Night-soil anyone?

That’s almost a pretty term.

I spent most of my reading time past week trying to get past the stench of the articles I read. The stench, for once, was not caused because of the lies I read but because of the truths they contained.

What got me started was this moving piece in Insight Young Voices. The motive for the article was Shri Praveen Swami’s insensitive and rather thoughtless observations:

“Working upwards of fourteen hours a day — not counting the typically three hours spent commuting — constable Kamble earns a basic pay of Rs. 5,200 a month. Sanitation workers employed by the Brihan Mumbai Municipal Corporation are paid less — Rs. 4,440 a month — but end up taking home similar wages, because of overtime. Indeed, until the Sixth Pay Commission recently upgraded the categorisation of police work as semi-skilled from skilled, sanitation workers actually made more money. Little has been done to upgrade the police’s living standards and training.”

This attracted a stinging riposte:

“This article by Pravin Swami hints to question the “higher earnings” of sanitation worker than that of security personnel.

Higher wages for sanitation worker can help them choose better education and provide better health facilities for their children and family. Although it is highly improbable, higher wages might encourage people from other castes to also join these services. In reality the working conditions and wages of sanitation workers in Mumbai is not sufficient to protect their lives. Maharashtra police personnel have comprehensive health insurance; however nothing exist of that sort for sanitation worker who are equally or more vulnerable to health crisis than police personnel.”

The point is a lack of sensitivity, or awareness. Or both.

There are many causes for the curse of manual scavenging of human waste. Shri Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak says :

“The scavengers are also known as Bhangis (considered derogatory), Balmiki, Chuhra, Mazhabi, Rangreta, Lalbegi, Hela, Hari, Dom, Dhanuk, Thoti, Pakay, Mukhiyar, etc.

The names of scavenging castes suggest that they are a functional community recruited from many different racial and social groups. It is very likely that one of the reasons that may have led people belonging to the lowest strata to take to the profession of scavenging especially in the urban areas was the compulsion, arising due to economic necessity. The great variations in the physical features of the different sections of this community, and also the varied recruitment from higher castes of “broken men*”, outcasts, destitutes, etc. show that the members of various castes have joined this profession at different points of time obviously owing to economic compulsions. It is also generally believed that after the advent of the Muslims in India ‘sweeping and scavenging’ seems to have taken the form of a formal profession. It is said that the system of bucket privies was designed and constructed by Muslims for their women in ‘pardah’. Those who were made captives, were forced to clean latrines, bucket privies and throw off the night-soil at distant places. These captives when freed, were not accepted by the society and they formed a separate caste and continued the work of scavenging. During the British period with the setting up of army cantonments and municipalities, a large number of people were required to do these services on a regular basis. How could the imperial masters suffer the indignity of being seen going out to answer the call of nature! The white man’s burden, a-la-Kipling, which a white burdened himself with, became the headload of scavengers.”

Some allied observations:

1. It is understandable that Dalits (untouchable castes) would distrust those from other castes and would instinctively shoot down offers to help.

2. The Dalit agenda and goal of a caste-less society, shared amongst others by folks such as Shri Dr. Pathak above is and will always be rejected by Hindus of other castes.

3. It is understood that the anti-caste angst of the Dalit arises out of hatred for his condition but that is not a strong enough argument for folks of other castes to discard their castes altogether. They do not see the connexion.

4. When we speak of caste today, we no longer speak of the occupational basis of caste but of the cultures and traditions built around castes. As for occupations, we have people from diverse castes involved in similar occupations.

5. Therefore, in my view, it is a better goal for Dalit castes to throw off the yoke of “current occupation” and take up “better occupations”.

6. Their fight, ideally, should be also for space for their traditions and cultures that they can take pride in.

Read what Ms Manjula Pradeep says:

Who was Veer Megh Mahya?

