By linking cleanliness to spirituality, Gandhi, symbol of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, valorised inhuman practice of manual scavenging

Editor's note: This is part of a seven-part series on manual scavenging in India. It examines the practice from a socio-political point of view.


On 2 October 2014, within months in job as prime minister, Narendra Modi launched "Swachh Bharat Abhiyan" programme to achieve an India without garbage and litter. On that very launch of the programme, he said a clean India would be a tribute to Gandhi on his 150th birth anniversary celebration in 2019. It was not the first time for anyone to evoke Gandhi as a front runner in the campaign for cleanliness. Governments in India have been promoting Gandhi’s approach to sanitation to address the sanitation crisis that India faces. Gandhi’s views focused more on personnel hygiene from a religious angle and this laid its foundation to associate sanitation to religion.

'Cleanliness next to Godliness'

The phrase is an ancient idea found in Hebrew and Babylonian religious tracts. John Wesley was the first one to record it in a sermon in 1778. It means being clean is a sign of spiritual purity or goodness, as in, don’t forget to wash your ears — cleanliness is next to godliness.

Gandhi in his writings on sanitation always insisted on the importance of cleanliness. He argued cleanliness is an important aspect to gain God’s blessings. “We can no more gain God’s blessing with an unclean body than with an unclean mind. A clean body cannot reside in an unclean city," Gandhi wrote on 19 November, 2015, in Young India. Gandhi saw cleanliness as an important aspect to reach or access God rather than ‘goodness’. Gandhi’s view on sanitation was a reinforcement of caste system, which revolves around ritual purity and pollution though his inspiration lies in the West.

 By linking cleanliness to spirituality, Gandhi, symbol of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, valorised inhuman practice of manual scavenging

Representational Image. AFP

"I learnt 35 years ago that a lavatory must be as clean as a drawing-room. I learnt this in the West. I believe that many rules about cleanliness in lavatories are observed more scrupulously in the West than in the East," Gandhi said in Navajivan on 24 May, 1925.

Gandhi argued the western toilet practices impressed him. Nevertheless, he hardly studied why Indians continue to have unclean sanitation practices. Zizek argues that one can find ideology at the place we least pay attention too, toilet. Following Zizek, I argue Indian toilet is placed in a unique position to a given architecture. In this paper, I am not going into the origin of toilet behaviour, rather 18th-21st Century toilet practices that exist in India.

While talking about sanitation behaviour in all societies, anthropologist and cultural theorist, Mary Douglas argues that “in all societies dirt was considered out of place”, in other words keeping away from waste was considered normal in all societies. With the emergence of industrialisation, many societies were demanded by the state to incorporate place to defecate within the living space. Until then, people's behaviour to toilet varied, many threw waste.

In my study on toilet practices, among the many religions Hinduism, Islam and African religions have a unique way of dealing with waste. In Hinduism, one person’s state of purity and pollution is a permanent category, while the members of the purity were allowed to transgress, members of polluted were restricted to be in that space. This is the uniqueness to India, where even the shade of the untouchable (polluted) is considered pollution, or even seeing him/her was considered pollution. Whether or not the untouchable does the work, doesn't matter, seeing any of them in public is considered impure. This is the uniqueness to Hinduism’s approach to waste. Though many argue that stigma attached to waste exist in all societies, unlike in India those are not permanent category policed by the state and sanctioned by religion. Hinduism demands only one particular caste to work as sweepers and the society enforces them not to study or move away from caste system. Though there are some changes in urban areas, the impact is so less that is not even worth referring.

Societies changing their behaviour to human waste

Contrary to India, the spread of disease and findings of bacteria in the West enforced the rulers to lay rules in removing waste. It's the first time human waste becomes one's "business" directed by the state. I call this period as a process of secularising human waste.

