The dream of the city

India is home to many castes, subcastes, sects, faiths, creeds, ideologies and other undefined social groupings. Each one of these groups has its own beliefs and ways of thinking.

Published: January 21, 2018 2:12:36 am
India is home to many castes, subcastes, sects, faiths, creeds, ideologies and other undefined social groupings. Each one of these groups has its own beliefs and ways of thinking. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

I have no hesitation in saying that if India is to be seen as a powerful and united nation, then the process of urbanisation will have to be accelerated. There is nothing to be gained, except perhaps sadness and pain, from romanticising the pastoralist idea — “Aah, our villages!”

The social, economic, cultural and political configurations in our villages are acutely patriarchal, communal and casteist. By contrast, social structures in our cities, at least visibly and on the surface, mostly appear to be civilised and sensitive.

I am not suggesting that people living in our metros or other cities go through a personality transformation and cease to be chauvinistic, communal, or casteist, but that social and economic circumstances in the cities often compel people to demonstrate a faux or hypocritical civility and sensitivity in their behaviour. But it is this phase that gradually develops into a new set of social and cultural behaviours and attitudes, and to that extent, such hypocrisy is probably better, than being consistently barbaric and uncivilised.

India is home to many castes, subcastes, sects, faiths, creeds, ideologies and other undefined social groupings. Each one of these groups has its own beliefs and ways of thinking. Over thousands of years, with the arrival of many foreign customs and cultures, several contradictions have developed among all these different belief systems, which have together had the effect of keeping their adherents at a distance from each other. These distances have resulted in ignorance and misunderstandings, and have contributed to the creation of trust deficits and tensions in society.

The social strife and violence that have been in evidence periodically in India have been the consequence of this trust deficit. Because of the naturally segregated nature of rural societies and the absence of compulsions to try to bridge physical distances between different social groups, the ignorance and deficit of trust are able to strike deeper roots in non-urban settings. The social silos are often so strong that even attempts at breaking them attract reactionary retribution in the form of violence or arson.

The nature of Indian villages makes the caste order very clear. The entire village is divided into neighbourhoods that are populated by members of different castes. Generally, a traditional village was a self-sufficient unit, which meant that all the needs of the village were fulfilled by its residents. However, untouchability in varying degrees is practised and that militates against the ideal of self-sufficiency and allows it to be turned into a weapon of oppression against depressed groups.

The prospects of education and upward mobility, and indeed, the core dignity of the individual, is crushed by the structures of power that operate in rural areas. It is for this reason that I believe that the self-sufficiency of rural life should be replaced as soon as is possible by the social interdependence of the cities, which will help in the overall progress and development of the country as a whole.

Big cities do not box people in categories. Even if certain religious or caste groups attempt to impose categories or hierarchies, the administration or police are able to step in immediately to take action against them. Such intervention by State agencies is very difficult in the villages in the face of opposition from socially and numerically dominant caste or religious groups. It has been observed that actions of even the elected representatives of the people and of government officials are influenced by caste or religious biases. These encumbrances are often absent in the bigger cities.

The process of urbanisation has resulted in women, Dalits, Adivasis and minorities coming closer together. Many progressive and sensitive people belonging to the upper castes are partners in their campaign to fight back against oppression and discrimination. This has angered the reactionary orthodoxy. A capitalist and casteist mindset cares only about its profits, and sides with those whom it deems the most capable of serving its interests. Big media is often controlled by the ruling classes, who use it to twist and misrepresent news.

The rise of social media in the recent past has exposed the vested interests behind traditional electronic and print media. But social media is still restricted to the cities; in the interest of the nation, it is very important that social media expands its base to the rural areas as well. I believe that the process of urbanisation needs to be accelerated not just for social and economic democracy, but for better functioning of political democracy. This will not be nothing less than a blessing for the deprived communities.

Translated from Hindi by Asad Rehman  

Ajay Navaria, who teaches Hindi literature at Jamia Millia Islamia, is best known for his short stories  

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