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

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Agency has been conceptualised within liberal academic traditions as individualistic and emancipatory. Marxist theories of agency gives us the concepts of ‘hegemony’ and ‘false consciousness’ used to explain how individuals can legitimise their own oppression through their belief systems. Feminist theorists have been particularly engaged with theories of agency and subordination. Mahmood (2001: 205) points out that feminist scholarship abandoned the overly simplistic ‘false consciousness’ argument and moved towards an understanding of the ‘operation of human agency within structures of subordination’ (Ibid.). A proponent of such an enmeshed view of agency comes from Schneider (1993). She writes on the problems of looking at agency as ‘based on notions of individual choice and responsibility, individual will and action: perceptions of a world composed of atomized individuals, acting alone, unconstrained by social forces, unmediated by social structures and systemic hardship’ (Ibid. 395-396) and the false dichotomy between victimization and agency.

Ethnographies of subordinated social groups in the informal economy, particularly those of James Scott (1985) and Jan Breman (1996), similarly problematise victimization by showing that even the most marginalised are capable of resisting subordination. Breman writes that circulation itself is an act of protest fuelled by a ‘desire to keep one’s dignity intact’ (Ibid. 255). However, Breman reads the migrants’ docility and reservedness as only one side of the coin which is complimented by violent behaviour on those who are ‘even more vulnerable, particularly women and children’ (Ibid. 256).

While acknowledging the truth of what Breman writes, I would here extend Mahmood’s (2001) critique of such conceptions which envision conscious or unconscious resistance as the only way to exert agency. Mahmood (2001) envisions a ‘docile subject’ whose agentic capacities are premised upon submission, particularly embodied submission. Mahmood, thus, broadens the scope of agency to ‘capacity for action’ and not just resistance to or desire to resist dominance (Chakraborty, 2012).

I do not think that the ideas of resistance to dominant structures and submission to the same are necessarily opposed. Instead in my analysis I use both to show how resitance and submission both for parts’ of the migrants’ multiple identities.

    1. Identity/Identities

I find that I am constantly being encouraged to pluck out some one aspect of myself and present this as the meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts of self’

~Audre Lorde (Lorde 1984:108)

Lorde’s words bring up a problem that has plagued feminist and feminism. Identities of solidarity—as in a unified construct of ‘woman’— have often erased differences, internal complexities (such as white versus black women). Post-structuralism has broadened the conception of identity by helping us envision the multiplicity, fluidity and fragmentary nature of identities (Chhachhi and Pittin, 1995). Encapsulating this in their definition, Chhachhi and Pittin (Ibid. 6) write:

Identities refer to subject positions which are made available and mobilized in specific historical contexts. Identities are selectively mobilized in response to economic, social, political and cultural processes [and] therefore, may be constantly shifting, not only historically, but also at a given point of time. Identities involve the interplay of [factors such as] class, gender, caste, race, ethnicity, and age…

Thus, a person may inhabit multiple identities and the adoption of different identities, mobilised in response to different contexts, reflects the agentic capacity of the subject.

Elaborating, further on the concept of identity, Chhachhi (1991) writes on ‘forced identity’ distinguishing it from identities of affinity. Forced identities are identities that are imposed on an individual—an external imposition loaded with signifiers such as the stereotypical image of the Muslim man as the aggressor (see: Section1.1.ii). However, Chhachhi (1991) shows by analysing cases from India, forced identities can also be strategically embraced to harness its perceived benefits in a context.

Identities of affinity are, on the hand, are those that an individual deploys at various moments, consciously or otherwise, foregrounding one or the other of her multiple allegiances. Writing in context of the multiple allegiances of immigrant Muslim individuals in Britain, Hussain and Bagguley (2005:408) point out that identities are necessarily fluid in a world where individuals have multiple allegiances. I will attempt to show in my analysis that fluid identities can be used to legitimise access certain entitlements.

    1. Masculinity and power

Masculinity ‘traverses multiples axes of race, caste, class, sexuality, religion, and ethnicity [and] cannot be confined solely within its supposedly “proper” domain of male-female relations’ (Sinha, 1999:446). Sinha (1995, 1999) examines Indian masculinity in its historical colonial contexts to reveal how masculinities are ‘more fundamentally about relations of power’ (1999:449) and cannot be seen only as relational to femininity.

To understand how hierarchies of masculinities work within India it’s important to take a look at colonial legacies. Sinha(1999:448) writes that the British colonial ‘cult of manliness and masculinity’ (Ibid: 446) reshaped the gendered relation between men of different ethnicities in India. The ‘colonialist ethnography’ which classified different ethnicities/regional groups into martial and non-martial races was to have profound impact upon the hierarchies of masculinity upto the present time (Ibid.:447). The stereotypes of the ‘manly’ Punjabi and the ‘effeminate’ Bengali, still holds today. And stereotypes based on religion like virile Muslim and effete Hindus have wider repercussions today, particularly in view of the rise of right wing Hindu nationalism.

