Hope and humiliations that shadows the life of a Safai Karmchari!

While the fascist are trying their best to snatch every opportunity of dignified life – education, progress and research from scholars of marginalized background, a tenacious resolve is all it takes to assert identity, politics and representation in one go. Achievement has its way of slapping away the odds and brings forth a voice that’s not been heard before. Sunil Yadav, a Safai Karmachari (a manual scavenger) in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) and a Ph.D scholar at TISS has secured a hosting letter from Georgetown University, Washington DC for very prestigious FULLBRIGHT fellowship in USA.

Below is his offer letter from Georgetown University.

Besides, Sunil presented a paper: ‘Humiliation by Birth: A Case of Scavenging/ Cleaning in India’ at the University of Massachusetts, USA which was received very well. Sunil who is doing a dissertation on ‘the State Labour Process and Scavenging in India’ was invited to Boston to present his views. In his own words, “I focused on the humiliation that shadows a Safai Karamchari right from his birth.”

As some of you may gloat or hate over this opportunity that Sunil Yadav, a Safai Karmachari has received or critique/ discard his achievement and blame it on reservation or caste privilege or something absurd like that. It becomes essential to learn what does manual scavenging mean in India; and the materiality of caste attached with a job like manual scavenging.

In that light, I am attempting to analyze PM Modi’s Swachh Bharat Campaign. Our Prime Minister, Narendra Modi with an aim to achieve the vision of a clean India by 2nd October 2019 started this campaign on 2nd October 2014 in New Delhi. “A clean India would be the best tribute India could pay to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150th birth anniversary in 2019,” said Shri Narendra Modi.

While the Prime Minister retorts to a nationwide audience Gandhi’s dream of clean and hygienic India, two analogies make their ways serendipitously. From the lens of Roland Barthes, (philosopher, linguistic and semiotician) a bunch of symbols stand out. First are the image of Gandhi and the burden of ideologies and life that come unloading when you look at the image of the Mahatama, or his quintessential round spectacles. Second is the presence of the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi leading the campaign himself and third are the presence of Indian Flag in Gandhi’s round spectacles and the Emblem of India, under the ‘Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.’ All these images signify power, ideologies and value systems.

Starting from the symbolic image of the Mahatama himself, the historical, cultural and political thought system working its way stands in your face. The idea of clean and hygienic India has been drawn from the life and political campaign of Gandhi. He thought of manual scavenging as a work of god and called it a spiritual work but never really created a solution for manual scavengers or any Dalit-Bahujan caste. In fact he put his life at stake to make sure that Separate Electorate or Communal Award was taken away from them during the time of national movement from the British.
Gandhi in an essay in 1936 himself wrote, “The Ideal Bhangi”, in which he advises manual scavengers to convert urine and night soil into manure as proof of his patronising attitude towards Harijans and how it helped reinforce caste hierarchies.”

What Gandhi actually did was to appropriate the identity of an untouchable vis-à-vis his social concerns without actually working towards uplifting the lives of that community. Reminds me of Semiologist Umberto Uno who said, ‘Signs are anything that can be used to substitute for something else.’ So what Gandhi did was to substitute the life of an untouchable with that of his performance of being an untouchable, that was different from whom he was in real life. Gandhi was and still is rather exalted and a privileged phenomenon.

It is interesting to note how Ambedkar retorted to Gandhi’s performance. In Ambedkar’s own words, “In India, a man is not a scavenger because of his work. He is a scavenger because of his birth irrespective of the question whether he does scavenging or not.”

This brings to a question of power play. In India that power is caste. And the pseudo narratives that it brings with itself in socio-economic reality of life. So, while Gandhi kept his performance noteworthy so as to achieve the vote bank for his Congress party back then, (Bahujans were and still form the biggest chunk of Indian population, 85% as per Mandal Commission) and religiously adhered to the Hindu caste structure, Ambedkar empowered the untouchables by giving them a Constitution which is biggest impediment in a largely Brahmanical hegemony today. The constitution begins like this: “WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN, SOCIALIST, SECULAR, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC and to secure to all its citizens: JUSTICE, social, economic and political; LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; EQUALITY of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all, FRATERNITY assuring the degree of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation.”

