Negotiating modernity, remaking selves: East India migrants and the city in contemporary Mumbai (completed)

Uday Chandra

Do low-caste and tribal migrants from the countryside experience freedom or exploitation in an Indian megacity? Scholars studying rural-urban migration in India, and beyond, have endlessly debated its pros and cons, especially in an era of neoliberal globalization. Yet, what these sparring scholars share, ironically, is a distinctively secular-rational understanding of migrants’ work and lives that straddle the country and the city. Such an understanding rooted in a political-economic calculus of costs and benefits does not capture, however, either the processes of self-making among migrants at the bottom of society or the pivotal role of religion in their lives.

Accordingly, this project compares and contrasts the self-making processes of low-caste (Dalit) and tribal (Adivasi) migrants from rural eastern India in the megacity of Mumbai. I show how migrant selves in Mumbai are stitched together across rural and urban spaces in distinctly religious idioms, albeit differently. On the one hand, Dalit migrants from the floodplains of Bihar efface older social antagonisms rooted in caste relations to embrace the supra-regional worship of the solar goddess, Chhath Maiyya. On the other hand, Adivasi migrants from the forest highlands of Jharkhand rely on established labor networks, under the auspices of the Catholic Church, to access urban livelihoods. Whereas both Dalit and Adivasi migrants craft new selves in the city in distinctive religious idioms, the relationship between religion and politics differs significantly. Dalits give up their rural caste obligations to adopt a new ritual identity in a Greater Bihar that now encompasses the beaches of Mumbai. On the contrary, Adivasis emphasize their membership in a global Catholic community as tribal/indigenous men and women. I show that the kinds of work that these two sets of migrants find and the nature of their urban aspirations, follow directly from their religious experiences of rural-urban migration across the breadth of contemporary India.

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