In the Indian context today, the hypermasculinist Hindutva ideology is constructed in relation to the ‘Other’—the Muslim men (Chopra et al. 2004: 4) and reflects the hierarchical relations of power between men as has been elaborated already in Section 1.1.ii.

Connell’s (2005) classification of masculinities in their hierarchical relations to each other, namely: hegemonic, subordinate, complicit and marginilized forms of masculinities tries to overcome the challenge of essentialising ‘a working class masculinity’ or ‘a black masculinity’ (Ibid:76) when acknowledging multiple masculinities.

However, the messy realities are not necessarily bound by such neat classifications and power is not just a top-down structure. In my primary research I found various categories of masculinist subject positions that occupy different power structures at different moments and do not remain confined to any category as such. My analyses will attempt to demonstrate the usefulness of these categories as well as where messy reality overtakes and reshapes the theory.

Connell’s theory, moreover, is developed in the west (Chopra, et al, 2004: 1). For instance, Connel looks at the subordinate masculinity within the western framework of homosexuality and heteronormativity and marginalised masculinity within relations of race and class. In the Indian context, however religion and ethnic structures blend the subordinate and marginalised masculinities in many cases, as I will attempt to demonstrate in my analysis (Section 4.3).

In my research I’m looking at men working in the informal economy who are, indeed, more visible than women and yet their gendered identities cannot be captured simply by ‘the analytically crude cardboard cutouts of pampered sons and patriarchs’ (Roy, 2003: 20). As Jackson (2001:7) posits, ‘[c]onventional class analysis has a lot to say about relations between men but often as universal ungendered subjects’. The understanding of how men with marginalised identity (because of ethnic, migratory and livelihood-related locations) negotiate hegemonic masculinity and power hierarchies in their relations with other men is important, particularly in the field of South Asian masculinities (Chopra et al, 2004:5). In my analysis I will try to nuance the image of the one-dimensional patriarchs through the performances of masculinities that I encountered in the field.

    1. Entitlements and the Right to the City

A person’s entitlements in a city can be defined under the category of urban citizenship which must be distinguished from the concept of a citizen in the legal sense of an individual defined by rights and duties in relation to the nation (Dupont et al, 2011:4). Urban citizenship is about ‘legitimacy’ (Ibid.)’ or belonging’ (Bhan, 2009) and can be defined as ‘a very fluid, but not porous boundary between those people whose presence is legitimate in the city and others’ (Dupont et al. 2011: 4).

In context of Delhi, legitimacy as a citizen is severely curtailed (see: Section 1.1.i) for many residents of the city as Gautam Bhan (2009:141) writes:

[A] particular set of values – hygiene, environment, progress and growth-centric government, market participation, planning and order, aesthetics, notions of a ‘world class city’ and leisure...It is these ‘sensibilities’ that increasingly define the right to the city and urban citizenship in contemporary Indian cities, and they are, I suggest, representative of a new ideal citizen-subject in the making: an aspirational middle-class consumer citizen, ideally primed to live in a ‘world class city’.

Looking back at Sassen’s (2002:185) writing about migrants in global-cities, we can see that the rights of these delegitimised labourers in the arena of work/occupation is also eroded:

. Traditionally, employment in growth sectors has been a source of workers’ empowerment; this new pattern undermines that linkage, producing a class of workers who are isolated, dispersed and effectively invisible

To understand this phenomena, caused by the imperatives globalised market economy, Standing (2009, 2011, 2012) has coined the term ‘precariat’—a new class which lacks an occupational community like the traditional proletariat and therefore, much more fragmented (Ibid. 2012:1). Internally heterogeneous, the precariat, ‘a class in the making’, consists of ‘millions with insecure jobs, housing and social entitlements’ (Ibid.). ‘Migrants make up a large share of the world’s precariat. They are…in danger of becoming…demonised and made the scapegoat of problems not of their making’ (Standing, 2011:90).

In order to define the kinds of rights and entitlements that the precariat can and cannot claim, Standing (2011:94) uses the term denizen—someone who has less rights—and therefore, less legitimacy—than a citizen.

Combing the concept of urban citizenship and envisioning the delegitimised in the urban spaces as ‘denizens’ gives a frame through which to look at the Muslim migrant men in Delhi and their experiences of discriminations (Section 1.1.i). In this context, to challenge the marginalisations and claim entitlement, the concept of the right to the city (RTTC) seems suitable.

