They Clean Shit

Ram Puniyani

Gimmicks are a part of Modi style of politics. Rather they form the core of his strategies. His act of washing the feet of five sanitary workers and then tweeting it came as another of such acts. Irritated by his act many a social activist responded through tweets. Bezwada Wilson, the most dogged fighter against manual scavenging, who is convener of Safai Kamgar Sangthan, tweeted "105 people killed in sewer and septic tanks in 2018 alone. He kept mum. Now washing feet. Justice not rituals, Mr PM! What a pity!" Then he carried on, "As a CM, he spiritualised shit cleaning, now as PM glorifying injustice…. this act is against Baba Saheb Ambedkar's mission—jhaadoo chhodo kalam pakdo (leave the broom, pick up pen) #StopKillingUs." And further: "Clean your mind not our feet, Mr. PM! Highest form of humiliation. 1.6 lac women still forced to clean shit, not a single word in five years. What a shame!"

This in a way summed up the pain and anguish of those who are the victims of caste system in this brutal form. Sitaram Yechuri of CPM points out that "despite the death of 105 workers in sewers and septic tanks in 2018 & 11 in 2019 alone, nothing has been done to redress the grave situation despite Court Orders. He said that photo shoots with multiple cameras only rub salt into the wounds of those suffering historical injustices." Similarly CPI(ML) Liberation draws people's attention to another aspect of the problem, "PMO India, it's your job to ensure sanitation workers are paid dues, end manual scavenging & sewer deaths. Instead you are striking poses washing their feet! A sanitation worker died in #KumbhMela2019 due to negligence, will you speak on that?"

As such while washing the feet of these workers a sort of glorification of the system is being done. The people who work as sanitation workers in India are not heroes but victims. Another set of data tells us that 2014 to 2016, at least 1,327 sanitation workers died across India as they were sent into sewers without any safety equipment. Death alone is not true reflective of this ignominy. Manually cleaning excreta is a terribly degrading and humiliating work. It strips away a person's humanity. The very existence of hereditary castes of sanitation workers is a dark blot on India. Even countries poorer than India have abolished this horrid practice.

Why it persists in India for so long can best be understood from the values and mindset of people like Modi and his parent organisation, the RSS. Modi in his book Karmyoga (2007) states, "Scavenging must have been a spiritual experience for the Valmiki caste. At some point of time, somebody must have got the enlightenment that it is their [Valmikis'] duty to work for the happiness of the entire society and the gods; that they have to do this job bestowed upon them by gods; and that this job of cleaning-up should continue as an internal spiritual activity for centuries. This should have continued generation after generation. It is impossible to believe that their ancestors did not have the choice of adopting any other work or business."

This spiritual experience is reserved for the Valmikis, a sub-caste among Dalits, which has been condemned to scavenging jobs for centuries. The functions of the caste are also being glorified and propagated even today in very subtle ways.

The deeper goal of RSS, Modi's parent organisation is to maintain the status quo as far as caste system is concerned. One of the major reasons for formation of RSS was rising assertion of dalits, inspired by Joti Rao Phule and Bhimrao Ambedkar. Dalits had started non-Brahman movement in 1920s in Vidarbha region. This upsurge among dalits disturbed the upper caste; who rallied around to form RSS in 1925. RSS ideologue Golwalkar regards Manusmriti as glorious book which gave the laws to Hindu society, the laws which give values for all the times to come. Ambedkar on other side went on to burn the same book as a symbol of opposition to caste and gender hierarchy.

Manual scavenging in its present form should have been abolished long ago. This practice was officially supposed to have been banned in 1993 by the Government of India. Official lapses and apathy apart, the surveys by the activists working against this practice show that even now lakhs of scavengers are still suffering ignominy and nearly 95% of these workers are women. These scavengers are the untouchable section of dalits, who have been trapped in this occupation as a birth based work. The States have not taken the act of abolition of this practice seriously and even till 1999-2000 many a State had not notified the act. It is in this light that the social action group Safai Karmachari Andolan which is campaigning against manual scavenging had given a call for abolition of this atrocity by the end of 2010.

Vol. 51, No. 39, Mar 31 - Apr 6, 2019