28 September, 2006
Gandhi and scavenging
Frontline magazine’s September 22nd, 2006 issue gave wide coverage to the issue of scavengers in India including one famous quote of Gandhi’. ‘I may not be born again, but if it happens, I will like to be born into a family of scavengers, so that I may relieve, them if the inhuman, unhealthy and hateful practice of carrying nightsoil.’ It is rather strange that Gandhi is often quoted by the upper caste to justify their stand and prove a certain point because in their own wisdom, there was no one else except Gandhi who fought against the cause of untouchability. It is another matter that none of them ever questioned Gandhi and his various act of idiocies. Above quote clearly means that Gandhi fully believed that untouchability is not going to finish and he would have to take another birth to get rid of it.
Ofcourse, Gandhi was right that such heinous practice would not end but untouchables or Dalits perhaps do not need Gandhi’s sage advice to end scavenging. They are powerful enough to lead the movements as the story of frontline clearly reflect. In fact, Frontline would have researched a bit more and look Gandhi’s writing in the various issues of Harijan, on the issue of untouchability, whether he really was interested in the eradication of untouchability or supported the caste system. Dr Bhagwan Das, eminent Ambedkarite and scholar has time and again said that Gandhi was least interested in the emancipation of the Dalits in general and scavengers in particular. He quotes on many occasions how Gandhi justified the caste-based profession of the Dalits. Said Gandhi :
“ I do not advice untouchables to give up their trades and professions. One born a scavenger must earn his livelihood by being a scavenger and then do whatever else he likes. For a scavenger is as worthy of his hire as a lawyer or your president. That according to me is Hinduism. ( Harijan 6th March, 1937)
Further, Gandhi might have said that he would like to be born in the untouchable family yet he was no revolutionary to condemn the caste system. Even in Africa, he was not at all fighting for the rights of the black Africans but the caste Hindus who feel offended at clubbing together with the black community in Africa or elsewhere. Says Gandhi :
“My Opinion against sweepers strike dates back to about 1897 when I was in Durban. A general strike was mooted there and the question arose as to whether scavengers should join it. My vote was registered against the strike proposal.,,,, In spite of my close attachments to sweepers, better cause of it, I must denounce the coercive method they are said to have employed. They will thereby be losers in the long run. City folks will not always be cowed down. A bhangi may not give up his work even for a day. ( Harijan 21st April 1946)”
Mr Bhagwan Das has referred this narrative many times how Gandhi was against the strike of the sweeper and every time he gave them moral lessons of Varna Ashram Dharma. That way, Gandhi damaged the cause of the emancipation of Dalits with his brutal immoral morality.
Unfortunately, upper caste Indian’s fascination for a ‘spiritual guide’ always helped Gandhi and his theatrics. Not many of them were ready to challenge his ‘stupid’ values and caste based morality. The one who stood firmly and with conviction was Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar. Not only his questioned Gandhi’s Mahatmaisation by terming ‘Mahatmas have come and gone’ but also putting forward the issue of caste system and untouchability together. Had Gandhi been alive today, Indians would have felt shame on his rhetoric’s and antics. Ambedkar rightly described what exactly is scavenger in his thought provoking volume-9 ( Baba Saheb Ambedkar’s Writings and Speeches, Volume-9, published by Government of Maharastra),
“For in India a man is not scavenger because of his work. He is a scavenger because of his birth, irrespective of the question whether he does scavenging or not. If Gandhism preached that scavenging is a noble profession, with the objective of inducing those who refuse to engage in it, one could understand it. But why appeal to the scavenger’s pride and vanity in order to induce him and him only to keep on to scavenging by telling him that scavenging is a noble profession and that he need not to be ashamed of it. To preach that poverty is good for shudra and for none else, to preach that scavenging is good for the untouchables and for none else and to make them accept these onerous impositions as voluntary purposes of life, by appeal to their failings is an outrage and a cruel joke on the helpless classes which none but Mr Gandhi can perpetuate with equanimity and impunity.
Strangely, there is no mention of the any other political leaders other than the ‘father of nation’ in the front line report including Dr Ambedkar, Mangu Ram, Achhutananda and others. While the report revolve around Safai Karmchari Andolan led by Baizwada Wilson and the wonderful work he has been doing. The interview carried belong to Martin Macwan and his much known work of Navsarjan. Respectable as they are after fighting their own cases of social discrimination, both have valiantly tried to build a new alternative for the scavenger communities. Yet, the struggle for human rights and dignity for the scavenger communities continues for long. It is not that all those who have converted to Christianity want justice and dignity. It is not that all those who have not converted remain ‘Hindus’ as some of our friends would like us to believe. The fact is that most of those who remain Dalits ( unconverted) have remain the most vocal critique of the brahmanical system. Perhaps, there is a complete lack of politicization after conversion. There are a large number of new movements building up in the Balmiki community, among the Madigas in Andhra and Arundhatiars in Tamilnadu. Balmikis in Uttar-Pradesh, Punjab and Harayana have also taken up their cause. They might not have converted to either Islam or Christianity, they might not have got enough press behind them or the funds yet there is a fair concern about the community. The new youngs are ready to take on the Hindu social order and the corrupt practices. It is therefore important to unite all these movements and not divide them on caste and religion lines. It would have been really better if the authors had done some more work and spoken to political movements in other states including West Bengal where the Balmikis want the outsiders to come and report. But without going there the authors gave a clean chit to West Bengal is a matter of grave concern.