In the Lefebvrian origins of the concept, RTTC is a common right as opposed to an individual right to property (Roy, 2005:155). In both Lefebvre’s vision and Harvey’s (2008) expansion of that, RTTC emerges as a critique of the imperatives of global capitalism in its manifestations through the processes of urbanization today. Harvey (2008: 39) writes:

[T]he metropolis is now the point of massive collision...over the accumulation by dispossession….and the developmental drive that seeks to colonize space for the affluent

Dupont et. al (2011:2) points out a second use of the concept in the way in which it is used by social movements as ‘a bundle of rights that can be obtained only by engaging with the institutions of the developmental state’. In its current formulations the UNESCO/UN-HABITAT, however, relegates RTTC beyond the realm of positive, juridical rights and into that of the moral (Baxi,2011:17).

In Chapter 5 I will use RTTC to critically look at the vision of development as adopted in the MPD-2021 and examine implications it has on the entitlements of the Muslim migrant men in Delhi.

Concluding remarks

In this chapter I have tried to outline a broad framework looking at the theories of agencv and identity—particularly from a post-structuralist understanding—as well as urban citizenship and entitlements, keeping in mind that within the informal economy categories such as class, ethnicity and capital take on different contextual meanings.

  1. Methodology

This chapter deals with the experiences in conducting fieldwork as well as the choices and strategies and dilemmas. The sample size was bigger but I chose to focus on two groups of Muslim migrants in south Delhi, the restaurant owners of Afghan origin and Bengali speaking rickshaw-pullers, for the analysis.
    1. Data Generation Techniques

[Q]uestions of politics and epistemologies of location have become increasingly central science research...[C]lose connections between personal and representational process has framed feminist research

Bolack (1996:107-108)

The topic of enquiry in my research, namely, multiple narratives of identity is something that has been a recurrent theme in feminist research. The conception of identity as a multi-locational site which is always in flux (Chapter2) necessitates the acknowledgement of the researcher’s presence into the narratives she creates. The ‘epistemologies of location’ as Bolak, puts it are important in understanding the narratives of identity. Feminist researchers like Bolak and Henry (2007) reflect on their methodology through a mode of constructive self-critique which has come to be defined as an important part of feminist research methods (Ackerly and True, 2010: 53). I felt that qualitative methodology, keeping sight of feminist accentuation of situated, subjective knowledge is suited for my purposes. My situatedness in the context (Section 3.2) was an important part of my decision to undertake this research.

I migrated to Delhi, for work, from my home city of Kolkata in 2009. I was living away from family, friends and a familiar city for the first time in my life. The experience of dislocation from the familiar helped me empathise with the other migrants. The migrants that I met in my daily interactions, living (and working) in a colony in South Delhi4 mostly comprised rickshaw-pullers, auto drivers and shopkeepers (including restaurant owners). This was further nuanced by my work in an NGO which was doing research on migrants in the informal economy. In a Delhi famous for its righteous middle class indignation about rude ‘autowallahs’5(Bhan, 2012) and the menace of other poor migrants (Baviskar, 2006) I found myself chatting with migrants, some of whom even spoke in a familiar tongue6. The interactions were not always smooth—there was awkwardness, even hostility sometimes. I was often very aware of the differences in class positions. The conversations either happened over an economic transaction in which I was on the paying side, or in my capacity as a researcher employed by an NGO, visiting squatter settlements. In a city in which the ‘middle-class consumer citizen’ (Bhan, 2009) is increasingly the only legitimate mode of belonging, these interactions, in and by themselves, were my way of challenging the dominant script. This research paper is part of the same processes—my way of locating myself in a melange of cross cutting identities and allegiances that is Delhi.

The methdological approach I selected would need to incorporate and help me to reflect on my positionality. My familiarity with feminist methodologies which emphasize the personal and the reflexive, was instrumental in helping me choose qualitative methodologies over quantitative ones. The recognition that ‘how we represent and account for others’ experiences is intimately related to who we are’ (Bolak, 1996:108) in feminist epistemologies makes it necessary to underscore the process of knowledge creation.

In course of conducting the research, I knew that my subject positions and perceived identities would intersect with those of the respondents’ creating narratives that were riddled with intersections of the different identities. Crenshaw (1991) uses intersectionality to map the complex interconnections between gender and other structures of identity. However, I feel that my methodological approach would benefit from Feree’s (2011) understanding of ‘interactive intersectionality’ as an ‘on-going historical process’ as it looks at identities as processes made and remade through intersections in which structure and agency, institutions and individuals are all enmeshed. (Ibid: 56)

I used semi-structured interviews as a method of data generation that was both flexible but at the same time, allowed ‘guided focus’ (Ackerly and True, 2010: 168). In pointing to the merits of semi-structured interviews, Ackerly and True (Ibid.) point out that being more like conversation, semi-structured interviews allow the respondent ‘to give answers that do not conform to the researcher’s (known or unknown) expectations’. It therefore becomes a more equal way of co-producing data (Ibid. 169) with the respondents and further problematizing positivist claims. Further, I also decided to use the ethnographic tool of participant observation. As a person already embedded in the context, this seemed a way to deepen my understanding of the context outside interviews. Section 3.2 demonstrates how issues of accessibility made pre constructed ideas about interviews problematic through the exigencies of the field. The flexibility and processional nature of feminist methodology helped me in my strategic and ad hoc application of methodological tools.

