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Untouchable Freedom

A few nights ago, Ravish Kumar on NDTV (Khabar) did a few stories on the inhumanity in India that drives a million people – all Dalits – to manually deal with sewage and human refuse. It is a brutal part of the Indian landscape. When we lived in Chennai a decade ago, I remember the ‘manual scavengers’ who worked the drains near the Cancer Institute.

It was already illegal for the city to have hired human beings to go into the sewer (the legal basis in the 1993 Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines [Prohibition] Act and the 2013 Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act). I called the municipal councillor, but could get no direct answer from him. A small dharna did nothing. There was no motivation to drive an agenda against manual scavenging. Ravish did two segments, which can be watched here and here. The direct impetus was a report that showed that a hundred people died last year as a result of this job.

Last year, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur for Minority Issues Rita Izsak-Ndiaye produced an important report on the persistence of caste prejudice in India as well as the way in which this prejudice is structured into the Indian state and economy. When I asked her about the evidence of such atrocities as manual scavenging, Izsak-Ndiaye said, ‘This is an extremely sensitive topic internally so it will be important for Indian society to openly and honestly carry on with a public discussion and identify joint actions on how to ensure equality and dignity for all’. Ravish’s shows form part of the small conversation that must be widened.

It is an important thing that Bezwada Wilson of the Safai Karamchari Andolan won the Magsaysay Award for his tireless work against this atrocity. Last year, Bezwada gave a talk at the Ambedkar University in Delhi on behalf of the Indian Writers Forum, where he spoke with great ferocity about the ghastliness of social life and policy in the country.

Three years before Bezwada won the award, the Students Federation of India leader at Jawaharlal Nehru University – Pindiga Ambedkar – invited me to join Bezwada and Ashif Shaikh (Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan and Jan Sahas) at JNU in a session as part of the Phule-Ambedkar Birth Anniversary Celebrations. It was important to have Bezwada and Ashif inform us about the powerful struggles launched by their platforms against this inhumane work, which can easily be done by machines. Every support must be given to the movement that they lead. Sanitation workers across India continue their struggle for better working conditions, including an end to manual scavenging and more power in their workplace. This is an important struggle, the frontline for India’s dignity. There is a new website, Communists Against Caste, that tracks the struggles of the Left and the Dalit groups. Please visit it.

That session in 2013 was chaired by Professor Sanghmitra Acharya, now the Director of the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies in New Delhi. At the session, Prof. Acharya told me that she was related to Bhagwan Das, whom I had mentioned in the session.

Bhagwan Das was my real PhD supervisor. I wanted to write a history of the Balmiki community from the early 19th century to the 1960s. My actual supervisors were not convinced that I had either the temperament for academic study or that there would be materials for the research. Bhagwan Das told me to ignore them. From his flat in Munirka (New Delhi), he sent me off into rural Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.

I went from the municipal archives in Amritsar to the Balmiki Colony on Mandir Marg (Delhi), from the small villages out side Jalandhar to the Balmiki Colony in Deoband. Years of reading between the archives and interviewing thousands of people resulted in a massive PhD. Bhagwan Das was very happy with it. It validated many of the theories he had had, for which I now had empirical evidence.

The main point in the PhD was that the Balmikis had – through British colonial policy egged on by the dominant castes – been reduced from agriculturalists to ‘safai karamcharis’ and that the Hindu Right had set aside the complex religions of the Balmikis to bring them into the Hindu fold. This reduction of the Balmikis economic and social life made them – structurally – much more dependent on municipal corporations and on Hindu overlords. It was this dependency that led – in a way – to the role of some Balmikis in both the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi and in the Ramjanambhoomi movement of the 1980s and 1990s. One of the key chapters was on Gandhi’s visit to the Bhangi Colony in Delhi and on the limitations of Gandhi’s thought regarding the Balmiki community. It allowed me to elaborate on Gandhi’s paternalism and his refusal to allow the dalits independent political activity, especially through trade unions.

My book simply would not get published. It was rejected by twenty university presses. Chris Bayly of Cambridge suggested that I was not only an ‘unreconstructed 1970s Marxist’ but also that I wrote in too ‘journalistic’ a style. I was guilty of the latter. I financed much of my research by working as a full-time journalist. No grants came for this work (as no grants have come to my work since then, by the way). Others simply felt that Dalit history was not possible and that I had made too much of the stories I heard in the field. It was ruthless. The late (and dearly missed) Bela Malik fought like hell to get the book published. She essentially told OUP India that she would resign if the book was not given a fair reading. Eventually, thanks to readers such as Delhi University’s Prabhu Mohapatra, the book was published – and then went soon out of print. It is called Untouchable Freedom: A Social History of a Dalit Community.

I was so glad to have Ravish mention this out of print book on his show. But it makes me happier still that to this day I get messages from Balmiki (and other Dalit) scholars who use this book as the first step to their own important and much more valuable studies. We, at LeftWord Books, are thinking seriously of bringing out at least an e-book version.

About Bhagwan Das. He died in 2010. I miss him deeply. I wrote an obituary at this death. Bela Malik, my editor, died on 16 December 2007. It will be a decade this December.

I was recently reading her superb essay from EPW (1999) – Untouchability and Dalit Women’s Oppression; it is widely available in a number of anthologies. The year before she died she and her husband Thomas Mathew so bravely hung a banner out of their Jangpura flat in Delhi which said – Laura Bush, how about a photo-op with the orphaned, maimed, dead children of Iraq. It was to greet George W. Bush and Laura Bush as they drove by. The police – at the insistence of the US secret service – came into their flat and insisted that they remove the banner. They confiscated the banner. Bela was furious. She went to the press. It is important to mention that Bela played an important role in the democracy movement in Nepal, when she and Tommie lived there. She was without fear.

More articles by:

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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