Despite Dalit political assertion, casteism within community keeps issues affecting manual scavengers on the sidelines

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.


In the political circus of India, the body of a scavenger assumes significance as a propaganda tool to reinstate the poor-friendly democratic image of the political class. Politicians flock at the door of the scavenger, take part in the sham of washing his/her feet, and eat at his/her hut unabashedly. However, the objectification of the scavenger never get translated into the subject of political discourse.

What does this act of momentary love for the scavenger signify for the scavenger community? Is it possible, in post-Independent India, to find a dignified and non-stigmatised space for the community? Are we ready to address the empirical reality of poverty and unemployment among the members of community? Can the political India (including the Dalit India) imagine a scavenger as a super hero, a prime minister and a professor in a University? If not, it's high time the people of India introspect their political ethos and concerns.

 Despite Dalit political assertion, casteism within community keeps issues affecting manual scavengers on the sidelines

File image of Narendra Modi washing feet of safai karmacharis. Twitter@NarendraModi

There is a moral caste barrier that prevents one from hailing the scavenger as the political icon of the nation. The scavenger remains to be associated always with the traditional caste occupation of scavenging. The attempt to overcome caste has meted with brutal moral force of casteism not only from casteist Hindu communities but also from other dominant Dalit communities.

Everyone hates a Dalit body, including Dalits in a caste-based society, irrespective of the nuances of gender and sexuality. The figure of the scavenger in the popular and public memory epitomises this materialist perception of a Dalit body and makes it available for the pleasure of public consumption. The modern imagery of a scavenger is mediated through a caste gaze which manufactures an inhuman body trapped in a sewage hole. The caste gaze reproduces the inferiority and inhuman social position of the scavenger in modernity.

Dalit political moralism, a heightened sense of self-righteous and moralistic space for radical politics that has resurfaced in the post-Ambedkarite era, propagates an imagined identitarian political universe and a politics of emancipation for the Dalit bahujan masses. Rhetorically centred on the ideology of Ambedkarism, it has created a ritualistic performative platform across the country uniting geographically, socially and culturally distinct regions through a neo-political visual symbolism, aided by a benevolent state. The scavenger question, which challenges the inherent casteism and gendered inequalities among Dalits, offer a modern critique of this Ambedkarite universe of political moralism.

Envy and jealousy shape the effective forms of material resources for the recurring practice of caste and gender based atrocities. And the unscrupulous conformity of the subaltern and Dalit lifeworld to the norms of caste, patriarchy and their unhindered practices puts the scavenger at the receiving end of caste envy and violence. The fact that some of the dominant Dalit communities engage in unleashing violence on the members of the scavenger community points at the limitations of the endorsed political ideologies of Ambedkarism, Marxism and feminism/womanism for the scavenger. Caste matters even in the shaping of the avowed radical politics.

manual scavenging

Representational image. Reuters

In the imagined communitarian universe of the Dalit, where does the scavenger figure? And how does it affect the future of the community? Isn’t it criminal if one remains passive about the choked death of scavengers who are compelled to practise manual scavenging with the disguised blessings of the state? Such news gets scant attention and sympathy from the public, although there is a renewed interest in the media to highlight the plight of scavengers due to the efforts of some of the devoted activists from the community.

However, one hardly finds any sympathy and concern for scavengers that farmer suicides receive at the national front. While the figure of the farmer had assumed to represent the nation in the past, the scavenger remained as an invisible entity in history.

The nationalist aura associated with the farmer did not diminish even under the neo-liberal regimes, although it could not reduce the number of farmer suicides. However, while the farmer occupies a dignified presence in the social, the scavenger, who contributes equally for the nation, is compelled to lead a stigmatised and dubious life of exile.

Ushered by colonial modernity, Dalit renaissance, in the early 20th Century, has been a complex narration patronised by multiple agents. Victorian morality of the benign missionaries, political ethics of bahujan social reformers, anti-modern Harijanisation of Mahatma Gandhi and Ambedkarite modernity, all have shaped the universe of Dalit political moralism. However, unlike the dominant caste Hindu communities, the Dalit habitus could not evolve as a political community, rather it remained scattered across differing castes with unaccounted modes of resentment towards each other.

The resurgence of Ambedkarism could reduce the antagonism among many of these castes to some extent. But the lack of an effective dialogic space to address the intersections of caste, class, gender and sexuality hinders the formation of a political community.

Unlike the woman question, which generates sympathies across the political spectrum, the scavenger question remains unanswered due to the deep-rooted caste envy that rules the roost in our radical political universe.

There is a need to introspect self-reflectively and liberate radical politics from the traces of caste morality and imagine a collective future of politics with the scavenger community. Otherwise the radical Dalit politics may remain a mere spineless fossil for the scrutiny of future generations.

The author is a writer, researcher and a self-taught artist hailing from Kerala

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Updated Date: Jun 12, 2019 17:46:40 IST