Belonging and ‘Othering’ in an Indian City: Surat’s Insiders and Outsiders

Hans Schenk

This book deals with the question of how citizens experience living in a big Indian city. The city the historian/sociologist Sadan Jha has chosen to formulate answers to this question is Surat along the Indian West coast in Gujarat. Surat is rapidly growing, even by Indian standards. The city counted less than 300,000 inhabitants in 1961 and now – in 2023 – counts probably over 7 million. This growth has obviously influenced the experiences of urban living. Jha seeks to expose these experiences by recording and analysing narratives of “people who lived through this changing city” (p. 1). The result is obviously and purposefully subjective. But Jha had a specific reason to focus on Surat. He was struck by the ways in which the founder and director of the Surat-based Centre for Social Studies, the late Prof. I.P. Desai, wrote about this city in an analysis of the rapid changes of the social relations of production in Surat from the 1960s onwards.1  Sadan Jha is currently Associate Professor at this centre.  These changes followed the technological and organisational swifts in the local textile industry, the (temporal) decline of the traditional manufacturing of metallic threads (jari) and the expanding industry of diamond polishing. I. P. Desai was impressed by the open-mindedness among the citizens to face these changes, testifying an “interdependence of communities for economic reasons” and he subsequently coined this ‘the Surat way’ as recorded by Jha (pp. xiv-xvi). This ‘Surat way’ was largely formed by four locally deeply rooted castes, in the local vernacular Surati, whose members tended to live in a few neighbourhoods in the old part of the city. They were often from modest, subaltern backgrounds, but played an important part in Surat’s traditional economic strongholds, the then-handloom operated cotton industry and in the production of jari. They constituted, according to Jha “the core of the social fabric of the city” (p. 11).

Though Jha puts the idea of the ‘Surat way’ prominently in the preamble of his book,2 The book as been dedicated to the late Prof. I. P. Desai  he is certainly critical about the concept. He points out that this way contains severe exclusionary dimensions. The ‘Surat way’ did not make place for the lowest sections of the society: Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and for the many migrants who came to the city, notably since the 1960s. Yet Jha takes ‘the Surat way’ as a point of departure in the analysis of the contemporary social fabric of Surat. By focusing on the four Surati castes, he asks in this book how members of these castes function in a contemporary milieu. He even re-phrases the idea of the ‘Surat way’, by not merely asking: “who all belong to this idea of Surat’s own way, but perhaps more vigorously who gets excluded” (p. 9). This focus enables Jha, moreover, “to look at the ‘Surat way’ as socially differentiated, inherently contested and a fragmentary epitaph” (p. 18).


Belonging and how to lay hold on it?

‘Belonging’ is the ultimate keyword to guide the reader through Jha’s book. Belonging is there through ‘relationships’ and ‘attachments’ of individuals and communities with each other, with their environment and in terms of everyday activities. Hence the author has chosen three operational catchwords to assemble answers to questions around belonging in the contexts of castes, of neighbourhoods and of markets in Surat. He records that during a period of not less than a decade and a half, he and a team of nine researchers held 245 long “conversations” (p. 10) with respondents. These researchers were free to select respondents among family members, friends, neighbours, or others of their choice. Most respondents (and an unknown number of researchers, HS) were purposefully from the four Surati castes. The team also had conversations with ‘others’, ‘outsiders’. Some others were members of a sub-group of Scheduled Castes, “having a long history of suffering and caste exploitation” (p.12), and a few belonged to middle and upper sections of the local society. In addition, the fieldworkers spoke with migrants who came for different reasons, from different directions from nearby and far away to the city. Apart from recording personal data Jha characterizes the “amorphous and ambiguous characteristics of conversations” (p. 11). The fieldworkers were given some “broad talking points” and were further advised “to follow the flow of the conversation, remain attentive to the unanticipated trajectories of the conversations as best as they can” (p. 11) and just document narratives of individual lives in the city. This sounds attractive, but Jha does unfortunately not inform the reader how he transmitted his subtle ideas about belonging, relationships, attachments or exclusion to the fieldworkers, and how the latter digested the apparent amorphous and ambiguous flows of words into the reports that actually formed most of the substance of the several chapters (partly in the form of lengthy quotes) following an Introduction and an overview of Surat.

