Kolkata
Buildings stand by the Lal Dighi pond in the BBD Bagh area of Kolkata | Photo: Brent Lewin | Bloomberg
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The term ‘urban Indian’ is an oxymoron. There is nothing urban about us, and our modernity is hollow on most things that actually count. We carry our embryonic, primordial identities with us everywhere we go. It does not change even with our moving from rural settings to the most modern urban landscapes.

It is erroneous to say that caste bias doesn’t exist in urban India, which is a cliché thrown at you to argue against reservation policy or any other affirmative action programme.

The inconvenient truth in 21st century India is that we live in segregated spaces. We easily accept that Indian cities are segregated on the basis of religion. We justify that people of different cultures living in different spaces is not a pathology, rather it is a natural way of living. Hindus and Muslims living in different colonies is justified on the basis of food habits and culture, and so on and so forth. But with caste, these justifications fall by the wayside.


Also read: India’s urbanisation isn’t just happening in cities. Modi govt must tap these new areas


The hard facts

  1. About 80 per cent of Rajkot’s localities (for the purpose of this article, locality is an enumeration block where the population is less than 1,000) have no Dalit (Scheduled caste) inhabitants.

2. Around 60 per cent of Kolkata’s localities do not have a single Dalit resident.

3. Around 20 per cent of Bengaluru’s colonies have no Dalit residents. 

These are some of the findings of a 2018 paper titled ‘Isolated by Caste: Neighbourhood-Scale Residential Segregation in Indian Metros’ published by the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore and authored by Naveen Bharathi, Deepak Malghan and Andaleeb Rahman.

This study is the first attempt to find out residential segregation on the basis of caste in Indian cities with enumeration block (EB) as a unit. Enumeration Block-level data collection is a novelty in the Census operation, as it was done for the first time in 2011. Earlier the unit for collection of data was a ward, which is a large unit consisting of at least 30,000 people. It was technically almost impossible to map residential segregation, given the palpable diversity at this level.

So, till the 2011 Census data was released, the study of urban segregation was done mostly on the basis of ethnographic research. But as these studies were not based on verifiable data, it seldom led to polemical debates and discussions.


Also read: Dalit IAS officer used to think caste bias was a myth. Now he’s fighting it


Shattering myths

Not anymore. The harsh facts are now staring at us. Indian urban localities are actually as segregated as the villages are. The facts state that caste is still one of the most important factors in deciding the organisation of spatial environment in the cities.

This has shattered many myths and presuppositions about the process of modernity and urbanisation in India. Some of these myths are:

  1. With the advent of modernity and urbanisation, the caste system will wither away.

2. Rural and uneducated folks are more casteist than the urban and educated people.

3. In urban spaces, the markers of class such as, job, education and wealth matter more than caste identities.

4. In urban spaces, caste identities will merge into class identities.

Now we have data to prove that these myths, sometimes spread with noble intentions, are quite off the mark and in many cases blatantly wrong.

There are, however, some supporting facts that also prove the hypothesis that the caste system can co-exist with modernity. One of the seminal studies in this field was done by Sukhadeo Thorat and Paul Attewell in 2007. 

It demonstrated that if two CVs were sent to a prospective employer, one with an upper-caste and another with a Dalit surname, the possibility of getting an interview call wouldn’t be the same for both. This is true for both multinational and private sector companies.

Studies done subsequently also proved that caste biases are prevalent in the job market. The instances of caste discrimination and exclusion of lowercaste scholars from faculties in the modern university system also prove that the mere existence of ‘modern institutions’ will not annihilate caste.

The pioneering study by Bharathi, Malghan and Rahman has provided some new entry points, and it should change the way urban sociology works in India.

This study must be followed up with ethnographic work to find out how upper-caste people actually identify the “others” because without external markers, it will be difficult to exclude a social group from entering their spaces. These anomalies do not occur accidentally. After all, in the United States, racially segregated neighbourhoods are there because of historical design – they are both a legacy of society and policy. The practice of race-restrictive covenants in title deeds existed from the time of 20th century Jim Crow laws until it was made illegal in 1968 by the Federal Fair Housing Act. But they are still present in land documents.

In India, food habits, surnames, skin colour and nasal index act as crude and bigoted markers of caste. But it would be a good sociological study to find out how the upper castes, property agents and housing societies determine caste.


