In an essay, ‘A Tale of Three cities and the search for Dharma’, sociologist and author Arshia Sattar examines the three cities depicted in the epic Ramayana. Ayodhya, the human city, Kishkindha, the monkey city and finally Lanka, the rakshasa city, each governed by codes of behaviour depending on who resides in them. As she puts it, in the cities, “ways of being and doing are determined and unalterable”.
The ‘codes’ in each city are remarkably different, each allowing for a different kind of morality and way to live. The only similarity between them is that each upholds a certain way of life quite rigidly within the city limits, and all of them fall into chaos when the codes are violated.
The rigidity around these “codes” is what best defines Indian cities even now. The Noida sector 78 incident, where a luxury housing complex, Mahagun Moderne, was attacked by domestic workers, is a sign of just how fragile the status quo is. Since then the Noida authorities have evicted people living in the basti that had sprung up on government land where domestic workers working in these luxury complexes had set up home and the housing complex itself has reportedly made new rules of not hiring ‘Bangladeshi maids’.
The most distinct pattern, defined by a feudal code that dominates the cities, and especially newly urbanised areas, is the gated complex or luxury housing society. Right next to most of these housing complexes, it is common to find an unauthorised slum that has sprung up as domestic workers, mostly newly-arrived poor migrants to the city, find work at these housing societies. The ‘masters’ within the gated complex are served by the ‘servants’ who live outside its walls.
The uneasy and unequal relation between these two interdependent communities is further magnified by the outsiders’ lack of access to what is considered normal and legitimate for those who live within. Salaries paid to domestic workers ensure that they are never in a position to ‘buy’ legitimacy within city spaces. While the people within gated societies can legitimately access the city’s infrastructure ranging from running water, sanitation, electricity and piped gas, the basti-dwellers are forced to use illegal means, often at inflated prices, to access the same infrastructure.
The end result is that ‘codes’ normalise a feudal and class-based ‘way of being’. Most media covering the Mahagun Moderne incident has reported it as a class conflict or reported on the back and forth of accusations between the domestic workers and their employers. However, it was a class conflict that was invisible until a group of workers decided to riot outside a housing complex.
Till then, while there might have been countless reports of domestic workers being abused or dying in homes, these cases were quietly settled or forgotten according to the cultural codes that guide modern Indian cities. As such, they hardly mattered and there was no acknowledgment of the ‘conflict’ either.
Domestic workers rioting, however, was a transgressive act that broke the feudal code and caused ‘conflict’ or ‘chaos’. In her recent book, Maid in India, author Tripti Lahiri draws attention to the lack of formalisation and injustice that has always characterised the existence of most domestic workers in India, and yet she tells The Indian Express in this interview, “I am surprised that the workers revolted, because of the likelihood of facing repercussions from police and municipal authorities, or losing their jobs, and while we still don’t know all the details, I would understand that to mean there were long-simmering unaddressed grievances against employers.”
Questioning the boundaries
Similarly, the ‘Why Loiter’, ‘Pinja Tod’ or ‘I Will Go Out’ movements can also be seen as transgressive acts by groups of women that aim to break patriarchal codes that limit their movement within a city. These have also met with a push back from authorities of different stripes, from hostel administrators to police.
It begs the question – what of other insular codes that shape our “ways of being and doing” in a city, codes that are still relatively ‘invisible’ because no transgressive acts have called attention to it?
An analysis of the ward-level census data in 10 of India’s most populous cities shows that people hailing from Schedule Castes and Tribes were concentrated in a few locations in the city, mostly poor neighbourhoods or informal settlements that also have the least access to public goods like drinking water supply and sanitation infrastructure.
Similarly, another study showed that even though religious minorities have overwhelmingly opted to stay in urban areas and there has in fact been a significant jump over the last decade in Dalits also opting for urban living, they mostly live in segregated ‘poor’ neighbourhoods with limited access to city-based infrastructure and services. Systemic discrimination by civic authorities, the police, town planning and urban governance bodies ensure that codes that uphold caste and religious discrimination endure and flourish.
Racial attacks witnessed in Delhi and Bangalore also reveal just how insular our cities are. The lack of support from authorities for cultural events of migrant communities reveal how xenophobic behaviour is often justified by cultural codes of ‘purity’.
The other popular tactic is identifying certain communities as ‘dangerous’ because they ‘might’ upset sexual codes, for example, women from Northeastern states are seen as sexually promiscuous while African men are seen as sexual predators.
Enforcing ‘gatekeepers’ – from landlords and employers of domestic labour to city authorities like the police, or municipal officials – wield power based on these codes that favour certain socio-religious, class, caste, racial and gender categories. In short, they enforce identity-based, discriminatory codes.
But since these codes are ‘normalised’ to such an extent, individual cases of abuse or harassment are not seen as discriminatory until there is a transgressive moment or movement that results in conflict. Soon after a conflict, words like ‘order’ and ‘stability’ are paraded and oppressive codes are reinforced, often with renewed vigour.
Can these codes be broken?
At this point, the ‘success’ of a transgressive moment depends on two things. One, the sheer number of people who continue to protest, despite the push-back by ‘gatekeepers’. Two, the other more favourable identity-affiliations of the protestors, for example the mostly middle class background of women protesting about gender-based violence in cities.
Given these realities, those who benefit from these codes, but also recognise the ways in which they are oppressive, have to ally themselves with those trying to dismantle them. They must recognise the degree of injustice that force people out on the streets to riot or protest despite their fears of being assaulted by the authorities. Conflict situations must be regarded not as something that threatens ‘our way of life’ but rather as teaching moments that can help us identify how we can participate in creating more inclusive, tolerant cities.