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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Fwd: Scavenging Profession - EPW article

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Shiva Shankar <>
Date: Tue, Mar 29, 2011 at 6:44 PM
Subject: Scavenging Profession - EPW article

"... The scavenging profession is a direct mockery of India's status as a developing global power because the scavengers continue to be in the same state in which they were during the pre-independence days. The scavengers have not received anything from either India's independence or from the affirmative reservation policy implemented for their uplift. Rather, their condition seems to be worsening. For example, recently, some people belonging to the 'Bhangi' community smeared human excreta to protest the Karnataka government's plan to evict them from their homes. This act, in one sense, can be seen as a political opposition to mainstream India's stereotypes on scavenging which has, along with the government, always shown some vague reformist intent with regard to the scavenging profession. As against the reformist agenda, this protest was about reclaiming the legitimate space of the scavengers and keeping the 'reformers' at bay. ..."

 Scavenging Profession: Between Class and Caste?

A recent incident where some people belonging to the 'Bhangi' community smeared human excreta to protest the Karnataka government's plan to evict them from their homes brings out in stark relief the failure of reformist initiatives to end the manual clearing of human excreta. This article argues that part of the reason for these failures has been the inability to imbue the 'Bhangi' with political agency, while our ideological and literary imaginations have only tried to see this issue in terms of caste or class. ...

... And as we know, since every caste has a 'hereditary' profession according to the Hindu shastras, scavenging definitely qualifies as a caste profession. In north India, scavengers are addressed largely as Bhangis and in the southern states as Arunthathiyars, Rellis, Madigas, Mehtars, Pakis, etc, depending upon the region in which they reside. However, we should not forget that although scavenging is done, with regional variations, by one particular community or caste, the majority of the people within those particular communities are not scavengers. Among the scavenging castes there are large numbers of daily-wage labourers and those who get monthly salaries by working in factories. However, whatever work they may do, they have to bear the stigma of the profession associated with the caste and the consequent backwardness. Here I quote from report of the National Commission for Safai Karmacharis (2001):
       "... the other Safai Karamcharis, who are perhaps not directly engaged in manual scavenging, namely, the safai karamcharis employed in municipalities, are also not faring any better. A large number of them are indirectly involved in manual scavenging. ..."

While discussing the issue of scavenging, this invisible majority and their problems remain under-represented. I claim this is due to the profession being reduced to governmental categories and not seen as a structural problem of the caste system in India.

In this context it is important to look at the history of how the profession has been perceived. I would like to refer to two prominent nationalist responses to the issue, that of Mahatma Gandhi and of B R Ambedkar. Ambedkar, while critiquing Gandhi.s stance on scavenging in 'What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables', quotes Gandhi:
       "I love scavenging. In my Ashram, an eighteen year old Brahmin lad is doing the scavenger's work in order to teach the Ashram cleanliness. The lad is no reformer. He was born and bred in orthodoxy. But he felt that his accomplishments were incomplete until he had become also a perfect sweeper, and that if he wanted the Ashram sweeper to do his work well, he must do it himself and set an example."

Ambedkar then proceeds to critique Gandhi's position thus:
       "What is the use of telling the scavenger that even a Brahmin is prepared to do scavenging when it is clear that according to Hindu Shastras and Hindu notions even if a Brahmin did scavenging he would never be subject to the disabilities of one who is a born scavenger? For in India a man is not a scavenger because of his work. He is a scavenger because of his birth irrespective of the question whether he does scavenging or not."

It is not surprising that many dalits who talk of facing discrimination still look at this profession from a Gandhian perspective, because Gandhian paternalism most resembles governmental reformism. However, as I indicated above, governmental reformism is not strictly Gandhian or Ambedkarite in nature due to historical changes in the nation's journey from imperialist subjugation to high capitalism. ...

... While everyone argues that the profession is the cause for their socio-economical backwardness, they forget to bring up the issue of caste. I want to foreground the news of dalits smearing human excreta on their body as a shield against the so-called modernisation drive of the Government of Karnataka (the government wanted to evict the untouchables from their homes, probably on the basis that they do not have proper legal claims). I would like to argue that the act of pouring shit on their own body in protest against the State.s forceful eviction is a political act, not only against the civil society, but also against the contemporary dalit movement in the country. However, as usual, attempts have been made by the mainstream media and civil society alike to divert the metaphorical intervention of scavengers trying to politicise shit from its political context.

The protesters poured excreta on themselves not to claim they are still scavengers, instead, in the eventuality of a displacement or other such unwelcome intrusion, excreta is the only protection for the bodies/families of the scavenging community. The act was an act of politicising shit, after which the government had to give back the homes to the scavengers. This very act has similarities to the way the black movement politicised colour, after which the word black could not be divested from the political uses to which it was put by those movements. I argue that, this politicisation of the event and the profession is what is lacking in this drive towards modernisation and the urge to civilise, which is just another facet of the displacement drive of the Karnataka government. It is the same arm which cleanses, that invokes the discourse of rights to displace as well!

Recovering Agency

Usually what comes to our mind when we speak of the scavenging profession is a bucket and yellow coloured shit, which invokes pity and repulsion at the same time, without any room for political angst or agency. It is presumptuous to assume that anybody would relate to the plight of a scavenger at the level of pity or revulsion. I am not appealing to reduce the distance of the .other. with the plight of the scavenger, but rather politicise this distance, through the agency and consciousness of the scavenger. This in effect disrupts and disturbs the creation of an illusion of equality, which is the basis of any political action. The social disabilities that come with scavenging can only be eradicated by a large-scale reformation of the society. I argue that, as of now, the only way to work with the gigantic apparatus of the governmental machinery and simultaneously maintain the politicisation project of the community is through reservation, which adequately converts the unbridgeable gap of the disposed from the elite, as a political gap, and provides enough agency for the subaltern to work his way through the tenuous struggle of his existence.

Palash Biswas
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