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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 11, March 11, 2023

Omnipresent Caste | Sanjana Sree Manusanipalli and Sandeep Pandey

Saturday 11 March 2023, by Sandeep Pandey


The city is supposed to be the place where anyone can be anything they want to be. They say in a city like Hyderabad, there are no feelings of caste, class or religion. Everyone is supposed to be equal. Sociologists have also believed that urbanisation could signal the end of the caste system. B. R. Ambedkar encouraged people from marginalised castes to migrate to urban areas. He believed Indian villages perpetuate this system of inequality. Unfortunately, however, cities have their own way of perpetuating these inequalities. Most of us see these instances of inequality every day, participate in them even but never look at them as issues.

These inequalities are all around us, even in our homes. The gated community, which is becoming so popular with the urban middle class, is an excellent example of how city organisation discriminates. The security guards and restricted access serve a dual purpose, one of inclusion and the other of exclusion. The gated community keeps in those who are wealthy and usually upper caste. In contrast, another community lives around the boundaries serving those within the boundaries. This organisation is justified in the name of security, but the true reason is to keep interactions with those deemed ‘less than’ to a minimum. These are the means used by the well-to-do to segregate themselves.

There are many ways in which these communities make sure that the difference between the residents and the non-residents is known. The ones who come to work within the gates are seen as ‘dirty’ and ‘unaesthetic’. The gated citizens try to avoid seeing them unless absolutely necessary. There are separate elevators and staircases for them to use. This is done in the name of safety. The residents do not take kindly to this segregation not being followed. Some communities do not allow workers to go from one building to another using the ground floor as the residents do. If they must go around, they must use the basement, where the cars are parked. One can question if the justification for this is safety as well. The workers who need to be seen, such as those who clean the common areas, have to wear a uniform. Perhaps safety is the reason for this as well, while one can question how this keeps anyone safe.

Further, anytime the workers enter or exit the complex, they are checked at the gate. If they have anything extra at the time of exit, they need to show where they got it. If not, they get into trouble. The justification for this humiliation is safety, of course. Additionally, if a resident complains about a worker and wants them to be blacklisted, the community will do so. This is done regardless of the reason, without any enquiry into the matter. The worker will no longer be allowed to enter the complex and work there. On the other hand any exploitation of the workers, sexual harassment of female workers, withholding their salaries, etc., are hardly ever reported. In most cases workers have to silently suffer all such excesses. Their livelihood and their lives are not seen to be important.

Some of this discriminatory treatment is normalised inside the homes. The residents are okay with the house help cleaning the dining table but not with them sitting and eating with the residents or even without them on the dining table or sofa in the drawing room. The help, while they clean the toilets inside the homes, are not allowed to use them. Usually, these communities have separate toilets for the workers, which, not surprisingly, are located in the basement. Worse, they may have to go out to find a bush or a secluded corner to relieve themselves.

There are many ways in which discrimination continues, even in cities. The gated community is just one example of it. It shows a structure similar to that of an Indian village. The privileged live in the centre, and the marginalised live in the periphery. Unfortunately, not much has changed.

With the emergence of Hindutva politics with attendant caste system and its mindset, things have taken a nosedive. Shankara Agraharam, a township of 1,200 residential plots that is coming up at Bagepalli, about 90 km from Bengaluru, has openly advertised that it is for Brahmins. The brochure of the exclusive township declares that the developers want to ‘bring back the tradition of Brahmins which has ceased to exist in modern India. One can only imagine how the workers, who in all likelihood are going to be from non-Brahmin castes or will be poor Brahmins, will be treated by residents of such a self-declared elite society. In Gujarat gated communities or housing colonies comprising of only one caste or religious community have existed since long before. Muslims or Dalits denied housing in predominantly upper caste localities in probably an all India phenomenon.

Now that Seattle City Council in United States has passed a resolution against caste based discrimination in India American social life and corporate America is prohibiting caste based discrimination in employee behavior, it is time urban India recognized that caste based discrimination is widely practiced in social life and must make amends to get rid of it. More than laws what is required is enlightened behaviour. It is quite clear that laws are not able to achieve the ideals enshrined in the Constitution. More intermixing of different caste, ethnic, religious communities, especially in religious and social functions, practicing ‘equality’ and ‘fraternity (and sorority)’ guaranteed in the Constitution, encouraging inter-caste, inter-religious, inter-regional marriages, not allowing any kind of discrimination at all are some of the ways in which we can move towards a casteless and discrimination free society.

(Authors: Sanjana Sree Manusanipalli is a final year LLB student at NALSAR, Hyderabad and Sandeep Pandey is General Secretary, Socialist Party (India) )

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