11 thoughts on “Autos anyone?”

  1. Okay Aman, that’s at least ONE Jat auto driver (owner? someone will soon correct me)…Have been wondering through the earlier posts and debates of course, how and when ‘auto driver’ became a caste occupation – or marked by a caste! I knew traditional occupations were caste-determined but am still collecting info on this one.


  2. AN
    I hope that is not a tongue in cheek observation.
    autodriver did not become caste occupation. caste occupations became autodriving. the difference between the two ways of seeing is not trivial. caste markings alongwith other social markers overdetermine the way bodies can navigate the world. (why ? i am sure all the sewerage cleaning staff of delhi municipality belong to a particular caste. )

    That is a Bajaj auto – product of a particular line of marwari entreprenuership – the same that gave the vespa and chetak – to the rising middleclass nucleating family in the 70s and 80s, kawasaki to the under 30s of the 90s, and exports threewheelers to much of the world –indonesia, thailand being major markets. the nationalist marwari industrialist – who opposes excessive FDI and distinguishes himself from the Tatas.
    It is sold by company showrooms in some cities but mainly through a network of dealers- who are more often than not family owned businesses – sikh, sindhi, bania etc. (i am sure it is not every sikh that can do this – there must be a caste-land-business history to it.)
    its purchase is mainly underwritten by marwari financiers in hyderabad at usuorious interest rates. for a variety of reasons banks have stopped even the nominal hypothecation they used to do earlier. but there are also community based ways to raise finance – in hyd it would be muslim aristocracy, overseas muslim remittances, accumulation from local exploitative businesses, chitfund type rackets (run by locally powerful families) , golden handshake money earned by shopfloor workers of from PSU closures (mainly OBCs) and then there is the dowry given by crisis ridden OBC farmers who sell land to buy an opportunity for the son in law to find a foothold in the city. they all dream of poultry farms and autorickshaws for some reason. small poultry farms need a lot of work. and they are risk prone. but that auto driving needs a particular kind of street smartness, confidence and some social economic wherewithal which some of the longtime citydwelling dalits may have, but most dalits ejected from the village do not have. OBCs have it. and more recently some sections of dalit youth.
    in delhi what would be the equivalents? bania finance? jat khaap networks from western UP-Haryana? landowners from the hundreds of villages that entered into agreements with the DDA? like say shahpur jat? congress and bjp patronage networks ?

    mmm. have said something to prompt closure of this thread?


  3. Thanks Rakesh, maybe it is the owner who is a jaat. By the way, I went through your nyaybhoomi site. Fascinating. But that was hardly the point. The point really was whether these graffiti can at all be enjoyed, commented upon, discussed like everything else – without being bothered about who wrote it, where that who comes from, etc etc. And Anant, surely you do not mean through this long disquisition to tell me that thus, ONLY Dalits become autodrivers! Sewer cleaners is another story – it is a modern form of a traditional occupation. But isn’t your intervention precisely the kind of grand sociology that we normally distrust? In my small world, I have closely know three auto drivers in Delhi – one Bishtji from Uttaranchal, one Sharma from Rajasthan (a Brahmin sharma, let me clarify), and one Vivek ji who is an OBC from Bihar. I have also chatted to many many of them. Just as a matter of interest. Till date, my unofficial ‘survey’ tells me that the majority of my highly skewed sample are OBCs, followed by many upper castes. Dalits, if you really want to know, are pushed precisely to where you mentioned: the place where no Bishtji or Sharmaji or even a Vivekji will ever go. Some do manage, though.


  4. Aditya,
    It must be the length of my note that obscured the thrust of it. Dalits cannot become autodrivers is what I said in this one and in one of the comments in the previous round also. dalits in urban informal transportation sector are more likely to become rickshaw pullers.

    They simply do not have access to finance and the wherewithal to negotiate the urban landscape with the same confidence as the OBCs. The only exceptions are young men from old established dalit slums in cities.

    The point of the longer post however was that the city is shot through and through by caste as ideology, as network resource or as cultural capital. And here caste does not refer to dalits. It refers to caste – as a way of thinking about the self. From industrial investments to retail financing – from access to jobs to the places where people are permitted to procreate – caste is everywhere. It was a response to the way your question was worded: how and when did auto driving become a caste occupation – or marked by a caste — which suggested that there are places and occupations which are not marked by caste. My response is that cate is one of the things that makes auto rickshaws ply on the road. and it does not allow dalits to become auto rickshaw drivers.


