ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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From Balmikis to Bengalis

The ‘Casteification’ of Muslims in Delhi’s Informal Garbage Economy

The reorganisation of informal household garbage collection work in Delhi is analysed, as migrants from eastern states like West Bengal have begun doing manual waste work, even as their Balmikis deal only with monthly cash payments. Drawing on fieldwork, the effect on the Balmiki jamadars is noted, and the Bengali Muslims, who newly contend with the practices of untouchability in their neighbourhoods of work, are focused on. These newer migrants come to justify the shame they experience by focusing on the equivalence of scrap with money, which has redemptive potential. This reveals a dynamic process through which caste differences are being remade—”casteification”—in relation to economic life.

Figure 1 accompanying this paper is available on the EPW website.

The author is grateful to Amita Baviskar and Vinay Gidwani for their ongoing and remarkably generous support for this work. The author thanks the two anonymous EPW reviewers who provided extensive comments; they have proven tremendously productive even if the author cannot account for them all here.

Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Madison South Asia Conference and the Yale South Asia Workshop, where the author was fortunate to gain new colleagues.

Darting between cars, speeding through the outermost lane, Rizaul1 used his long limbs and tall, healthy frame to hoist the bora (sack) full of maal (scrap) onto the raised median. It was late morning and, as in any Delhi colony, small clusters of domestic workerscooks, cleaners, press-waale, chaukidars, etccould be seen moving around or between houses in this area near Pitampura. We too were finishing the mornings garbage collection route when another worker dressed in a black-embroidered salwar kameez stepped up onto the median to talk with Rizaul. When he went to throw the garbage in the dumpster, leaving me to watch, she turned to me quickly, explaining that she was ashamed that he was collecting garbage for a living. She said: I always tell this guy that he is a Muslim, and Muslims dont do this work. When he eventually came back, she looked directly at him, scrunching up her face with disgust and disapproval and asking him why he did work that was defiling and done by a certain caste only.2

Judgment, disdain, and discrimination remain sharp for those who earn a living by handling others waste in urban India. Just as upper-caste groups justify their continued dominance through new mechanisms such as the idea of merit (Subramanian 2015), they also seek to secure their positions by promoting cultural caste-based practices of subjugation and untouchability (Sarukkai 2009). In this paper, I examine the phenomenon whereby Delhis informal economy for household garbage collection has been reorganisedas Balmikis have employed newer Muslim migrants from West Bengal for collection and sorting work, so that the former deal only with monthly cash payments instead of garbage, or kooda. In turn, Bengali Muslims find themselves subjected to stigmatising practices of untouchability, as residents respond to their presence by covering their noses and mouths, telling them to stay far away, and ordering them to move their carts. As agricultural labourers or small merchants in their villages, such experiences are new for them, and they must be accepted in order to continue working. I analyse this transformation in order to show the durability of systems of caste distinction, while also indicating how the processes through which caste distinctions endureas well as the groups subjected to their powermay change.

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Published On : 20th Jan, 2024

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