Also read: Smart city technologies can tackle India’s urban explosion. But key questions must be asked


Need for more research

The other conundrum is that of how the system of segregation works in cities such as Kolkata where industrialisation was ushered in quite early and the city has a tradition of Left and socio-cultural reform movement.

Kolkata will be an interesting case study, given that the 2011 Census data says the population of the Scheduled Castes in the city is 5.38 per cent, but is 23 per cent in the whole state. It should be a matter of scrutiny to enquire about the exclusion of SCs (Scheduled Tribes population is only 0.28 per cent in Kolkata) in the process of urbanisation in West Bengal.

Similarly, the exclusion of SCs from Gujarat’s urbanisation also warrants some serious research; we are fed with stories of only Hindu-Muslim divide there. It will be interesting to know why Gujarat’s cities are segregated more caste-wise.

Dilip Mandal is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. Views are personal.

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19 COMMENTS

  1. I have seen snobbish people belonging to scheduled castes and looking down upon those who are financially poor and underprivileged. We nurture and nourish the subtle sentiments of custeism in the language we speak, in our clothings, food-habits- in almost every aspects of our cultural life. Superiority complex, hatred, mutual-disrepect foster casteism and communalism. Our narrow-mindedness is exposed in our attitude towards the differently abbled persons in our society. Do all of us behave properly while we come across such persons in a crowed train or bus? We cannot neglect or dishonor ANYONE. We should LOVE EVERYONE. This takes us to the solution.

  2. Disagree with the writer, he is searching for hate against dalits. Dalit is the new found “Divide-Hindu” acronym. This hate should have been burning on & from 1947, that we find isn’t the reality. Today’s scenario has completely altered with every facility, education, higher education, jobs & residence being available to dalits. Our President today is a dalit. Being a dalit is a go-after caste, not Brahmin who are looked down upon.

  3. Bengal never wanted division. Bengal was divided by non-Bengalis. Secondly, the population of dalits in Bengal is negligible. There are tribals and SC and they have gone up the ladder. Bengal has been always secular and so have been the Bengalis. Whenever we faced challenges, the reformers and renaissance happened from the Bengali land and heart. So, know and do proper research and contribute positively. Don’t just go and peddle social statistics without looking at the historical perspective.

  4. I have always cherished a desire for annihilation of caste system so that Hindus are only known by religion without any caste. I am clueless how this can be achieved. One way may be by banning use of caste based surname.
    The notion that Bengalis are cultured people not believing in caste system is a myth. The Bengalis upper caste ‘bhadraloks’ pretend that they don’t believe in caste system and they utter sophisticated literature written words to show their sympathy for the dalits. But when it comes to finding a match for their children the true state of their minds come out .

    • Sir with due regards there is nothing called upper class bengali to start with ,bengal has witnessed famine,joblessness and poverty which has hit all caste equally so my request is kindly do read a bit and gain some knowledge before commenting on such things.

    • Sir,
      Sir, it does not.
      My son a Computer Engineer, working in US, was to get married some years back. I saw an advertiser of Delhi seeking match “caste no bar.” I called the noble soul on phone. He was very sauve and amiable in his expression.
      After ascertaining my name he made his intension clear to me. He was looking for a kulin….. match for his daughter, well qualified, professional and ambituous .
      I politely pointed out how did he advertise “caste no bar” in a national English daily if he aimed at ……?
      With honey and sugar, politeness, apart added to his tone and tenor he said, “Sir, the newspapers allow 25% social discout on advertisement, if match “caste no bar” is solicited.

  5. I think if we look for discrimination, we can probably manipulate any data to show the same. There is nothing preventing any Dalit or any person from buying a house in any locality. As regards employers preferring particular castes, I have applied for several jobs using only my first name. i.e no surname. In fact many south Indian’s (even those from the so called upper castes) do not have or do not use their surname. I have never felt discretion, either during the interview process or during over 15 years of employment. I do feel we have propogated a mentality where every failure of a person of scheduled caste is conveniently attributed to caste. The time where the so called backward castes can progress is where they take charge of their own competence. Success is claimed by individual ability and failure is attributed to caste. This is not acceptable. Own up both and claim equality, not backwardness. Every opponent should be seen as competition not a cry for quota. For others to believe in you, you have to first believe in yourself.

