What Makes a House a Home: Caste and Segregation in India’s Cities

Dalit History Month
8 min readApr 20, 2022

by Evita Das

Murals at Dharavi, Wikimedia Commons, Author: Sailko, CC BY 3.0

Dear Savarna readers,

This piece will make you uncomfortable. At this point, you might have already started thinking that there is so much negativity at the beginning itself. Well, this negativity is born of your prejudice.

Have you tried to wonder about the reason behind the negativity?

The negativity (your prejudice, my emphasis) witnessed here is your creation — for always misunderstanding us, for never allowing us to be a part of history, let alone create it, while you had legacies, lineages, stories and time to share in every little conversation. Look around you. Who are the people you hang around with? Who are your partners? Whom do you fall in love with? You will find these people are always from your castes.

You all talk about hope!

I do too. But my hope is more tangible. I am hoping that justice will prevail, hoping that histories that have been erased will be read out in homes, and textbooks, hoping that our kids will get an education in esteemed universities without having to confront humiliation. It is also with such hope that our people venture into cities. Cities were looked at as venues of hope — places where caste lines could be blurred, if not extinguished.

Let me tell you about how exclusion in housing has taken place in cities. And at the end ask you a question.

Historically, we have seen that the idea of India is not only rooted in Brahminism but has also developed into a Brahminical social order despite the pressures of modernity. I quote G. Aloysius here: “(..) the overarching form of contradiction, providing a scaffold for all others, suffusing both base and superstructure of (Indian) society is caste.”(1) Diverse communities and identities were asked to be a part of the nation, but unequally. Since a prerequisite of the formation of a nation is the rejection of ascriptive hierarchy, the nation was never formed in a caste-affirming India. Thus, we find ourselves in a situation where nationalism, despite its modern roots, ended up giving us a State that practices exclusions of a pre-modern and pre-national form.

Cities have been important worldwide as centres of resistance to feudal order and harbingers of modern nationhood. From the blacks fleeing the rural American South for the cities of the North to peasants in France fleeing to cities like Paris, cities have provided a place for the marginalized to gather together and assert power as resistance. Since cities offer a special site of resistance, it is also to be expected that they become sites where attempts to thwart resistance co-exist. This is achieved by structuring and restructuring cities in a manner that spaces of resistance are not able to develop. Thus, we have Haussmann’s creation of a Paris with wide boulevards in which it would be more difficult for the masses to stage protests. Or, as Suryakant Waghmore points out, the development of a new form of Brahminical politeness in Indian cities which non-violently excludes Dalits from the gains that can be made in the city.

In our case, let’s first look at spatial segregation in Indian cities. The population of Dalits in urban areas increased from 20.4% to 23.6% between 2001 and 2011. For those advocating a move towards cities, this could be seen as a mark of progress. But we need to examine more closely where these migrants live in cities.

12.5% of the population in urban India is Dalit, yet they constitute over 20% of the urban slum population (2011 Census of India). To put this in absolute numbers: while 47 million Dalits lived in urban areas, 13 million of these were slum-dwellers: one in three Dalits living in urban areas lived in a slum, one in five slum dwellers was a Dalit (2).

The percentage of Dalits living in slums is, in most cases, twice their percentage in the total urban population. This suggests that Indian cities exclude Dalits in their spatial fabric.

The discrimination and segregation are also visible in services offered in, and to, these areas. Studies on 2001–2011 ward level data witnessed high residential segregation across India’s large metro cities (3). In all these cities — Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Kolkata, Surat, Pune and Jaipur — there are multiple wards where Dalit population is concentrated, and here is where access to in-house latrine and in-house water amenities functions most poorly (4).

Why do Dalits live in these places? What about the options of living in “better” neighbourhoods? The problem is that those options don’t actually exist for them. Similar to rural areas, dominant power forces in cities too continue to uphold the Brahminical social order and ensure ritual purity is maintained by making sure Dalits and Muslims are kept away. And in some cases, this happens even more insidiously, in ways that would look like they were actually choosing these impoverished localities themselves.

The fact that Dalits and Muslims are denied homes in cities was illustrated by the rental market study by researcher Sukhadeo Thorat. In his study of the urban rental housing market in the Delhi-NCR region, a standard set of applications were used for each potential “renter” with different names reflecting their identity as dominant caste, Dalit, or Muslim. Up to 493 landlords were approached with these applications.

The findings showed that while almost all dominant caste Hindus found accommodation at the advertised terms, only 59% of Dalits and 33% of Muslims were able to do so (5).

Reasons for this kind of behaviour from landlords range from them not wanting “any association with non- vegetarian Dalits” to them worrying that their “standard of living” don’t match. With Muslims, reasons stated most often fell under “safety and security”.

This kind of experience remained similar for Dalits and Muslims even if they were presented as “higher class, highly educated and well-paid Dalit and Muslim home-seekers”.

The studies bring forth rather harsh, but familiar truths. Like rural spaces, in cities too, the Brahminical social order upholds spatial segregation as a core feature of caste.

