How casteism manifests in Indian urban spaces

Calling villages ‘sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism’, Ambedkar urged Dalits to move to cities to escape the clutches of segregation and to thrive under the veil of the anonymity that urban spaces provide. Ambedkar’s contestation with Gandhi about cities remains infamous. Does it remain relevant? Sure, at least according to statistics, these supposedly progressive spaces will always remain better than the hotbed of discrimination that villages are, but how true are these facts and studies and by whom and for whom are these statistics given out? Ashwini Deshpande, an eminent Indian economist, has thrown light on the fact that there are a huge number of cases, lying unregistered and unacknowledged, under the Prevention of Atrocities Act. It is easy to remain ignorant and say that incidents like the Khairlanji massacre, Badaun gang-rape or Una floggings did not happen in large cosmopolitan cities, but those like the Ramabai mass killings in Mumbai and the Bhima-Koregaon violence in Pune are stark examples of the opposite.

In common parlance, even in these progressive urban spaces, the conversation around caste more often than not takes a turn around reverse discrimination brought about by affirmative action programmes such as caste-based reservation. Some Savarna saviours even go to the lengths of digressing this conversation by layering it under fancy and overused phrases like ‘economic disparity among the Bahujan’, ‘unfairness by the creamy layer’, ‘segregation by caste is a strictly rural concept’. Indian media does nothing to help correct these false narratives. Although overdone and given much more attention than it deserves, it is important here to talk about movies like Article 15, cinema by and for the Savarna gaze, which makes one think that caste is an utterly rural concern. The one good job that this movie does is bringing up the classic codswallop ‘I don’t believe in caste’ argument. Only the upper caste can afford to be casteless. It’s a tactical method to not take up any accountability by neglecting one’s privilege. The scene which shows Ayushmann Khurrana inquiring the sub-inspector about his caste is especially jarring as it reeks of privilege. In the next breath, the sub-inspector, who belongs to the Chamar community, talks about how his faction is superior to the lower caste group of the Pasis. In a universe where everyone, even the Dalits are casteist, it makes one more comfortable to dwell in their own brand of casteism. A friend, who is now just an acquaintance, was so very inspired by this fantastic piece of cinema (for all the wrong reasons) that she once came up to me and made remarks like 'honour killings are a trend' and 'reservations are nothing but a way for us to laze around'. Why, if we so believe in equality, do we not reserve seats only for the economically weaker section of Dalits (thus reducing caste to class) because haven’t we all seen rich Dalits? The only good conclusion she could come to, heralded by Article 15, is that Dalits are inherently casteist.

This is how the Domino effect works, as talked about by Arundhati Roy, one’s identity can only be considered valid in society if it’s stepping over another group’s identity, and in a country that is as hegemonized by Brahmins as ours and where every book tells us to treat Brahmins like the demi-gods that they are, how do Dalits not internalise a phenomenon which penetrates through every other imaginable cluster. I have seen acquaintances belonging to the Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi (DBA) community joking about how their nasal indices and skin work as a litmus test for revealing their caste. On the other side of the mirror, I have seen school friends talk about how they can ‘identify’ which caste someone belongs to from their face or mannerisms. Not just in conversations, casteism manifests itself in our purportedly civil society in the geographic sense too. While residential segregation is seen as a thing of the past, it’s very much a thing today in the cosmopolitan cities.

A paper authored by Bharati, Malghan and Rahman is hard backed proof of this. The study shows that the populations of Dalit and Adivasi communities are concentrated clusters located around specific localities. Caste is very much a determining factor in housing. Urban society hasn’t created melting pots where Savarnas and the DBA community can mingle, what it has done has pushed the latter to one corner of the demography. In Karnataka, a government-approved housing society, ‘The Vedic Village – Sankar Agraharam’, meant only for Brahmins was set up. On the other hand, Dalits in Ahmedabad have formed a separate ghetto in Azadnagar Fathewadi.

Although middle school isn’t exactly a breeding ground for casteism as per my experience, I have seen more than one UC teacher mock the ‘stupid jaat’ teacher. Colleges, our most liberal spaces, have upper castes hegemony in every department and every society. Even in foreign countries, NRIs have continued to take the tradition of casteism forward.

Amit Ahuja, of the Department of Political Science at the University of California, states that “urbanisation undermines caste”. He points out that the “relative anonymity” of an individual’s identity in a city makes it difficult for “rules of purity and pollution” to be observed and enforced in the public sphere. In a city, buses and trains do not segregate people based on caste. Jobs are distributed on the basis of expertise and not decided by caste. What do we say then to exhibits like the Cisco suing case where Cisco, a California based tech company was sued on the grounds of caste discrimination by an engineer of Indian origin belonging to a lower caste community who was bullied by upper-caste engineers of Indian origin in the same company. Surprisingly, Indians, usually so well versed and opinionated about all that goes around the world were either curiously silent on this or were on the victim-blaming side. This form of selective silence isn’t really new for the DBA community that has faced all such kinds of things since a long time now . In another disturbing case in the UK, Sudesh Rani, a woman belonging to lower caste was heckled in a supermarket by two upper-caste women. Unsurprisingly, the upper caste Hindus remained unmoved by this and even called for an attempt to bring in an amendment in the Equality Act 2010, “A hate crime against Hindus”.

The concept of coming out, usually talked about in reference to homosexuality, as a Dalit by Yashica Dutt is something a lot of members of the DBA community go through but no one really talks about. Her needing to pass as an upper-caste woman for the benefit of the Indian diaspora speaks volumes of the discrimination that goes inside these privileged bands of Indians. A study by Kenneth J. Cooper, conducted on Dalits in the United States to see how discrimination in the Western world affects them, is saddening but not shocking. About two-thirds of the Dalits interviewed said that they faced at least some form of discrimination by upper-caste Indians.

These seemingly peculiar cases aren’t that isolated or peculiar. Caste-based discrimination among the Indian ‘diaspora’ is a very real and is an unacknowledged monster haunting the people belonging to various castes and communities. It is very much institutional, urban and diasporic or otherwise. The nuance around casteism is complicated as it perforates through sexual orientation, religion and socio-economic background. No marginalised group is monolithic but for most lower castes, caste trumps every other intersection. In a recent happening, two transwomen, each having very successful Instagram pages with the usual posts against caste bias, Meera Singhania- Rehani and Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju were seen discussing the caste of a transperson who belongs to the DBA community. Both of these women have apologised after facing a lot of backlash but this raises the omnipresent question even higher, how safe are these ostensibly safe, woke, urban spaces? For me, it reinstates the belief that we Bahujans really are nothing more than woke topics of research thesis at best and data and two-dimensional characters at worst.

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