  5. Anant,
    I entirely agree with your general point but just hold on. What precisely was going on in the earlier Great Auto Debate? A particularly shrill claim was made to the effect that Autodrivers are Dalits. It was made with a certain kind of claim to authenticity and none of us, you and me included, had the courage to squeak against it and say that this equation is false. Patently false. (One small expression by me also eliciting in the bargain, an invocation of Manmohan Singh and his going for an IMF loan! Once again, I may have missed the point of that comment.)
    The point really was that your intervention sought to continuously paper over any expression of a divergence of opinion with that blackmail. In the name of solidarity?
    The point that I do wish to make here is that the entire debate despite some of its really fascinating moments, represents to me one of the most intractable difficulties of this kind of political stance-taking. This stance-taking in the name of a Subalternity can decree that the day is night and force everybody concerned to nod in approval.
    And yet, what was going on was fundamentally in opposition to any kind of politics of solidarity.
    ‘You cannot speak about us, period.’ Hang on, we were NOT speaking about you! Doesn’t matter. We say that you were.
    At that moment we really were not discussing Dalits or Dalit politics. However, we have written about Dalit politics, on other occasions, in this blog. Did any of those who participated care to take a look? No. When we were actually discussing Dalits and Dalit politics, what were we saying? And
    I remember this strident claim (and you can check it out in the comments made in the course of the debate). It went something like this: I happened to come to your blog from elsewhere and saw the autos and was reminded of the Ford Foundation office. I do not care what you are and whether you profess any kind of solidarity with the Dalit movement. In fact, the tone was precisely that you dare not. We dare not what? Protest against Khairlanji? Write about the significance of Mayawati? Think about the problem of Dalit capitalism? If our debaters are to be taken seriously, we should not opine on any of these things. My humble submission is that these are issues in the public domain and I refuse to be blackmailed by anybody.
    I did not want to get into that discussion. I do not even now. This is just to clarify why your comment lends itself to this kind of a reading. Yes, I must say that thankfully, the Dalit movement – be it in the form of the BSP wooing the sarvajan, or organizations like the NACDOR, or intellectuals like Chandrabhan Prasad, seem to me to be much more open and alive to the need for building solidarities and alliances. Sometime ago, I wrote a piece on Kafila, after a visit to Chandrabhan’s village. I was part of a team that he had taken along. There I learnt that a team from the University of Pennsylvania was already conducting a survey in those Dalit villages. I wrote and they will also write about the Dalits of those villages. Is that ‘representation’ allowed? And who will allow? Who can allow? Fortunately, the Dalit movement/s are peopled by people much more sagacious and mature, who understand that politics is not about stance taking alone.


  6. Dear Aditya,
    I dont feel very comfortable speaking for others who were in that debate – but let me try.
    My responses point by point.
    1)The stance was that none of us including you and me can speak about autorickshaws: Yes that was the stance. And it was strident.
    2) I did not squeak against it: I dont know about that because this was the point of contention between me and Nameless and Ranju through out. I said that kind of a stance whatever its rationalization narrows down possibilities of conversation. We have been paralysed by it for 20 years and it is time we moved beyond it. A blog is not necessarily the best platform for working through the issue. So that debate remains inconclusive.

    3)This is mere stance taking: I dont believe so. First it comes from a particular reading of politics of location – from a generation of black feminists and supported by white feminists. In the world of feminist theorizing people have moved beyond this. But theory travels and what is not relevant in one place can take root elsewhere. Difficult and intractable as it seems – theoretical engagement is the only way to move ahead.
    Second, in Indian Dalit Bahujan politics itself there are disjunctures between a) grassroots workers with a variety of political affiliations, b) spokespersons of NGOized dalit groups and c) English speaking academics and intellectuals. In that terrain, these kinds of stances gain new purchase. There is no way we can push ahead except by politically engaging.
    4) I was papering over it: mmm. May be. I dont know. The truth is that I am not convinced that hardening of a counterstance is particularly helpful. It is a trap.
    5) What precisely was happening in that debate: To my understanding what was happening was that Nameless began to speak from a Dalit-Bahujan identity. That is, since autorickshaw drivers are bahujans – OBCs, she was challenging any reading of the sign which does not speak from that identity (and the material life that goes with it). I pointed out that autodrivers were not dalits. They are OBCs – what may be generally considered powerful castes – at least in relation to dalits. It is dangerous for anyone to privilege an ‘authentic’ caste position in the autorickshaw in opposition to an ‘authentic’ upper caste because it is an inherently unstable position. Nameless agreed with this. What she held on to however was that constructing such an authentic position is necessary sometimes to challenge taken for granted truths. This is not a very original position in Indian politics – I could be wrong but I think the first articulation of this kind of position was “Why I am not a Hindu.” And the book appeared almost a decade after dalit student groups began to feel frustrated with caste as a singular platform and started talking about class and caste as a composite category.

    Academic intellectuals can get blackmailed into silence. But elsewhere this is only going to lead to fissiparious tendencies because such dalit bahujan authenticities are immediately challenged by those who are silently excluded.
    Nameless broadly agreed with some of what I said, I dont know about the rest.

    Finally, I think being in solidarity with an autodriver – inspired by feminist and dalit sensibilities – which is what I want to do –
    is a pretty challenging task. Autodriving is about being OBC and being masculine – vulnerable and oppressive in multiple ways.


