Interview: Bezwada Wilson

The Dalit identity dilemma

Print edition : April 28, 2017

Bezwada Wilson. Photo: C.V. Subrahmanyam

Interview with Bezwada Wilson, national president of the Safai Karmachari Andolan.

MAGSAYSAY Award winning activist and national president of the Safai Karmachari Andolan Bezwada Wilson is a co-petitioner with Major General (Retd) S.G. Vombatkere in a Supreme Court case relating to the Aadhaar project. He raises an important concern about the impact of Aadhaar on people born into oppressed castes, particularly safai karmacharis, or manual scavengers. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

What is your opinion on Aadhaar?

There is no necessity for Aadhaar. Common people do not understand why Aadhaar exists. Voters’ card, driving licence, passport, ration card—all of them have their own purposes. What is the purpose of Aadhaar? I am still asking why. Nobody is giving a real answer for this. I do not believe that Aadhaar was brought in to check pilferages in social-sector schemes; after all, this government waived off corporate loans worth Rs.1.14 lakh crore. For the first time, I started suspecting [the intention of] this decision when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced funds allocation and the launch of Aadhaar without any discussion in Parliament. First they said it was only for welfare, then LPG subsidy and then kept on expanding it. Every time you keep on changing, this makes citizens suspect these actions.

You [the government] may want control over citizens by allotting them numbers, but for citizens it is an additional burden because managing existing identity and other official cards itself is difficult, especially for the poor. Aadhaar reflects a complete slavery mindset. My father was a safai karmachari in Kolar [Karnataka] near the goldmine that was operated by the British until 1962 and then changed hands when the Indian government became its owner in 1980. Until the time of his retirement in 1976, he was identified by token number 95/17, which he would wear on his waist. When he retired, he gave it back to the company. They didn’t know his name; he was identified only by the token number. This is similar to Aadhaar. This mindset of controlling is similar to how the British controlled my father. My brother was also working there and had a similar experience.

Why did you become a petitioner in the Supreme Court case?

Identities of Dalits and Adivasis should never be permanent; they should be able to transcend them. My basic problem is that [Aadhaar facilitates] keeping identity forever. This is against my principle. Because it is a caste-ridden society and we already have identities. You don’t need any Aadhaar; [people are] already branded so we don’t need any fingerprints or iris recognition. We are segregated in such a way very clearly, demarcated in villages. In this society we must have a technology or application through which we can destroy these boundaries and make India a humane society. Instead of that you have now started branding very clearly, documenting everybody. For instance, as manual scavengers we want to come out of the identity and destroy it forever. We don’t want that identity again. Any marginalised community, any manual scavenging or vulnerable community wants to destroy its existing identity; that is our whole struggle. So you are branding; even if I come out of this and get liberation also, but in your Aadhaar, my occupation, where I come from, everything will be there. Once you get the data, you can segregate in any way by means of technology. See, you never used identity to support us, never purposely did a proper survey to identify and rehabilitate us. Now you want to give us an identity?

For 70 years since Independence, there has been no record of how many manual scavengers are there. Names were not enrolled in government records to ensure they come out of the profession by helping them accordingly. You are not giving me some benefits on account of the identity, nor are you letting me get out of it. Your [government’s] intervention itself is suspect.

How has Aadhaar affected the everyday life of safai karmacharis?

Last year the Maharashtra government passed an Act that says all safai karmachari jobs are reserved fully for this [sweeper] community. So if a safai karmachari goes to seek some other job, he will be immediately identified. Officials will ask him, “Why are you here for a job when there is 100 per cent reservation for your community?”

It has happened to me in my life. In 1984, after 10th class, while I was studying my pre-university course in my native place of Kolar, I had enrolled myself at the Employment Exchange. I was told you get seniority [in the application process]. I was 18 or 19 years old and looking for clerical jobs. But a clerical staff from the exchange enrolled my name for a sanitation job. When I asked him why, he said, “You are from that caste. You reside in that [Dalit] colony, no? So I wrote the occupation accordingly.” I could have been anything, a typist, attender, gardener, watchman, working in some lab —anything but a scavenger. So I tore apart the [employment exchange] card.

When I have such an experience, when you do these kinds of things [making Aadhaar compulsory], I do get scared about this whole system. In Maharashtra, for example, you cannot apply for any other job. The government may not have linked Aadhaar to the law but all officials ask for Aadhaar [in government offices].

Another example is regarding the one-time cash assistance of Rs.40,000 given by government to safai karmacharis for getting out of the profession. When our safai karmacharis applied for this assistance, they [officials] are openly saying that they won’t give it without Aadhaar. So they [safai karmacharis] are forced to get it soon, which is an inconvenience. Aadhaar centres in villages particularly are not available all the time.

While speaking of privacy and collection of fingerprints in Aadhaar, some cite instances of citizens willing to give personal data; for example, while applying for passports. How would you respond?

Applying for passport is not mandatory, it is a choice. If I want something, I will apply. But you are throwing it on me; as a citizen I don’t want to accept it. I am not a slave. [WikiLeaks founder] Julian Assange and [U.S. whistle-blower] Edward Snowden say any data can be misused. Let people have their own choice on Aadhaar. You don’t look at citizens from your own viewpoint, but try to understand theirs.

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