Male, Migrant, Muslim Identities and Entitlements of Afghans and Bengalis in a South Delhi Neighbourhood

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To all my respondents without whom this research would not be possible: thank you for inspiring and challenging me. To all the men in informal labour, from West Bengal to Kashmir, who have answered my questions and trusted me over the years.

To my supervisors, thank you for helping me rise to the challenge. To Karin, for her detailed and precise comments and for introducing me to whole new theoretical fields. To Amrita, for her ready and helpful suggestions and her encouragement. Thanks to both of you for your patience and for helping me find my way through theoretical quagmires and the many practical dilemmas.

To Erika, Kumud and Shuchi for reading through drafts and making so many helpful suggestions: thank you.

To Linus: thanks for helping me conduct my interviews and for helping me think through and write. And, most of all, for just being there.

To my parents: thank you for letting me be who I am and for making me finish university in 2004.

To all my classmates in WGD and ISS: thanks for making it a very memorable fifteen months.

To PC: for always being an inspiration. Thanks for taking the trouble with me. To DB: thanks for the ready comments and for being there to talk to, learn from and laugh with.

To the BFs: how can I even begin to thank you for this marvellous year? Thanks for being there and for keeping me sane, with all the food, tea, back massages, hugs and laughter. ‘RP-ing’ together was the most fun I’ve ever had studying!


List of Tables 6

List of Figures 6

List of Maps 6

List of Appendices 6

List of Acronyms 7

Abstract 8

Chapter 1 Introduction 1

1.1Background 1

1.1.iBelonging in a global city: the case of the migrant Muslim informal worker 1

1.1.iiGender as an important locus of identity: Muslim men and hegemonic masculinity in India 5

1.2Research Question and Objective 6

1.3Relevance 6

1.4Structure of the Research Paper 7

Chapter 2 Theoretical framework 8

2.1Ethnicity and Capital in the Informal Economy 8

2.2Agency 10

2.3Identity/Identities 11

2.4Masculinity and power 12

2.5Entitlements and the Right to the City 14

Chapter 3 Methodology 17

3.1Data Generation Techniques 17

3.2Selection of location and respondents 19

3.3Techniques for data analysis 22

3.4Reflexivity 22

Chapter 4 Identities, Agency and Entitlements 25

4.1Problematising Forced Ethnic Identities 25

4.1.iQuestioning Bengaliness 26

4.1.ii ‘Afghans’ in Delhi 28

4.1.iiiForced Identities and Discrimination 30

4.2Identities of Affinity related to Livelihoods 33

4.2.iOccupational Identities 33

4.2.iiOperation of Capitals through Identities of Locational Affinities 35

4.3Performances of Masculinity: Authority and Meekness 39

4.4Migrants’ Entitlements in the City 43

Chapter 5 Conclusion 45

References 48

Appendix 55

List of Tables

Table 1 Groups of Respondents and Sample Size 21

Figure 1 showing workers and enterprises in the informal economy Source: ARC 10

Map 1 Map of Malda, Kathihar and Godda districts showing the border with Bangladesh Source: Maps of India. 55

Map 2 Map of Delhi showing squatter settlements, resettlement colonies, the old city and the new city Source: Dupont, 2004. 56

ARC Report on conditions of work and promotion of livelihoods in the Unorganised Sector, 2007 or the Arjun Sengupta Commission Report

CWG Commonwealth Games

DDA Delhi Development Authority

LNB Lajpat Nagar-Bhogal area

n.d no date

MCD Municipal Corporation of Delhi

MPD-2021 Delhi Master Plan 2021

RSD Residential Status Determination by the UNHCR

RTTC Right to the City

SCR Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community in India, 2006 or the Sachar Committee Report

UNESCO United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization

UN-HABITAT United Nations Human Settlements Programme

UNHCR United Nations High Commission for Refugees

UP Uttar Pradesh


In recent time Delhi has revealed its ambitions as a global city. The consequent need for cheap, casual, migrant labour for maintaining its world-scale ambitions has been highlighted in a lot of literature, particularly in the post Commonwealth Games (CWG) period. The migrant labourers in the informal economy of Delhi are seen as oppressed, particularly if they belong to a subordinated social group, like the Muslim male migrants. However, there is need to examine the homogenization implied by ‘Muslim male migrants’. This research aims to challenge the one-dimensional depiction of Muslim male migrants as ‘victims’. Analysing the narratives of two groups of Muslim migrant men in a South Delhi neighbourhood, this research tries to critically look at stable markers of identity such as ethnicity, gender and class. The research reveals identities as fluid, multiple and relational. The men emerge as complex subjects—not just passive ‘victims’ but capable of asserting agency, often through the strategic mobilisation of their multiple identities.