How does such segregation take place?

The history of segregation in India is unlike that of South Africa and the US. Here, segregation occurs in ways that can be hard to pin-point and contest. Even segregation is done while keeping up the charade of Hindu politeness. For example, there is the seemingly trivial assertion of incongruity in “food habits” which is used to control who gets a home where. But, given that food habits in India are regulated by notions of purity and impurity in the caste hierarchy, they become a very good filtering mechanism.

Vegetarianism in India increases as one goes up the caste hierarchy and to say a simple thing like vegetarians prefer to live with vegetarians is as good as saying that the upper (oppressor) caste will only live next to each other. It is only when these seemingly innocuous (and polite) ways of segregation don’t work that we see segregation being reinforced by threats, communal violence and enactment of laws allowing these crimes to happen.

Over the past decade or two, extensive work has been done in the field of atrocities and discrimination faced by marginalised communities. But there is little literature that sheds light on a rather simple question: what have cities offered the most marginalised communities?

Cities offer better economic opportunities; a chance for anonymity in a society which is obsessed with social origins; upward social mobility; walking away from oppressive caste occupations; freedom to assert one’s chosen identity, and much more. But to what extent can these goods be accessed and mobilized?

Among these, the ability of a sprawling urban landscape to offer ‘anonymity’, especially in large metropolises where millions reside within a few square kilometers, is easy to imagine. What is less understood is whether this anonymity works beyond an ‘idea’, and if the guard of anonymity endures even when marginalised communities assert themselves. Let us take an example of a Dalit family which moves to an urban space and has a caste-neutral surname. To hide their caste, they can simply lie, but what if it also means they no longer hang a photo of Babasaheb or Guru Ravidas or any other Dalit icon they may look up to? Consequences they could face for these simple acts of piety and respect for their heroes and leaders can be dire.

Such exclusionary norms are all aimed at not allowing the marginalised to establish a full presence, to belong fully and to own the spaces where they reside. In many ways, urban spaces allow caste and religious discrimination in ways that couldn’t be imagined in rural India (the influx of capital and its aid to casteism, for example). Yet, it remains the only viable challenge to rural India and rural practices. Even if cities are casteist, they are an important and invaluable foil to the caste practices in rural areas. Without the hope that they can escape to a city if need be, life for marginalized communities in rural areas would be much worse.

Babasaheb Ambedkar reminded us more than a few decades ago that Dalits must flee the countryside and move to the cities to escape the shackles of caste. “The love of the intellectual Indian for the village community is of course infinite, if not pathetic,” wrote Ambedkar. “What is a village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism?”(6) He hoped that we could be politically active and fight for our improvement in cities. This is why it becomes so important to create spaces in cities that will accommodate us and allow us to stay put.

In these contexts, what makes a house, a home for us? A four-walled unit, a sense of achievement and aspiration, the ability to access all amenities, an address to assert identity, and the ability to make it a space for resistance.

Housing is seen economic prosperity and security, but it is also about lived experiences, relationships with community and aspirations. And we continue to engage in resistance in these ways.

The reality is that since Brahminical exclusion makes Dalits into second-class citizens, exclusion in cities will be done to ensure this second-class citizen status. It is amusing how Dalits are asked to be part of the nation but denied the right to be fully participating citizens. Taking their cue from Manu, their lawgiver, Hindus want Dalits to have duties but no rights. This particular condition is worse than that of refugees in many countries. Refugees are officially considered second class citizens and according to this status rights like subsidiary protection and resident permit are offered to them. Whereas, channelling Ambedkar’s analysis of free men and slaves, Dalits have all the disadvantages of being formally equal citizens and none of the advantages of being refugees.

So dear Savarnas, it’s our turn to ask — what will your rhetoric do besides whitewashing your role in all of this?

Evita Das is a New Delhi based urban researcher and practitioner. Her body of work revolves around housing and caste in Indian cities. Currently, she is the national coordinator for Pakistan India Peoples’ Forum for Peace & Democracy.


(1) Aloysius, 1998

(2) https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/slum-numbers-show-cities-dont-help-dalits-shed-caste-7072206/

(3) T. Vithayathil & G. Singh (2012), Spaces of discrimination: Residential segregation in Indian cities. Economic and Political Weekly, 47(37), 60–66.

(4) P Sidhwani (2015), Spatial Inequalities in Big Indian Cities, Economic and Political Weekly(5) Sukhadeo Thorat, A. B. (2015). Urban Rental Housing Market. Economic & Political Weekly

(5) Sukhadeo Thorat, A. B. (2015). Urban Rental Housing Market. Economic & Political Weekly

(6) https://www.livemint.com/Sundayapp/jcI32BcTZvlS0qWeEPk2lO/Ambedkar-and-the-economics-of-segregation.html



Dalit History Month

Redefining the History of the Subcontinent through a Dalit lens. Participatory Community History Project