Caste is not past in the fast-paced modern city

  • Smruti Koppikar, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Apr 12, 2016 23:58 IST

In the deep bowels of Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar in Ghatkopar, a part of Mumbai that many Mumbaiites are unfamiliar with, there are residents who can still recall those posters. They had fluttered for many weeks after the gruesome police atrocities of July 1997 that had left ten of their neighbours-friends dead and nearly 30 injured in a few minutes of vicious police firing when they had come out to protest the desecration of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar’s statue.

“Fifty years of Independence / The salute of fifty bullets / Ten Dalits murdered / This is our independence.” Lamented the hastily-drafted but sharp posters. They are long gone but the memories of that July morning have not completely faded away. This Dalit basti has its own icons, men who were martyred that day. In 19 years, the urban resurgence and redevelopment in Mumbai has barely touched Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar and hundreds of such bastis.

The governments of the day, both at the Centre and in Maharashtra, will pay cynical obeisance to Dr Bhimrao R Ambedkar on the occasion of his 125th birth anniversary tomorrow [April 14]. They will pay lip-service to Ambedkar’s mission to eradicate caste from Indian society, just as erstwhile Congress governments had done in the past, but do little to ensure that caste is eradicated from urban life.

Ambedkar came to Bombay nearly 110 years ago as a young school boy, sleeping in a one-room tenement with his family, “with a grinding stone near his head and a goat tied somewhere near his feet” as history has noted, to get a proper school education. In Elphinstone high school where he was not allowed to learn Sanskrit as a subject, or later in the Elphinstone College, and much later in the Bombay High Court, the young Ambedkar was insulted and discriminated for being a Mahar. Caste segregation was as much a part of his growing up in Bombay city as it was in Ambavad village.

Cities erase caste distinctions and enable social cohesion because they emphasise education, mobility, skill and innate talent, it is commonly believed. It is true and it is not. The opportunities that cities offer to transform lives of those at the bottom of the social ladder and their results are evident. But this does not completely dissolve caste barriers or make caste tags disappear.

Mumbai’s upper-middle and wealthy classes can comfort themselves that caste is not an issue only because it is rarely a factor in their lives. Yet, for millions of other Mumbaiites, their caste identity and their Dalit-ness determines everything from where they live, what kind of food they get to buy, where their children study and what sort of work they do. The Dalit entrepreneur, Dalit billionaire, Dalit Vice Chancellor are the outliers, their addresses do not read Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar or Gautam Nagar.

When the city opens its arms to Dalits, it does so to an extent in education and work, though a Tata Institute of Social Sciences study revealed that Dalits comprise more than 80% of those involved in Mumbai’s garbage disposal system. But in the realms of location, food, religion, language, social relations and politics, caste is everything. Well, almost everything. The all-Dalit slums or housing colonies show how caste pervades life choices. Matunga is another example of invisible caste line: there’s the upper caste, Tamil Brahmin and Gujarati-Marwari area and then the lower-caste and Dalit basti overlapping Dharavi, and the two do not mix.

Language can be a marker of caste discrimination too. Filmmaker Nagraj Manjule who made the award-winning “Fandry” switched from self-conscious use of English back to Marathi and Hindi. Caste “purity” is still maintained in many Mumbai kitchens including those in uber-luxurious towers, and caste continues to be the calling card in marriages even in Mumbai. Just over five per cent of urban India marries outside their caste, according to the India Human Development Survey II (IHDS-II), 2012.

Isn’t it poignant that Ambedkar’s grandson Prakash is still asking that caste is not mentioned on children’s school certificates?

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