Caste stranglehold

Published : Sep 22, 2006 00:00 IST

IF India has not been able to do away with a practice that is admittedly `a blot on humanity', it is because the issue goes beyond poverty, indifference, lack of awareness, or a reluctance to switch from traditional practices. Manual scavenging is rooted in caste as surely as caste is rooted in the nation's psyche.

Manual scavengers are called Han, Hadi, Balmiki, Dhanuk, Methar or Mehtar, Bhangi, Paki, Thotti, Madiga, Mira, Lalbegi, Chuhra, Balashahi and so on in different languages, but they are invariably considered `untouchable'. Without exception, all of them are Dalits, the overwhelming majority being women.

Gita Ramaswamy in her book India Stinking gives a historical overview of the problem, pointing out that India had covered drains and toilets with water as far back as 2500 B.C. (in Harappa). Vedic times brought changes. "We find that one of the fifteen duties for slaves enumerated in the Narada Samhita was the disposal of human excreta." She writes that, in India, since excreta avoidance is ritualised, "caste-Hindu society, not surprisingly, found the solution in the `polluted castes'."

This view is supported by other experts, for instance Mari Marcel Thekaekara, the author of Endless Filth. In the book she explains: "The word `bhangi' is derived from `bhanga' or broken, implying a community whose character is broken or destroyed. In its essence, it describes a community of untouchables... in colloquial usage, the word turns into an insult."

The conclusion is borne out by her research in Gujarat, bearing testimonies of people who were crushed down, and kept down, through their inherited work and caste. For instance, bhangi women wait hours at the local well since they are not allowed to draw water, not even from Dalit wells. They must wait until some upper-caste woman takes pity on them, draws a pot of water and pours it into their pot, from a non-polluting distance of course.

"Martin [Macwan] describes in detail some traditional practices designed to keep bhangis in their place," she writes, explaining the bhangi women's routine of begging for food every day along with their children. "Appropriate behaviour has to be learned. The correct tone, the suitably humble stance, the posture of the supplicant. The bhangi mother has to ensure, to teach her children that they must never, ever, even accidentally, touch the upper-caste person. In some States it could lead to a severe beating or if the ire of the polluted one is sufficiently aroused, even death... . Waiting with the bhangis are the street dogs." The situation may not be so bad everywhere, but there is almost no upper-caste household where a manual scavenger is allowed to eat or drink from the same vessel as the family.

Little wonder then that the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA) has filed a petition "in view of the continuing violation of the right against untouchability", and on the grounds that it was "wholly illegal and unconstitutional and an affront to human dignity".

Bezwada Wilson, national convener of the SKA, sums it all up when he says, "No matter how poor, would any upper-caste person carry another man's shit? We must educate scavengers so that they stop doing this."

Annie Zaidi
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