All I have been hearing and watching around me is the talk of brooms. But in the midst of all this talk, I was left wondering: did I actually miss seeing those brooms or hearing their sound sweeping the ground? Or was I just so obsessed with my understanding of who would be holding a broom that it all seemed like a strange phenomenon?
The recent Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, which has been so hyped up across India in the last few weeks, has just given us a glimpse of the height of caste bias of the elite and the implicit expectations that it imposes on certain caste groups who are traditionally associated with doing those 'cleaning' jobs. The visuals on mass media of the broom in an 'Unexpected' someone's hands troubles many Indians so much so that there would be many who would easily resort to lending a hand. This sympathy never troubles them in their everyday lives when a Dalit/lower caste person (an 'Expected' someone) does the job of cleaning, nor would they associate themselves with anyone seen with a broom every day.
The current cleanliness drive in our caste ridden country does not have an all encompassing vision, it does not concern itself with the harsh fact of the number of manual scavengers India keeps producing to clean human shit. Dealing with that filth and stench is not the mission of this Swachh Bharat. It presents just a superficial view, through the cleaned spectacles of Gandhi, of clean Hindu temples and neighbourhoods.
While reading through The Hindu, I went through the minutes of the launch of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, encapsulating the vision of Gandhi and Shastri of a Clean India, a vision of those people who never were forced to do this menial job. It was launched in a Valmiki (Dalit) colony where lives a community historically 'expected' and made to perform the role of cleaning and also to receive the 'spiritual' experience of scavenging. The Prime Minister used the broom and tin plate to clean the Valmiki colony's temple, appropriating the forced use of brooms and tin plates by Dalit to clean human waste, while the 'noble' cause of scavenging was easily left out of this mission, leaving the 'spirituality' to be attained from it to the Dalit community alone.
The fundamental problem that arises from the Swachh Bharat mission is why should it become such a huge drama? The portrayal in the media of the vulgar gesture of the upper castes/classes coming down to hold brooms and sprinkle their very caste biases does not evoke the idea of this being just an innocent cleanliness drive. The caste superiority they enjoy since birth and the fact that their lives will never be confined to just cleaning jobs ensure that they can easily get away from the task of cleaning with a one day stunt. In India, people do associate cleaning/sanitation with caste, with certain Dalit castes which would always be looked down upon and allotted an 'unclean' job.
The other problem is associating cleanliness with the broom alone. The very urbanized, and far from reality, pleasurable site of cleanliness itself has created a blot on the heinous task of scavenging which has been appropriated by this mission by not covering it under their campaign.
The work forced upon Dalits has been left untouched and unspoken. The language of caste is loud here in the Clean India Mission. Dominant caste groups and the leaders have eloquently quoted Gandhi envisaging a Clean India, while implicitly enforcing the practice of manual scavenging on Dalits. What was not heard in this campaign was the struggle for liberation of Dalits from such practices by Dr. Ambedkar.
The ignorance of caste based violations has been eloquently applied here, this applied ignorance of caste and its regime has resulted in the continuance of Dalit and Tribes working in menial jobs such as scavenging and in highly toxic environments. The physical violation accompanied by the stripping of dignity of Dalits forced to engage in this heinous task is not an issue in the Abhiyan. The privileged upper castes who indulge in the matter of cleanliness through the Swatch Bharat Abhiyan also take a pledge to 'Not Create Waste' and 'Not Let Others Create Waste', but do not take the pledge of 'Not Making Someone Else Clean My Waste'.
If the solution to manual scavenging were just waterborne toilets, then why is it taking so long to end manual scavenging? If it had been just a question of technology, I guess it would not take another Mangalyaan mission to create self-treating human waste processing systems which would ensure that there would be no manual scavengers getting submerged in our septic tanks in the future. But this is not the case, it's the applied ignorance of people born with privilege to sustain caste oppression and prosper. This ignorance has captivated our consciousness, ignoring the aspect that of 1.3 million manual scavengers in India, most are Dalit women. The point here is to understand, how deeply drowned we are in this shit. The shit of caste, the shit of ignorance, the shit of privilege and the shit of the religion inclined state.
Amritha Mohankumar is a student of M.A. in Dalit and Tribal Studies and Action (2013-15) at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
Cartoon by Unnamati Syama Sundar.