“We forbid," says Article 4 of the Edict of 1539, "all emptying or tossing out into the streets and squares of the aforementioned city and its surroundings of refuse, offals, or putrefactions, as well as all waters whatever their nature, and we command you to delay and retain any and all stagnant and sullied waters and urines inside the confines of your homes.” (Laporte: 27)

In other words, though Christian churches in the earlier period did not have toilets, now they were forced by order to have toilets. It's way back to France, in 1539, the then king of France introduced ordinance that deals on waste. Article 4 of the edict argues, “All emptying or tossing out into the streets and squares of the aforementioned city and its surroundings of refuse,... we command you to delay and retain any and all stagnant and sullied waters and urines inside confines of your homes. We enjoin you to carry these and promptly empty them into the stream and given them chase with a bucketful of clean water to hasten their course.” (42) With regard to religious places, Article 23 of the edict states “... In the eight subsequent days, the lords and owners of said houses, or the concierges and tenants must be informed within three months after the first injunction, which will be recorded, that they must build the aforementioned cesspools and earth closets or risk the penalty of the confiscation of their abodes, and if these abodes are churches or mortmain properties, they shall be deprived of pensions and rents ensuing from these aforementioned properties for the duration of ten years.”

While in France in 1539 they started to dissociate waste from religion, in India dirt still even now continues to associate with the religious idea of purity and pollution. This is unique from other societies.

Indian government's policies on sanitation are designed based on Hindu religion. It has hardly introduced measures to remove dirt from the very basic aversion built in Hindu religious beliefs. In Hinduism, caste and the temple holds the central position. Henceforth, in caste system, the priests (Brahmin men) are at the top of the system whose only job is to meditate to God. He is kept away from dirt with the help of castes those whose specific work is only to remove filth. Among dirt, menstruation and excreta were considered as filthiest in the Hindu religion. Its under this rule that women and Dalits (untouchables) were restricted entry to temples. Most often, Indians avoid building toilets and if at all they build, they build in a corner or a secluded place. The recent study of Diane Coffey and others, on Indian toilet behaviour also asserts the same points that santiation behaviour is influenced with Hindu religious belief. The ideal house is a agraharam (a rows of Brahmin houses) where Brahmin men (priests) live, which is also considered as a pure place.

In the house, waste had its own spatial. Menstruating Hindu women were kept in a separate house, the person who empties the excreta from the bucket were allowed only to enter the house from the behind. Even during menstruation, women's clothes were washed by the scavenger, and the demarcation between the menstruating women and scavenger was always maintained.

Andre Bettile stayed for months in one of Brahmin’s house in Tamil Nadu for his book, Class, Caste and Power, but fails to capture the discriminatory space that continues to exist in those Brahmin houses. Sociologists in India, like Gandhi, have mostly missed to notice or rejected to recognise the exclusive structure extending its roots to Hindu religion which ghettoised the scavenger in a given building.

The ghettoisation followed in architecture in post-Independent India to the recent ones of Delhi Metro. In India, schools are considered as a temple of learning, and therefore, many schools avoided to build toilets. Even those who build toilets, had them in a separate place. The progressive campuses like the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) has these exclusive stairs that can be seen in Tapti hostel. In 2014, The English and Foreign Languages department built a separate block to facilitate foreign languages department and forgot to construct toilets. While most were speaking against manual scavenging, we hardly saw demands to introduce toilets in railway stations or to increase their numbers.

Most government quarters continued to build toilets at the backside of the house and a door exclusive for scavengers were kept to access to empty the bucket. In modern day appartements, a separate lift is kept exclusive for scavengers to remove waste. In Delhi, the cook and the scavenger are different. While the cook sweeps the room, he/she doesn't clean the toilet, or the sweeper is not allowed to clean the house. Those who removed human excreta were given a separate settlement, and wages were not paid but given pittance with whatever eatables remained in each house.

Under customary law, scavengers were forced to work without leave. The scavengers were supposed to remove excreta from each individual houses and if the owner was not satisfied s/he could complain to the local magistrate who conducts inquiry, and if found guilty, the scavenger would be given fine for the first time and on the second would be imprisoned (the UP Municipality Act 1916). Gandhi hardly spoke about these practices.

