Anxieties of “Dabanggai”: Tales from Delhi’s Urban Villages
By Sushmita Pati
“Arre Jat toh akkhad dimag hote hain, aap kya baat karengi?” (Jats are so stubborn and ill mannered. What will you talk to them about?) The baniya trader in one of the villages in Delhi laughingly told me so during the initial phases of fieldwork when I had stopped by his shop asking if he could help me locate some rich Jat landlords in the village. This reaction was not new. Scores of friends, colleagues and acquaintance had expressed their apprehensions about the ‘feasibility’ of the project for similar reasons, not entirely divorced from the fear I had myself. Jats have been stereotyped in the urban lens as rough and not necessarily people one would wish to rub the wrong way. For my PhD, I had begun researching ‘urban villages’ of Delhi that had come into the fray of urbanisation, which in many ways exhibit the eccentricities, the cosmopolitanism, and also the violence of urban living today. These villages dominated by Jat or Gujjar caste groups have seen a massive boom in terms of capital based on rent economy. Buildings have come up, with several small “one room set” structures in order to house the urban migrant who come to the city to eke a living in the middle of rich localities of South Delhi. For many migrants, these villages become the first home in an alien city. These villages have now essentially become cramped melting pots of sorts as Manipuri, Naga, African, and Afghani migrants live around each other for a sense of familiarity, for a sense of community. But recent cases of violence against African and north east migrants in these villages illustrate that beneath the surface of these allegedly ‘cosmopolitan spaces’ lie deep-rooted anxieties and resentments often nursed towards the ‘outsider’ tenants of these villages.
Urban villages came into being with land acquisition in the 1950s and 1960s whereby their agricultural land was developed into residential and shopping complexes, offices and schools to create what we know today as South Delhi. In retaining their original residential parts, urban villages carry with them a sense of “in-between-ness” that their oxymoronic name suggests. They are neither cities, nor villages; as much as they aspire towards urban living, they fear it. The space of the village remains far from having been absorbed into the city as do the villagers who remain ‘ardhanagariya’ (‘half urban’ as one of the local pamphlets referred to the villagers). The villagers have grown richer and have begun to dominate the electoral scene at the local level in the city, yet they inhabit a social and a cultural world that is completely different from the City and are part of social and economic networks that largely depends on Caste, Gotra, and Kunbas. Acquisition of this significant economic might has fuelled a sense of dabanggai (local north Indian term for the feeling/performance/act of being powerful, a term probably rooted in colonial construction of the Jat community as a martial race) amongst the men within these villages: it is not so uncommon to see trendily dressed young Jat men driving their expensive cars with stickers announcing, “Proud Jat” or “Jatta da Chhora” (Son of Jat) blaring Honey Singh songs. On the other hand, this has also led to immense anxiety of having become a numerical minority as there are more migrants than locals in these villages. And most importantly of losing their women to the “ills” of urbanisation. If masculinity is a performance, then the tension produced in negotiating these half-urban, half-rural spaces has only complicated the grammar of masculinity for these men.
As a researcher, access to households in urban villages was not easy. I was clearly the outsider, a woman in late twenties, unmarried. In the course of the fieldwork, many men would ask me what I thought of women who smoked or of JNU women ‘being so free’. Despite having spent several months, invitations to come over to their houses were rarely forthcoming. Apart from that, given that my work revolved around money, property, and investments, I was always a suspect in their eyes. On my part, the fact that I saw them as a land grabbing, exploitative, dominant caste, I was equally suspicious of them. Unlike the standard cultural anthropology literature which advocates empathy for one’s respondents, my fieldwork was mired in a sense of mutual suspicion.
