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


Identities of Affinity related to Livelihoods



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Identities of Affinity related to Livelihoods


This section will examine how occupational status is reflected in the self-identifications of the rickshaw-pullers and restaurant owners. These claims will be examined in light of Standing’s (2011) elaboration of occupational insecurity in a changing global economic regime. Bourdieu’s (1986) elaboration on the forms of capital will be used to elaborate on the occupational hierarchies.
      1. Occupational Identities


Connell (2005:55-56) points out centrality of the (male) body in the labour market and that the division of class is reflected in the embodied possession of ‘skill’ (middle class men) versus the possession of ‘force’ (working class men). In the following analysis, occupational identity is related to class by examining the respondents’ labour status as well as their identification with the ‘force’-‘skill’ binary.

The rickshaw-pullers are seasonal, male migrants who come to Delhi without families. The ARC (2007) has identified this group as the most vulnerable among the self-employed section within the informal economy. While, they are classified as own account workers, in reality their means of production is not completely controlled by them: they rent the rickshaws at forty to fifty rupees per day19 . This, then, destabilises neat labour status categories. While circular migration in itself points to multiple occupations--all respondents owned and often worked on agricultural land--the migration itself was multi-locational and spanning multiple jobs. Respondents indicated that they worked as construction labourers and embroidery workers besides pulling rickshaws. Standing’s (2009) argument about the erosion of occupational communities and the consequent erosion of the strength of bargaining seems eminently applicable in the case of the migrant rickshaw-pullers. Jhagru, one of the most voluble respondents said:

We don’t have unity here...Among people from the same village, yes but not among people from the different villages. If in a Bengali village in Farakka someone slaps a van driver20 , there will be hartals21 ...Here someone can come and slap me around...because I have nobody, I’m powerless here...If we [from the same village] try to set up a union, then the others [residents of other villages] will come and create a lot of hullabaloo

Thus, village based communities take precedence over occupational associations in the city, although this picture seems different in the villages of origin. The more stable occupational identities in villages become much more blurry with migration to the cities. At the same time, occupations undertaken in the villages often become part of more stable occupational identity. Working on agricultural land was the most common occupation. Mazar, for example, said that the remittances from his work in Delhi (and other cities like Surat and Pune) went into buying seeds, fertilizers and pesticide. Even if some of them spent four months or less, per year, in the villages, most talked about taking part in farming. Jhagru, for instance, went into detailed descriptions of the crop cycle and how that reflects the rhythms of migration:

After this [monsoon] I will go home for the reaping of paddy...then [it will be time for] sowing wheat [and lentils] and after that I will be coming back here

Some migrants viewed this work as a hiatus from their actual occupations. Ali, from Malda, viewed his work in the cities as a temporary strategy to avoid impoverishment. His land has been made uncultivable by riverine floods a few years ago. Working as a rickshaw-puller paid more than the wage of a day labourer in his village and he will take continue to come to the city until his land becomes cultivable again. Only one respondent said that he came to Delhi to earn capital to invest back into his business of selling clothes in Malda.

The label ‘rickshaw-pullers’ used in this research as well as other reports like the ARC, is clearly not how these migrants identify themselves but more a way of identifying them in the official script . Though it emerges as problematic, I am continuing to use the term in this paper for the sake of convenience.

In terms of the force-skill binary, Jhagru’s testimony on agriculture was definitely given with the fact in mind that his audience, me, was unskilled in the ways of crop seasons. However, rickshaw-pulling was not defined as a ‘skill’, probably because it was not identified within the realm of ‘occupation’. The idea of force (or lack thereof) is discussed in detail in Section 4.3.

‘Skill’ emerged as an important locus of identity in the responses of the restaurant owners. When asked how he set up his shop, Abid said:

Here no one has the know-how. I made this oven myself. I wouldn’t trust anyone else to do it properly.

An erstwhile owner of a similar bakery in Mazar-e-Sharif, Abid has come to Delhi because business was not so good back home. He has refugee status under the mandate of the UNHCR. His employees followed him from Mazar-e-Sharif, once he set up his business. In spite, of his self-proclaimed skills as a baker, the actual baking was done by the three workers (also card holding refugees). In case of Abid’s enterprise, the difference in labour status between the employer and the employees was not very different--all four shared a room in the neighbourhood. This is probably due to the common place of origin, and may even be actual kinship bonds. Abid was not very forthcoming in his responses.

