His fate could be an omen for anyone who does not submit to the demands of a single identity
In the media coverage of the so-called anti-encroachment campaign in Delhi’s Jahangirpuri, one hit stands out. There is a dirt digger crashing into a hand truck. Maybe the owner of the blue cart, now emptied of all stock, was selling food from it, or maybe cheap cell phone covers. The vehicle’s flimsy sheet metal roof and spindly wheels crumble under the first blow, but the excavator smashes again and again, as if fearing the cart’s apparent fragility is a ploy for a resistance plot. The thela and the livelihood he provided lie in a mangled heap and we cut to an interview with the mayor of the North Delhi Municipal Corporation. The mayor talks about the Corporation and its mandate to make Delhi “clean and free from encroachment”.
The fate of the unfortunate cart captures that of the most marginal inhabitants of our cities and the digger is an apt symbol of a state apparatus that has been forged into an instrument of violence against manufactured enemies of public order and the national interest. The forced conversion of state bureaucracies to the nationalism of religious ideology is the first and most fundamental problem of our time. This, of course, is quite different from the kinds of “forced conversions” we often hear about.
Instances of religious conversion among individuals are greatly exaggerated. The rate and depth of conversion of the seemingly a-religious branches of governance, on the other hand, can hardly be overestimated.
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Urban encroachments are secular activities divided between classes and religions. The urban poor resort to it as a means of survival, while the better-off use it to enrich themselves further. However, we should fear the fate of cities when the drive to make them “clean and unencroaching” might actually be warranted by motivations to clean them of certain groups. The Israeli state – whose justice we seem to have bulldozed – has yet to learn that demolishing Palestinian homes does not remove the source of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. The problem arises from the rubble, again and again, and each time with greater consequences, more loss of life and more misery.
Most, if not all, communal riots are designed for specific purposes. The reasons relate to a mixture of political, commercial and real estate gains. As these goals are achieved, a semblance of – let’s say diminished – normality returns to the localities affected by the violence. However, once we are encouraged to associate the possibility of “gain” with the erasure of groups, then we should fear for the fate of our cities.
In the case of Jahangirpuri, and indeed other parts of India, this association has become almost irreversible. It is more powerful because we are primarily a state-run democracy and the version of democracy that the ruling party propagates comes true. The association between Muslims and illegality and illegitimacy is so complete that even a party hostile to the BJP invokes it to explain the Jahangirpuri riots. Consider the public statements of key Aam Aadmi party members who blamed the BJP for the violence but presented the figure of the “illegal” Bangladeshi and Rohingya settler as both a tool and an active participant. These groups – and by extension, other Muslims – are forever branded as flexible tools of disruption and violence. Not only are they now the objects of the hatred and violence of majoritarianism, but also groups that do not profess majoritarianism and frequently speak out for religious tolerance and diversity.
The pervasive identification of the “guilty” has found wider resonance, and we increasingly speak of social and economic issues in the language of religious identity. The issue of ‘encroachment’ in informal settlements is actually part of a longer historical issue of land policies produced by bodies such as the Delhi Development Authority and bears little relation to the apparent trends of a group particular religious or ethnicity. However, when all layers of society – the ruling party, its opponents, bureaucracies, the most privileged layers of citizens – produce a unified vision of a “monstrous” community that opposes public welfare and nationally, the stage is set for a dystopian future.
Metropolises can be bulwarks against the prejudices of the small town and the village. Cities are often places where harassed lovers, stigmatized individuals and others constrained by the mores of outdated social structures seek alternative futures. And, while there is no instant utopia of freedom and material fulfilment, research shows that the opportunities cities provide convince the majority of migrants to stay and try their luck rather than return. in their villages and small towns. Cities are also places that welcome refugees fleeing difficult conditions in their own country, thus contributing to the economic life of the former. However, as the process of identifying the “problem population” has found many followers, our cities have in fact turned into topographies of everyday terror.
But let’s not forget that the terror experienced by the most vulnerable — who may be led to react to it — will not be limited to it. The consequences are much broader. Terror is produced by making the state an informal and ad hoc instrument of governance, deliberately associating social and economic issues with religious identity, and promoting historically inaccurate images of “true” Indianness.
The food cart in one of Jahangirpuri’s alleyways that was violently smashed to pieces by a dirt digger may well be a harbinger of the terror that awaits anyone who does not submit to the demands of a single identity. The food carts are easy to build, but their customers have multiple identities – religious, caste, ethnic, sexual, linguistic – and the violent straitjacket of these is something that won’t be limited to just “to-go” populations. problems” by Jahangirpuri. Maybe “1984” is just another date and we haven’t learned anything from it.
This column first appeared in the print edition of April 27, 2022 under the title “A Food Cart in Jagangirpuri”. The writer is a sociologist