Sewer Workers Deaths – The Meaning of Dalit for Bhartiya Janta Party

If Prime Minister Narendra Modi were to write about the recent deaths of sewer workers in India, the headline would be:

Some people attained moksha (nirvana) while experiencing spirituality,

Protest against deaths in sewers, photo courtesy The Hindu

In his casteist book Karmayog, he wrote that manual scavenging is a spiritual experience, hence if some people die during cleaning sewers manually, that would be attaining moksha! In a caste Hindu society this should have been a matter of joy, that even in Kaliyuga, there are still some ‘pious’ soul who could give up all moh-maya and do this punya karma! How true this depiction/ description, one feels like saying: why not make the umpteen godmen-led spiritual movements in India take this route to spiritual moksha? This would perhaps have saved the many rapist-rioter babas from arrest and they could truly do their prayaschit (atonement) in these various, very Indian jails. This is after all the real world of this ‘spiritual experience’ of manual scavenging/sewer cleaning, where ‘Moksha’ means institutional killing!

The recent deaths of sewer workers in Delhi exposed this farce. These deaths are not mere work-place related accidents, but exposed the stinking caste biases of a rotten brahmanical social order! Only in September 2018, at least 11 workers died while cleaning either septic tanks or sewers. The issue of cleaning in general, and the issue of manual scavenging, in particular, has everything to do with the caste question. Not only is the work stigmatized but the workers are stigmatized as well – that is why Ambedkar asserted that caste is not merely the division of labour, it is also a division of labourers.

When these sewer cleaning workers died in Moti Nagar, Delhi, they were not wearing any safety equipment and succumbed to death after inhaling poisonous gases. It is not a secret anymore that private companies/contractors in the cleaning business very rarely provide safety measures/equipment to their workers. Even when they provide such equipment in one out of hundred cases, they are known to charge the workers for it. This has been the pattern in many other kinds of ‘menial’ work. After the workers died there should have been a case of culpable homicide against the contractor/s, but the police simply lodged a case of ‘negligence’ (an easily bailable offence). This is certainly not a case of ‘negligence’ which pertains to some unknown ‘human-error’, but is emphatically casteist, where state structures attribute sub-human status to Dalit lives which don’t deserve the faintest attention! It is matter of utter shame that we are witnessing all this in a country which is planning to introduce bullet trains and is developing space technology to go beyond the earth’s orbit but has developed scarcely any technology to clean beneath the earth! Had it been any upper/dominant caste cleaning the human excreta, there would have been 5th generation ultra nano technology in place for some years by now!

These deaths cannot be seen in vacuum but have to be viewed in the larger context of a complex web of caste atrocities by the ruling party and their ideological head Rashtriya Swamsevak Sangh (RSS). Though caste prejudices and practices are not the preserve of the BJP/ RSS, there is something specific here that needs to be underlined. When BJP came into power in 2014, PM Modi started the Swacch Bharat Abhiyaan (clean India Campaign) with splendour, spending huge amounts of public money. There was (and still is) not any nook and corner where one can’t see the campaign’s billboard or a picture of the PM cleaning an already clean street in his expensive attire! Nevertheless, one would assume that there would be something for the historically marginalised Dalits who form the majority in cleaning work! But Swacch Bharat Abhiyaan turned out to be a farce and just a media gimmick where the government has spent more than 500 crores rupees just on advertising with nothing for the safety of cleaning workers or even to raise their minimum wages! Delhi itself has seen many cleaning workers strikes in last 4 years, due to non-payment of their salaries. This also says a lot about the insensitivity and casteist attitude of local bodies like MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi) which is ruled by the right-wing BJP for last 15 years.

PM Modi claimed to come from a humble tea-seller background and from a backward caste. If one takes his word seriously, then the PM must have seen tea corner shops and how difficult it is to keep them clean day and night. One would think that he would be a little more sensitive towards manual scavenging work and the stigma attached with Dalits doing this work for ages! On the contrary, the famous ‘Gujarat Model’ showed that there is no space for Dalits there, when in 2016, 7 Dalit youth were flogged by gau-rakshaks (cow vigilantes). That was just the beginning of their aggressive attempts to defend the Brahminical social order through rampant cow-vigilantism. Even as PM Modi is evoking Dr. Ambedkar selectively, caste atrocity cases are on the rise in a state which is ruled by BJP for the last two decades.

I see this as calculated violence by the present regime at the instance of the RSS to suppress Dalit assertion. The examples are numerous and from various places. Whether it is the crackdown on Bhim Army, an active Dalit group that works for education of children from poor and marginal backgrounds in Uttar Pradesh; Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra; or arrests made after the 2nd April All India protest, the repression speaks volumes about the kind of violence being perpetrated. The dilution and confusion created around the SC/ST Atrocities Act was also done to comfort their traditional savarna vote bank which has already taken a violent turn in many parts of the country. Through such moves, they are making a public constituency for anti-Dalit sentiments. One cannot forget the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula at Hyderabad Central University which completes the circle of anti-Dalit sentiment of the present regime, which doesn’t want Dalits to have a dignified life either in work or in education.

The BJP and RSS has been trying to appropriate Dalits through the agenda of ‘samajik samrasta’ (social harmony), which is nothing more than diluting radical Dalit politics. RSS has brought in fictional history books to claim that Hindu social structure is not vertical in nature, that instead it is horizontal, where there is a division of work that has nothing to do with one’s birth! The entire Hindu social structure is based on Karma (work) and not Janm (Birth). According to RSS history, it became a vertical order during the Muslim/Mughal period when Mughals invaded Bharat-Varsha (India) and disrupted the social order! However, the Vedic claim is different from this, where Dalits and women were kept on margins. The RSS claim does no good to Dalit assertion when one learns about the quotidian violence inflicted by savarna Hindus on Dalits – for ages and continuing today – for various reasons ranging from the simple act of wearing footwear to taking water from village waterbodies, from getting formal education to marrying a upper caste girl, from taking out marriage procession to temple entry.

It is not a coincidence that the humiliation of Dalits, one of the oldest surviving oppressed groups in the world, is enormous and has been sanctioned by Manu’s Law which happens to be the Holy book of the present regime, keeping Dalits perpetually on the verge of vulnerability. However, times are changing and Dalits assertion against this casteist regime is on the rise, both by denouncing the assigned marginality as well as asserting their rights as equals. As one of the slogans from Una Struggle rightly pointed out, Gai ki poonch tum rakho, hume hamari zameen do! (Keep the cow’s tail and give us our land!).

These deaths were neither the first and (unfortunately) nor the last! Every death is a shame on Government’s claim to digital India, to swachchh (clean) India, to Swasth (healthy) India. Dalits demand dignified material experience, instead this vacuous, Modi-style ‘spiritual’ experience.

The recent protest march against the killings of Dalit workers in sewers is a call for us as a society to stand up for workers who were restoring the flow of urban life but were failed by a State which brutally denied their life in return! Because, silence is not a solution! It never was! It never will be!

The writer is a research scholar in History and is interested in the question of Caste, Wrestling and Music.




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