Afzal, definitely occupying a higher class position than Abid with his diversified business enterprises, also occupied the same labour status category of an employer. The labour status differences between him and his employees, however, were far greater. He was much more invested in the idea of skill as opposed to kinship. He was at pains to establish that he did not offer jobs on the basis of a common ethnic identity:

I know a guy some days back he…came to my place [to ask for a job in the restaurant. He said] ‘I’ve been here for the past one month and I don’t have money.... I can do any [work]. But I can only work for two months…I’ll work I’ll earn and then I can go back [to Afghanistan]’. I said no, I don’t want...Most people [Afghans] are unemployed. Only those with skills of cooking and working in restaurant [are employed]

Kinship—whether through affirmation or denial of it—frequently emerged as an important condition in defining identities of affinity within occupational communities. The next section looks at how kinship identities are mobilized in occupations.
      1. Operation of Capitals through Identities of Locational Affinities


Prasad-Aleyamma (2011:180) points out that migration ‘needs to be viewed as a social as well as economic process’. Bremen (1996:260), in context of labour circulation writes how the informal migrants’ ‘collective identities are asserted and reproduced’ and ‘investment’ in loyalties of ‘caste, religion, regional origin, etc’ (Ibid. 257). The role of social capital through networks of solidarity among migrants in the Indian context has been examined by, among others, Mitra et al.(2011). This section will look at the operations of social capital based on identities of location.

Identities based on the locational origin is often the bond that holds the migrant community together as mentioned briefly in sections 4.1 and 4.1.1. In a world of constant circulation, the locational fixity of ‘home’ becomes a powerful identity of affinity (Rapport and Dawson, 1998). However, reifying the idea of home as fixed can also become problematic as I will try to demonstrate.


All the respondents who worked as rickshaw-pullers in Delhi, mentioned that they came to Delhi because others in their villages had done so before them. People from the same village shared accommodation and costs of living and rented rickshaws from the same person. All this was possible because of a shared identity--often literally, in the form of shared documents of identity that a new migrant had to show to the rickshaw owner. Many rickshaw-pullers, particularly younger ones, did not have a voters’ identity card or similar documents and had to depend on another co-villager with an acceptable document to vouch for him. Social capital also functions as a principle of exclusion in that locational identities are narrowly defined in terms of a village. So that anyone not from that village becomes an outsider.

However, there are intra-group differences in status, which was a rickshaw-puller who had a Master’s degree. In this case, the inter-village differences are temporarily resolved in order to present someone whose accomplishments are equal22 to that of the outsider. By extension, the symbolic status accrued by his educational qualifications is also reflected upon his peers. However, this rather diffident man was not the most vocal or prominent among the group. Thus, institutionalised cultural capital (in the form of his degree), through its failure to convert itself into economic capital (in the form of a respectable job), also failed to accrue lasting symbolic gains in the form of tangible honour as a spokesperson for the group.

Livelihood and location become interlinked within networks of social affiliations through hierarchies of status. In the process of circulating for livelihoods, the bonds forged from a common locational identity become the only dependable source of security, although differences in status continue to persist within these groups. Circulation, for Bremen (1996:255) is a livelihood strategy related to resistance. Through their refusal to the settle down, the ‘footloose’ workers in the informal economy are registering their protest to the harsh and oppressive conditions of work (Ibid.).

At the same time, essentialising locational identities that refer back to a fixed ‘home’ (Rapport and Dawson, 1998), emerges as problematic through the responses obtained from the restaurant owners originating from Afghanistan. For Afzal, his familial occupation of business, is the basis for a complex of identities that span both Afghanistan and India. When asked about how he came to set up a restaurant he said:

We're into export import business...You know, we actually have long term business between India and Afghanistan--more than fifty years...My grandfather used to have this...dry fruits [business]. So that’s the thing. I have long relation with India


He migrated with his family to India more than two decades ago.  Growing up in an Afghan community in India has created complex allegiances. On the one hand, he takes pride his origins in Mazar-e-Sharif which has ‘the best food in Afghanistan’ and is ‘safer than Delhi’. On the other hand, he’s bothered about the ‘state of law and order’ India. Afzal constantly contrasts himself with other Afghan business owners to demonstrate he does not depend on his of Afghan origins to gain economic benefit from the social network:


Many of these hospitals have approached me. That you have restaurant: you send us customers--patients [and] we’ll give you this much, we’ll give you this much. I said no. I’m not interested...Other restaurants take commission I know.


Yet, by his own admission ‘too many Afghans coming to Delhi’ and it is because of these Afghans, forming ‘ninety percent of [his] clientele’, that he was able to diversify the family business into restaurants. As Saini’s (2012) report shows, a whole plethora of informal livelihoods have sprung up around the Afghan (medical) tourists and diaspora. The multiplying numbers of restaurants are part of this scenario. Thus, in spite of his articulated rejection of it, he does benefit from the network of connections among people coming from Afghanistan. Pictures on the walls of the restaurant also display certain specific locations in Afghanistan underscoring the fact that he is deploying his locational identity as part of his economic strategy. The context of his interview, with the presence of an Indian, might certainly have influenced his emphasis on his Indianness. But more importantly, it is probably also a function of his class. He did not depend on the place-based social networks like the rickshaw-pullers did.


