Urbanisation, No Liberating Force for Dalits

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Why in News?

  • The role of caste in Indian society has long shaped the social and spatial organisation of communities across the country and this impact is evident in the way Indian cities are structured, with caste often serving as the primary language of spatiality in urban areas.
  • Despite such challenges, prominent Indian figures like R. Ambedkar and Jyotirao Phule saw urbanisation as an opportunity for Dalit liberation.
  • Therefore, it is important to understand Ambedkar's vision of urbanisation, the persistence of caste-based discrimination in urban spaces, and the continued challenges faced by Dalits and Muslims in terms of housing and public services in cities.

Ambedkar’s Views on Urbanisation

  • A Pathway to Liberation
    • B. R. Ambedkar, a prominent social reformer and champion for the rights of Dalits, held a vision of urbanisation as a pathway to liberation for marginalised communities in India.
    • He believed that the traditional social structures of Indian villages were inherently oppressive due to the entrenched caste system, which dictated individuals' social status and access to opportunities based on their birth.
    • Ambedkar argued that the Indian village was the "working plant of the Hindu social order," where caste-based hierarchies thrived, resulting in the subjugation and marginalisation of Dalits.
  • A Means of Dismantling Caste-Based Order
    • Ambedkar saw urbanisation as a means of dismantling the rigid caste-based order found in rural areas.
    • He envisioned cities as spaces where individuals could become anonymous among a sea of strangers, transitioning from a caste-based society to a more class-based one.
    • This shift from a system defined by genealogy to one based on the accumulation of resources or capital would, in theory, weaken the systems of caste oppression that were pervasive in villages.
  • Better Economic and Social Opportunities in Urban Areas
    • In urban environments, Ambedkar believed, Dalits would have access to new economic opportunities and the ability to engage in various forms of skilled labour, enabling them to improve their social and economic standing.
    • Cities offered the chance to break free from the constraints of village life, where caste often dictated one's occupation and social interactions.
  • Potential for Greater Political and Social Awareness
    • Moreover, Ambedkar saw the potential for greater political and social awareness in cities.

Urban areas were more likely to have educational institutions and opportunities for civic engagement, which could empower Dalits and other marginalised groups to advocate for their rights and participate in the democratic process.

Challenges in Urbanisation and Ambedkar's Optimism

  • Despite being a supporter of urbanisation for marginalised communities, Ambedkar was not naive about the challenges of urbanisation.
  • He recognised that caste-based discrimination could still persist in cities, as evidenced by his own experiences.
  • He struggled to find housing in Baroda and faced restrictions on entering certain sections of textile mills due to his caste.
  • Nonetheless, he remained optimistic about the liberating potential of cities, viewing them as spaces where individuals could navigate life with greater freedom and autonomy.

Persistence of Caste-Based Discrimination in Urban Spaces

  • Language of Purity-Pollution
    • One of the primary ways caste discrimination manifests in cities is through the language of purity-pollution.
    • This concept, deeply embedded in Hindu social practices, categorises certain foods, behaviours, and individuals as either pure or impure based on their caste.
    • For instance, a consumer survey in 2021 found that eating non-vegetarian food is a significant barrier to finding rental housing in India, reflecting a broader prejudice against certain castes who are more likely to consume meat.
  • Caste Segregation in Housing
    • The language of purity-pollution also extends to housing practices and as a result dalits and other lower castes often face discrimination when trying to rent or purchase homes in urban areas.
    • Landlords and housing societies may refuse to rent to them based on their dietary habits or perceived cleanliness, leading to segregation and the formation of ghettos.
  • State-Sanctioned Policies
    • State-sanctioned policies have played a role in perpetuating caste-based discrimination in cities.
    • For example, the Uttar Pradesh government issued regulations in March 2017 that banned the sale of meat near religious places and required meat shops to hide their products from pedestrians.
    • Similar policies in other states, such as Gujarat, have targeted meat-based street food, citing religious sentiments.
    • These measures implicitly reinforce caste divisions by labelling meat as impure and associating it with certain castes.

Ongoing Relevance of Ambedkar's Vision, Implications of Discrimination, and Its Impact on Public Spaces

  • Ongoing Relevance of Ambedkar's Vision
    • Ambedkar's vision of urbanisation as a path to Dalit liberation continues to resonate today, serving as a reminder of the ongoing struggle for social justice and equality in Indian cities.
    • His work underscores the importance of addressing both historical and contemporary forms of caste-based discrimination to create inclusive and equitable urban spaces.
  • Spatial Implications of Discrimination
    • These forms of discrimination have significant spatial implications, as they lead to the segregation of Dalits and other marginalised groups into specific neighbourhoods or areas.
    • Ghettos often lack access to basic services and infrastructure, further exacerbating the social and economic disparities faced by these communities.
  • Impact on Public Spaces
    • The influence of caste-based discrimination extends to public spaces as well.
    • Restrictions on where certain foods can be sold, for example, limit the ability of lower castes to participate fully in the economic and social life of the city.
    • Such policies contribute to a broader environment of exclusion and marginalisation.


  • Despite Ambedkar's vision of urbanisation as a path to Dalit liberation, Indian cities have fallen short of fulfilling this promise.
  • While transitioning to city life may have weakened some structures of caste oppression, these have morphed through language, state sanction, and policy, allowing caste to thrive in urban spaces.

This ongoing struggle underscores the need for continued efforts to address caste-based discrimination and promote inclusivity and equality in Indian cities.

Q) What is the caste system in Indian society?

The caste system in Indian society is a traditional social hierarchy that categorises people into distinct groups based on their birth. These groups, known as castes, dictate an individual's social status, occupation, and potential marriage partners. The main castes are divided into four varnas: Brahmins (priests and scholars), Kshatriyas (warriors and rulers), Vaishyas (merchants and farmers), and Shudras (labourers and service providers). Additionally, there are groups known as Dalits or "untouchables," who have historically faced severe discrimination.

Q) What impact has the caste system had on modern Indian society?

The caste system has had a significant impact on modern Indian society by influencing social, economic, and political dynamics. Although the system is officially outlawed and the Indian constitution provides for equality and non-discrimination, caste-based prejudices and biases still persist. Discrimination against lower castes, particularly Dalits, continues to be a challenge. However, there have been notable efforts to address these issues, including affirmative action policies and social movements advocating for the rights of marginalised communities.

Source: The Hindu