Land ownership by caste simply shifted places from rural to urban areas

Urging the Dalits to urbanize, Babasaheb Ambedkar said: “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 at Welfare Boarding School in Telangana 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. A few minutes after our meeting, and without any sense of irony, the owner of the house declared: “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. Since the people around me didn’t understand the language, I started speaking in English all the time and now their questions have also diminished. My true identity remains hidden.

Mukkera Rahul Swaero is program coordinator at LibTech India in Rajasthan Suraj Yengde, author of Caste Matters, curates bi-monthly column “Dalitality”

About Wanda G. Warren

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