Urging the Dalits to urbanize, Babasaheb Ambedkar declared: “What is a village if not a well of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communitarianism”. While several positive advances have been made in the past 75 years in independent India, has urban India recovered from the “well of localism” and “close-mindedness”?
A joint study from 2015 to 2017, conducted by Savitribai University Phule Pune, Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, shows that 22.3% of advanced caste (FC) Hindus possess 41% of the country’s wealth. Using nationally representative surveys, Nitin Bharti of the Paris School of Economics empirically demonstrated the dominance of the wealth of advanced castes. The richest 10% (1st decile) owned nearly 60% of urban wealth in 2012. By calculating “inequality of representation”, which measures the extent of social segregation within a wealth bracket, Bharti shows that FC dominates the top 10% while Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims are overrepresented in the bottom 50%. It would therefore be fair to say that caste-based land ownership simply shifted places from rural to urban areas without commensurate socio-economic mobility of backward castes. Consequently, the rental housing market in the so-called ‘good areas’ of urban India continues to be dominated by the CF.
I am a Dalit and studied in Telangana Social Welfare Boarding School and then completed my Masters degree in 2020 from Azim Premji University. Thereafter, I started working in Bhilwara, Rajasthan, where my quest to find rental accommodation began. Initially, I met a doctor through an online housing application. Since I am from Telangana, it was difficult to gauge my religion and caste from my surname. I recognized that I was Hindu when he asked me about my religion. He then turned to my food preferences and wanted to know about my parents’ profession. Feeling uncomfortable, I started lying and put on an upper caste mask. With great difficulty, I ended the conversation. Frightened, I no longer approached him.
My research continued and the general trend quickly established itself. First, I was asked if I am a Hindu, then there were follow-up questions about my eating habits. Some were less subtle and asked directly, “Kaunsa jaati hai tumhara (What is your caste)?” “. I also had difficulty answering questions about my “gotra”. In one instance, after a conversation about my place of origin and marital status, I said I was a Christian when the landlord asked me about my caste. Soon he said he had already rented the house to a Brahmin family. After many knocks on many multicolored doors, a new friend assured me that he had found a home for me. Within minutes of our meeting, and without any sense of irony, the owner of the house said, “We are only looking for Brahmins. Are you a Brahmin? Before I could say anything, my friend stepped in and said, “Yes, he is.” I said that my mother is a teacher and that I am a pure vegetarian. Then the owner of the house asked, “What is your caste?” I mentioned the South Indian Brahmin caste name of an old friend.
The owner then called a Brahmin couple and they asked me, “Do you belong to OBC or SC?” I replied with a simple face: “No, general category.” After probing further, the couple finally gave up and said, “Okay. Don’t cook eggs or other meats in the house.” The owner then asked me to bring a copy of my Aadhaar card. I left with a feeling of dread and repeatedly looked at my Aadhaar card details to make sure my caste was not listed there. When I returned with my luggage, the couple came to examine my Aadhaar. I was worried because the address on my Aadhaar said ‘Ambedkar Nagar’. But I soon realized that they couldn’t read English or Telugu.
Finally, after finding accommodation, I had to live like a typical Brahmin because people stared at me all the time. But, I realized the power of being able to speak in English. As people around me didn’t understand the language, I started speaking in English all the time and now their questions have also decreased. My true identity remains hidden.
Mukkera Rahul Swaero is a program coordinator at LibTech India in Rajasthan Suraj Yengde, author of Caste Matters, curates bimonthly column “Dalitality”