Tuesday, April 26, 2011

[ZESTCaste] Fwd: Scavenging Profession - EPW article


---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Shiva Shankar <sshankar@cmi.ac.in>
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?
 B.Ravichandran http://www.epw.org.in/epw/uploads/articles/15869.pdf

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
       "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

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

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