Bigger Shame for giving clean chit to West Bengal
While it is appreciating for the magazine to have our website address http://www.thesdf.orgFor the material available on Balmiki. As a human right activist, who have been working on the issue of the Dalit rights, Ambedkarism, human rights education as well as a person who has recorded interviews with this community, it would have been better had the authors tried to contact me. I would have provided them more material on the community, my film Badlav Ki chah, which could have thrown some light on what the community is thinking. Moreover, for the past four years, I have continuously followed the case of the Eviction of the Balmiki community from the Bellilius Park in West Bengal. I have visited Kolkata, Howrah on many occasions and lived with the community to find out what pains them. It is strange and shocking that your cover story has given a full clean chit to the government of West Bengal.
The condition of the Hindi Speaking Dalits in West Bengal is a matter of great concern. Those who wish to note more about scavengers and their conditions in various parts of the country may like to visit my newly created blog www.swachchakar.blogspot.com
In Bengal, the brutal way in which more than 750 Balmiki families were dislocated from Bellilius park under the builder mafia of CPM and in disguise of the court injunctions, can put to shame even Delhi’s irresponsible Congress government against whom Ms Brinda Karath and other CPM leaders regularly lodge protest. Rightly, I have no hesitation in saying that we all support AIDWA and its campaign for the rights of the slum dwellers and Dalits in Delhi and other parts of the country. But why not the same about your own government and your own party under whose noose such thing happened in West Bengal.
Last year, when I visited Kolkata and met a number of Balmikis, Hailas, Mehtars, all of them lodged their complained how the CPM’s cadre threaten them. The bustees are being threatened and CPM leader protests only on those areas where the Bengalis are under the threat and that too if it is a central government projects that dislocate people like the Railways. The party is simply not bothered about other communities from the North
It was such a disgusting scenario that a women from scavenging community living in a virtual hell at Belgachia’s Bagad area said that these Bengalis called us when they need to clean their shit and now they are not interested in us when they made their flush toilets.
In places like Howarah scavenging is still officially practiced. Whatever argument the Minister give, it is a shame that people under the municipal corporation did work as manual scavenger and they were named such as ‘ New Resident Mehtars’. Mehtars had objected that they were one of the communities involved in scavenging and not all scavengers are Mehtars but in Bengal’s official gazettes, all scavengers are termed as Mehtars. The Minister may further boast that they are appointing the Bengali Bhadralok also for the Safai jobs these days but the fact is that the manual scavenging, cleaning nightsoil, cleaning toilets, the roads etc are still carried out by these scavenger communities from UP, Haryana, Delhi, and Bihar. The fact of the matter is that it is very difficult for the people from these communities go get promotion in the municipality while a Bhadralok Bengali who joins as a sweeper on paper soon become a babu. That is a new way to enroll CPM cadre into the Babudome of West Bengal. It works both way. On papers, it shows how radically the communist government has transformed West Bengal by saying that they are now recruiting the upper castes also for the menial jobs such as sweeping and on the other side they keep their cadres also happy who becomes babu very soon. Many of the Balmikis who had been working in West Bengal for years have not got due promotion.
The officials are not even interested in resolving the issues of the poor Balmikis. Their children cannot get a job in West Bengal for they are asked to bring the domiciles of their parents. For years they have been working in West Bengal and now they ask for domiciles of their parents. What is the fault of the children who were born in Bengal.
Even today, the CPM’s cadre takes a vigil on all the ‘unwanted elements’ like us to report. There is manual scavenging still prevalent in Howrah, Bengal’s connections to rest of India. It is not far away in remote Bengal but very heart of Kolkata that scavenging is practiced. It is difficult to get a Video footage since the CPM’s goons will break your cameras once they realize that you are there for a human rights cause. I have footage of West Bengal and the scavenging community. The only footage I could not get was of the people involved in night soil because the area was a CPM’s stronghold. Our people in West Bengal were frightened that CPM’s cadre may take revenge from them if they found that some of them were responsible for the leak.
CPM’s tyrannical rule in Bengal is making it a closed door society. Giving a clean chit to Bengal and its pathetic record on Elimination of scavenging and rehabilitation of scavengers is a bigger shame for Frontline magazine. I am sure the Magazine would ask the Bengal Chief Minister where are the Balmikis of Bellillus Park in Howarah. If they do not have any information, I am ready to provide them all details. But please do not compromise with people’s cause. Balmikis of West Bengal will not get justice from an insensitive government. Those who create a fascinating world of ‘great’ social cohesion outside West Bengal should try to sneak into the den and report independently on the conditions of Dalit in West Bengal. Hiding the pathetic condition of Dalits in West Bengal and particularly that of the scavengers is the bigger shame for India.
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For more on Scavengers and their movements please log on to www.swachchakar.blogspot.com. For Social action, land rights, right to food and hunger issues support Social Development Foundation at www.thesdf.org