    • I have seen people got rejected after being selected once they found out caste. I have seen people not able to buy houses because of caste discrimination. I have seen girls love fades after finding about boys caste. And all of that in multiple occasions. If you haven’t experienced it, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

      • when a rich dalit take reservation and apoor upper caste dont get anything that time why u dont tell.
        everyone married live with his own caste,u dont do snything for upper caste but demand all from upper caste,how shameless u people,god knows.

    • well said,i find these days that everything is blamed on upper castes, irrespective of whether there is any situation where there is caste or what so ever involved at all.

  6. Dilip,
    Let me give an illustration about census. In the run up to 1941 census, Hindu Mahasabha launched strenuous propaganda that Hindu shouldn’t return caste in the census. They broadcast an inducement that they believed in casteless society, tjough a blatant lie.
    The depressed/scheduled castes, euphemism for untouchables, saw a ray of hope and about 18 lakh of Bengali untouchables refrained from returning caste, the result being the SC population declined from 91,00,000 in 1931 to 73,00,000 in 1941. I say this based on my memory and so there may be some variation. This resulted in a delicious face off between Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee and Jogendra Nath Mandal in full public view. J N Mandal indicted Dr Mookerjee with data culled from census and pinned him down with unassailable facts which were not challenged by the Mahasabha avatar.
    The SCs felt that they were hated, humiliated, oppressed and subjected injustice because of their low caste status. A casteless society would usher in a promising life from of hatred, injustice and oppression for them. So they returned no caste.
    The upper caste, on the contrary, did not heed to what the Hindu Mahasabha wanted them to do in their census returns. Why? Their social, they knew too well, dignity, eminence, aristocracy depended on the caste. So they brushed aside the appeal made by Dr. Mookerjee. The SCs were deceived by a false promise. But their casteless returns were not acknowledged even out of normal courtesy. On the other hand, Dr. Mookerjee paid handsome compliments to upper caste for adhering to the Hindu Mahasabha ideals on census though that was a hoax. The Mahasabha leaders did not have the courage to publicly tell the truth that the upper castes were casteist for their selfish reason which deserved wholesome compliments for the SCs .
    But the leader had no guts to antagonize the fellow travelers by doing so.
    Undoubtedly, the urban Bengalis led Bengal in 1941.

  7. At least when living in cities, Dalits should change their names to upper caste surnames. Ideally, they should not have to do that but if there is discrimination, then they should. Once they change their surnames, they should then live a life as upper caste, including not applying for SC/ST/OBC quota anywhere.

    • Some years ago, I was looking match for my son, a computer engineer employed in a US company overseas. I saw an advertisement which wanted groom for a Bengali Brahman girl who was a profession settled in Delhi. The matrimonial ad. insisted on caste no bar, which attracted my attention. One morning I called this advertiser who spoke to me in a very accomplished tone and tenor. On knowing my name, he declared that he was looking for kulin Brahman groom for his daughter.
      When I pointed out to him then why “caste no bar” ad.?
      He disarmed me by saying that matrimonial ad as “caste no bar” earned him a 25% social discount from the newspaper. That was why he preferred the ad. but his expectation was alterable.

      • That shows the pseudo secularism of the media. Enticing customers to lie by giving discounts on ads is a typical example. The media, on one hand, chooses to claim that casteism exists but on the other hand, tries to suppress it with lies rather than hardworking reform. Only goes to show that the media as an institution, had long ago decided what narrative to provide to the audience in order to manipulate them into following a certain agenda.
        Just watch how easily so many media houses shifted their ideology & arguments in the past 6 years.

      • thats his choice no one can dare to tell someone ,what to do with their personal life whom to marry how to live.if u dont like it then ignore ,but why we giveup our identity for others shameless peoples.

  8. It is true that there is a bad history of treatment of Dalits but the amount of hate dalits have for other communities is unprecedented. Both sides need to embrace each other. It is politically correct to take sides with dalits but just look at the dalit posts on indian gods and you can see the hate. As we say “Taali dono hathon se bajti hai”. You can’t keep hating others and then complain that we are not accepted.

    • 100% correct brother .no one want to accept the problem but they want acceptance but they dont want to rich dalit giveup their reservation but they want us to giveup our identity

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