Umberto Eco words further resonate in here, “If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth.” For me, here the lie that has been told and sold over generations is Gandhi. His image is symbolic of the politics of this country that thrives on caste and communal divisions. A ray of hope Eco brings when he says, ‘Because we can lie with signs, we can use signs to find truth.’ The deeper truth for me and perhaps for India is the necessity of acknowledging the contribution and the idea of Ambedkar’s modern India. In this campaign of Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan where India is goading over the ideology of Gandhi and the image of Modi, has the undercurrent of caste based politics.

In Ambedkar’s words, ‘The system of untouchability has been a goldmine for the Hindus. This system affords 60 millions of untouchables to do the dirty work of scavenging and sweeping to the 240 million Hindus who are debarred by their religion to do such dirty work. But the work must be done for the Hindus and who else than the untouchables?”

The Sunday Guardian on April, 26th, 2018 reported, “Despite the ban on manual scavenging in India, over 300 cases of deaths due to manual scavenging have been reported from across the country in 2017 alone, according to a reply given by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment to the Lok Sabha in December last year. Tamil Nadu has reported the highest number of cases of death of manual scavengers, with over 140 cases reported in the state during the said period, while 59 cases have been reported from Karnataka and 52 from Uttar Pradesh. Delhi also reported the death of 12 manual scavengers in 2017.”

Now, with a State’s attitude such as that what reflects in numbers, when we look at the plight of untouchables, Social theorist, Literary critique and philosopher, Michel Foucault’s take at the this first mode of the objectivizing of the productive subject, the subject who labors, in the analysis of wealth and of economics’ makes it way. The way the system of caste has been designed is to keep the lower rungs in the lowest low of life. A subject of power relations as Foucault perhaps would have looked at it, where the State is the power and the subjects for the Swachh Bharat Campaigns are the lot of Dalit- Bahujan’s whose dignity is the ‘tragedy of their surface operation.’

Perhaps that’s why such consistent attack –verbal/institutional/caste and gender violence on marginalized communities in India is becoming the order of the day.

In contemporary India’s it is our respected PM himself who is furthering the ideology of Gandhi’s by holding a ‘broom’ and ‘tin’ in hand. Another performance just like that of his predecessor’s that has wider implication, wider audience and privilege attached to it. Another powerful figure that knows the implication of media and the image that it creates, just like his forerunner, Gandhi. The media that works in consonance with the State and the State that has access to control fundamental rights of citizens; a State that inserts methodologically principles and ideas of a nation and national integrity is illuminating as Historian, Social critique and Cognitive Scientist’s Naom Chomsky’s ‘Propoganda Model’ speaks of ownership, advertising and ideology; this ad campaign reeks of it.

Gandhi knew, (so Congress knew) and Modi is aware of the power of an image and the political economy of Swachh Bharat Campaign. If we go back to Foucault, it makes it clear of the hand in glove power relationship the State has with elite and how they deal with their subjects. The State exactly knows that these images are like speed booster in caste privilege race while superficially carrying on the performance without ever discussing the intention of caste dictates’ of Hindu scriptures.

If manual scavenging could have been curbed by implanting waterborne toilets, by creating public and community toilets, or freeing spaces from open defecation or implanting green or blue bin for dry and wet waste, it would have been done by now. It’s an age-old problem and a show will not remove the practice, a scientific shift in attitude needs to be brought in at the conscious level that will make one stand face to face to hierarchical system of caste and its binding rules.

Permanent employment of 1.3 million manual scavengers who are mostly Dalit women is not what the campaign actually stands for. There are lives that are still getting lost sans presence of any safety gears. With the advent of technology and while our scientists shooting for the moon or exploring water on Mars or launching Mangalyan, I don’t how difficult it is to create a self treating human waste processing system which could save lives of manual scavengers who are paying a heavy price for the State’s cheap caste politics. Clearly a sign of Foucault’s ‘dividing practices.’ Here the Bahujans are either divided inside themselves because of the conflict of their identity with the State or their identity becomes the dividing trait from others and leads to their victimization.

