Marked by caste, race, religion in ‘cosmopolitan’ Bengaluru

  • Sudipto Mondal, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Feb 14, 2016 18:08 IST
Members of the African Students Association in Hyderabad protest against the mob attack on a Tanzanian student in Bengaluru earlier this month. The girl was allegedly assaulted and stripped by a mob and the car that she was travelling in with friends set on fire (picture left). (AFP Photo)

In a protest at the Bengaluru Town Hall in October 2014, I remember a protestor holding up a placard with ‘Stop this racism. We are all born equal’ written on it. He was demonstrating against a mob attack on Michael Haokip, leader of the local Union of Thadou tribal students from Manipur.

Michael was attacked in east Bengaluru for not speaking Kannada. “Equal to whom,” I had asked. “We want them to be equal to every other Bangalorean. They have the right to enjoy all the freedoms that we do. Be able to live where they want, mix with who they want, speak the language they want. The police should not misbehave with them just because they’re outsiders,” the activist had said.

I met him again at a demonstration in March last year when four African students were attacked by a mob at a bar, again in east Bengaluru. “Things are getting worse. Bengaluru has never been this intolerant,” he had said then.

When I met him last week, he was agitated about the attack on and stripping of a Tanzanian woman in north Bengaluru. Planning the date of a protest, he was brainstorming for a new set of placards that once again spoke of the need for ‘equality’. Why equality? “Because only if we are equal can we be truly cosmopolitan, a true melting pot of cultures, one community,” he said. Again I question, “Equal to whom?”

There is something unreasonable in the demand that a Thadou or a Tanzanian should be treated equal to other Bangaloreans. How can we confer upon them something we don’t enjoy ourselves?

As a second generation Bangalorean, I find it strange that the city’s ‘cosmopolitan’ image is debated only when a person from North-East India or Africa is subjected to differential treatment, when pro-Kannada organisations deface English boards and attack Tamils, who have lived here for centuries, when Hindutva extremists attack lovers, or when people who speak no other language but Hindi and English are hounded.

On February 3, a couple of days after the attack on the Tanzanians, over 10,000 Dalit students ran for their lives through the main roads of Bengaluru with the riot police in hot pursuit. The students, who had come from across the State under the banner of the Bahujan Vidyarthi Sangh (BVS), were demanding that private companies pursue a policy of diversity, equal opportunity and positive discrimination.

Read | We pride ourselves on being a tolerant society but does that claim really hold up?

They wanted the removal of the centuries-old, man-made barriers preventing their entry into a modern, cosmopolitan and industrialised working-class. Some would say they were demanding reservations. They were brutally lathicharged by the police when they blocked the road demanding chief minister Siddaramaiah come and address them. The CM was busy at the global investors meet where ‘captains of industry’ had gathered. That the city violently rejected the Dalit students’ attempt to be part of its prosperity, did not raise questions on the nature of our cosmopolitanism.

If spectacular video footage and photographs in the media are the triggers for these high-decibel conversations, then the BVS activists had pen-drives full of that too.

Students from different colleges hold placards during a protest against the attack on a Tanzanian woman by a mob in Bengaluru. (PTI Photo)

So how can one event be used to make a blanket statement on a city? But, of course, there is more. There are sectors of the city’s industry that are upper-caste dominated as are sectors of neighbourhoods. Despite their obvious lack of diversity, these spaces have somehow come to symbolise what is multi-cultural about Bengaluru. Their hybrid languages, their clothes, their music, their food, their literature, their hangouts, their pubs, their parties, their oral histories and their cultural assertion. They have come to represent that which some loosely call Bengaluru’s cosmopolitanism.

To locate the upper caste areas of Bengaluru, just post a question on or any such web portal. The results will lead you to the oldest and best laid out neighbourhoods in the city that were the first to receive broad roads, piped water, electricity, underground drainage, telephone lines and, now, 4G internet connections.

Classified ads, announcing properties on sale and rent in these areas, clearly say that the prospector must be ‘vegetarian’. There is a special place, outside the hearts and moral frames of these home owners, reserved for Dalits and Muslims.