  7. Dear Anant,

    You wrote in one of the comments above:

    We have for long had a Policy page which makes it clear how we deal with comments. Censorship or intolerance of difference is not the idea at all. However, the Policy page also implicitly says that we reserve the right to ‘moderate’ comments and even close threads.

    I closed threads in two posts on this auto issue for the first time. I did so unilaterally, and immediately asked others at Kafila if this was okay, because I felt the debate was getting heated, going out of hand and essentially repeating the same points. In both cases I left comments saying the threads are closed temporarily. The idea was to merely provide a cooling off period, which it did, and it seems the debate did go forward from those positions, if only a bit, when the issue was again taken up in posts by Aarti and Aman, comments on both of which are open.

    So I feel you are being a little unfair to us by suggesting censorship when you say in one of the comments above:

    mmm. have said something to prompt closure of this thread?

    If that was the case, then your comment won’t be approved in the first place, or at best be deleted thereafter. This has not been done.

    All of us at Kafila are grateful to you for your engagement here.



  8. Thanks Shivam.
    I didnt mean to suggest unfairness on your part. But a little explanation as to why the threads were being closed would have helped. Now that we know that such contingencies can arise, may be you can even put it on the policy page.


  9. friends,

    i want to give a very late and very quick reply to the above responses. first of all i never said autos are a dalit caste occupation. if you check my very first post, i had specifically mentioned – dalit-obc-minority-lower class – and i had mentioned elsewhere, i think, that OBCs make up the most number of auto drivers in India.
    why is only the Dalit getting highlighted here?

    and anant, auto drivers being predominantly OBCs does not change the original debate in any way – i really don’t understand why this difference between caste groups are suddenly brought in. and please i do not believe in kancha ilaihan dalit-bahujan politics, no, not in these times.

    more importantly, why should the masculinity of OBC men be shown as a reason for not debating about how elite wo/men look down/at them. wasn’t the original question about how can an elite group look at this subaltern masculinity without being casteist? so who was denying the masculinity of the auto driver? and why the attempt ALWAYS to make it look like i was doing that?

    – and one very strange thing i find about this debate is that all of you seem to agree with what i am saying, you are fascinated, you think it radically opens up the debate, etc etc.. and still you go out of your way to question the way i said it –

    according to some responses here, the problem with the way i spoke is that i alluded to my own political location and experience while saying what i said –
    yes, there is a point in this – and i do agree with all the larger debates about essentializing identity, experience etc. and i don’t believe in essentialism of any sort…

    however, at this point, i want to ask you one thing – when people in the original discussion was talking about women as if there is only one elite (desired by auto-men/but don’t desire them) kind of women, was there no essentialism? if to write against that essentialism you assert your different political self – how does this suddenly become a claim to authentic dalit bahujan subjectivity and what not !!!!

    have you heard of barbara smith saying that when she looks in the mirror, she sees a black woman and that this is not a representation.
    why is she being essentialistic here? do you think anyone can speak against centuries of white violence without seeing clearly that woman in the mirror, as true and real?
    and don’t you see that barabara smith can only stop looking in the mirror to find her theories when white women stop doing that too …???

    and why can’t we talk about the different things we were seeing – why are we suddenly moving into a meta-theoretical debate about the politics of who sees what and when – when it was not there in any way in the original post, where no one thought about all these great post structuralist questions while looking at the back of an auto driver’s head ???

    in fact aditya nigam – and in other ways aarthi also – says that we should be able to talk of graffiti without having to think about where it is coming from, who wrote it, etc etc. then in another place aditya nigam starts getting angry with Nameless for writing comments based on one comment and not taking the pains to look at other activities in this post….so when he speaks he need not look at anything else but the text before him and when Nameless speaks she has to think of SO many things. is this fair?

    actually along with saying all the above, i also want to say (even at the risk of contradicting myself) that i now think that i should have adopted a more impersonal ‘academic’ voice. my tone, i know, was accusing and i regret it now.

    however, when i was writing the first post, i was actually redrafting a piece filled with much much more anger and direct, un-academic and what you would call irresponsible accusations. so from my point of view, i was actually struggling to stay within the limits of academic discussion…

    however, i have gained much from this debate and i hope such debates can be continued, without making accusations and similarly, without allusions to an always/already progressive self, which claims a perfect knowledge and sensitivity about people/practices that have not yet been well theorized by Indian academics.



  10. Dear nameless,

    thank you for this response. Just a quick clarification because you gesture to my post and say:

    “in fact aditya nigam – and in other ways aarthi also – says that we should be able to talk of graffiti without having to think about where it is coming from, who wrote it, etc etc.”

    I did not say that we should be able to talk of graffiti without having to think about where it came from. I was trying to open the debate in another direction, namely that of circulation and the possibilities of what a global commodity culture means for questions of desire and politics. I thought the discussion we were having lent itself to this kind of move, which was latent, and I thought it might be interesting to address the question explicitly.

    yes, I do think circulation is a political space that needs to be thought through on its own terms. This does not mean that we ignore where something came from, rather that where it comes from is always/already in tension with, and mediated by, where it is going.



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