Sunday, January 9, 2011

[ZESTCaste] Imprisoned for life

January 8, 2011
Imprisoned for life

Dalits are often trapped in 'unclean', socially despised occupations
because of the persistence of tradition and because there are no
viable alternatives…

Millions of women, men and children continue to be trapped in
humiliating and socially devalued vocations only because of their
birth. The Indian caste system survives in large tracts of rural India
despite the sweeping winds of modernity. It mandates the division of
labour, or the allocation of occupations, based on one's birth into a
particular caste. Caste through millennia permitted little opportunity
to people to move from one caste-based occupation to one that is
socially regarded to be superior. Many of these barriers persist in
modern times.

The most disadvantaged castes even among dalits are socially assigned
occupations that are considered ritually 'unclean' and socially
degrading. Most of these 'unclean' occupations are associated in one
way or another with death, human waste or menstruation. These three
universal physiological processes have been culturally shrouded by
beliefs of intense ritual pollution. The collective tragedy and angst
of these most socially oppressed communities is that they find
themselves socially trapped into 'unclean' occupations even as the
country surges into 21st century, market-led economic growth.
Tradition, feudal coercion and economic compulsions combine to persist
in ensnaring millions of these dalit families across the length and
breadth of the country into socially despised occupations.

Dealing with impurity

The unclean occupations culturally forced upon dalit people that are
related to human death include the digging of graves, collection of
firewood for the cremation of dead bodies and setting up the funeral
pyres. Death is considered so impure and unclean that, in many regions
of rural India, it is dalits alone who are required by tradition even
to communicate the news of any death to the relatives of the deceased
person, whatever maybe the distance.

There are a large number of unclean occupations that derive from the
death of animals. In most states, villagers still expect dalits to
dispose of carcasses of animals that die in their homes or in the
village, whether cattle or dogs or cats. They skin the bodies of dead
animals, flay and tan these and develop them into cured leather, and
sometimes even craft them into footwear and drums. The pollution
associated with leather is so pervasive that in states such as Andhra
Pradesh, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, even the
beating of drums at weddings, funerals and religious festivals is
considered polluting and imposed as a social obligation or caste
vocation only on dalits. The logic is carried further in rural
locations where public announcements are still made in villages by the
beat of drum. Even this occupation is considered polluting and is the
monopoly of dalits, because of the polluting touch of dried and
treated animal skin that is stretched on the drums.

A third category of 'unclean' occupations derives from the culturally
polluting character of human waste. In most parts of India, the manual
removal of human excreta, often with bare hands, survives as a deeply
humiliating vocation despite it having been outlawed. This pollution
extends in many cases to cleaning of sewage tanks, drainage canals and
the sweeping of streets. The beliefs related to the pollution by
menstrual blood results in midwifery and the washing of clothes deemed
as unclean occupations in states such as Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka,
Bihar and Maharashtra.

Deep wounds

Lifelong engagement in these intensely socially despised — and
frequently grossly unhygienic — occupations leaves profound physical
and psychological scars on people who are forced into this work.
Despite technologies available to make the work safe and hygienic,
these are rarely deployed.

The sturdy cultural beliefs in the polluting nature of certain
occupations adapt regressively to a range of potentially liberating
contemporary developments. For instance, the establishment of leather
factories and tanneries has freed dalits significantly from
traditional hereditary occupations, but dalits still lift and skin
carcasses to sell at a price to leather footwear companies. It is also
interesting that leather and tanning factories have a very high
proportion of dalit workers. In cases where the modern economy or
municipal management requires the transport of solid waste or
carcasses, even the drivers of these vehicles are drawn from the dalit
community. Municipal authorities routinely employ only dalit workers
for scavenging and sweeping. Veterinary and medical doctors, unwilling
to pollute themselves by touching corpses, even use dalits to perform
post-mortems, whereas they only look at the dissected corpses without
handling them and write their reports.

Some unclean occupations are involuntary and unpaid, or paid a
pittance. The bearing of death messages and temple cleaning in Tamil
Nadu, cleaning up after marriage feasts in Kerala and Karnataka,
making leather footwear for people of higher castes as a sign of
respect in Andhra Pradesh, and drum-beating and the removal of
carcasses in many states are unpaid tasks. Ghasis, Panos and Doms
involved in leather work and scavenging are landless and most
non-dalits and even some of the dalit farmers refuse to employ them
for agricultural wage work. In Orissa we find payments of leftover
food, old clothes, fistfuls of food grains or petty cash. In most
Rajasthan villages, cash is rarely paid for traditional unclean work
expected from the dalits, instead they are given food (not more than
two rotis). In Karnataka, we found payment of arrack, a meal and some
cash for drum-beating, and fixed cash payments for other tasks like
mid-wifery and lifting of carcasses. Scavengers may be employed on
monthly salary by local bodies, otherwise families pay them cash or
stale food.

Not all unclean work is paid, and a lot of it is forced. Refusal to
perform 'unclean occupations' often results in retribution: in the
form of abuse, assault or social boycott. Even in the absence of such
overt coercion, economic compulsions prevent most dalits from escaping
humiliating hereditary occupations. They may earn Rs. 200 from
skinning a dead buffalo, which brings food into their cooking pot.
Scavenging may secure them regular employment in urban local bodies.

Those engaged in unclean occupations are usually assured very low but
secure earnings because of their monopoly of these occupations. If
they persist in occupations such as scavenging or disposal of
carcasses and human bodies, which are indispensable for any society,
but which no other group is willing to perform, it gives them greater
economic security than many other disadvantaged groups. But this is at
the price of the most savage and extreme social degradation. Yet, if
they seek to escape this social degradation to achieve dignity, they
have to abandon the economic security of their despised occupations to
join the vast ranks of the proletariat. This, then, is the core of
their quandary: if they seek economic security, they must accept the
lowest depths of social degradation; but if they wish for social
dignity, they must accept the price of economic insecurity and

Signs of hope

Whereas hereditary unclean occupations for dalits remain entrenched in
the rural social system, cracks are developing. There are many reports
of successful resistance from many parts of the country. In Tamil
Nadu, until recently refusal to perform unclean activities was met
with fines, violence or excommunication. However, collective
resistance has grown over the past decades, forcing non-dalits to
accept the mobility of these dalits into the more respected
caste-neutral category of agricultural worker. Some inspiring case
studies have come to light even from the feudal outposts of Rajasthan.
In Palri village of Sirohi, the dalits collectively resolved to refuse
to remove the carcasses. The caste Hindus retaliated with a social and
economic boycott and violence, but the dalits held their ground. Today
they have freed themselves from this legacy of shame. Likewise, the
Regar community in Sujanpura village of Sikar refused to lift
carcasses. Non-dalits negotiated and a breakthrough was achieved when
in a major rupture from tradition, it was agreed that two persons from
each caste would take turns to carry the carcass outside the village.
However, it is still left to the Regars to skin the animals.

A unique national movement of self-respect and non-violent direct
action of manual scavengers themselves — the Safai Karmchari Andolan —
has succeeded in freeing tens of thousands of mainly women from this
practice, although its stubborn last vestiges persist, including in
the Indian Railways.

It is these brave and proud struggles of dalit people themselves to
free themselves from the shackles of humiliating social tradition,
that illuminate our world with hope of a more humane social order for
all our children.


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