Sharing the Urban

The slow trickle of violence into our lives is as pernicious as the sudden, shocking act

01 February 2013

IN 2005, I BEFRIENDED A GROUP OF YOUNG MEN in a resettlement colony on the northwestern edge of Delhi. Over several months, we had a series of conversations, often speaking about their experiences as young urban men. The boys were angry, and with reason. It had been less than a year since the only homes they had known had been demolished in the sweeping slum evictions on the banks of the river Yamuna. In ways large and small, that act of violence pervaded almost everything we talked about. But, more importantly, it also pervaded everything they did, planned, and believed in.

I was not in Delhi last December when the 23-year-old physiotherapy student was raped, or when she died. As I read, watched, and listened from a distance, a quiet and unsettling feeling of familiarity, almost like an odd sense of recognition, accompanied my anger. I realised that this sense of recognition came from echoes of my conversations with those boys, and from all the other structures of violence that stood exposed by the assault on a young woman in a city bus. There can be no doubt that it is vitally necessary to respond to this specific, brutal crime. But at the same time, I was also provoked to ask a different question: is there value in thinking about sexual violence as only one of the idioms of violence in everyday life in contemporary urban India—violence that is increasingly both present and accepted?

An idiom is an ironically gentle way in which to think about violence, but it reminds us that violence is in many senses idiomatic; violence speaks in ways that are often extremely local and that, over time, grow into something easily understood, something that is part of our everyday language—a shorthand, in other words. The young men understood violence this way—intimate, simple and obvious. To them, it was an inevitability. One was either an agent or a victim; often, one was both. Violence was not just a physical act. It was how urban life was organised and navigated—the idiom in which it was understood. It was a means of getting something—anything—done. “You have to fight for things,” one of them said to me, “whether it’s a water connection, a housing slip, or some work. You have to fight for it, otherwise everything will pass you by.” Violence—in different registers from inter-personal to structural, and to different degrees, but violence all the same—was, simply, the last remaining way of fighting. The young men seemed to be saying: “When they broke our homes, they were violent against us. It worked. This is the way the city works.” In their fight to be and remain urban residents, the young men remind us that in our cities, violence has become an increasingly common way to claim entitlements—whether they are legitimate yet denied entitlements such as those of the households of evicted bastis to shelter; newer entitlements of emerging economic classes in our cities to increasing spaces of leisure and consumption, for example; or, as in the case of masculinity and sexual violence, currently held entitlements, which are preserved and reproduced through acts of violence.

Gautam Bhan Gautam Bhan teaches urban poverty and development at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore. He writes frequently on and is Sexualities Editor at Yoda Press.