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



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Research Question and Objective


How do multiple identities affect the entitlements (as citizens) of Muslim male migrants working in the informal economy in Delhi?

Through the primary data collected in course of interviews conducted in Delhi, this research proposes to look at how homogenized categories of identity, as implied by ‘Muslim male migrant’, are fractured by multiple allegiances. The research aims to reclaim the one dimensional ‘victim’ Muslim migrant as a complex subject with agentic capacities. It further aims to establish that identity—through its inherent fluidity and multiplicity—itself becomes a site through which agency is asserted.

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    1. Relevance


While systemic marginalisation of Muslims, migrants and informal labourers is very much a reality, it is also important not to homogenise this vast group of workers and entrepreneurs. Moreover, labelling the socially marginalised as ‘victims’ further devalues their capacity for action. Therefore, this research tries to reclaim a complex subjectivity for the Muslim migrants in informal economy. By studying the hierarchy of masculinities as power relations that structure inequalities between men in informal economy, this study addresses a gap in the literature.

In the context of Delhi, it is necessary to reformulate the concept ‘citizen’ and the entitlements stemming from citizenship, in view of the skewed developmental vision. However, in doing so it is important to look at Muslim male migrants as complex subjects with capacity to act, to resist and to articulate their aspirations. This research tries to challenge the developmental policies in the city from the multiple positions that Muslim migrants in the city actually articulate rather than reducing them to a voiceless mass of victims


    1. Structure of the Research Paper


Chapter 2 of this research paper goes on to examine some of the main theoretical underpinnings of the research. By exploring the conceptualisations of ‘agency’, ‘citizenship’, ‘identity’ and so on, the chapter undergirds the analysis (Chapter 4). Chapter 3 looks at the methodology of the research from the selection of techniques, to the actual implications of applying these methods in the field. The chapter, particularly Section 3.4, reflects on the power imbalances that necessarily figures in any researcher-respondent interaction and tries to situate the knowledge claims within this matrix of power relations. Chapter four critically looks at identities by analysing the narratives of respondents through the concepts elaborated in Chapter 2. It ends with (Section 4.4) anattempt to locate how entitlements figure in these narratives leading to the more detailed analysis of the entitlements in Chapter 5. Chapter 5 summarises the paper and then goes onto look at entitlements of citizens and its policy implications in Delhi. By critically looking at the Right to the City (RTTC) discourse and how that can interpreted in more dynamic ways to create a more inclusive vision of development in the context of Indian metropolises.

  1. Theoretical framework


The following subsections critically explore the concepts already mentioned in Chapter 1. These form the basis of the analysis of the primary data in Chapter 4. The analytical framework in this chapter tries to address the ways in which ‘identity’ can be conceptualised. The conceptualisation of ‘agency’ and ‘citizenship’ help in elaborating the complex subjects with multiple identities through which entitlements are claimed and agency is exercised.
    1. Ethnicity and Capital in the Informal Economy


Following Nagel (2000:112) , we can define ethnicity ‘as a series of crisscrossing boundaries dividing populations into multiple groups differentiated by religion, colour, language, culture, and…these boundaries are changeable and permeable’ which helps us move beyond ‘primordialist, essentialist understandings of ethnicity…as biological…or as historically or culturally determined’ (Ibid.) . Use of the term ‘ethnicity’ in India refers to the regional, religious, linguistic and caste differences, rather than racial ones.

In the Indian context, Harriss-White (2002) writes, informal economy cannot be successfully disentagled from social institutions such as ethnicity and gender. The hierarchies of social institutions are reflected in the hierarchies of class so that those at the top—upper caste Hindu males—exploit those at the bottom—Muslim/Dalit/Adivasi females. Informality then becomes characterised by this hierarchy with those at the top accumulating capital at the expense of those at the bottom (Ibid.; Harris-White and Prakash, n.d).

To broaden this narrowly economic approach to informality it is important to look at the forms of capital Bourdieu (1986) outlined. Linking the ‘material and the symbolic’ (Siegmann, 2010: 348) Bourdieu’s conception looks at how ‘in a particular social field structured by relations of domination, subordination or homology…the capitals an individual is endowed with represent sources of power and hence influence individuals’ opportunities and well-being’ (Ibid.). Bourdieu identifies economic, social, cultural and symbolic capital encompassing both the material and the symbolic.

Economic capital can be ‘institutionalised in the forms of property rights’ (Ibid.: 348) whereas social capital is the ‘aggregate of resources linked’ (Ibid.)to being part of a social network. Cultural capital in the embodied state consists of ‘long-lasting dispositions of the mind and body’ (Bourdieau, 1986: 47), the objectified state as ‘cultural goods’ (Ibid.) and in the institutional state as educational qualifications. Finally symbolic capital ‘in the form of honour and prestige is the recognition and legitimisation of other kinds of capital’ (Siegmann, 2010: 349). All other forms of capital can be converted into economic capital although for Bourdieu the most important is the ‘accumulation of symbolic capital’ (Ibid.). Thus, class becomes dependent not just on material possessions, but also symbolic accumulations.

The phenomenon of ‘ethnic economy’ has become increasingly talked about, particularly in context of the immigrants in first world countries. ‘Ethnic economy’ or, sometimes ‘ethnic enclave economy’ is often defined as the ‘immigrant owned business sector in which immigrant work as employees of co-ethnics or as entrepreneurs’(Light, et al 1994: 65) although whether this benefits or exploits the participants is a matter of debate (Model, 1992: 63). However, other researchers have questioned the whole concept. The application of the term ‘ethnic’ in the context of countries of the North with large immigrant populations, Pieterse(2000:4) points out expresses a relationship of power:

Ethnicity is a marker of cultural distance but not every culture qualifies. A country’s or a people’s location in the hierarchy of power also matters.

Therefore, a native American handicrafts shop or an Ethiopian restaurant is characterised as ethnic whereas a pizzeria might be considered more mainstream American. Pieterse (Ibid.) recommends replacing ‘ethnic economy’ with immigrant or migrant economy.

While there is some truth, in claims that subordinates in the ethnic (and gender) hierarchy occupy lower rungs of class position (Harris-White, 2002), it is important to note that ethnicity in and of itself cannot be reified as class. The informal economy is segmented into various labour status positions. Migrants from the same ethnicity do not necessarily occupy the same labour status as for instance in the case that one migrant might work (waged informal worker/unpaid family worker) in an enterprise owned by a fellow migrant of the same ethnicity (employer).



This research looks at those migrants who are working within the self-employed segment of the informal economy. ‘Self-employed’ is a broad and ‘fuzzy’ (ARC, 2007) category and including wide differences in class (Ibid.). There are further subdivisions within this category distinguishing the employers (hiring at least one worker, paid or family based) and own account workers (ARC, and Fig.1).



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

In Chapter 4, I will be using these concepts to look at how self-employed male migrants in the urban informal economy access and mobilise the different forms of capital through use of multiple identities, including their ethnic identity.




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