The burqa and the rickshaw


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HYDERABAD is in flux. Unbelievably rapid and far-reaching changes have been taking place in the city over the last few decades. Let me start to unravel these by taking two unusual emblems, both of which I would like to look at as indicators of the ‘epic of modernity’. The burqa – a veil the Muslim women wear which extends from head to toe and covers the body – is visible across the city. The burqa is ubiquitously present even in the most posh and modern areas of Hyderabad. The rickshaw – the tri-wheeler, manually driven and used to commute – has nearly disappeared from the city. It is now rarely seen even in the poorest and most backward areas. The few that are left carry goods. Hyderabad had the largest number of rickshaws compared to any city in India; it was once referred to as the city of rickshaws.

The presence of the burqa in the posh and modern areas and the absence of rickshaws in the poorest and backward areas is somewhat of an incongruity, a departure from the expected, and therefore calls for attention.


How can the burqa be part of the epic of modernity? Well, people have read it, as is the wont, as a rise of conservatism and religiosity among the Muslim community. It may or may not be so; I think it is a bit of both, as in all communities in India. But that is, I presume, the wrong way of looking at the problem. What has actually happened is that the invisible has become visible, all too quickly. Purdah – keeping the woman’s body from public view – has always been common among conventional Muslim families. Only 30 years ago, education and employment were very uncommon among Muslim women who came from simple, lower middle class backgrounds. Most Muslim women lived their lives in the confines of the home, rarely going beyond the circle of relatives. But the observance of purdah was quite common when in the public domain. Covering oneself with a chadar – a long unstitched cloth to cover the face and body – was enough. A sea change is taking place without any fundamental shift in attitudes to the women’s body or person. What has been changing is the socio-economic context within which life is being lived.

Those who were very poor are still quite poor with some degree of marginal upward mobility. But what has rather pronouncedly changed is the life of the lower middle classes. A sizeable section of these groups have seen a noticeable upward movement in income and life opportunities. Education has seen an enormous expansion. And what is unusual is that it has been a trend set by the women. More often Muslim boys have preferred to go abroad, to the oil rich Middle Eastern countries and have bailed their families out of destitution and hardship. There is extra income available for meeting the necessities of life. Women in these families have taken to education in a big way; the girl child is making the best of the opportunities available within the constraints of religious conventions. The emphasis is on technical and job oriented education including the emerging frontier areas of IT education.

What we see as an increase in the visibility of the burqa is actually women out in the public sphere, educating themselves and working in sectors of economy which were completely hidden from their view even twenty years ago. More often, these women credit it to the grace of God (!), the Allah of their faith. They meticulously observe their religion and the burqa is seen as an integral part of their world. How much of it is imposed by the men in the family or reflects their own desire is difficult to say.


Where is the burqa most visible? Around the colleges and educational institutions, IT coaching centres like NIIT, the commercial establishments, offices, and so on. They ride with burqas on their motorbikes and mopeds and fill up the seats reserved for women in the buses. It is not like Saudi Arabia where the women are forced to stay at home, and venture outside only when accompanied by their men. These women are more often alone. They go together to ice-cream parlours and beauty saloons and sometimes chat in public places with their boy friends. We know they are Muslim women, but unlike other women we do not know how they look, their faces are hidden but their work is as visible as that of any other women. They inhabit the modern world but modernity, as yet, remains undefined to them. What will happen in the future is uncertain. History will no longer be a guide. I am not sure if this poses a problem; I would rather see it as a challenge to understand the way in which the world is changing.


The story of the disappearance of the rickshaw is far less complicated. In the mid-1970s, auto-rickshaws (three-wheeler, mechanically driven, mini-taxis) made an appearance. Over the next 15 years they slowly replaced the rickshaw. In the 1970s and early 1980s Hyderabad was viewed as a city in decline. There was though a noticeable migration of people to different parts of the world for work. Where one went and for what kind of work varied a great deal in terms of social status and the consequent levels of education. Nevertheless, Andhra Pradesh and Hyderabad in particular contributed a good deal to the making of the Indian diaspora. Among the Muslims, a lot of people from among the lower and lowest middle classes went out, especially to the Middle Eastern countries following the boom generated by petro dollars.

Secondly, in the 1990s, there was a burst of growth in construction activity centred on the building of flyovers, commercial establishments, and multistoried residential complexes, followed by the making of the HI-tech city. New opportunities opened up for different kinds of work. A couple of factors contributed to the change. With some money coming in from migrant relatives living abroad, and opportunities opening up with the expansion of the city, people shifted to auto rickshaws, construction work, repair and maintenance, and other such activity. What facilitated this was the slow expansion of education coupled with quotas in employment for Dalits and Other Backward Classes (henceforth OBCs); the poor moved into adjacent blue and white-collar jobs. (Of the few rickshaws that have remained, it is the Dalits who have been left behind, plying goods in rickety ones. The rickshaw puller as a group comprised of Dalits, Muslim and some OBCs.)


