Delhi’s Dalit areas will shun ‘Harijan’ tag

Updated on Apr 04, 2019 07:40 AM IST

In Delhi, Dalit-dominated localities in the city that go by the generic name “Harijan Basti” are likely to be renamed soon – with the word Harijan removed.

A view of south Delhi’s Ambedkar Nagar. The neighbourhood still has several Dalit-dominated clusters.(HT Photo)
A view of south Delhi’s Ambedkar Nagar. The neighbourhood still has several Dalit-dominated clusters.(HT Photo)
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByAbhishek Dey

Rishabh, 22, a resident of Harijan Basti, a Dalit-dominated slum cluster in West Delhi’s Vikaspuri area, prefers not to write his surname. “But, it does feel awkward when I have to write my address in a college form,” he said, expressing his discomfort with the name of the place where he lives.

Harijan Basti is a generic term that thousands of Dalit-dominated localities across India still use though many Dalits now condemn the word, made popular by Mahatma Gandhi, that was termed “abusive” by the Supreme Court in 2017.

However, in Delhi, this may soon change. Dalit-dominated localities in the city that go by the generic name “Harijan Basti” are likely to be renamed soon – with the word Harijan removed.

On March 6, the office of the minister of social welfare in Delhi sent a proposal on this to the Delhi urban development department. “Once the proposal is cleared, the renaming of Harijan bastis can be done through an executive order of the government,” Delhi’s social welfare minister Rajendra Pal Gautam said.

The change is likely to happen through an executive order after the general elections so that the model code of conduct is not violated, officials in both Delhi’s social justice and urban development departments said.

They further said that before the renaming happens, residents in each colony will be given a chance to choose the new name and it did not necessarily have to be a Dalit icon’s name.

While the office of the social welfare minister in Delhi does not have documented records of the total number of so-called Harijan Bastis in the city,they roughly estimate it to be anything between 500 and 600.

What’s in a name

“Renaming Harijan Bastis hardly change the lives of the residents,” said Umesh Kumar, 64, a resident of South Delhi’s Ambedkar Nagar area that has several Dalit- dominated clusters.

Kumar has three sons, all of them school dropouts. One of them is unemployed and the other two work at factories in an industrial area in West Delhi.

Many such bastis are a cluster of slums comprising a maze of lanes that get getting progressively narrower as one navigates inside. Open drains, dilapidated shanties and buildings with their bricks exposed are a common feature.

Rishabh’s slum in Vikaspuri is one of them. While Rishabh (who goes only by his first name), is a student of humanities in the School of Open Learning – where one does not have to physically attend classes – under the University of Delhi, most of his friends are either school drop outs or jobless.

Several Harijan Bastis are located in and around unauthorised colonies.The Harijan Basti in east Delhi’s Kondli constituency is one of them.“Everyone knows this area as Harijan Basti. Renaming it can lead to people getting confused,” said a resident of the basti who did not wish to be identified.

While the Harijan basti in East Delhi’s Kondli is considered to be the biggest in terms of size, the one in South Delhi’s Deoli constituency is believed to be the oldest.

It is visibly more developed than the Harijan Bastis located in and around slums and unauthorised colonies – both in terms of demography and infrastructure.

The roads are concrete, the drains covered, the buildings are plastered, there are schools and healthcare facilities visible, more children attend schools and people heve better jobs.

Gaurav, 19; Ankit, 18; and Shivam, 17, are local residents and appearing for the ongoing Class 12 board exams. Students of humanities, they want to attend regular colleges after school, unlike Rishabh’s choice of distant learning. Gaurav’s father is electrician who works with corporate offices in Gurgaon; Ankit’s father has an enterprise of his own that makes wallpapers and Shivam’s father works as a driver for a multinational company. But there is one similarity with Rishabh – they too do not write surnames in their official documents.

Over the years, some of the Harijan Bastis have seen migration from other castes too. For instance, there is a significant number of residents at the Harijan Basti in Deoli who belong to Other Backward Classes (OBC). At a Harijan Basti slum in Lodhi Road, currently stuck in a legal dispute for alleged encroachment, half the residents, including the person they call their pradhaan (chief) are Muslims, said residents of the area. The Harijan Basti in Vikaspuri, however, have witnessed retalively less inter-caste or inter-religious mingling.

Why renaming is needed

According to Vivek Kumar, a professor of sociology in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, the word Harijan was coined by Narsi Mehta, a 15th century poet-saint from Gujarat. He used that word for the children of the Devdasis, a commonly used Sanskrit term for temple sex workers, but not a lot of people were aware of the usage. In 1931, Mahatma Gandhi popularised the word, which translates to “Children of God” and used it for Dalits, then commonly referred to as “untouchables”.

In India, there was always a concept of naming colonies on the basis of the caste of majority of its residents, Kumar said.

For instance, Brahman-dominated areas would be named Bamnouti, for Thakur Kshatriyas it would be Thakuriya and Chamrouki for areas dominated by the Chamar sub-caste of Dalits, he said.

He further said: “But such nomenclature was largely confined to rural areas. As people migrated to urban centres, the concept of Harijan Bastis came into existence. It was a popular term by the time India got its independence.”

India’s first law minister, BR Ambedkar, was always against the usage of the word. He maintained that ‘Harijan’ was superficial and did not represent the true characteristic of the community, Kumar said.

Kumar further said, “But the usage of the term plunged into controversy as more people became aware of its actual usage – children of the Devdasis, which literally translates to children whose fathers’ identities are not known. The awareness was further spread during the Jatav movement in the early-40s and other Dalit movements during the 1960s.”

The controversy is one reason why, Kumar said, many Dalit colonies that emerged during the 1950s and early-60s in Delhi did not use the term Harijan.That is why, he said, Delhi also has areas such as Jatav Mohalla in the southwestern part of the city, named specifically after the Jatav sub-community of Dalits, and Raigarpura in central Delhi, named after the Raigar subcommunity. People, who at some point, were part of caste movements, started to prefer being identified by specific castes than the umbrella term Harijan. This also reflected in the names of the area they lived in.

“That is one reason why, despite having the highest intensity of Dalit population as residents, Central Delhi’s Karol Bagh area does not have many colonies named Harijan Basti,” Kumar said.

According to Ashok Kumar Tongadia, president of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe welfare committee in south Delhi’s Mehrauli assembly constituency, it was in 1982 that a Parliamentary Committee had prohibited the word Harijan from being used in any government document. But that did not change things in Delhi or elsewhere as far as the Harijan Basti nomenclature was concerned.

Name change not new

“In Delhi, this is not the first time renaming of an area named Harijan Basti is going to happen,” said activist Ashok Bharti who leads a Dalit umbrella group named All India Ambedkar Mahasabha. He further said, the Ambedkar Nagar area in south Delhi, which later became an assembly constituency reserved for Dalits around 15 years ago, was popular as the Khanpur Harijan Basti.

It even existed in government documents. It was because of the presence of a large number of Dalit-dominated slum clusters in the area. “The renaming of ‘Khanpur Harijan Basti’ had happened ahead of the general elections in 1989,” said Bharti.

Tongadia said, over the past three decades, renaming of Harijan bastis happened in several states that include Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Bihar among others.

But, according to Bharti, there is a problem with that – most of them have either been named after Dalit icons, which indirectly give away the caste identity of the residents of the area and,
hence, fail to do away with the stigma.

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