The public lashing of Dalit men in Una, Gujarat, for skinning a dead cow was what caused the Dalit fury in the state. But the community’s anguish is much older. The cruel traditions of the past 2,000 years have trapped them into stigmatised occupations, regarded ritually “unclean”. Most such “unclean” occupations are associated with death, human waste or menstruation. This is because all these physiological processes are surrounded by Hindu cultural beliefs regarding the most intense ritual pollution.
The ‘unclean’ occupations – connected with death – are digging graves, collecting firewood for cremation and setting up funeral pyres. Death is considered so impure and unclean that in many regions of rural India it is only Dalits who are compelled by tradition to communicate the news of anyone dying to the relatives of the deceased.
Secondly, there are a large number of unclean occupations that derive from the deaths of animals. In most parts of India, villagers expect Dalits to dispose of the carcasses of animals that die in their homes or in the village. Even the railways employ men of these castes as casual workers and they are paid a pittance to clear the tracks of dead animals (or even humans killed in accidents). It is Dalits alone who must skin the bodies of dead animals, flay and tan them and develop them into cured leather, and sometimes even craft them into footwear and drums. The pollution associated with leather is so pervasive that in some states, the beating of drums at weddings, funerals and religious festivals is considered polluting and imposed as a social obligation only on Dalits.
A third category of ‘unclean’ occupations derives from the culturally polluting character of human waste. In many corners of the country, the manual removal of human excreta, often with bare hands, still goes on even though it has been proscribed. This pollution notion extends in most cases to cleaning sewage tanks and drainage canals and sweeping streets. The belief related to pollution by menstrual blood makes midwifery and washing clothes “unclean occupations” in several parts of India.
The job of lifting and skinning carcasses to be sold to leather footwear companies is left to Dalits. Leather and tanning factories still have a very high proportion of Dalit workers. Even drivers of vehicles transporting solid waste or carcasses are usually drawn from the Dalit community. Municipalities routinely employ only Dalit workers for scavenging. Veterinary and medical doctors, unwilling to “pollute” themselves by touching corpses, use Dalits to perform post-mortems.
Anyone in the countryside who refuses to perform such “unclean jobs” is often abused, assaulted or socially boycotted. Most Dalits involved in leather work and scavenging are landless, and farmers often refuse to employ them. Some unclean occupations are involuntary and the workers involved are paid a pittance or not paid at all. Such occupations are conveying the message of deaths, cleaning temples, cleaning up after marriage feasts, etc.
However, Dalits who engage in hereditary polluting occupations usually negotiate some level of wage payment, in cash or kind, although the remuneration is inadequate. The payment may be in the form of arrack, two rotis, a leftover meal that is sometimes stale, and cash. Sometimes there are cash payments for tasks like midwifery and lifting carcasses, usually much below the statutory minimum wages.
However, Dalits have a dilemma here. If they continue scavenging or skinning dead animals and disposing of carcasses – indispensable work but things that no other group is willing to perform – their work gets a sort of monopoly status that gives them economic security. But this comes at the price of huge degradation. Alternatively, to escape this degradation, they have to abandon the economic security and join the proletariat.
Such engagements leave physical and psychological scars on the people involved. They get huge boils and rashes on shoulders because of carrying carcasses, and suffer damage to the neck and spine due to carrying headloads of excreta.
In 2002, five Dalit men were lynched in Haryana, not far from the national capital, for skinning a cow. There was anger then as there is now. A young Dalit man had said in mortification and wrath: “These Hindus make us do their dirty work and then deprive us of even a minimum of dignity.” Another added: “If they love their animals so much, let them pick up the carcasses and bury them with full rites.” These words echo once again across Gujarat after the public beating of the Dalit men. This time, though, it may be a battle to the finish.
The angry Dalit men and women who have taken to the streets, depositing animal carcasses in front of government offices, proudly echo the words of Babasaheb Ambedkar: “You take the milk from the cows and buffaloes, and when they are dead, you expect us to remove the dead animals. Why? When you can carry the dead bodies of your mothers, why can you not carry the dead bodies of your ‘mother cows’ yourselves?” Why indeed!
Harsh Mander is the author of Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India
The views expressed are personal