Most of the people I met during the course of my research were men, who I met in public places or their ‘offices’. Their ‘office’, could be anything – from a room in the basement of their house, to an empty one room set or the lobby in their building that they had constructed for renting out, to plush rooms in commercial buildings. As baithaks (long open courtyards used as seating space for men in Havelis or bigger houses) have vanished from the architectural form, it is primarily in these offices where Jat patriarchs sit for hours on end chatting and smoking hukkas, discussing politics, business, and property. Baithaks have been an extremely important social marker for the Jat patriarch, signifying the luxury of not having to be employed for their sustenance. The ‘office’ was a poor replacement of that. I realised soon, that I, as an urban-looking woman researcher, could only be an uncomfortable presence in their offices; all discussions would automatically stop as I walked into many of these offices, and would not resume as long as I was in the room. I was expected to ask almost survey-like questions, record answers and then leave. Even though my outsider researcher status gave me access to spaces that traditionally were not accessible to women, I could only hope for so much. Since property, land, and investments are considered appropriate subjects of discussion with other similarly aged and ranked men, talking about property to a ‘chit of a girl’ seemed odd to them.
However, not all offices are similar. Not all of them are modern reincarnations of the older Baithak. The office of one of the aspiring netas happens to be his ancestral home in the village while his family has moved to an upmarket locality in South Delhi. The aspiring neta is a young, dynamic man, once seeking tickets from AAP and now BJP at both MLA and Councillor level, albeit without success. Despite the fact that this space was the young leader’s office, the latter himself was never to be seen there. The office was instead used by the neta’s cadre who worked for his political campaigns, as their ‘hangout’. The front room of the office was huge, furnished with plush sofas, an LCD television and a table with two computers with internet connection. A smaller adjoining room had a huge snooker table occupying almost three-fourths of the room. It was easier for me to gain access to these places also because the young men were more eager to talk to me. These men were often unemployed or in intermittent jobs or businesses but interested in politics. Their families might own a building or two which had been rented out, thus earning enough to sustain the family; but the financial control often lay in the hands of the parents. Many of these properties were in the name of their parents and being still within the larger rubric of joint family, the men only got something like ‘pocket money’. Many young daughters-in-law found themselves in a place where they could hardly negotiate, given the fact that their husbands were living off from what the latters’ parents give them. The defiance of daughters-in-law would immediately translate into a question of their day to day survival and, in the long run, inheritance.
I argue that young men, who feel emasculated because of their dependence on their family for income, try to reclaim some control through participating in ‘Politics’. Oscillating between describing themselves as ‘samajsevaks’ (social workers) and ‘politicians’, politics for them became a refuge where they could escape the emasculation faced for being financially dependent on their parents and also by wives who probably found it easier to defy them than defying their in-laws. Some of them also ran “social service organisations” termed “Youth Brigades” or “Commandos”, clearly marking themselves as different from the older generation, as proactive men who could get work done. Spaces like this leader’s office therefore become spatial refuges for these young men, whose primary tasks were to organise rallies, bhandaras (huge religious gatherings where a large number of people are fed but used for making their presence felt politically), and stand behind the leader when he made a public appearance. But mostly, they were expected to simply hang around that office to make the leader seem like someone with weight, given that in India, power and influence of leaders and ‘VIPs’ is often measured by the number of people ‘waiting’ for them.
In that office, I would frequently see some of these young men watching television or browsing the internet, as some others peered over the snooker table. They all seemed like novices at the game, with an effervescent enthusiasm for it that only beginners have about a game or an addiction. It was interesting for me to see how they looked for appreciation from the leader as an affirmation of themselves but their body language transformed radically when approached by the local residents to get voter ID cards or Aadhar cards: a complete change into an authorial figure, who can get their work done by a click of their fingers.
In all these months, I never saw the young leader himself, but heard how brilliant he himself was at the game or how he was the most deserving candidate for the ticket from AAP or BJP. The leader would only come in once in a while to his ‘office’, oversee some matters, and leave. The presence of the leader was in his absence, constructing him as the busy hero, the powerful and connected leader in the eyes of his followers, much like their own absence from home for long hours in the name of doing politics should have made them more respectable in their eyes of their families. The latter, however, rarely happened. The wives and mothers of such men felt that they were largely wasting their time behind the big netas, and that it would not yield these men anything of consequence.
