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Caste on my back

By Aishik Chanda for TwoCircles.net,

Mumbai: “Jai Mahar” read one, “Jai Maratha” read another. Several autorickshaws of Greater Mumbai region display caste identities on the rear. The proclamations are in bold colours of red, orange and blue.

“We are Jai Bhim (Dalit Buddhist) people. I like to say that proudly. Hence, I have put up ‘Jai Bhim’ on the rear of the auto too,” smiles Dattu Shinde, exposing his paan-stained teeth.

“The Jai Bhim, Jai Malhar, Jai Mahar and Khandoba Prasanna stickers are most in demand. So, we get them made beforehand in Dharavi and sell them to the auto guys,” said Rajesh Singh, owner of a registration number and sticker shop in Lower Parel.

Caste on AUTO's back

Caste Hindu proclamations have similar reasons for display. “I am a proud Maratha Kunbi. Hence, I have proclaimed it at the rear of the autos I own,” said Markand Pawar, owner of 30 autos in Chembur.

When asked why the proclamations are shown only at the rear of the autos, he reasoned, “We can’t paste them on the front glass as it would obstruct the vision. So, rear side is the best place to paste the stickers.”

Similar caste proclamations are seen in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh too, though not on the autos but on the bikes. The stickers are smaller in size and less colourful in display, though. The stickers showing caste names like Goud, Reddy, Khamma etc. are pasted also at the rear, below the rear light.

Caste on AUTO's back

Vehicles in Karnataka also proclaim caste identity. But, name of the organizations are more visible than the caste names. Stickers of ‘Lambani Sangha’, ‘Ambedkar Vedike’, ‘Dalit Sangrakshan Samithi’ and ‘Valmiki Sangha’ are a common sight on the rear of cars, autorickshaws, bikes and even trucks in the cities and towns of the state. Here, the stickers speak more of Dalit assertion and are almost always blue in colour.

Back to Mumbai, here the symbols on the bikes proclaim religion rather than caste. Dhamma chakras, crescents and Om and swastika symbols are seen everywhere on the front of the bikes.

When asked to commuter Saurav Patel about the symbol on his bike, he shrugs his shoulders saying, “It’s just a symbol that shows my identity dude.”

Caste on AUTO's back

Autorickshaw driver Ajinkya Dhote, when asked if he ever lost any customer due to his proclamation on the auto, he replies in negative saying, “People in Mumbai don’t have time to judge and then get into an auto. Most don’t care about the stickers.”

The drivers of different auto unions claim that there have been no fights over the differences in the views and ideologies of the autowallahs, no clash ever. When asked to Ram Yadav, the autowallah from Uttar Pradesh said, “Ladke kya milega (What will we get by fighting among ourselves?).We are united despite our varied political ideologies.”

Rajesh Shinde, an autorickshaw driver from Byculla, said, “I like the Ambedkariite ideology of my auto-owner, who is also a Mahar (Dalit) Buddhist like me. So, I got inspired from him and put up the ‘Jai Bhim’ sticker at the rear of the auto.

(Former journalist with The New Indian Express and Deccan Chronicle at Hyderabad, the author is currently pursuing M.A. Dalit and Tribal Studies and Action at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He continues to write as an independent journalist.)

Rejoinder: A critique to “Caste on my back”