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.
The hard facts
- 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.
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:
- 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 lower–caste 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.
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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