These chapters give a variety of general and more particular information on the anchors which Jha suggested to the respondents exposing their ideas of feeling attached to the city, feeling accepted, feeling an outsider who should not be there, etc. There is some incidental information by Jha on the scope of a given sentiment, feeling, opinion, but often the long sections in the reports from Jha’s fieldworker do not give a clue whether such a sentiment, etc is exceptional or not. A few spokesmen (-women) stand for Jha’s analysis. This is a pity in a way, since we are trained with the idea that it is rewarding to know behaviour patterns of categories of any society, while Jha offers rather individual exposures, certainly in the brief chapters on the Dalit sub-section of Surat’s Scheduled Castes and the very many migrants. The exposures are, however, particularly useful for those readers who want to get impressions of how belonging, unbelonging, acceptations, aspirations, rejections, ‘othering’, are given shape in a specific context. The readers get these impressions in the form of often colourful narratives, which Jha has skilfully translated into more abstract terms.


Communities, neighbourhoods, and markets

In terms of specific outcomes, Jha mentions the continuing restrictions on the ‘Surat way’ among the four Surati castes. He speaks even of ‘venom’ targeted towards successful migrant communities (‘outsiders’) involved in the modernized textile industry (p. 71) and other migrants who do not belong to the city and have “no right to the city spaces” (p. 112). He observes the tendencies among these ‘core’ castes to keep caste alive as an urban belonging-anchor by increasingly creating “insulated spaces along communal lines” (p. 206) in the form of newly planned mono-caste neighbourhoods: “Rather than forgetting one’s caste and religious background, the city emerges as a witness to increasing homogenisation efforts which are giving rise to exclusive society and streets” (p. 149). The power of belonging, though in a more encompassing way than that one of membership of the Surati castes, and now including the ‘logic of capital’, manifests itself in Jha’s chapter on markets (bazaars, shopping malls) on all varieties and degrees of luxury. Who goes where is the underlying question, nicely worded by a respondent on a certain market where “people are perceived as having ‘taste’, something which differentiates them from the rest of the crowd. Whenever he comes here, he brings his car rather than his bike because he thinks that he would be noticed by a lot of people” (p. 170).3  The given importance of ‘being seen’ at a bit exclusive space forms a beautiful complement to the iconic conclusion of the sociologist Sanjay Srivastava on the shopping practices among Delhi’s and Gurgaon’s middle classes: “You Don’t Want to be Seen at the Wrong Mall!” (Taken from: S. Srivastava, Entangled Urbanism, Oxford Univ. Press, 2015, p. 241).

Migrants and members of Scheduled Castes cannot claim some sort of status of belonging by caste membership or otherwise. To the contrary, argues Jha while pointing at the often-hostile attitudes, there is much ‘othering’ among many of the ‘local’ citizens4  Notably local Hindus were involved in the widespread attack on Muslims in the city following the demolishment of the Babri Mosque in Ayodya in 1992. 185 people were killed in Surat (by an official count: 95% of the victims were Muslims. (See for a few details, p. 99 and beyond). towards ‘outsiders’. However, Jha remains optimistic in spite of all this ‘othering’ and increasing creation of ‘mono-communal’ urban living islands (which are by the way now a dominant characteristic all over urban India, HS). He points in his concluding remarks at some signals that he recorded from the conversations with a few Dalits and migrants. Those who don’t belong to a location, he concludes his book: “belong to their aspirations and in such multiplicities, the city transforms itself from an exploitative space to one that is filled with opportunities and possibilities” (p. 206).


A challenging book

Jha’s book on the social structure of Surat is inspiring. It describes and analyses a relevant aspect of the social composition in India’s cities and the ongoing processes of changes under influence of a multitude of specific factors and a few general ones.  He does it in a very special and challenging manner. He shows his ability to form in (many) well-chosen words often outspoken judgments on the societal characteristics of the city in which he has immersed himself. But at the same time, I do sometimes miss, as I indicated above, the harnessing checks on his statements. Jha’s optimism, e.g., for a better future for Surat’s (and for that matter, India’s) Dalits is mainly given shape by a conversation with one or two young and aspiring young women. They have had indeed a few chances and taken those chances to make some of their own choices in life, and that sounds encouraging. But how many more are denied such chances?  

Finally, I am sorry to mention that the book would have profited from a solid proof-reading, a lengthy glossary of Gujarati words and phrases, and a number of proper maps of Surat, guiding non-local readers through the topography of the city. The book deserves to be read beyond Surat.