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.