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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 45, New Delhi, October 23, 2021

Caste, Class Combined to Make Bombay | M R Narayan Swamy

Saturday 23 October 2021, by M R Narayan Swamy


by M.R. Narayan Swamy

Outcaste Bombay:

City Making and the Politics of the Poor

by Juned Shaikh

Orient BlackSwan

Pages: 226; Price Rs 995

ISBN 9789354420405

When Bombay expanded in the 19th century from a trading town into a manufacturing hub, it became heavily dependent on cheap labour provided mainly by low caste Hindus. Shudras and Dalits comprised 59-64 percent of Bombay’s population between 1864 and 1881. Many Dalits migrated to the city in the late 19th and early 20th century to escape dispossession and untouchability in rural settings. Migration made them poorer, forcing them to live in hutments, slums and even on the streets. But the assumption that people would shed caste on way to the city or upon arrival was misplaced. The author, an Indian academic in the US, contends in this amazing work backed by a wealth of information that capitalism and caste shared a symbiotic relationship; they leeched off each other.

Caste not only influenced the built form of the city, including provisions for workers’ housing, but also underlay its industrial economy. As years and decades rolled by, caste and class became entangled in the political, economic and spatial transformation of Bombay, which would emerge as India’s busiest metropolis besides becoming India’s financial and entertainment capital. Communists in Bombay tried to relegate caste politics to the attic while pushing class struggles to the foreground. They didn’t succeed. Even a section of Dalits who embraced Marxism retained proximity to the teachings of B.R. Ambedkar, the icon of Dalit politics. Right through the 21st century, both caste and class were etched into the built form and were evident in slums, hutments and ‘bastis’ of Bombay.

The reality is that caste, along with class, shaped Dalit prospects on the housing market. Even in tenements built for the poor, caste was acknowledged and space for housing was allotted by caste. Slowly, overcrowding, a result of low wages that made many share a single dwelling, became an abiding feature of capitalism. As it is, knowing the low wages on which many survived, landlords built small accommodations; some of these remained unoccupied over rental issues. Many preferred slums to save on rent. Caste, along with class, shaped Dalit prospects on the housing market. Even in tenements built for the poor, caste was acknowledged.

Slums meant unsanitary living conditions – because sewage systems did not serve the hutments and shanties. Naturally, sanitation and civic amenities became the mode of creating elite and non-elite spaces in Bombay. Even administrators and officials deployed caste to make sense of social life in the city in the 19th century. In the 1870s, the Bombay health officer’s quarterly report tabulated deaths based on religion and caste of the dead. Even the Bombay Improvement Trust acknowledged and worked through caste. The working class’ division into communities and caste required them perforce to congregate in particular localities. In other words, caste would just not go away.

Access to job and rented dwelling depended on a social network in which caste and kinship played a key role. Jobbers recruited labour from their caste and kinship networks. Many who migrated to Bombay in search of work and dreaming of a better life were landless peasants, a large chunk being Dalits. The colonial state heeded to demands for housing and claims to urban space when made in the name of caste but the Dalits were not always successful here. Divisions within the lower castes also marred housing prospects. Even the upper castes were affected. A depressed caste leader who otherwise opposed untouchability highlighted that people in villages lived in separate houses, and each caste resided in a particular neighbourhood. Dalits experienced special difficulty obtaining housing in the city as no other community wanted to live near them.

British colonial administrators as well as private landlords strengthened caste in the city by deploying it as a basis for housing the urban poor. City administrators allotted land for cooperative housing societies by upholding caste as the vector. Upper-caste cooperative housing societies sprouted up in the first half of the 20th century.

Marxists invoked caste as an object of negation. Caste identity was seen as temporally out of sync with class solidarity. They hoped that caste would desiccate caste to such an extent that their work would be to aggregate workers, devoid of caste affinities. Instead, capital in Bombay attached itself to caste like a parasite; instead of shriveling, caste worked and reproduced itself through caste.

For instance, in the 1920s, Dalit workers had to drink water from separate pitchers in the textile mills. They were not hired in the weaving department of mills because weaving necessitated the use of saliva to join broken threads, and the spittle of an “untouchable” was deemed polluting. The author says the Communist union did not address this initially and only did so reluctantly. Indeed, Bombay’s Marxists regarded the anti-Brahmin and Dalit movements of the time as assertions of caste identity by an emerging middle class within these groups and rebuked them. A half-century later, frustrated Dalits grouped themselves into Dalit Panthers.

Workers did overcome caste at historical moments like industrial action or strikes but the differences resurfaced when the moment passed. The friction between Communist and caste politics could also be discerned in the political rivalries between trade unions. Critics moaned that while Communists were intellectually committed to equality, they failed to address caste inequities, particularly the indignities of untouchability.

Within the backward castes, there was a further spatial segmentation between Dalits and non-Dalits. Ninety percent of domestic servants were from Dalit castes. Even among Dalits, domestic servants lived in clusters segmented by sub-castes. Come what may, slums, which housed an overwhelming majority of Dalits, refused to go away even as Bombay city expanded horizontally to Greater Bombay and then to New Bombay. The number of slums shot up from 144 to 619 between 1957 and 1981; by 1984, 50 percent of Bombay’s population of 8.2 million lived in slums, rising to 62 percent (over nine million) in 2011. Slums remain a part and parcel of Mumbai – today’s Bombay.

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