Before the Hindu Führer (read Narendra Modi) falls back to his usual, even inevitable, ‘politics of cleansing’, he strayed to a ‘politics of cleaning’. Just as Hindutva is a project of purging Hinduism of its constitutive divisions, its long-standing tendency to be above the rough and tumble and the reach of temporal power, its reflective cowardice, the dynamics of which were detailed in the work of probably the greatest of Indian historians D. D. Kosambi, who is not much known even within the country.
Another way is to see Hindutva as a sincere attempt to model Hinduism after Sangh’s own distorted picture of global Islam. The latest move of Führer’s might as well be an attempt to address the Hindu civilization’s most glaring paradox: the inversely proportional relation between its ritualistic obsession with purity and its spectacularly ghastly uncleanliness for all the world to see and smell. Hindutva is a sort of public-spirited Hinduism. As sociologists have long known and even can be accused of making a fetish of it, purity is central to Hinduism, just as it is for fascism. Hindutva, a murderous mixture of both, obviously will have to resolve the issue of purity, in new ways for new times of accelerated tourism and globalization, future war and ongoing genocide.
This apparently pseudo gesture with the broom would invariably go beyond the Führer’s initial and limited intentions, which, I guess, include, bringing back to his fold, the estranged kin of Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man’s Party), with a propaganda (arm) twist—with this, the surprising anomaly of Arvind Kejriwal (Leader of Common Man’s Party whose election symbol is broom) being the only heroic fighter against Modi is smoothed out (I am borrowing here from a wit named Uday Chandra (a scholar based in Gottingen), minus his laconic brilliance; appealing to the international community’s image of Gandhi and releasing Gandhi from the hijackers of Nehru Family and restoring him to where he properly belongs (Sangh), and addressing something real which strikes every Non-Indian or Non-Resident Indian upon hearing the word ‘India’, but rarely uttered, either out of politeness or apathy, in that order: the inhuman, barbaric state of Indian public places.
If traditional Hinduism and its colonial and post-colonial accomplice states forced particular region-specific castes with the burden of cleaning all the filth that cannot be left in private and public spaces, the Führer, for a moment, nationalised it before international cameras turned away from him. There is a certain fakery, dishonesty, even mockery in this spectacle, which will any way be exposed and ripped apart by critical observers and social media. Such work is absolutely important. But, who is not a hypocrite when it comes to the question of manual scavenging and sanitation labour? Not even Dalits (former untouchable castes) and Dalit champions, if one observes critically.
I am yet to come across a fellow Dalit or Marxist activist from Mala, Mahar, Madiga, Paraiyar, Chamar or Paswan who has fallen in love with a person from Safai Karamchari community. My own community is into manual scavenging in Chennai, where I studied and worked, even as we back in Andhra had been liberated from it more than a generation ago. In the mainstream or even radical Dalit discourses and politics, focus on this inhuman institution is as marginal as the very important issue of the Hindu state of India’s war on Tribals.
However, this state of affairs doesn’t stop individuals from relatively advanced Dalit castes, such as mine, from invoking the institution of ‘manual scavenging’ to convince the skeptics, apologists and denialists, routinely. Still, none of the rights thus achieved, by convincing or coercing those in power to spare some meager resources, have served to address the forced sanitation work in subhuman conditions.
Few Ambedkarite associations care to take up even symbolic struggles, either against this inhuman institution or for the welfare of those stuck in the profession concerned. Let alone the actual work, there isn’t even as much as serious discussion about it as an important responsibility of organizations. No wonder then, that the pressing task of welfare of the cleaning workers, before the eradication of such work, is left with NGOs who are alleged to be among the most corrupt where the biggest of such organisation ironically operates from Gujarat, and which is in cahoots with the Führer, during 2002 and since.
Though these funded reformers roped in the greatest activist for this cause, Bezawada Wilson (a well-known Dalit activist working to eradicate manual scavenging), they succeeded in keeping Dalits away from any anti-fascist politics and surely from the stated task of improving the lot of manual scavengers and eradication of the repugnant vocation.
So, nobody is clean as far as this institution of compelling one community to clean up everybody’s filth goes. Modi is not the only hypocrite in this. There is only one ultimate solution for the twin problems of ubiquitous filth in our habitats, and one people being laden with the task of cleaning it, based on their birth. That is, ensuring that the cleaning job is not unclean either in its process or the society’s perception of those involved in it.
Before this is achieved, conditional as it is upon changes in infrastructure, attitudes and Dalit activism’s priorities, the work of cleaning is to be universalized. Smart-sounding solutions that each must take care of the filth they create do not always work in the prevailing conditions. Let there still be the practice of some people cleaning the filth created by society, but those some people need not be the same ones always. This responsibility can rotate.
Cleaning service should be made compulsory for everybody irrespective of their regular profession. Trust me, once non-Dalits are compelled to do it, working conditions, workers’ rights, technological interventions, and funding will dramatically improve. For this to happen, the communities confined to, or forced into this profession are to be targeted for alternative employment, through education and cultural change, not just among these communities, but also among those forcing them into such condition.
This is possible only through sincere work by Dalit organizations, which is again conditional upon such organizations ceasing to be the exclusive preserves of government employees from single better-off castes of respective regions. So, first universalize sanitation work, before its final eradication. One might think it is unrealistic suggestion, or, at least, a distant dream. If this doesn’t happen– sure it will not, even through the most serious exertion of dictatorial powers of the Führer (who is going to only tighten screws on the polity and bureaucracy)– if not accompanied by Dalit activism.
If not diverted to the real purpose and challenges of sanitation, the theme of purity will only grow to its sanguinary overtones, from further sexual repression of all women to younger generation in general, to further vilification of Muslim slum dwellers, to war on Love Jihad (an alleged campaign against Muslim youth that they force conversion of non-Muslim girls to Islam feigning Love), to cleansing streets of the unsightly populations, mono-religious gated communities, stigmatization of meat-shops and many more such countless ways of branding, to a radical cleansing of a people.
This feature was written by Chittibabu Padavala.
Chittibabu Padavala is a Dalit activist based in Hyderabad. He can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org