The symbolic use of a broom and tin, the pledge of ‘Not Create Waste’ and ‘Not Let Others Create Waste doesn’t even think of the possibility of the ‘Not Making Someone Else Clean My Waste.’

Nobody questions: Who is cleaning my waste? Why technology has still not gotten rid of this? Why cleaning the minds of the people who perpetuate this practice is required? And how there is dialectical relationship between this dirt and cleansing? How minds need be educated not purified? How people who represent this movement in Swacch Bharat Campaign are both privileged and powerful need be questioned from their social, economic, scientific, political and moral lens?

Bollywood actors such as Amitabh Bachchan, Anushka Sharma, to the sportspersons, industrialists to spiritual leaders, all have lined up for the noble cause it seems. They do give heroes like like Bejwada Wilson, the national convenor of the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) who received the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay prize in 2016 for asserting the inalienable right to a life of human dignity, a chance to speak but systematically continue to make their struggle harder by the day. Proof that is in 2014-2015, the budgetary allocation under the “Self Employment Scheme for the Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers” was Rs 448 crore, which was reduced to just Rs 5 crore in 2017-18.

A power dynamics situation again. Like Gandhi was pushed against Ambedkar, Bejwada has been pushed against an Anushka Sharma or Amitabh Bachchan. The power to create false narratives or narratives that suits one socio-economic, political reality; a reality that essentially makes them win.

“In response to a public interest plea moved by the Safai Karmachari Andolan in 2003, almost every state government had told the Supreme Court that its population included no manual scavengers. But in its March 2014 judgment, the apex court accepted the sample, which includes 1.8 lakh manual scavengers in the country. Hundreds if not thousands in almost state, including 2,500 in Bengal, told the surveyors they manually remove untreated human excreta from dry toilets, railway tracks and sewers.”

Wilson criticized the State’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, saying some two lakh among the community toilets being set up under it would not have their septic tanks linked to the sewage lines. “Who will clean these tanks? Manual scavengers, of course. In a way, the government is perpetuating the problem of manual scavenging,” Wilson said.

The fact that ‘Swachh Bharat Campaign’ is the most significant cleanliness campaign by the Government of India makes this reading at one end sad and at the other end reflective of India’s politics. The mechanism of the powerful play of symbols, colors, signs, speeches, gestures and ideologies et. all, in subverting meanings, in coding and decoding meanings is a very revealing experience. What is denoted in this Swachh Bharat Campaign is the idea of a clean India but what it connotes is a casteist India.

The play of powerful icons like Amitabh Bachchan to continue to play the image of a superstar, or a Virat Kohli to further play the image of a phenomenal cricketer, or the NGO’s which sell ‘Corporate Social Responsibilities’ initiatives and schemes; and keep both the capital and social cause in the policy periphery of their interests. Or even if it is our Prime Minister, Smriti Irani or Sushman Swaraj carrying on cleaning drives – a performance is after all what you see not a solution.

At the backdrop of such a casteist India, Sunil Yadav receiving an offer letter of support for a Fullbright fellowship from the Director of Georgetown University is a welcome change and ignites hope in a largely fascist state for Bahujans.

As Ambedkar said, “Cultivation of mind should be the ultimate aim of human existence.”

~ Jyotinisha

Jyotinisha is an independent Writer/Film-maker/Illustrator and Scholar based in Mumbai, India. She is an alumnus of the prestigious, Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi, and Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. Currently she is pursuing MA in Media and Cultural Studies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and making a feature length documentary film on Dr. B. R Ambedkar.

इसे भी पढ़ें–Speaking from hegemony to hegemony

  • दलित-बहुजन मीडिया को मजबूत करने के लिए और हमें आर्थिक सहयोग करने के लिये दिए गए लिंक पर क्लिक करें https://yt.orcsnet.com/#dalit-dastak 


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