A few years ago, a rich radical stamped Gandhi a casteist for his views on the ideal sanitation worker. In the last few years, the richer central government has been using Gandhi to publicise its cleanliness drive. The government splashes the picture of his reading glasses, a metaphor for simplicity, honesty and idealism, to unleash a propaganda blitzkrieg. Between the two I cannot choose which one is a worse slur on the man who called himself a “bhangi”.
Every civilisation, old or new, has over centuries evolved its own ways to keep itself clean. Unfortunately in our case, sanitation is so inextricably linked to our terribly oppressive caste system that we can neither make our society equal nor keep it clean. Even modernity and mechanisation have not helped. In fact, Gandhi had foreseen the failure of mechanisation in the sanitary sector long ago. In the era of manual scavenging of human waste, someone asked Gandhi whether the adoption of flush toilets would eradicate untouchability. “Whether the flush system will remove the curse of untouchability is open to grave doubt. This has to go from our hearts. It will not disappear through such means as has been suggested. Not until we all become bhangis and realise the dignity of labour of scavenging and latrine cleaning will untouchability really be exorcised,” said the Mahatma in his weekly magazine Harijan on September 15, 1946 (source: navayana.org). For Gandhi, the solution to sanitation and equality was the same: we should all become bhangis, the old term for cleaners, which has now become (and rightly so) a caste slur punishable under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
The genius of Gandhi was in getting others to do deeds that would seem absolutely improbable. When he believed in something, he made others too believe in it. To make a regressive, oppressive, ritualistic society understand the dignity of labour and equality, Gandhi did use some Hindu mumbo-jumbo, but also lifted other people’s faeces. He did it and forced all his followers to do it. A.V. Kutti Malu Amma, one of his disciples who had gone to jail with her 30-day-old infant during the 1932 civil disobedience movement, is credited with the abolition of dry latrines in Calicut, an old Indian port town. She began by cleaning others’ shit to make them realise what they were forcing the most miserable people to do for a living. But after Gandhi’s murder his disciples forgot all about sanitation and untouchability. If they hadn’t, both these issues would not have stared us in our face today. When a Dalit has to ride a horse to his wedding, he has to wear a helmet because murderous dominant castes could kill him with just a few stones. But when the nation’s capital wants its waste lifted, its corporations will only call Dalits. Gandhi, the bhangi, gets killed either way. And we remain as hierarchical and dirty as a society as we always were, waiting for the next coloniser to categorise martial and non-martial castes and separate electorates.
The mountains of waste at the exits and entrances of Delhi are the greatest monuments the rulers of new India have gifted us. When we think our waste is not our problem, it obviously piles up in our courtyard. And even a new experiment in Indian politics that came wielding a broom could only fool Delhi and Dalits. The dirt still gets piled up outside the residential colonies and the clogged sewers wait for the Dalits to die inside. The Ghazipur and Bhalaswa mountains ought to be made mandatory in all Delhi darshan itineraries.