Caste on a tram
Sometime in early November 1919, a resident of Bombay got into a city tram. The new entrant, a street sweeper (or halalkhor, a caste name used in Bombay to indicate occupation), sat down next to another passenger. But there was to be no peaceful ride: the already-seated passenger, an upper-caste Hindu, objected to their Dalit fellow traveller and complained to the conductor. Out went the unknown sweeper, back into the street. No doubt the stridently aggrieved passenger bristled with righteous pride at successfully defending a space they felt entitled to.
We know about this quotidian injustice against the unnamed Dalit because of the public-spirited Dosabhoy Edulji Bharucha, who happened to be in the same tram car. A startled Bharucha looked up the by-laws of the Bombay Electric Supply and Tramways Company, found nothing to indicate that the evicted sweeper should not have been there, and accordingly wrote a letter to the editor of the Times of India.
Thus started an apparently minor but extremely important uproar, in a series of letters published in the following days, that reflected how elites in early 20th-century urban India negotiated rights to public space, often carrying biases into supposedly modern life. The first responder signed themselves “Hindu” and quoted the Tramway Guide rules to say that halalkhors specifically, and more generally anyone deemed to offend other passengers, were barred from tram cars. The letter included a snide barb thrown at Bharucha, saying that he “had better join the Depressed Classes Mission”, an organisation campaigning against untouchability.
Other letter writers, signing off as the secular abstractions of “Equality” and “Justitia”, criticised “such invidious distinctions… by Hindus and others to boycott the sweeper class”; they argued that sweepers were entitled to travel on trams as long as fares were paid, and could not be treated differently, since they had rights equal to those of other British subjects in Bombay.
The angriest letter came with the signature “Another Hindu”, directed at the first responder mentioned above.
“Let me tell the ‘Hindu’ that he should be ashamed of himself for raising such questions,” the letter began, before going on to neatly and accurately compare the situation to that of Gandhi’s famous removal in 1893 from a “whites only” train carriage in South Africa: “If you think the halalkhor is not fit to sit and travel with you in the same carriage, then I should like to know where is the South African white wrong in objecting to travel with you in the same carriage and not allowing you (Indians) to walk on the same footpath?” But was the purported rule against sweepers travelling in trams valid? The question came up again when ND Bhonsle, writing to the Bombay Chronicle in August 1922, criticised the Tramway Company for the rule, a “cruel injustice” he viewed as “incompatible with modern times”. Around the same time, the Bombay Municipal Corporation itself asked the BEST if the restrictions on halalkhors travelling in trams could be removed. The Tramways Company agreed to modify the rule so that halalkhors could travel in the cars “when cleanly clothed and not obviously flaunting their calling or otherwise being objectionable to other passengers”.
This wasn’t enough for the Municipal Corporation. At a meeting on December 21, 1922, social worker and trade union leader NM Joshi refused this minor change and asked that no distinction be made between a halalkhor and any other person. KF Nariman suggested that anyone who was dirty could be removed, whether a halalkhor or a Municipal Councillor. Finally, a motion from Pheroze Sethna that the word “halalkhor” be removed from the rule was passed.
Whatever the implicit bias against people who didn’t meet a tram conductor’s standard of sanitation, it was no longer acceptable to explicitly exclude an entire community based on caste status. The Dalit had a place in the trams of Bombay. My research found no Dalit voice in this forgotten history of desegregation; but there are the voices of allies and rational thinkers from the dominant Hindu community, willing to turn a critical eye on prejudice in society and look beyond the welfare of their own families or communities. A century later, as we go to the polls over the next six weeks, may we all vote in that spirit, critical of the dominant and with generosity towards the most vulnerable in our society.
Courtesy: Mumbai Mirorr