Relevance to Development Studies

This research looks at the identities and the agency of Muslim migrant men in the informal economy. It critically examines how the men lay claim to various identities and, through these, negotiate entitlements in a socio-spatially fragmented urban context. The multiple identities and entitlements problematize how a ‘citizen’ is defined within the dominant paradigm of Delhi’s developmental vision as evinced by official documents like the Delhi Master Plan of 2021 (MPD-2021). By critically engaging with the Right to the City (RTTC) framework this research highlights the urgent need for policies that are currently beyond the scope of the developmental paradigm of the Indian metropolises.


Informal economy, men, Muslim men, migrants, Afghan migrants, Bengali migrants, rickshaw-pullers, ethnicity, masculinities, multiple identities, feminist methodology, Delhi, Right to the City, urban citizenship, Right to the City, Delhi Master Plan 2021

  1. Introduction

Since its ‘discovery’ in the 1970s, the concept of informal economy has come a long way from being just a residual ‘sector’ in the economies of the countries in the global South. (Chen, 2007:235). In its current expanded definition, informal economy ‘is comprised of all forms of “informal employment”—that is, employment without labour or social protection—both inside and outside informal enterprises, including…self-employment [and] wage employment’ (Ibid. 235-6). According to the 2007 Report on Conditions of Work and Promotion of Livelihoods in the Unorganised Sector (ARC) in India, workers in the informal economy comprise over 93% of the country’s workforce. In spite of pioneering a law for the protection of unorganized workers (Unorganised Workers Social Security Act 20081) on the basis of the ARC, the everyday practices as well as the laws in India are far from sufficiently supportive of those engaged in making a living from informal employment (Harris-White and Prakash, no date). This research examines, broadly speaking, the links between the many identities—spanning categories like ethnicity, gender and class—of those engaged in earning their livelihoods from the informal economy, and their entitlements on the basis of those identities. Specifically, I am looking at two groups of Muslim male migrants engaged in the informal economy in Delhi, India.
    1. Background

      1. Belonging in a global city: the case of the migrant Muslim informal worker

The 2006 Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community in India (SCR) presents a comprehensive image of the overall negative social status of Muslims in India related to issues of identity, security and equity (Ibid.11). A division of the population of India according to poverty status reveals that ‘79% of the informal or unorganised workers [in India]…and 84% of the Muslims belong to the poor and vulnerable group’ (ARC, 2007:8). Commenting on the image of the (economically) ‘shining India’, the ARC points out that this has only been limited to the middle classes whereas the ‘poor and vulnerable’ section of the population, accounting for about 77% of the total population of India (Sengupta, et al. 2008: 52), ‘have remained poor at a bare subsistence level without any job or social security, working in the most miserable, unhygienic and unliveable conditions, throughout this period of high economic growth since the early nineties’ (ARC, 2007: 8).

A disproportionately large number of Muslims in India work in the informal economy as self-employed and ‘their participation in formal sector employment is significantly less than the national average’ (SCR, 2006: 95). Harris-White and Aseem Prakash (n.d) delineate a ‘regime of social discrimination in India [whereby the country’s] norms of social order support the capacity of the “dominant” social groups to act against and police [economic and other] interests of social groups constituting the D[alits,]A[divasis and ]M[uslims]’. Such exclusionary practices, both in the formal and informal economies, have been well documented (e.g. Thorat and Attewell, 2007; Prasad-Aleyamma, 2011). Social exclusion as normalised, everyday practices of citizens belonging to the dominant (Hindu, upper caste) groups is fairly visible. An example would be the widespread practice of Hindu landlords refusing to rent or sell their properties to Muslim tenants (Hashmi, 2009; Bawa, 2009; Menon, 2012; Ashok and Ali, 2012).

