Dalits in Dravidian Land: Frontline Reports on Anti-Dalit Violence in Tamil Nadu (1995 – 2004), S. Viswanathan, Navayana, Pondicherry, 2005, pp. xxxviii + 318, Rs. 300.
India Stinking: Manual Scavengers in Andhra Pradesh and their Work, Gita Ramaswamy; Navayana, Pondicherry, 2005, pp. xii + 108 + 8 pages colour photos, Rs. 100.
I reviewed these two books together for HardNews magazine in 2006. India Stinking is perhaps a book everyone should read. It documents, in all its horrendousness, both the conditions of life of the shit cleaners as well as social and governmental responses to their existance.
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Reading and reviewing these two books when large parts of metropolitan India are out on the streets protesting reservations in higher education is an education in itself. How far from the glib arguments about caste and protestations of castelessness of these denim-warriors is the world of the women who clean shit with their bare hands everyday, each morning their nostrils filling with the smell of shit left for them to scrape with their hands and remove.
Despite the fact that manual scavenging, or to put it more simply, cleaning of shit by human beings with their bare hands, has been banned in this country by the ‘The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act’ in 1993, the Government of India itself estimates that there are still close to seven lakh people who are forced to clean shit with their hands to earn their daily bread.
Let us hear what one such shit cleaner has to say about his job profile,
We lifted thirty to forty baskets full of shit, which the women heaped and left outside the CDL (common dry latrine), into the tractor. Four of us accompanied the tractor which stopped some distance away from the compost pit. We carried the baskets to the field and threw the shit there. Our hands, legs, clothes… all were dirtied with shit. I will never do this work again. Never. Even if they dismiss me from service, I will take up some other manual labour. Though I don’t smoke, I have asthma, and the doctor says that this is because of my work…
Is it merely lack of technology and money that forces such a practice to continue? Is it merely the result of an incompetent bureaucracy or is it something which is confined to private dry latrines “in the back of beyond”, outside the pale of modern shining India?
Apparently not. The list of culprits include various municipalities, government bodies, police, army and even courts of law. Gita Ramaswamy’s book, which should be made compulsory reading in our schools and colleges, recounts the shocking incident of the municipal court in Nizamabad prohibiting demolition of the dry latrine whose shit was cleaned by manual scavengers with their hands, as it was a “public convenience”. The book also shows pictures of employment contracts by municipalities employing people to clean dry latrines without any water or other implements.
As the author states, the cities of the Indus valley civilisation, some 4000 years ago, had water flushed sewage systems. For those who think that their humiliation has somehow reduced in our shining India, it is sufficient to reproduce the reply of some shit cleaners of Hyderabad, when they were asked their names,
We were told very categorically by the upper castes that our names were to be self-ridiculing. If any parent chose a fair name for the child, we were instantly abused for having lost sight of our aukat (social status). Yes, write down our names, they are Jhamta (spade), Kaloo (black), Gobar (dung), Tawa (black griddle), Bhiku (beggar), Ghoodo (horse), Phullo, Dhappo, Bhetari, Angoori… Our names are the first insight into our identity.”
As the author shows, the men’s names segregate them as less than human while the women’s names suggest sexual ridicule.
So why do dry latrines persist in 21 Century India?
The answer, the author argues quite convincingly, is caste and the systems of discrimination and prejudice it sustains. How else can one explain the adoption of sewage technologies in the emerging urban areas in 19th century India which entrenched manual labour in disposal of shit. Just recall the rusting iron staircases hidden behind most Indian urban homes for shit cleaners to enter the toilet, do their work and leave without despoiling the rest of the house. Shit cleaner or mehtars have formed an integral part of the modern urban landscape and transcended region and religion. As she points out, despite their efficient ethnic cleansing of most Hindus during partition, the State of Pakistan refused to let “their” shit cleaners go to India. Indian cities and “native States” went to great lengths to get “their” manual scavengers; often bringing them from far away, settling them in special colonies and State power to legally bind them to this employment. Shit cleaners could not refuse to work.
Even today, the manual scavengers have been seamlessly integrated into the sewage and cleaning departments of most municipalities. They still form a recognisable part of every urban space and still live in confined urban areas and are usually out of sight and out of mind of most Indians.
Often the fact that Dalits are out of sight and out of mind for most upper caste, middle class Indians, is pointed out as a proof of the absence of caste and caste discrimination in “modern” India. While this is far from being the case, the collection of articles in Viswanathan’s book clearly point out that violence, discrimination and active prejudice is a daily fact of life for Dalits in India today. His book provides detailed reporting of incidents of violence against Dalits by varna castes and the State apparatus, as well as the instances of Dalits organising for their rights and fighting back against the violence unleashed on them.
For this reviewer the most interesting aspect which emerges from Viswanathan’s book is the centrality of ownership of assets (land, capital, tools) in defining social conditions of caste, yet at the in the same instant, the total irrelevance of the ownership of assets in the world of caste. Let me explain. While land ownership, or rather the lack of it, is central to the Dalit condition in Tamil Nadu (and much of India), the oppression of Dalits and the violence they face does not seem to be explained by asset ownership. Some of the worst violence perpetrated on Dalits in Tamil Nadu has been by the Thevars, who are themselves classified as a “most backward class” and in terms of asset ownership are similarly placed to them.
While Viswanathan himself seems to foreground the centrality of land ownership and seems to argue for the unity of the poor and dispossessed (which means the Dalits and the deprived backward castes), this does not seem “natural” if one surveys the political situation in Tamil Nadu, or for that matter, in the rest of India.
There seems to be a specificity in the discrimination and prejudice that Dalits suffer in the Indian social context which has not been satisfactorily understood or analysed. While understanding and integrating the land question is crucial to comprehend the situation of the Dalits in India, it is not sufficient. What is it that makes Dalit oppression and discrimination transcend conventional economic, political and social unities and boundaries? Why is it that there has not been a single movement of the oppressed which has successfully transcended the Dalit / non-Dalit divide?
Viswanathan’s writings do not answer this question, partly due to their being news reports on immediate happenings and partly due to the author’s belief that transcending the caste divide between Dalits and non-Dalits is possible through mass movements. But his book remains a signal contribution to the study and understanding of the Dalit condition in India today.