Abid, on the other hand, clearly occupying a lower class position as the owner of a single small bakery, depended much more on his social network. His employees came from Mazar-e-Sharif like him and they pooled in resources like accommodation. The hierarchy of class and occupational status is thus reflected in the need for mobilising social capital based on a common identity of location. Social capital may persist nonetheless in aiding the accumulation of economic capital.


Impoverishment is often seen as a failure of social capital mobilised through such networks of affinitive identities of location. Pieterse (2000:15) quotes Portes and Landolt who point out that inspite of the availability of ample social capital residents of a ghetto are often unable to pull themselves out of poverty due to ‘lack of economic resources—beginning with decent jobs’.


While this appears to be true on the basis of the primary research in this paper, what is perhaps missing is an assessment of the nature of social capital. In its fragmentary and informal forms that are available to the rickshaw-pullers, social capital is crucial for those in dire need and does not necessarily lead to accumulation of economic or other forms of capital. However, in case of the restaurant owners it often exists in more formalised structures. For instance, there exists an informal association comprising of people of (diverse) Afghan origin(s) (personal interviews with Anwar) which represents social capital in a more organised form. Finally, social networks are not a ‘natural given’ (Bourdieu, 1986) and by constantly mobilising identities of location they are maintained and strengthened.

The next section examines the gendered identities of the respondents.


    1. Performances of Masculinity: Authority and Meekness


Performances of masculinity by the respondents were related to their behaviour towards me, the female researcher, their attitudes towards other women and how they placed themselves in relation to other men.

Mazar— in course of an interview in which he had changed from the deferential ‘apni’ to the more informal ‘tumi’23—asked me to assess his appearance. I hesitated because I did not know whether he wanted me to compliment him or express sympathy at his impoverished form and if his question indicated unwelcome (sexual) advances. As I was hesitating, he answered it himself: the poorly remunerated hard physical work with poor nutritional value of the meals he could afford has reduced his ‘figure to this’. This is clearly meant to invoke sympathy.

At the end of the interview I asked him to give me a ride, wanting to compensate him for his time. He drives very fast while talking to me, insisting that he can actually earn quite a lot. Both the verbal assertions and the supportive action of driving (fast) skilfully, seemed to be directed at inverting his previous statements about his weakness. In course of the interview, where as an interviewer I had an authoritative position his self-depiction reflected this hierarchy of power. However, gaining control by conveying me in his rickshaw he had reversed that relationship. The expression of his agentic control became, his rash speed/skill. His self-assurance in this hegemonic position, even overcame the constraints of a lower class position, so that he offered to look for (gender appropriate) jobs24 for me.

Mazar’s interview also had a number of metaphors. He came to Punjab as a teenager, working for his brother-in-law who was a labour contractor. Trying to explain his insubordination to his brother-in-law who made him do housework he said:

I am not some kind of girl that I will keep cooking for you [the brother-in-law].

This insubordination to a male authorial figure, probably at least partly fictive, is in direct contrast to his accounts of his performances of subordination/meekness in his role as a migrant in Delhi. He asserted that it was dangerous to drive rickshaws after nine at night because drunks demand rides and then don’t pay. When asked why he doesn’t protest he evocatively replied:



Jaan ka dar hai na (I fear for my life).

This is in keeping with the hierarchy of hegemonic and subordinate regional masculinities where North Indian local men can threaten migrants from the eastern states with impunity. The Supreme Court’s characterisation of rickshaw-pullers as meek and the actions of MCD as not befitting their ‘size’ (Times of India, 2012, footnote: 11) evokes, the image of the ‘wimpy’ (Connell, 2005: 7925) Bengalis and the more masculine North Indians from colonial times (Sinha, 1999; Chowdhury, 1998).

Occupational hierarchy is also figured through these hierarchies of manliness. A report (Aman Trust, n.d) on the informal transport sector in Delhi makes the interesting observation that migration and demographic patterns in occupations have co-relation:

[M]ost bus drivers and conductors are from Western U.P. This occupation almost demands a high level of aggressive behaviour. The general social perception indicates that men from U.P. are more belligerent than others. Rickshaw-pullers on the other hand are mainly from Bengal and are considered meek and timid.

