but on the other hand, the project has been approved by the relevant department. Does it not tell us that behind the role of some individuals are structures that are unabashedly casteist?

While I was growing up, I had no idea what it meant to be a Dalit. Whenever I would say the word at home I was instantly silenced. My father would scold me in a lowered voice, saying that our neighbourhood will get to know about us. We trained ourselves, as if from a manual book, how to not pass off as Dalits in our neighbourhood.

Such segregation of housing existed even in colonial India. For example, Malleswaram still has hotels boasting of serving ‘100% Brahmin Idli’ and is also popularly known as a purely vegetarian neighbourhood. This shows the historical presence of social exclusion based on food culture which has to do with the identity of people living in these colonies, though food culture and its dynamics can be the matter for a different article altogether!

As a whole, caste and religious identity play a significant role in the segregation of housing even today. It might take on subtle forms, such as enquiring what the food habits of a prospective tenant is, based on which they are rented the house. Researchers like Sukhedo Thorat on urban rental housing market specifically in the Delhi-NCR regions talk about such discrimination. The methodology of the research included telephonic audit, in person or face-to-face audit, and lived experiences through case studies. He used a standard set of CVs 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, the Dalit and Muslim names had a less positive result as compared to the names indicating upper caste Hindu.

Coming back to the ‘Vedic Village’ the website also mentions that Bangalore was chosen as their location as it is the birthplace of Indian IT revolution started by a Brahmin, N R Narayana Murthy, “…making it a land of opportunities”.  Here, the community claims the city as its own and takes credit for the growth of the modern IT sector and is therefore entitled to power. Overall, these statements do not come as a surprise, as the mobility of all the communities in this nation is still based on old varna system. The history of caste hierarchy determines the socio-economic inequality of the citizens with regard to access to education and employment opportunities and the many ways in which discrimination continues even today. Studies have been conducted on Urban Labour Market Discrimination where job application of candidates with different names indicating Upper caste Hindu, Muslim and Dalit with the same qualification was sent specifically to the private sectors, one of which was the IT sector. The result of the research was just like the rental housing study, even here the outcomes favoured the applicants with upper caste Hindu names. Thus, we once again see how even in the modern sectors and spaces which are supposedly based only on merit, discrimination based on caste is an ever-present and everyday reality.

NEW DELHI, INDIA – MAY 20: People from Dalit and Tribal community protest against atrocities and demand for justice at Parliament Street, on May 20, 2018 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Sushil Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

All these instances are not limited to Bangalore alone. What this example shows is that there is a real need for people to rethink their notions about caste and that it doesn’t exist in our cities. These examples show that discrimination does not just mean the atrocities that happen elsewhere, but surround us in many forms, some of which are invisible. Cities in the popular imagination offer avenues to leave behind old hierarchical structures and gain mobility, and anti-caste radicals like Baba Saheb Ambedkar also thought of cities as a space where caste would be eradicated. Though citizens of this nation have gained mobility with the opportunities cities provide, it is not the only narrative. There are other instances like Azadnagar Fathehwadi, a Dalit Ghetto in Ahmedabad, which came to exist because Dalits were either refused or discriminated against in other parts of the city. In South Bombay, Jain vegetarian societies have ensured that the meat-eating population are kept away from areas around them.

It cannot be concluded as many people say ‘we do not practice caste’ and leave the symbolic and institutional forces of identity unquestioned. The mobility, in other words, people moving to cities cannot be identified as ‘upward mobility’ as sociologist Dipankar Gupta would say because this mobility of the citizens across caste is still withheld within discriminatory practices and is very restricted. Till now, we as citizens have failed Ambedkar’s view on cities where he imagined cities to be inclusive, democratic and emancipatory spaces which are very different from villages as ‘dens of inequity’. There is a long way to go before justice can be done to the social justice vision of Ambedkar. We need to ask: if Ambedkar were to see our cities now, would he have proposed the same thing that he did in the 1940s?

At the end of the day, I am still here, writing this article in times of hope, hope that our ancestors have never seen or could have dreamt of. In spite of the dominant Hindutva forces, these are days when Jignesh Mevani has 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, and JNU student Sumeet Samos questioned caste oppression through his music. However, right when this started to feel as a victory, I began to realise that it still felt like a half-way victory. Soon discussions started about Mevani being aligned towards the left and the centre. While we still showed our solidarity when Mevani won, there was a disappointment 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 put forth our agony? These questions force me to think what mobility are we talking about? Is the 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? Will the stories of Ramabai Nagar and Koregaon be heard only when masses have been mobilised?

I am still here, figuring out what does mobility mean? 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?

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