‘To belong, or not to belong – that is the question?’- Ethnicity as an Ethno-gendered Experience

Sangeeta Roy

As the here and there change , who we are to be and do and become also changes … in each particular place people want their way for us … but we are everywhere… I mean both here and there. So, who should we become? I am a girl from this city, this big city. I go to a school in this city. I walk this city. This is my home. My parents’ home is not my home. 

(Rani, 17)

Rani is at the intersection of two ethnocultural identities, and is one among the several young people of Bihari ethnic lineage born, raised and affiliated to school in Kolkata, West Bengal. 


Bihar and West Bengal are neighbouring states in eastern India, and populations from Bihar constitute the largest numbers of migrants in Kolkata, West Bengal. The term Bihari other than denoting populations from a specific regional and ethnocultural lineage is also and more often a pejorative to refer to a people as a labour diaspora in West Bengal. The term ‘Bihari’ by the mid-20th century “…had already acquired pejorative connotations….” among the Bhadralok or the genteel classes of Calcutta who perceived them as “… rustics, crude and uncultured labourers, ‘outsiders’ from rural upper India…” despite their contribution in building the infrastructure of the city (Alexander, Chatterji & Jalais, 2016, p.166). Chakravarti (2017) views that the Bengali term ‘khotta’ used in Kolkata or the east Bengali inflection ‘khatua’ used to refer to Biharis in the city are pejoratives that identify the ethnic group as the universal ‘underclass’ labourer. This abhorrence of rural migrants from Bihar by the Bengali Bhadralok imagining can be traced to social, political and economic processes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that have also had a significant role in the construction of the Bhadralok as an intellectual class( Chattopadhyay, 2011)

Young people like Rani who do not identify singly with their Bihari lineage owing to their complex ethnic location are nonetheless compelled to negotiate their pejorative identification as Biharis to the Bengali imagining of the city. This is because their ethnic affiliation to Kolkata as the home that draws more centrally from birth, residence, and affiliation to school is refuted by the city that identifies and discriminates against them drawing on their Bihari lineage. In their resistance young people confront essentialist narratives of ethnic identity, emphasising the centrality of “subject position” to any construction of ethnicities (Nagel, 2003, p.40). This subject position is informed by competing socialisation scripts of ethnic masculinities and ethnic femininities that adolescents align with and resist in their routine assertion to belong.  While concerns of ‘belonging’ remain central to conversations around migrant ethnic identities (Ladesmaki et al, 2016), my study drawing on Joane Nagel (2000) argues for a social constructionist perspective of ethnicity and particularly an explication of ethnicity as ethno gendered and ethno sexual constructs. Nagel (2000) argues that “… ethnic boundaries and identities are built by self and others from such social materials as color, language, religion, and culture, (and) they can be seen to rest on gendered and sexualized foundations…” (113). This, in practice, means that the cultural gatekeepers of both ethnic groups exercise stringent forms of gendered and sexual surveillance over adolescents girls and boys to inculcate in them an imagined version  of an authentic,  unmixed ethnic identity. 

Thus while the urban space and the government school in Kolkata attempt to tutor young people into ethno-gendered codes of a Bengali Bhadralok girlhood and boyhood, the family and the rural home exercises equally stringent pressures on them to conform to a set of gendered Bihari normative. What distinguishes young people from their parents who constitute first generation internal migrants is their perception of belonging and ‘home’. Young people of Bihari lineage also and significantly draw on their schooling in Kolkata to emphasise an ethnocultural affiliation distinct from that of their parents who continue to locate Bihar as the space of ‘origin’ and ‘belonging’ and thus as a point of reference that informs the tutoring of the next generation. 

The questions of ‘here’ and ‘there’ and the ways in which ethno-gendered constructions are intertwined with them, are articulated by the adolescents as they attempt to understand and affirm their own location. This is illustrated in Sita’s view as she says, “ Each time I go there (rural Bihar), my aunts start, ‘ This walk and posture and look and talk is very unlike that of a girl from here.’” Sita says, “ I’m not from Bihar, even though there is that part of me that is Bihari. I don’t care to be a girl with a certain walk and talk. I’m from here (She means Kolkata).” In confronting the scripted performatives of an imagined ethnic femininity Sita disrupts the gendered and sexual surveillance of her ethnic lineage that attempts at identifying a moral breach of ethnocultural codes. In her resistance she also asserts her claim to the cultural universe both rural Bihar and Kolkata emphasising her distinctive location at the intersection of two ethnic identities and her consequent non allegiance to any single set of ethno-gendered performances. 

