By Akanksha Kumari
According to a popular belief, by shifting to cities people can escape casteism. Dr B.R. Ambedkar also urged Dalits to embrace cities in order to liberate themselves from caste oppression in rural areas. But merely shifting to cities doesn’t solve the problem, because caste identities are still rooted in our everyday practices. Further in this article we will observe how casteism operates in urban spaces.
Caste-based residential segregation can be observed in cities, especially in metropolitan ones. The 2011 Census from various big cities points out that Dalits are disproportionately slum dwellers. According to the Census, 12.6% of total population in cities are Dalits, whereas they constitute 20.3% of the total slum population in cities. A majority of Dalits live in slums.
People often encounter discrimination in buying a house or finding accommodation if they belong to lower castes, or any specific community, despite of their ability to pay. The landlords enquire about the food habits of prospective tenants before leasing them accommodation.
Pranav Sidhwani’s research, published in the Economic and Political weekly in 2015, showed that wards with the highest SC/ST population are also the ones that lack access to amenities such as piped water, toilets, etc., suggesting that caste determines access to basic amenities in India’s biggest cities. A large proportion of SCs and STs are clustered in wards neighbouring railway lines, which implies that many of them live in slums and lack access to civic amenities. Ward-level census data from India’s six biggest cities shows that all of them have extremely segregated residential patterns.
Ambedkar’s great dream of cities as equal spaces for citizens still remains a distant dream.
Work is often associated with the caste one belongs to. For instance, cleaning of manholes, washrooms, streets, etc. is often done by ‘Harijans’. Even if they do not desire to do so, they are forced to do these unsanitary jobs. Caste laws also govern the Indian prison system. In several states, prison manuals still dictate that labour within the prison should be assigned on the basis of caste. In this structure, the bottom of the caste pyramid does the cleaning work, those who belong to higher castes handled the kitchen or legal documentation department, and the rich and influential did nothing. This arrangement has nothing to do with the crime that one was arrested for or the way they conduct in prison. Every state has its own unique prison manual but it is mostly based on The Prisons Act, 1894 and has not been amended. It needs quick and necessary modification.
Unlike villages, people in urban areas are shifting their focus from kin and caste networks to friends and professional networks while searching for partners. Casteism is becoming a bit porous in this respect in urban areas. This is a welcome sign in some aspects, and points out that cities help inter-caste marriages. Inter-caste marriages shake the very roots of casteism and that’s why it faces resistance from society. It has been violently opposed leading in some cases to honour killings. For instance, in a suspected case of honour killing, a 30-year-old man, Adam Smith, was bludgeoned to death by his father-in-law and his brother. This incident happened in Adoni town, Andhra Pradesh in January 2021. Smith, a physiotherapist, belonged to a Dalit community whereas his wife Maheshwari belonged to Kuruva community (OBC). Due to the difference in their caste, the woman’s family did not accept their marriage. Political parties also resist these marriages, as some of the parties are themselves caste-based. People often choose to vote for the representatives from their respective castes, which further shapes the voting patterns and power dynamics.
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 public spheres.
People are not aware of each other’s caste identity, and hence cannot practice untouchability in public spheres. However, it is practiced to some extent in the private sphere. For instance, maids are often offered meals in separate utensils.
From our common sense thinking, we can say that casteism does not exist in urban spaces but by applying sociological lenses we get a contrary narrative to this observation. Despite several laws and fundamental rights which observe every individual as equal before the law, we still witness casteism perpetuating in society.
M.N Srinivas had said that it is impossible to detach India from the caste system. But we have observed some changes and will strive to get rid of this exploitative and inhuman system.
- Devulapalli, S. (September 2019). ‘Geography of caste in urban India’. Mint. (Accessed on: December 28, 2020 via https://www.livemint.com/news/india/the-geography-of-caste-in-urban-india-1569564507580.html)
- Konda, G.R (November 2020). ‘Slum numbers show cities don’t help Dalits shed caste’. The Indian Express. (Accessed on: December 28, 2020 via https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/slum-numbers-show-cities-dont-help-dalits-shed-caste-7072206/ )
- Shantha, S. (December 2020). ‘From segregation to labour, Manu’s caste law governs Indian Prison System’. The Wire. (Accessed on: December 28,2020 via From Segregation to Labour, Manu’s Caste Law Governs the Indian Prison System thewire.in)
- Bommakanti, U. ( January 2021). ‘Adoni honour killing: Cops arrest Adam’s father-in-law, his brother’. Times of India. (Accessed on: January 2,2021 via https://m.timesofindia.com/city/vijayawada/adoni-honour-killing-cops-arrest-adams-father-in-law-his-brother/articleshow/80063416.cms)