The disappearance of the rickshaw does not mark the end of poverty; it only indicates a relatively pronounced decline in destitution, though both are still present in a visible way. It is the story of marginal mobility into adjacent positions requiring higher skill levels. And this, I think, is important in that it is a source of self-esteem and therefore also marks a demand for recognition as equals. Ideologies based on egalitarian values informed by community commitments are in the ascendance all over. This, therefore, is also the source of new aspirations.

The priorities in the family have undergone a major change. People now strive for better houses – the old type of hut will no longer do. They want to see their children in schools, to better their lives. The mental horizon of choices is expanding, adding to those margins of freedom where life undergoes re-definitions. This process has been facilitated by the steady working, despite its infirmities, of democracy. The democratic process is opening doors and people are moving out, against all odds, into new spaces where different demands from the world await them. How these are being met are the new biographies being written by ordinary people. Within the successes achieved, tragic endings and mental pathos is also visible all over.

If we put these two developments together, the appearance of the burqa and the disappearance of the rickshaw, a shift of immense consequence lies below, hidden from view, which needs to be drawn out. I would like to suggest here, a little audaciously, that everyday life for the people of Hyderabad has become of central importance. What matters for them most are the rhythms of ordinary, this-worldly life. It is the open side of modernity, unencumbered by universal values, the central importance of the mundane and ordinary in the making of ones happiness.

I am not suggesting that religion has disappeared or become less important. In fact, it is quite to the contrary. It is more visible and, perhaps, matters more today to both Hindus and Muslims. But it does not, and this is the great change, trump everyday life as earlier. The simultaneous presence of both, religion and everyday life, and their increasing importance at the same moment, reminds me of a comment Marx made that modernity is the ‘contradictions of progress’. And this is what an epic, as a genre, is all about.


It is this story of the contradictions of progress that I want to elaborate. It is also the story of the social progress the people of Hyderabad have made. An overwhelming majority of the people of Hyderabad, as in much of India, live their lives in communities that are still essentially pre-modern in nature. (Modern communities are virtually self-created ones like trade unions or neighbourhood communities or associations of single mothers or ecologists and so on where exit is quite easy whereas pre-modern communities are continuous, self-reproducing ones where exit is relatively difficult.) These communities, under the simultaneous impact of modernization and the working of democracy, are undergoing dramatic internal changes but without prospects of dissolution as happened in the West under the impact of modernity.

In this context the idea is to write an account that brings to light, first, how different communities have taken to modern life in the last twenty years in contrast to earlier times. I will look at a number of communities but under the generic terms of OBC and Muslim. Second, I will attempt to draw a picture of the changing relations between these two because of historical animosities, occasionally leading to communal violence. Third, to see the impact of the above on the communal situation, that is, the politics of inter-communal relations.


The OBCs are made up of a large number of communities, mainly among the Hindus (though there is a rare community from among the Muslims who are also included in this category, but let us ignore that for the time being). These are all of low ritual status. Economically, nearly all of them are poor, with low incomes, uncertain employment and possessing simple skills. Most of them were either dependent on other better off social groups or engaged in small self-employed work.

Most of them occupy a shared space, their aspirations intersect, imaginations have similar trajectories, and future expectations are on a common footing. The OBCs both have common organisation as well as community specific organizations. Their umbrella organization, the Andhra Pradesh Backward Classes Association, is a federation of community specific organizations. This is indicative both of identification of interests, a shared common space, and differences based on different socio-economic positions occupied by each community. The following are the main communities.

Let us start with the Bhooi, who used to carry the palki (palanquin), sell fish, and were employed in the palace of the Nizam in menial positions. The Bhooi(s) were listed as a ‘criminal tribe’ by the Nizam regime, along with Lambaras and Vadars and some others. Another group with strong community bonds who stick together across all income differentiation are the Loodha. The members of this community used to make and sell churan (an indigenous digestive powder), sell arms, and were notorious for extensive dealings in illicit liquor.

The Pardi, another OBC group, are mainly fruit-sellers. They live in close clusters in certain localities, and have strong emotional bonds. Until about 1952, they were counted among the Scheduled Castes, but were subsequently de-classified.


There is one other important Hindu community in Hyderabad that needs to be referred to. In the old city, the largest social group among Hindus comprises people known as Munoor Kapu. They are different from the Kapu community of coastal Andhra. In the Telangana region they are counted among the OBC.

Then we have the Gowda also known as Kallal, the toddy tappers. They climb up the palm tree with a sling hung around their waist and fix the container at night and go up again in the morning and bring it down with the drink. Within the group, some became more entrepreneurial and collected the entire produce from the area, passing it on to the contractors, and thereby became well off.

Another important group is the milkmen, also known as cowherds. These are comprised of two sub-groups; one is the Goalis and the other the Yadavs. It is said that the former are indigenous to Hyderabad while the latter were migrants from the North. Some of them have taken to agriculture as well. Being enterprising, the migrants have done much better than the Goalis.

There are other backward groups who do not seem to play a significant social or political role, viz. Waddar – stone cutters; Uppara – earth workers, digging wells and tanks; Kurma – a pastoral community, shepherds; Kumara – potters, making earthen utensils; Mangalla, now also called Nai Brahman – the barber or hair dresser; Rajaka – dhobi or washermen, etcetera.