    1. Selection of location and respondents

I decided to focus primarily on the Lajpat Nagar-Bhogal (LNB) area with the ubiquitous rickshaw-pullers and the fast multiplying Afghan eateries. However, my analysis is also informed by some interviews conducted in Khirki and everyday lived experiences in Shahpur Jat where I stayed in course of my three months long field visit. The choice of the locations mentioned above were certainly influenced by concerns of feasibility, accessibility and above all familiarity. In LNB, Afghan businesses and Bengali rickshaw-pullers are prominently visible and part of the daily lives of non-Afghan and non-Bengali residents of and commuters to7 the area. I did not have a mediating gatekeeper in the form of an NGO or a person for my entry into the field. Therefore, it was very important to be able to have access my respondents as a matter of course. The visibility of the rickshaw-pullers and restaurant owners in an informal setting that was not hidden or underground was the perfect field setting in which to direct my enquiries.

Both LNB and Khirki are also locations where I have lived in my two years in Delhi and so I already had a degree of familiarity with them which made it easier for me to conduct interviews. For instance, knowing where the rickshaw stands or the restaurants were located, helped me in conducting interviews as well as making observations.

The selection of respondents was primarily based on accessibility. Lacking a gate-keeper—and failing to acquire one even when access became nearly impossible—my only mode of eliciting responses became approaching the respondents at their locations of work directly and hoping that it would lead to snowballing. In case of the Bengali speaking respondents, as I had anticipated, I was able to use my ‘authentic’ (Henry, 2007) identity as a fellow-native and migrant to Delhi with varying degrees of success, although issues of trust (see section 3.4) complicated the actual mode of interviewing and recording data. But snowball sampling (Ackerly and True, 2010: 157) became more or less successful with respondents voluntarily introducing me to others who were from the same village.

With Afghans on the other hand, being othered on every possible location of identity—as female, local (as opposed to being migrant), young/untrustworthy—the tactic of approaching did not work. In course of trying to access respondents, I ended up interviewing an activist-lawyer from a refugee rights NGO as well as some (more) willing Afghan refugees in Khirki, a second location where Afghan immigrants in south Delhi live in moderate numbers. However, I failed to interview any Afghans from Lajpat Nagar till I started making strategic use of a male co-researcher. With him I was able to access to restaurant owners in course of their daily work in an ad-hoc fashion. The table below shows the number of respondents, the way of interviewing them and the use of narratives thus collected in the analysis.

Ethnicity; Location of work;Numbers


Numbers used in analysis

Mode of interview

Mode of recording

Number of interviews per person

Location of Interview

Legal citizenship status

Afghans from Khirki: 6

Unemployed, unpaid careworker, emplued at UNHCR livelihood centre

2 (Anwar and his wife)

Semi structured in group and individually.

Manually during interviews (m.d.i), digitally (with Anwar)

Thrice with Anwar, once with the others

Home of Anwar, neutral public space (shopping mall)

Refugee card holders

Afghans from LNB : 6

Restaurant owner/co-owner, Bakery owner,

Students working at bakery

4 (Afzal, Asif, Tariq and Abid)

Semi structured, semi structured by prior appointment (Afzal)+ Participant observation

Digitally (Afzal) and manually during interviewing

Twice (with Abid) once with the rest

Restaurants and bakery, in most cases after eating there

Refugee card holder ( 3), Under RSD (1), Indian citizen (1), Afghan national with IndianBuisness Visa(1)

Bengalis from LNB : 10+

Rickshaw drivers (see section 4.2)

2 +(Jhagru, Mazar and respondents in group interview) and findings from large number of participants

Semi structured individual, semi-structured group, informal+participant observations

Manually during interviewing, digitally (group interview) and writing from memory (informal interviews)

Multiple with those living in Lajpat nagar, single with those living in Nizamuddin/Kale Khan

During rickshaw rides (informal interviews) at rickshaw stands, at a tea stall (group interview)

Legal citizen with Aadhar cards (issued by Delhi government), Voters id cards (issued at village of origin) and no documents

Others : 3

Hindu neighbor, (Hindu) Activist-Lawyer: Samira, (Hindu) Grocery Store Owner


Informal conversation, Semi structured interview (Samira)

Writing from memory(informal interviews) and manually during interviewing

Single and Multiple (Samira)

Residential neighbourhoods of LJB and Samira’s office

(presumed) Legal citizens
Table 1 Groups of Respondents and Sample Size

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