In Hinduism, human excreta and menstrual blood is considered filthy, and that still reflects in temples, where we hardly find toilets. It is not a coincidence when we read about Dalits being barred from entering temples. Therefore, the Hindu religious idea of space (purity and pollution) is still followed when one constructs an architecture. In villages, they avoid building toilets and prefer open defecation. Many writers have glorified open defecation which also indirectly validates the association the practice of keeping filth away from house.

People would argue that a separate entrance is used to facilitate the bucket system. During those days the practice of defecation was largely practiced in a bucket. The house members would sit on a flat slab with a bucket underneath it. The excreta would fall on the bucket and every day, the municipal servant would remove the bucket and collect the excreta in a drum and wash the bucket and keep it in its place for usage. This was a routine work either to be carried very early in the morning or late at night. For such practices, the municipality or the local bodies collected scavenger tax from households. Such practices were dirty, and most often used to justify the practice of untouchability towards scavengers.

Gandhi argued that untouchability is a practice not based on religious notion, but otherwise. “He (scavenger), himself, refuses to shake the hand extended to him and says: 'I am too dirty'. But his work finished, he takes his bath, changes his dress, and very properly mixes with the highest in the land. Immediately, therefore, we remove the taint of birth, ie, the idea of superiority and inferiority attaching to birth, we purify Varnashrama," Gandhi wrote in the 13 August, 1925, edition of Young India. He also laid the foundation to valorise scavenging in the article, The Ideal Bhangi, even before Modi.

Gandhi opined:

"The ideal Bhangi of my conception would be a Brahmin par excellence, possibly even excel him… It is the Bhangi who enables society to live. A Bhangi does for society what a mother does for her baby... A mother washes her baby of the dirt and insures his health….”

In other words, Gandhi supported the caste system but observed stigma of the scavenger is not associated with caste but a temporary factor. However, it was never a factor on the ground. If we argue that the separate entrance in the back of the house was built exclusively to remove human excreta of those days, there were buildings with water closet and not the "bucket system" but still there was a separate rolling stairs for scavengers. Gandhi was certainly aware of these buildings, but he never spoke against such entrances. In many colonial and in government quarters, sweepers were given a separate house. Why didn' Gandhi speak against these ghettoisation of sweepers, or in other words scavengers, in architectural spaces?

On the other hand, he had consistent complaints on scavenger about their habits “.. eat putrid flesh, become drunkards, commit adultery and keep yourselves dirty".

It’s again a surprise that Gandhi writes as though the eating habits of scavengers were a voluntary act. Rather it was a customary law enforced upon the scavengers to eat what was provided to them in the place of salary. Instead of speaking against these customary practices, Gandhi rather upheld them.

He opined bhangi’s should do his duty as a service to society and further goes on to say that the bhangis should be an expert of shit, urine, toilet and know converting them to manure. In the last part of the essay, he also wrote “an ideal Bhangi, while deriving his livelihood from his occupation, would approach it only as a sacred duty”, and laid the foundation to make scavenging an "off the clock" work and a religious service.

When we discuss caste system, not all the castes complained about the sanctioned jobs, only those who were provided impure work opposed the system. Gandhi’s intervention on caste is always to be seen as a reply to those opposed to the caste system and not on those who created such system.

Gandhi’s view attaching religion to waste continues still in the sanitation department and the manual scavenging practice too continued along with that. It was only in 1993 that the government banned the practice of manual scavenging terming it inhuman. Was it a coincidence considering the 90s were a decade of Baba Saheb Ambedkar's centenary and it was his ideology, which forced many to see the inhuman work of manual scavengers. It's this very reason that those fighting against caste system see Ambedkar’s argument as crucial.

Water closet was introduced in India in the late 19th Century. Why did different governments especially the Congress, which ruled India for 49 years continued the practice of manual scavenging. Is it because they nurtured Gandhi’s idea on sanitation while they adopted industrialisation in all other fields. It again comes as a surprises why Gandhi did not adopt to flush toilets rather spoke everyone should become a scavenger. If we consider manual scavenging as an inhuman occupation, then it's important to ask why Gandhi supported the system instead of adopting water closet.

The author works on caste as an independent writer associated with Dalit Camera

Updated Date: Jun 14, 2019 20:45:30 IST