Among the Muslim of Hyderabad no major specific social group of a caste type can be found. There are, however, some small occupational groups which have been included or recommended for inclusion among the OBC. A few of these are Dudekula – cotton de-seeding, i.e., removing seeds from the cotton which is the first stage of the work (probably called Ladaf in North India); Durwesh or Fakir – mendicants who go around singing for purposes of begging; Quereshi – butchers; silver foil makers; bangle makers, etcetera.

Apart from these groups which are oppressed, Muslims, in general, like any other community, are internally differentiated. Muslims live in all parts of Hyderabad but close to 70 per cent of them live in what is called the ‘Old’ city, which is an extended southern part of the metropolis. Though these areas have seen some development in the last few years, they remain the most backward part of city.

What is also interesting are the housing settlements of some of the Hindu OBCs where a majority of Lodha and Kapu live in close proximity with Muslims. The presence of Bhoi, Gaoli, Pardi is also significant. This is what had earlier made the area communally sensitive and prone to violence.1

The OBCs and Muslim do not share a common social space, living a barricaded social existence. There is little social give and take between them. But the important change that has taken place is that violence is now completely shunned and inter-community peace is actively sought and, further, it is being constantly monitored. This is an entirely new feature of social life and politics in the city.

During my field travels in the late 1990s and after 2000, no communal tension of an overt kind was observed, as was the case in the 1980s and early 1990s. At that time one could see rage and murder in the eyes of the people. The fading of memories of violence, which was so endemic at that time, was a pleasant surprise. These memories were becoming more like a remembrance of a historical event. Nor did I find much mention of the violence of those times. A refreshing change obviously seems to be in the making.


This is in sharp contrast to the situation that prevailed in the 1980s and early 1990. It was a period marked by constant small scale rioting, stabbing, looking for revenge; in short, blood letting of all kinds was endemic. All of this culminated in a huge communal conflagration in the winter of 1990-91. This was also the period of the height of the Babri Masjid-Ramjanma Bhoomi movement and of Advani’s Rath Yatra. When the Babri Masjid was demolished in December 1992, tension prevailed in Hyderabad, the Muslims were bewildered, but except for a few clashes with the police, there were no riots. The 1990-91 riot was the last major one. The ethnography of violence and rehabilitation was what marked the period then as against one of a process of seeking peace now. There is no concord or sought out consensus. What we have is a tacit understanding that violence will do no good; this is despite the constant efforts of the Sangh Parivar to instigate violence.


The upshot of the mobility among OBCs and Muslim is the ascendance of the stability of this worldly life, in an immediate sense, in the making of one’s happiness. Many more people are today living in better houses, eating better and more nutritious food, and wearing quality clothes. There is a new sense of pride in displaying their well-being to others, sending children to private schools (and on top of that, paying for tuition so that they could excel), aspiring to be in professions that command social respect, and so on. What people are seeking is a world of equality, dignity, and self-esteem, which was always beyond their reach. That world is now, many of them think, within their grasp.

To seek revenge now is to, consequentially, mutilate yourself. And nobody wants that to happen. They will continue to support the Majlis or the BJP and VHP, but not at the cost of sacrificing their worldly gains. I doubt if people in large numbers would be prepared to jump into the fray as before. The Majlis is the local body of the Hyderabadi Muslim and it knows the pulse of the people it claims to represent. In association with the clergy, it has appealed to the Muslim not to be provoked when matters develop on an all-India plane in ways which may agitate the hotheads among the community. Similarly, it has worked to diffuse local communal tensions whenever they arise.

The VHP or BJP are different in an important way. They are essentially all-India affiliates of the RSS. Hyderabad is not the sole centre of their activity. They wish to impact politics on an all-India plane. They look at local presence more as an extension of national politics. When this clashes with the compulsions of the local specificity, as often happens in Hyderabad, they do not know what exactly to do and end up calling for a bandh. The two protagonists contending for Muslim and Hindu support are not on the same plane of relationship with their presumed constituencies.


Having stated this, one cannot be sanguine about such phenomena as communal violence; large forces are involved with scant regard for popular aspirations of ordinary people. The purpose of my argument is not to suggest an ‘impossibility thesis’ about communal riots in Hyderabad. Tension continues to exist and there have been clashes which fortunately were quickly diffused. Provocation also continues to exist. Those who want to polarize the society along communal lines and pit people against one another for political gain have enormous power to manipulate events. The direction of my argument is rather to suggest the ‘difficulty thesis’, which means that unlike in earlier times, it may be far more difficult to use people as fodder in the politics of communal forces. It also suggests that it may now be easier to counsel calm if communal trouble were to erupt somewhere. The difficulty thesis surely holds good for Hyderabad at this juncture.



1. See my earlier work on Hyderabad, ‘Composite Culture and Communal Consciousness: The Ittehadul Muslimeen in Hyderabad’ in Vasudha Dalmia and H. von Stietencron (eds.), Representing Hinduism: The Construction of Religious Traditions and National Identity, Sage, New Delhi, 1995.