It is said that once there was a severe drought during Siddhrajsinh Solanki’s reign and people were dying without water. The court astrologer advised the king to find a man with 32 good qualities and sacrifice him to end the drought. The hunt for the perfect man ended with Mahya, an untouchable, who hailed from Ranoda village (in present Dholka taluka, Ahmedabad).

Mahya agreed to sacrifice himself but with three conditions – the untouchables from then onwards would not carry brooms tied behind their backs, they would not tie pot around their necks for spitting and would not carry extra pocket or third sleeves on their upper garments. These were the markers of being an untouchable during those times and were strictly enforced by dominant castes. The king had to agree to these conditions and then Mahya was killed.

It is unfortunate that modern historians have never recognised him and his struggle but his memories are being kept alive by the Dalits in Gujarat.  In the rural areas, they keep a copper pot in the foundation while constructing their houses and tie a green festoon (chundadi) at their doors in memory of Veer Megh Mahya. I feel it is very important for all of us who are engaged in fighting against caste discrimination to remember the lives and struggles of our forefathers.

7. But is Hinduism not the culprit? I will say it is not Hinduism but circumstance that is the culprit. Dalit ideologues are fond of claiming Muslim and British saviors for themselves. If they had been a little more honest to themselves, they would realize that the Muslims and British have not been far behind in exploiting them and perhaps making their conditions worse.

There is the fact of the municipality of Punjab regulation that fined a scavenger Rs 10 (at the turn of the 20th century)on pain of complaint received from any “inconvenienced” house owner whose toilet was neglected or cleaned inappropriately! These rules were framed by the British.

8. Yes. One must admit that certain caste notions of purity and pollution have worked toward exacerbating an earlier notion of impurity (only). To one’s great dismay and surprise(?), it is very likely that the cause was Buddhism and not really the Hindu framework that caused this curse of untouchability to occur. (meat-eating and animal sacrificing Brahmana castes would have no reason to keep out the Chamars/Chandalas out of fear of pollution).

Scavenging human waste came much later.

9. Can not conversion help? It is best that Dalits themselves decide this question. The clamor for recognition of Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims is coming from such converts.

10. Is it possible within Hinduism? I dislike the term “Hinduism” that means nothing. However, it is certainly possible within the Hindu Dharmic framework. This can be speeded up with helping hands from other caste-folks. It cannot be done by resorting to blind hate, abuse and threats of annihilation of cultures and traditions that have sustained and nurtured other Hindu castes. The propaganda that other castes have fed, parasite-like, on Dalits and so-called OBCs is self-defeating apart from being patently untrue. Even if that were true the Dalits will never have allies in their fight for who will want to commit suicide but cutting off their life-lines?

11. It says something about a lack of intellectual honesty amongst Dalit ideologues but not limited to them – that a person like Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak is completely blind-sided and in fact accused of subverting the Dalit cause.

12. Hindus are often accused of many evils and I think one of those evils is that they remain silent in the face of outrageous slander.

13. This filthy blot of scavenging human waste must shake the conscience of all Hindus. I request readers to please read articles from Insight and I have placed an additional link to Dr. Pathak’s Sulabh International movement.

My personal imploring to all readers:

1. If you have hired anybody to clean your toilets, please stop. Clean them yourselves daily.

2. If you have children, please make it part of their grooming to teach them how to clean and keep clean toilets.

3. If you are running schools and/or offices, please consider rostering teachers, senior students and interested colleagues to take up the cleaning of latrines. Please release janitors from this task and let them spend that time in adult education/vocational training of a better kind.

4. If you feel so inclined, please circulate this post as widely as possible.

– Namaste

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3 Responses

  1. there is one thing that i learnt , teach the kids to start cleaning the toilets from young age.

  2. Off topic; but can’t help but notice it. It should read ‘Tradition like water, must never run dry and always find its level’, not ‘it’s level’. (It’s = It is) 🙂

  3. Thanks Venkhat and Krishnan.

    Will make the correction Sir 🙂

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