Rural to urban migration attracts a large number of migrants (circular and permanent) to Delhi (ARC, 2007;). However, there are also transnational migrants—illegal/undocumented2, as well as refugees and asylum seekers3 in Delhi. The issue of Muslim immigrants/refugees has been a difficult topic in India. Ashish Bose (2004:4698) points out that ‘[e]ven the term “refuge” is not without controversies. In some circles, Hindu migrants from Bangladesh are called refugees, while Muslim migrants are called “infiltrators” and illegal migrants’. Bose also points out that determining who is an ‘economic migrant’ is often marked by existing structures of power.

Are Americans seeking jobs in the IT sector in Bangalore and Hyderabad economic refugees? Are they not driven from home primarily by the high unemployment rate and bleak economic prospects in US? (Ibid.)

Following Bose, I would like to argue that asylum seekers/refugees/economic migrants cannot be seen as rigidly differentiated categories, particularly in the context of Delhi—economic imperatives are as important for Muslim migrants from eastern states of India as they are for immigrants and refugees in Delhi. Moving to locations where imperatives of the globalised market economy result in a concentration of economic opportunities (Sassen, 2001; 2002) is the underlying logic for both internal migration as well as international immigration, even if there are other reasons for migrating is not purely economic (see section 4.1.ii).

Sassen (2002:185), writing about international labour migration to the global cities of the North writes:

[G]lobal cities have become places where large numbers of low-paid women and immigrants get incorporated into strategic economic sectors. Some are incorporated directly as low wage clerical and service workers such as janitors and repairmen. For others, the process is less direct, operating instead through the consumption practices of high income professionals who employ maids and nannies and who patronize expensive restaurants and shops staffed by low-wage workers

However, global cities are not only a feature of the economies of the global North as critiques have pointed out: cities of the South are embedded in the global economy and often also aspire to the tag of ‘global-city’ (Gugler, 2004; Dupont, 2011). Dupont (2011) writes about the ‘ambition to develop Delhi as a global city’ as ‘rooted in the liberalization reforms of the 1990s’ (Ibid: 550). The world-city tag adopted by Delhi is stridently proclaimed through documents such as the Delhi Master Plan 2021 (MPD-2021, Appendix II). Delhi has socio-spatial fragmentations marked on its geography by the fact of its being ‘continuously settled for about 2500 years’ (Kudva, 2006:169). The particularities of these fractures in the modern Delhi can be traced back, partly to the colonial efforts of segregation—separating the white, modern, New Delhi from the old, Mughal city of Shahajanabad /Old Delhi—and continued under the Delhi Development Authority’s (DDA) mandate in the independent capital (Dupont, 2004, Map. 2, Appendix I). Today, Delhi is ‘India’s capital and showcase city’ (Kudva, 2006: 170). However, ‘[t]his drive for global competitiveness involving image building has had negative consequences, especially for the poor, through “cleansing” the city of slums and other alleged undesirable elements’ (Dupont, 2011: 533).

Empirical studies in Delhi on migrant labourers in the informal economy reveal quite a grim picture (Bhan, 2009; Kudva, 2006; Baviskar, 2003; 2006). The anxieties about belonging in Delhi became more and more apparent with its explicit claims to a world-class city status around the Commonwealth Games (Dupont 2011). Around the CWG in 2010, the issues of the right to the ‘millennial city’ (Bhan, 2009), came to more focussed attention when the drive to spruce up the city’s image resulted in a mass eviction and invisibilisation drive which included slum demolitions and arresting ‘beggars’, among other things (Zee News, 2010; Indian Express, 2009; Indian Express, 2009; The Hindu, 2010). These drives, conversely highlighted the plight of those ‘labouring at the margins of citizenship’ (Dalmia, 2009), in mainstream media within India (Tehelka, 2010) as well as outside (BBC, 2010).