In 2009, one of the city’s most well known realtors, who happened to be Muslim, was renovating his ancestral house and wanted to move into a rented property. He looked for one in the best areas of the city. But those areas were for vegetarians only. He finally moved into a relative’s house and is too embarrassed to openly confess that he couldn’t find himself a house on rent despite having been in the real estate business for two generations.

Dalit activist, writer and Right Livelihood Award winner Ruth Manorama says after she got her award in 2006, she had enough funds to move to a better office. She approached an old upper-caste couple, both retired scientists with children abroad, to rent out one of their properties in Jayanagar 4th Block. “They had seen me all over the papers and knew I was Dalit. They said to my face that they cannot rent their house to a person from another caste,” she says.

Read | Tanzanian woman’s assault: Economic impact of racist attacks

There are those who have been kept out and then there are those who have been displaced in the pursuit of urbane cosmopolitanism. The city’s most iconic cultural space, the Ravindra Kalekshetra, was a slum until 1957. The Vikas Soudha, where many State ministers sit, the multi-storey building which houses senior bureaucrats and the office of the State Human Rights Commission were slums until 1986. Jayanagar 4th Block, where Manorama was denied a house, was once the site of a slum with more than 1,000 units.

All these slum dwellers - mostly Dalits, Adivasis and ‘lowered’ caste Muslims and Christians - were relocated outside the city where snakes, leopards and other wild animals roamed. “How is city life different from rural life? The same categories of people are forced to live on the fringes of villages as well,” says Isaac Arul Selva, a slum rights activist, “How can a city that defines belonging in such narrow terms ever be welcoming of an African or an Iranian or a Naga tribal?”

There are those who use other metrics to argue that the city is more inclusive than others: Its older residents speak more than four languages. Pork is sold in Muslim areas and Beef is sold in Hindu areas. Women can smoke in public. In some places they can even dance with men. Couples have been living-in since the 1960s. There is a classmate of mine whose name is Shahdil Samuel Soundarajan and he lives in Shantinagar, the oldest and most multi-cultural area of the city. Cricket unites. Football unites. Masala Dosa unites. Traffic jams unite.

‘I have made friends who are like family’

Hellen Thomas

24-year-old Hellen Thomas left Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, four years ago to study in Bengaluru. A commerce graduate from the city’s Acharya College, Thomas feels Bengaluru is not very different from her hometown, except for things being more expensive here. People from African countries, she feels, often tend to get fleeced by auto drivers and landlords when negotiating rent or deposit amounts.

Speaking of her experience here so far, she says, “Bengaluru has been home. I am grateful for a lot of things this city has given me and my college has been really supportive towards foreign students like me. In the past four years, I have made friends whom I consider family.”

Referring to the recent mob attack on a Tanzanian student, she adds, “Such incidents can happen anywhere in the world. I am of the opinion that we all have to learn to cope and change for a better society and I would advise the same to the locals. Of course, mob violence should not ever take place and I think we need to individually take responsibility since change can only start with us.”

Pedestrians gather near the burnt-out shell of the vehicle at a local police station in Bangalore. (AFP Photo)

The Tanzanian says she sometimes finds it hard to understand the accent in which the locals speak English, “But I have gotten better at figuring it out. I also know a couple of Kannada words, such as illa (no) and beda (I don’t want).” Though Thomas mostly eats Tanzanian food, which she cooks at home, she loves pani puri and sambar.

Her advice to Tanzanians thinking of moving to Bengaluru is: “Go for it if you’re ready to learn and grow.”

(Prajwala Hegde)

‘Know your rights’

Tori Macdonald

30-year-old Tori Macdonald left her Edmonton home in Canada, two years ago to be with her Bengaluru-based boyfriend. Currently a chef at The Humming Tree, Indiranagar, Tori has studied culinary arts and dabbled in various jobs at restaurants and cafes and even at a butcher shop back home.

Of life in Bengaluru, she says, “Because of my boyfriend and his family, I have a support system here which not many foreigners are lucky enough to have.” She feels that Bengaluru has a welcoming vibe and says she has never had any problems, apart from the initial unpleasant experience of haggling with auto drivers. “Earlier, auto drivers would quote a higher fare after seeing the colour of my skin, mistaking me for a tourist. But now, I put my foot down and tell them that I won’t pay a rupee extra.”

