By washing feet of sanitation workers, Narendra Modi underscored that cleanliness is the bedrock of dharma
Narendra Modi is a pracharak (full timer) of the RSS. The RSS has, since its inception in 1925, emphasised on samrasta, a uniquely Indic concept that can roughly be meant as creating harmony in the society by removing any signs of discrimination, and focusing on the atman or soul in each human being. This is in contrast to the Abrahamic notion of dividing the world into believers and non-believers.
In 1939, Dr Ambedkar was profuse in his praise when he attended an RSS event and found that the swayamsevaks were not interested in knowing the caste of their fellow swayamsevaks.
But then, the idea of the Sangh or RSS is nothing but taking the best-lived practices of Hinduism. Thus, when discrimination on the basis of jati set in after the advent of Islam in India as early as the 14th Century, saints like Swami Ramanand emphasised that “jati pati pooche nahi koi, hari ko bhaje so hari ko hoi (the Lord is accessible to all irrespective of jati)".
Swami Ramanand, made just 12 disciples, including those who became saints like Swami Ravidasji and Swami Kabir das. These disciples came from all parts of the society, including a woman who had been a prostitute. Since this emphasis on the individual’s aacharan (behaviour) rather than where the individual was born, does not meet the Leftist/liberal narrative, it has been deleted from taught history.
Similarly, the act of becoming a sadhu involves doing one’s own death rituals, post which there is no jati. The various akhadas have never discriminated in taking disciples on the basis of jati. A sadhu might have been from any jati before becoming a sadhu and can rise to the responsibility of maha mandeleshwar or head of the akhada.
The above section was to highlight how “caste”, a Portuguese term was imposed on India by Herbert Hope Risley, a child of a Christian rector and a British ethnographer who headed the 1901 Census. And to show that the narrative of caste discrimination does not reflect the reality on the ground.
Emphasis on swachhta, a pillar of dharma
Next, we highlight the role of “swachhta” or cleanliness. Manu defines 10 lakshana or signs of dharma, shauch (or cleanliness), is one of them. To ensure that citizens follow dharma, it is important that cleanliness is maintained. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan acknowledges that self-respect of common citizens is linked to clean surroundings. It is also a prerequisite for the establishment of dharma. The Herculean effort of central, state, local governments and common citizens have borne fruit as can be seen in rapidly improving cleanliness levels all over India. At the forefront of this initiative are the sanitation workers.
Namami Gange is similar in its vision of establishing dharma. The sacrilege of putting raw untreated faeces and urine into the sacred Ganges river was started by the British as part of a colonial endeavour of destroying the sacredness of Holy Ganga. Over the years, as anti-Hindu governments unleashed their agenda, tannery waste, slaughterhouse waste and solid debris were poured into Ganga.
The Namami Gange mission was meant to re-establish purity and sanctity of Ganga. While large infrastructure projects like the establishment of ETPs are the prerequisite for sewage treatment, the other part was preventing the defiling of Ganga. This involved steps like shutting down illegal tanneries, and preventing people from dumping garbage in Ganga.
Successful Kumbh, treating Hindu pilgrims with respect
Under a “secular” polity and governments, Hindu pilgrims had gotten used to being treated as second class citizens. Visuals of pigs near resting pilgrims in the Sabarimala showed how Hindus are merely a source of taxes.
In this milieu, the successful conduct of the ardh Kumbh in Prayagraj, where more than 22 crore people had snaan, reinforced Modi's agenda of sabka sath, meaning that Hindus too were treated with respect in their own country, perhaps after a long time. To put things in perspective, the 22 crores who had a bath, if they were a country, they would be the fifth largest country by population.
The role of sanitation workers in this is exemplary. To highlight, more than 2,00,000 temporary toilets were set up, high-pressure water jet machines were provided to clean the toilets, and the waste of toilets was taken via tankers to ETPs.
The sanitation workers or swachhata agrahi (those who insist on cleanliness) were the key elements in maintaining hygiene. They ensured that the toilets were impeccably clean. The poorest, commonest devotee could come to Kumbh, sleep in very clean and safe accommodation provided at reasonable charge by the government or by numerous religious organisations, have food in the many anna kshetras (free food places run by religious bodies), use very clean public toilet, have snaan and do her prayers and go back safe.
Modiji washing feet of the swacchta agrahi, is an acknowledgement of the grateful Hindu society for making this possible.
Role Models, not Commandments
In the dharmic framework of society — that includes Indic beliefs like Hindu/Sikh/Jain/Buddhist, etc, there are no commandments, unlike in the Abrahamic framework. We have role models or people we look up to.
Raja or the king has been Dharma Pravartaka or champion of dharma. This means that the ruler, by personal example, by the life she/he lives, establishes role models for the society.
Modi understands his role as a role model, someone whom millions of people look up to and emulate. What Mod, by the very symbolic act of washing the feet of the swachhata agrahi has done, is re-established the role of cleanliness as a pillar of dharma and gave credit to those who bring cleanliness in our lives, thus inspiring millions to give respect to these unacknowledged soldiers of dharma.
(The author is a chemical engineer from IIT-Delhi and is authoring a book on Dharmic vs Abrahamic frameworks)