The sense of belonging to the city that Sita articulates is, however, not unproblematic particularly as the city (significant to which is the school) also straddles with the liminal character of the ethnocultural identity of Bihari adolescents. In a separate conversation she says, “One of the teachers at school who loves me because I do well says, ‘Do well and become a good girl. Don’t become a typical Bihari girl’.”

The teachers and the city at large remain conflicted on the question and conditions of the ethnic claim of Bihari adolescents to Kolkata. Teachers entrenched in the Bengali Bhadralok ethnic divide construct women in labouring Bihari migrant families almost as human chattel within stringent patriarchal cultures. This ethnicism is reinforced rather inadvertently through information in the media. Bihari girls are deemed by the school to meet a perceived fate similar to that of the senior women in their families. They are thus viewed as girls who ‘while their time away’ in ‘immoral acts’ at school. The school thus attempts to ‘fix’ them into an idea of a (emphasis added) Bengali femininity that connotes a docile, all conforming, and studious girl. This conception of an enlightened intellectual Bengali femininity is drawn on by the teachers from Bengal’s history of social reform, without attention to its problematics.

Boys too experience competing injunctions of an appropriate boyhood in a manner that confounds them of both, their dispositions as well as their responses to everyday situations. Amit says, “On a normal day classes are on and out of nowhere one of the teachers will say, ‘I’m watching you … I know what you boys are capable of …. I recognise your kinds of boys whenever I see them on the street’.” Amit retorts, “How do you think this makes us feel? I know what he means. He means that I’m a Bihari boy and that I’m not from here and that I don’t belong here! That’s why he’s ‘watching me’! Why else? He means that boys like me are capable of doing wrong to others, of harming others….’”

Drawing on the stereotypes of labouring work the school also constructs the boys as a ‘physical’ people sans intellect. This perception of the school is affirmed by their families as boys reveal that ethnic presentations of a virile, hypermasculine ‘self’ particularly in rural Bihar becomes central to gaining acknowledgement as men. The socio economic circumstances along with patriarchal structures that compel the boys to perform their masculinity in exaggerated ways is obfuscated by the school thus constructing stereotypes of them. Also, competing ethno-gendered pressures that compel boys to perform in specific ways in order to gain sanction as men and boys obfuscates their location at the intersection of two ethnic identities.

Thus as young people resist ethno-gendered stereotypes they inadvertently push the boundaries of ethnic gate keeping and in so doing argue for new imaginings of ethno cultural affiliation and performance. Their resistance needs to be read as an assertion to ‘belong’, a claim for recognition of their complex ethnic identity, though on terms that confronts patriarchal strictures of ethnicity. It is through their resistance that young people claim and also extend the gendered boundaries of ethnic belonging.  Their complex attempts at belonging need to be read as a call for acceptance, action and change, as Rani muses on a winter afternoon, “ No matter what they say I’ll be a city girl with education! I want to go to the village and take up some sort of work, at least for a while… may be teaching or some community work so I can interact with girls and women … and I will dress in a t-shirt and shorts and have a cycle to go round and round the village! Imagine what this sight will do to the village!.” 

Sangeeta Roy has a PhD from the School of Gender Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad India,Sangeeta’sPhD and Pre Doctoral research focusses on gendered schooling experiences of young people at the intersection of multiple marginalities of gender, ethnic identity and class. Sangeeta’s research engages with the ways in which migrant ethnic identities are articulated through constructions of gender and sexuality in the context of schooling experiences of adolescents of Bihari ethnic lineage. Sangeeta also has the experience of working in programme implementation, documentation and capacity building in the development sector focussing particularly on children and young people in vulnerable circumstances.


Alexander, C. Chatterji, J. & Jalais. A. (2015). The Bengal Diaspora: Rethinking Muslim Migration. Building a tazia becoming a paik: Bihari identity amidst a hostile Bengali universe. (pp. 161-190) Oxon : Routledge.

Chakravarti,  S. (2017). The Bengalis. A  portrait of a community. New Delhi : Aleph.

Chattopadhyay, S. (2011). Bengali masculinity and the national-masculine: some conjectures for interpretation. South Asia Research 31(3): 265–279.

Lähdesmäki, T; Saresma, T; Hiltunen, K; Jäntti, S; Sääskilahti, N; Vallius, Antti & Ahvenjärvi, K (2016). Fluidity and flexibility of “belonging”: Uses of the concept in contemporary research. Acta Sociologica59(3), 233-247.

Nagel, J. (2000). Ethnicity and Sexuality Annual Review of Sociology, 26 , 107-133.

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