No respite from shadow of caste in urban colonies

Among the cases of caste-based discrimination in urban spaces that Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front’s (TNUEF) B Sundaram won’t forget easily is that of Chandrashekar. The high school teacher and his wife from Chengalpet had worked hard to buy a home in Rangarajapuram, Kodambakkam, unaware of the anguish that being the sole scheduled caste (SC) house owners in an orthodox, Brahmin-dominated neighbourhood would bring.

Within a year of moving in, as get-togethers and celebrations ensued, and extended family from their village visited, attention of the neighbours turned to Chandrasekhar, and the pressure started building. “It began with neighbours coaxing him to sell them the house, even willing to pay a higher price than what he had bought it for, as they wanted their own people to be custodians of the area’s ‘sanctity’,” says Sundaram, central Chennai district secretary of TNUEF. “When he didn’t relent, they expressed their frustration by ostracising his wife and children, and disconnecting the water pipeline to his house,” says Sundaram. It took several trips to the Ashok Nagar police station and discussions between activists and residents before they agreed to coexist, “quietly, without interfering”.

While the regressive power structures behind caste-demarcated housing in rural areas make it to the headlines, the territorial ownership happens in the city as well, if anything in more toxic ways, as it perpetuates a system oppressed communities work hard to flee when they migrate to the city. From being denied homes on the ground of caste, to being pressured out of properties, dalit tenants continue to live in the shadows. And what makes it worse, is that this blatant violation of a constitutional right under Article 15 that prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, race, caste, and place of birth, has few legal recourses to set it right, say experts.

In 2015, scholars Sukhadeo Thorat, Anuradha Banerjee, Vinod K Mishra and Firdaus Rizvi conducted a survey on access to the urban rental market on the basis of caste and religion, in five metropolitan cities in the National Capital Region. Of the 1,479 potential home-seekers comprising Hindus, dalits and Muslims surveyed, all dominant caste home-seekers received a positive response, the corresponding proportion fell to 59% for dalits and to 29% for Muslims. They concluded there was an urgent need for state intervention in the form of policies to ensure fair access to marginalised sections of dalits and Muslims to private rental markets in the metropolis.

They also called for legal safeguards in the form of the enactment of laws that could act as a deterrent against such discrimination, along with changes in private and public housing policies.

Previously, the Rent Control Act was the legislation in place to deal with landlord-tenant issues. In 2017, the Tamil Nadu Regulation of Rights and Responsibilities of Landlords and Tenants Act was introduced. But they don’t take into account caste and religion-based exclusions, say experts.

“Depriving someone a house on rent on such grounds — although unconstitutional — cannot be taken up legally,” says R Rajkumar, an advocate specialising in civil and property rights from Trichy.. “Because, an individual, housing society or resident welfare association (RWA) are private bodies free to choose who they want to rent their properties out to,” says Rajkumar.

There may also be situations in which housing societies are formed for the benefit of one particular community, or minority. And only if such a body comes under governmental aid or supervision can any article of the Constitution be invoked to challenge this, he says. “The government recognising these disparities in rent control legislations, and creating safeguards and reinstating Article 15 in them for the benefit of tenants could be a possible solution,” he says.

Also a challenge is that house owners often don’t explicitly spell out caste as the point of contention to decline homes to tenants, and may use such things as lofty rental fees and restricted eating habits as an excuse to maintain their hegemony. Last October, TNUEF sought action against Trichy-based Om Sakthi Constructions after the company displayed an advertisement for ‘Brahmins only’ flats on sale for a residential project in Srirangam.

After a petition was sent to the collector, the company came out with a clarification. “We planned to announce that the flats will be sold to vegetarians only. It wrongly appeared as brahmins in print,” a representative of the construction company told TOI.

A resident of Triplicane, who didn’t wish to be named, admits that dominant caste members are most comfortable having their own in their immediate environment, as they can make it a community of familiar practices, outlook and lifestyles. “For Brahmin residents near a temple or mutt for instance, this fixation stems from a certain insecurity that their way of life shouldn’t be weakened, as it is often the only identity they’ve held on to for years,” he says.

C M Kumar, an accounts professional belonging to an SC community, was ousted out of his Adyar home months before his lease was to end, after he stood up to a series of casteist insults by his landlord, a backward class (BC) man, “We worked together, and although he was aware of my background, his snide jokes over their mutton and my beef eating habits, my slang and ancestry often led to arguments. It all came to a melting point one day when they asked us to leave, pulled out our furniture on to the street. They never explicitly cited caste as the reason,” says Kumar.

Pandiyan, executive director of Witness for Justice, says it is for these reasons that most dalit tenants tread carefully. “They prefer not to dwell on details of their religious beliefs or eating habits. Many maintain they are agnostic and reveal the towns they hail from instead of specifying their villages,” says Pandiyan. “For instance, even if a Gounder and Arundhatiyar man hail from the same village, something as conspicuous as their slang of Tamil can give away their backgrounds. The tenants, who have migrated into cities, carry the wounded psychological trauma of their lineage,” says Pandiyan, who also struggled with a series of dominant caste landlords in Madurai unwilling to rent out an office space for his NGO that works for oppressed communities.

Because roots are powerful, and the same theory flips on its head when it comes to dominant caste members in an urban setting. “They rarely celebrate homogenous populations and follow their traditions as much as possible to keep cultural thread strong.”

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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