Above illustration: ‘The Great Socialist’ by Anthony Muisyo, 2021.
The capital city of New Delhi is home to a large section of migrants from India’s Northeastern region.For most northeastern migrants in New Delhi, their everyday life is dependent on their capacity to express a dual identity of belonging to a tribal community from the Northeast and living in an urban, cosmopolitan society. Here I use the word “tribal” cautiously because the usage of the word in the context of India has a history of colonial administrative intervention and is associated with a problematic identification of the “northeastern” region and its people as primitive and ‘stuck in time’. However, the reality today is that the individuals belonging to the tribal communities from the North-east aspire to be a part of the middle-class as much as others in India.
Priscilla, who belongs to the Tangkhul Naga community of Manipur, has been working in Delhi for more than two decades. She believes that despite a life of isolation and distance from her fellow community members back home, she remains content with the reality that she is able to enroll her son at an English-medium school in Delhi which she believes will help his chances of securing a government job later in his life.
Priscilla’s story is one of the numerous such narratives that emerge out of a section of “tribal” migrants from the Northeast who form a part of the middle-class in urban India. The “middle class aspirations” that the migrants from North east India harbor are no different from the aspirations of all those who wish to be upwardly mobile and become a part of the middle class in India. As a sociological category, the middle class is identified to be constituted of individuals who occupy socio-economic positions between the working class and the upper classes, generally occupying the ‘middling’ positions in the class hierarchy of societies. It was Pierre Bourdieu (1984) who argued that in addition to the economic location it was the specific attitudes, preferences and behaviors of the members belonging to the middle class which makes this class unique. The ‘new’ middle class of 20th century which emerged as a result of market expansion are marked by factors such as income, educational levels, purchasing power, and consumer lifestyle (Bartlet and Harneit-Sievers 2017). To be middle class in India today is a mark of having ‘made it well in life’ and hence the tendency to identify as being a part of this social class is high.
The trajectory of the middle-class formation in India is complicated and since its inception in the colonial period have been a complex social category. Evolving from the petty bourgeois groups and the middle classes that emerged in Calcutta in the 19th century to the new, neoliberal middle class of 21st century India, the middle class story in India is specific. However the “middle-class” identity has become a quintessential marker of ‘modernity’ in India. Contemporary representations in digital and print media as well as written fiction portray the middle class in India as being formed by an ‘aspiring’ class of individuals who are projected to drive forward India’s development story. For instance, the Booker Prize-winning novel, The White Tiger (2008) by Aravind Adiga had captured the enterprising spirit of the protagonist Balram Halwai, who rose from the ranks of a rickshaw puller’s son to become a middle-class businessman, meandering through the lows and highs of an unequal Indian society. This aspiring middle class in contemporary India invites membership from across the different sections of the Indian social structure. As a result, the contemporary middle class in India has come to be occupied by individuals who belong to different regional identities, linguistic communities and hierarchies of castes and ethnicity. When nomenclatures like the Dalit-middle class, Muslim-middle Class and more recently the ‘Tribal’ Middle class are accounted for, it sparks intrigue because, at one level, this portrays the heterogeneity of the middle class and on the other hand it urges one to identify the trajectory of the middle class that is forming along the historically constructed marginal locations of Indian society. The individuals from these marginal locations who go on to occupy middle class locations have to constantly negotiate with the dominant middle classes. The privileges of caste and community are reproduced in the form of class attributes for instance- speaking in English and consumer patterns and these factors go on to shape the patterns of middle-class hegemony.
As individuals from the different marginal locations move up the social ladder and occupy middle class locations, they have to interact and often confront the dominant middle classes in various social settings. For the tribal migrants from North-east India, being in a cosmopolitan city like Delhi, the urban middle classes with whom they constantly interact become their reference point. It is in these social interactions that the negotiation of their ascriptive identity and middle class identity becomes a question of sociological concern. Occupying middle class locations pushes them to challenge the dominant stereotypes of tribes being identified as backward and primitive.
However, at the same time, these aspiring individuals are unable to fully sever their ties from their group of origin and are still tethered to their communities. They see it as their moral obligation to ‘give back’ to their community (Naudet 2018). The aspirational middle class from these ‘tribal’ communities identify themselves as middle class but their community identities are attached to their middle class identities.
Despite the pandemic, Priscilla could afford to stay back in the capital city and see her son continue his academic activities online. As the city and its businesses are limping back into its pre-pandemic rhythm, she is relieved that her and her husband’s joint salaries were able to keep their family afloat during times of crisis unlike many of her close associates who had to migrate back to the northeast to sustain themselves during the nation-wide lockdown. For Priscilla even when times are hard, her associates from the community are the only immediate links she has to home.
The expansion of the middle class no doubt has created greater fluidity in social life, giving choice to the individual but this choice is still conditioned by social structures dominated by specific groups. Although it might seem that individuals can flow in easily into the middle class in India, there is selective access to privileges within the class. As aspirational members of the ‘tribal’ communities from the north-east occupy positions of privilege they have to constantly struggle against barriers such as racial prejudice to maintain their status or seek further upward mobility. The mobility of a few individuals to middle class positions does not lead to the erasure of racial prejudice against them. This is reflected in the discrimination-sometimes subtle, sometimes outright that the ‘tribals’ from northeast often face in New Delhi.
On the underside of an aspirational and glamorous narrative of the middle class in India, there is a reproduction of hegemony and inequality. The neo-liberal economic shift in India post 1990’s was unable to free all individuals from all kinds of socio-economic hierarchies, in fact these neo-liberal spaces and cultures of consumption in turn reproduced the hegemony of dominant groups. It is within these hegemonic structures that the middle class membership from the margins emerges as a potential departure. They are active participants in India’s growth story with their own experiences of mobility and precarity that makes for a sociological intervention, especially at a time when the middle-class as a category seems to be ‘shrinking’ in India. The vibrancy of the phenomenon called the Indian middle class needs to be captured through the narratives of the middle class which are formed at the margins of Indian society. It is these narratives that open up a new window to explore the changing dynamics of the global middle class story in the contemporary world.
Dhriti Sonowal is currently enrolled as an M.Phil/PhD scholar at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her ongoing research maps social change among the communities of North East India. She looks at the intersection of class and ethnicity in contemporary India and how it shapes aspirations and mobility trajectories of individuals.
Adiga, Aravind. The White Tiger: A Novel. New York : Free Press, 2008.
Bartelt, Dawid Danilo, and Harneit-Sievers, Axel. The New Middle Class in India and Brazil. New Delhi: Academic Foundation, 2017.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste . Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1984.
Naudet, Jules. Stepping Into The Elite. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2018.