Read | Let’s face it: We, Indians, are highly racist people

She also talks about several instances where she got treated better just because she was white. “Many times at a bar or pub I get served quicker than my boyfriend. I feel Indians are one of the most racist people.”

Though she has never lived in any other Indian city, she is aware that this attitude is not restricted to Bengaluru. “There is also a language barrier while communicating with auto drivers or shop keepers. But, I have somehow managed or had someone to help me.”

Her advice to foreigners is, “Stand up for yourself. And know your rights.”

(Prajwala Hegde)

Gee Imaan Semmalar, Hellen Thomas, P Umashankar, Tori Macdonald (From left to right)

‘We need to think of namma Bengaluru’

P Umashankar

Medical shop owner and resident of Bengaluru’s Koramangala area, P Umashankar has been living in this city for over four decades. He feels that people from other states and countries who come to live and work in the city should “try to understand our culture, just the way we try to accept theirs.”

Umashankar explains, “Culture is the way we dress, the language we speak and our values... They need to follow a decent dress code and not misuse the freedom given to them. Bangaloreans are generally friendly and accommodating by nature and hence others tend to take us for granted.”

About the recent mob attack on a Tanzanian woman Umashankar says, “It should not have happened. I don’t think our people are capable of doing something like that. The attackers must have been miscreants and they should be punished.”

Read | In 5 star Bengaluru hotel, Dalits show they have arrived

He feels that people coming from other states do not make any attempt to learn Kannada and expect the locals to converse in Hindi. “Had they been in Tamil Nadu or Kerala, they couldn’t have survived without learning the language,” he says.

He puts the blame on people from north India for the city’s famed pub culture and does not agree that pubs started becoming a part of the city’s cultural scene in the 1980s. He is not comfortable with the city’s vibrant nightlife either.

African students meet police officials over the issue of an alleged attack on a female Tanzanian student, in Bengaluru. (PTI Photo)

“The chances of the crime rate going up is higher when people stay out of their homes and party all night,” he says. Point out that nightlife is part of any cosmopolitan city and he says, “Yes, but is our police force equipped to deal with it?”

There are some things that Umashankar would like to change about the city: “We need to start thinking beyond ourselves, be considerate towards others. There should be a feeling of responsibility towards our city. We need to start thinking of it as ‘namma (our) Bengaluru.”

(Prajwala Hegde)

‘Public spaces are shrinking’

Gee Imaan Semmalar

Theatre artist and social activist Gee Imaan Semmalar moved to Bengaluru in 2011. Originally from Kerala, the 28-year-old transman (woman-to-man transexual), says the primary problem people from the transgender community face in the city is finding a house.

“It was easier for me since I am a transman and people can’t make out from my appearance that I am transgender. But when I moved to Bengaluru, many transwomen friends used to live with me at my Wilson Garden home. My landlord accused me of running a brothel and asked me to vacate the house. He didn’t even return my entire deposit amount. I had to file a police complaint,” he recalls.

Semmalar feels many people who have gone in for a sex change procedure face a problem owing to discrepancies in legal papers. The situation is worse for those belonging to the lower strata of society. He recalls the November 2014 incident in Bengaluru, when the police had arrested more than 200 transgenders and sent them to the beggars’ colony.

“Historically, transgenders have lived in slums and in the periphery of the city. Even today, you find them living around Dasarahalli, KR Puram and Tannery Road along with the Dalit and Muslim population.”

Karnataka home minister G Parameshwara and Tanzania's high commissioner to India John Kijazi after a meeting on the alleged attack on a female Tanzanian student, in Bengaluru. (PTI Photo)

Semmalar, who lived in Delhi for five years before coming to Bengaluru feels people from the transgender community face oppression across the country. “I have found some people in Hyderabad to be more accepting, but they are a miniscule percentage. It is common there to find transgenders living rent-free in the havelis which once belonged to the Nizams.”

Of Bengaluru, he says, “Though it has transformed over the years, I doubt it has done away with its feudal character. Public spaces are shrinking for people from the marginalised sections — especially those from the transgender community.”

(Prajwala Hegde)

Read | Bengaluru ACP suspended over attack on Tanzanian woman

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