Payal (name changed) was a 22-year-old college student from one of these villages. The day we met for the first time, she was dressed in skinny jeans and a body-hugging top. Extremely jovial and vivacious, she took no time in opening up to me. She told me how she and many young girls from the village are into sports like swimming and boxing. Some of them have even participated in national level and international level championships. But she quickly added, “Korea tak akele bhej denge, par agar 3 kilometre jaana ho toh nahi jaane denge” (They will send you all the way to Korea alone, but will not leave you alone if you have to go 3 kilometres away). Even though her going out of the house was subject to someone ‘trustworthy’ accompanying them, she narrated how she and her cousins subvert these rules by going out together. While this was acceptable to the family, it also gave them room to not be bound by what they were supposed to do and not supposed to do. She chuckles and says, “Ab bachhe bhi smart ho gaye hain” (The kids have also become smarter).
Payal said that her father, who was also her coach, had brought her up as a strong woman. “Mere papa ne mujhe kabhi bilkul chup si ladki nahi banaya. Agar koi mujhe chhede toh main ulta gaali doon” (My father never brought me up as a docile girl. If someone harasses me, I will turn back and abuse them), she told me. Her body language, her strong frame, and her demeanour didn’t let me doubt that one bit. She did confess though that there was little room to negotiate the age of marriage to stretch it beyond 25. Her mother, too, whom I met later, did not come across as a subdued figure. As this was also right before the 2015 Delhi legislative assembly election, her mother passionately spoke of voting for BJP and she and her sister-in-law being a part of the election rallies for BJP.
However, on closer attention, I also encountered muffled whispers of honour killings, often never to be repeated or confirmed. Domestic violence was highly prevalent but hardly was reported or became a matter of public concern. Free access to public space seemed to come only with age; thus younger Jat women were largely absent from the public spaces of the urban villages.
But this is hardly a story of abject victimhood. As Payal’s narrative demonstrates, young women were encouraged to be physically strong and put up a fight by their fathers, while simultaneously precluding any space for questioning the deference to patriarchal dominance. The presence of so many women, many of them young working professionals, living independent lives in and around the village, definitely had an impact on the aspirations of these young women. As a result of covert negotiations, these young women are now “allowed” to wear western clothes and finish their undergraduate degree.
Masculinity hinges upon that precise expression of control over women, where their successes and assertions too are sanctioned by the patriarchs. The figure of the urban woman remained a palpable threat in these spaces and was manifested against the most vulnerable of them all – women from North East and African countries. The former specifically remained as much an object of desire as they did of derision amongst Jat men. These women faced the brunt of the anger, disdain and in some cases violence in the name of culture. This violence was an overt message to them as much to the women of their own community about the possible consequences of not falling in line.
Masculinity is all about control. Or rather, maintaining appearances of the same. The ‘half-urban’ ness of the spaces and the people in Delhi’s urban villages mediates these expressions in streets, homes, offices, and political rallies, etc. in ways to continually assert their anxiety-ridden masculinity. ‘Dabanggai’ as a masculine expression is essentially in relation to other men. Masculinities in relation to women, on the other hand, be it from their own community, other women or researchers like me, gets asserted through control, desire, violence, and even indifference. Neither of these expressions however goes unchallenged. Expressions of power are rarely complete. And when we talk of expressions of power, there are fewer things as fragile as masculinity itself.
(I would like to thank Dolashree Mysoor, Praveen Krishnan, Sharmin Khodaiji, Shivani Kapoor, and Shruti Dubey for their comments)
Sushmita Pati submitted her PhD thesis on Capital and Community networks in Delhi’s Urban Villages to the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University in July 2016. She teaches at the School of Policy and Governance, Azim Premji University, Bangalore.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.