This hierarchy of manly aggression is reflected in Afzal’s responses where he contrasts the extreme aggression of Afghans with the legitimate aggression of (some) Indians:

Too much aggressive people are in Afghanistan…here if you shout to rickshawalla [to] go from here, he go[es] without, you know, replying or something. There if you shout [h]e will either come and abuse you …or hit you… [So] if you fight with poor people you can’t say that no he’s poor he can’t beat me. Or…reply back. That’s the thing. Everyone thinks that [they’re] powerful. Whether [they’re] rich or poor

When asked about harassment by the police, rickshaw-pullers reported both extortion and physical intimidation. On the one hand the police collect a monthly fee to let the rickshaw-pullers park and take breaks in certain areas. On the other they regularly force the rickshaw-pullers to do menial jobs like cleaning their shoes. One Afghan restaurant owner, also confirmed that the police come for a monthly ‘fee’ but insisted that there was no harassment.

Both these accounts were corroborated by observations in course of the research. During a lunch with my co-researcher at an Afghan restaurant, we observed two police constables at the restaurant. They were treated courteously and offered beverages. After some muted exchange with the staff at the cash desk, they went away with clearly some transaction having taken place. At a rickshaw stand in the Lajpat Nagar market I observed the police hitting a younger rickshaw-puller. Both the recipient of the blows as well as the fellow rickshaw-pullers were laughing in stark contrast to the frowning police constable. After a few slaps, the rickshaw-puller was commanded to shift a heavy bench, used by the constables, to a more shady location. While the humiliation that the rickshaw-pullers were subjected to was painfully obvious, their reaction was in keeping with performances of a subordinate masculinity. Anger and aggression, the prerogative of those exercising manly control, was not available to them (Bremen, 1996). Jocularity can then be read as not simply a performance of meekness, which might erupt into violence in another context (Ibid.; section 2.4) but also a strategy to deal with the daily realities of living in a hostile city. Following Mahmood (2001) I would argue that through such performances of ‘embodied submission’ the rickshaw-pullers to continue to negotiate lives and livelihoods in Delhi.

The sphere of masculinity (as defined through work) was also emphasised in contrast to ideas of women’s work. As stated above, resisting authority, in case of Mazar, was expressed by asserting his manliness in refusing to do women’s work. Rahim, another rickshaw-puller defended his (and others’) decision to migrate singly by contrasting the hardships in the male sphere of work with female sphere of domesticity:

If you bring your family26 here it will get destroyed…This is no place…There [in the village] we have everyone, we have to go back…

Mazar corroborates this in his interview saying that he goes home with his earnings so he can rest for a while. Once he gets ‘bored’ (he used the English word) he comes back to Delhi to feel lighter: dimag halka karne ki liye27 . Thus, the restful domestic sphere is not only contrasted with the action packed male world in the city, but the binary is also hierarchized. Of course, this representation might not be the whole picture: Mazar’s forays into the village and return to the cities might correspond with how long the remittances last in a rural household. The contact of these two spheres—village/domestic/private and city/occupational/public is deeply unsettling as Rahim and others in the group interview assert:

Our women will never leave their bhite28--they might die from hunger, but the Malda women will never come here

Irrespective of what ‘Malda women’ might actually want, accruing honour from locational identity ultimately rests on the behaviour of women at home. This corroborates Siegmann’s (2010) work in rural Northwest Pakistan about the honour of women left behind by migrating men.

Similarly both Anwar and Afzal talk about the dishonour heaped upon the women of Afghan origin who work in Delhi. Some women earn a lot as translators and Anwar asserts that their success is a reason why men insinuate that they ‘have bad character’. Anwar’s wife adds that her husband is exceptional (within the ‘Afghan’ community) in that she is allowed to go out as she pleases:

Many women here complain that their husbands are very controlling. They can’t even go out of the houses alone29.

Male control over women’s action in general, and their work outside the domestic sphere in particular, seems necessary in maintaining male honour, which is ‘vested in women but [remains] the property of men’ (Rose, 2009). Afzal says:

Actually many girls [come to my] restaurant here…asking me [for work]. I refuse them. Because once you keep a girl or a woman in your restaurant, especially in Afghani restaurant…people will think yeah, he’s earning from this lady or from this woman. Maybe beside this restaurant he’s doing something else, you know? [Their] minds work differently you know. So that’s why I never kept a lady in my restaurant. Never.

Women’s work that is ‘labour’30 as opposed to unpaid care work, therefore, continues to pose challenges to constructions of hegemonic masculinities in relation to subordinated femininities whether in case of the wimpy ‘Bengalis’ or the more manly ‘Afghans’. The lack of narratives/performances in the interviews with Afghan men in this section is, at least in part, due to the fact that they were addressing themselves to a male researcher unlike the rickshaw-pullers.






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