Posted by: Vikram | September 7, 2017

The Cantonment Class

Lets take a trip down the Indo-Gangetic plain and India’s memory lane, courtesy Google Maps. We start at Amritsar.


From the sky, the usual treeless, busy sprawl of Indian cities is clearly visible, but notice the stark difference with the region enclosed in black. This area seems to be greener, more organized and spaced out than the rest of the city. It is called Amritsar cantonment.

We move down the road a little bit, to the city of Jalandhar.


Again, we have a stone coloured spread, which seems to contrast with the green area tucked away in one corner of the city. The green area is Jalandhar cantonment.


Separated by an air force base from Ambala proper, Ambala cantonment is virtually its own city.


Moving into UP, we see the Bareilly cantonment. Bareilly’s limited economic development means that the cantonment seems nearly as large as the city itself.


The famous Meerut cantonment.


Lucknow cantonment, with the city on both sides of it. It seems large enough for its residents to have to never leave it, and access the Lucknow outside it.

And, as we keep sailing down the Ganges, we see further cantonments in Allahabad, Danapur, and Howrah (Kolkata). These are however smaller than the ones in the upper Indo-Gangetic plain.

For a major part of India, cantonments have come to define modern urban geography. And more profoundly, they have come to shape the English speaking Indian’s psychology.

The English word canton, derived from French, stands for a military garrison or camp. The cantonment towns spread across the Indo-Gangetic plain were the first firm outposts of British colonial rule in interior India. They differed significantly from the trade and commerce oriented European outposts on coastal India, and the rest of the colonized world. Sequestered from the provincial Indian towns that the colonizers wanted to access, but not inhabit, they offered the colonizers an opportunity to imprint an urban, European aesthetic sense in the heart of India. At first, Indians had extremely limited access to these cantonments. Later, things changed for the worse.

The British made a bargain with elite Indians which would wreak long term effects on the psychology of Indians. Elite Indians would be permitted to work, educate their children and even stay in the cantonments, but there was a condition. They had to show that they would be useful to the colonial Raj. Entry to the cantonments for natives, which was to become highly competitive, relied on them clearing civil service exams which would demonstrate their ability to serve the British colonial project in India.

Therefore, for a critical section of the Indian population (the yeast of the dough in a sense), the inclusion-exclusion paradigm of such spaces was completely inverted. Instead of seeing these cantonment towns for what they were; segregated zones which excluded the locals, and included only for those loyal/useful to the Raj. Elite Indians came to see these areas as spaces which integrated ‘deserving Indians’ into the Anglo imperial world, and excluded ‘undeserving Indians’, who according to them lacked intelligence, honesty and other qualities which Europeans automatically possessed.

Since it was the exclusion of other Indians that provided cantonment Indians with a sense of their own self-worth, they came to see other Indians, rather than the colonizers, as the inhibitors of their possibilities for personal growth, and a secure, civilized life. These rivalries ultimately took tragic and devastating forms through Hindu-Muslim antagonisms right up to independence and partition, with each group trying to create more space for its constituents inside the cantonments via political mobilizations. Such a mentality persists to this day in the form of various caste based political parties, which demand government jobs for their constituent caste groups.

Today, many young, urban Indians aspire to enter the Silicon Valley cantonment. Americans would hardly imagine the San Fransisco Bay area as an exclusionary, triumphalist area of their country. But in a sense, this is what the Bay area means to many of the current generation of elite Indians who work and live there. The Bay area is special to them because residence there is an automatic proof of their self worth.

The economic, social and political consequences of our cantonment mentality have been damaging. Elite Indians in urban areas continue to be mentally and physically sequestered in ‘colonies’ or ‘model towns’. They have completely ceded urban political space to other actors. But this class of people still tries to control and influence policy through non democratic channels, further reducing the quality and legitimacy of democracy in Indian urban areas.


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