Researchers have further pointed out that the harassment of migrants in Delhi are coloured by ethnic and religious overtones. Baviskar (2006) points out that the focus of the state’s exclusionary practices is directed at particular ethno-regional groups such as the Muslim migrants from the poorer eastern states of Bihar and Bengal. Corroborating Ramachandran’s (1999, 2003) research, Baviskar writes that ‘the spectre of Muslim terrorist infiltrators from Bangladesh has become a potent weapon to harass Bengali-speaking Muslim migrants in the city’ (Baviskar, 2006: 4).

Being a Muslim, and a migrant engaged in the informal economy thus, seems to create multiple intersections of oppression. Looking at the empirical works cited above, the Muslim migrant in informal economy, emerges as oppressed through enmeshed social, political, legal and economic structures. The migrant Muslim informal worker seems marginalised and invisibilised and left without any entitlements in the context of the global city.

However, this notion of utter disempowerment and victimization has been challenged in theories as well as ethnographies. Ramachandran, (1999) uses Scott’s (1985) work—which problematizes ‘intention’ in ‘resistance’—in her ethnography of ‘illegal Bangladeshi migrants’ in Delhi. Her ethnography reveals how Bengali/Bangladeshi Muslim migrants lay strategic claims to complex identities in which subordination and resistance play equal parts in challenging ‘depictions of Muslims…as passive, helpless victims of Hindutva's exclusionary processes, lacking initiative and agency’ (Ramachandran, 1999: 240). Thus, Muslim migrants emerge as more than just ‘victims’ of structural oppression. I explore the theories that critically look at empowerment/authority/agency in Chapter 2. In the next section, I look at gender as an important location of identity.

      1. Gender as an important locus of identity: Muslim men and hegemonic masculinity in India

Joan Scott (1988) defines gender as a social relation which is the primary way of signifying relationships of power. As an analytic concept, it allows ‘an exploration of gendered inequalities but also provides the possibility of using gender to theorize the concept of inequality’ (Roy, 2003:19). Women have long been regarded as the ultimate underclass, marginalized doubly by their gender as well as by the socio-economic structures, particularly in academic literature pertaining to informal economy (e.g. Harriss-White 2002, 2009; Mezzadri, 2008). However, I would like to critically examine the easy equation of patriarchy and capital accumulation (Ibid.; Sassen, 2002), thereby problematizing the ‘functionalism of capitalism and patriarchy endlessly aiding and abetting each other’ (Roy, 2003:19).

In my research I have chosen to focus on migrant Muslim men in the informal economy and I look at how the intersections of class and ethnicity with their gendered subjectivity impact their self-constructions as working men. Further, in exploring ‘gendered inequalities’ I am looking at the hierarchies of masculinities and how these inequalities are constructed among the seemingly homogenous gender category of ‘men’. Masculinities structure not only the relationships among men and women but also those between men (Sinha, 1999:446).

In the dominant social script of the Hindu right in India, the Muslim man is constructed as the aggressor, outsider, invader, ‘dangerously virile’ (Anand, 2007: 260)—a construction in which the history of past Muslim rule in the Indian subcontinent figures prominently. And yet, conversely the Hindu right wing masculinity is also the hegemonic formulation of masculinity (Bharucha, 1995) constructed by othering a stereotypical Muslim masculinity. The stereotyped image of the Muslim aggressor, then, becomes the foil for the ‘anxious’ Hindu masculinity (Anand, 2007). The construction of a right-wing, hegemonic, Hindu masculinity aims to vindicate the past effeteness of Hindu men who were defeated by Muslim ruler-invaders by defend itself and the nation (defined as the mother goddess). Violent communal massacres, read through this lens of hierarchized masculinities, such as those perpetrated by the Hindu right in 2002 in Gujarat, particularly on the bodies of Muslim women, become a way to emasculate the Muslim men (Ibid. 264). Thus, the pernicious power of images such as that of the insidious Bangladeshi infiltrator-terrorist (Ramachandran, 1999, 2003, stems from the construction of a subordinate Muslim masculinity which is also dangerous. The associations which go hand-in-hand with being identified as a Muslim man, therefore, necessarily affect their entitlements as citizens.

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