“We do not sit at their doorpost”: Sanitation Castes and the Untouchability Within
Representational Image. Image Courtesy: NDTV
A few incidents remain in the back of our minds and keep haunting us unless we diagnose and find a rationale for them. One such incident I encountered happened while I was on my fieldwork with a colleague in the Sanchi district of Madhya Pradesh in June 2017 when I was working with Safai Karmachari Andolan.
We were staying at a community organiser's home in Sanchi and the next day we were going to organise a women’s meeting to make them aware of ‘The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013’ and the Supreme Court judgment of 2014 on sewer deaths. This was a small community. There were about 40-50 homes of untouchable castes engaged in sanitation-related occupations. This was predominantly a Dom community, but a few families from Domar and a few called them Valmiki was also residing there.
The next day by 11 am we had told almost all the women in the community that we are organising a meeting on the problems of the community at five o'clock in the evening in which their participation is really required and it would be also helpful for devising a few activities for youth and kids of the community. We had made arrangements for everyone to sit by laying a big tarpaulin in an open space next to a few houses. Almost all the women we spoke to had arrived on time. Some women had also brought their kids with them. I realised after some two to three minutes that a few of the women were not sitting in the remaining empty space next to the houses where the tarpaulin was laid. It was quite visible that they were hesitating to sit there. We asked them to sit there only. Then one of the women said that “hum unki chaukhat par nahin baithte” (we do not sit at their doorpost).
This was not an insignificant sentence to leave unacknowledged. I understood this sentence quite well and knew what she exactly meant by saying that. It made me a little uneasy. But, reacting immediately to that also was not going to serve any purpose to us. We were going to talk about caste discrimination within sanitation communities also in the meeting. Hence, I ignored that for that particular moment and told them that they can sit wherever they want. They made some space for them and made them sit comfortably.
The meeting started. We kept the mode of the meeting as interactive as possible because we wanted women to participate in the discussion and more importantly to talk about caste openly. Following the same pattern, we started talking about the Manual Scavenging Act - of 2013, and the Supreme Court Judgment - of 2014, and then we also talked about caste and patriarchy, and how adversely these ideas have affected their lives and work.
We also raised a few questions about deep-seated biased, casteist and discriminatory behaviour among people in general, and of untouchable castes against each other in particular—without picking that particular sentence (we do not sit at their doorpost). Everyone together tried to find the answers to the questions we raised. Almost all the women agreed that the casteist and discriminatory behaviour of the savarnas towards them are completely inhuman, and also that it is absolutely wrong for Dalits to discriminate against each other, and that they should cast aside such casteist behaviour among themselves.
It was very impossible for us, in the very first discussion, to explain or to make the women sitting there understand the meaning of ‘we do not sit at their doorpost’ and the gradual impact, both adverse and favourable, such a language leaves on our psychology. The practice of untouchability in Indian society in general, and particularly among the untouchable castes, is so deeply ingrained in our behaviour, our language, and our conscious and subconscious mind that it is simply difficult to make it understand or explain to any section of people in one go who practice it religiously. Knowing that mutual discrimination is wrong and that they should not practice it, people often fail in identifying and questioning it in their behaviour. Identifying, understanding, and questioning one's own casteist behaviour and language, and working continuously to change it is a long socio-political-psychological process.
She was a Dom caste woman who did not want to sit on the tarpaulin laid in front of the Domar caste houses. On the basis of this incident, and a few others which I have found and observed during my work with Safai Karmachari Andolan, it can be said that such most exploited castes forced into manual scavenging and other sanitation-related barbaric occupations are also affected and have suffered from the spread of casteism in the society, and consequently they also discriminate among themselves. The reason for such behaviour even among the most exploited castes is nothing, but the society—not just their community, but society at large—in which they live, which is built on the foundation of the brahminical caste system.
This brahminical caste system makes people believe that they are higher than some other castes, have pride in their caste position and that they can discriminate against the caste below them. The caste which considers itself to be higher forgets how many castes it itself is below. This system also gives hope to the people that if they continue to act as the caste system requires then they may get birth in some higher caste in their next birth, and also the fear that if they do not act accordingly then they can get birth in an even lower caste.
The one thing that is said is that when even these untouchable castes are discriminating among themselves and not Brahmins in fact, then how can it be called Brahminism? Such arguments are devised to create misconceptions and mislead people. Brahmanism is a system, in which the brahmins describe themselves as the best, and keep themselves higher in the hierarchy, which always gives them a sense of superiority, while the rest of the castes are given a sense of both inferiority and superiority, but at different times. Compensation for the feeling of inferiority in a caste is completed by discriminating against the other caste. In this way, no matter how much other castes discriminate against the woman of that Dom caste, her humiliation is compensated by humiliating and discriminating against the woman of a Domar caste. Thinking such false superiority to be true, these sanitation castes continue to live in misconceptions.
These different castes forced into sanitation occupations in fact were one group in history, which over time went on dividing into different castes. Therefore, if we have to find ways to improve interactions among them, to develop we-feeling among them, then we have to understand their problems from both historical and contemporary points of view. While looking at their contemporary problem and finding solutions to them, they must also be taught about their common history. They need to struggle against untouchability both within and outside at the same time.
The author is a researcher with the Safai Karmachari Andolan; the views expressed are personal.
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