In urban India some imagine that caste demarcations have become history. We need to only check the caste identity of those employed to clean the toilets in our offices and homes to recognise how wrong they are. For centuries we have thrust chores we regard to be unclean and socially humiliating on people of the lowest, most oppressed castes. They alone carry the burdens of disposing of animal carcasses, skinning animals, and scavenging and disposing of human excreta. Today, although not written, there’s virtually 100% reservation for the lowest castes in jobs as cleaners and sweepers.
Young people born into these disadvantaged castes battle formidable barriers to enter and stay in school. Research demonstrates that they frequently endure humiliating caste discrimination in classrooms. However, even for many who persevere with their studies, and nearly all of those who cannot, their caste destiny forces them to clean toilets as the only employment available to them.
Can we imagine an India in which cleaning toilets becomes an employment open to people of all castes ? A progressive social service institute in Ahmedabad did it. It issued a job advertisement for a sanitation worker, stating that preference would be given to candidates of higher castes. The institute knew that the notification would be controversial: They issued it to stimulate public debate and soul-searching about embedded social inequalities. What they didn’t anticipate was violence and threats, forcing its director Prasad Chacko to go into hiding.
The advertisement was issued by the Human Development and Research Centre (formerly Behavioural Science Centre), established in the seventies by a group of Jesuit priests. These St Xavier’s College teachers were moved by the caste discrimination, untouchability and violence which they encountered across Gujarat. The institute tried to organise Dalit and tribal people, and promote gender equity. In 2002, it also became a hub for activists working with survivors of the communal carnage.
Some years ago, the position of a sanitation worker fell vacant in their Ahmedabad office. It was advertised, and as invariably happens, only people from the lowest-caste, Valmiki community, applied. Mukesh, a ‘tenth-fail’ Valmiki youth was appointed, but Chacko and his colleagues felt it would be unjust for him to be trapped for a lifetime in only cleaning floors and toilets. They helped him learn computers and office errands and promoted him as an office assistant.
This spring the position of sanitation worker fell vacant again. It was certain that if they issued a job call, only Valmiki candidates would apply. The audacious idea of stating in the advertisement that preference would be given to applicants of higher castes came up. They mentioned that Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Baniyas and Patels among Hindus; Syeds and Pathans among Muslims (priestly and warrior castes); Syrian Christians; Parsis; and Jains, would be preferred. Chacko, a Syrian Christian says that his community still claims its Brahmanical pedigree with the myth that St Thomas came to Kerala in AD 51 and converted 51 Brahmins, the ancestors of all later Syrian Christians.
Unsurprisingly, there were no high-caste applications, but one morning late in June three young men in jeans forced themselves into Chacko’s office, introducing themselves as members of organisations representing Brahmins and Rajput Kshatriyas, and challenged him: “Do you believe that Brahmins and Kshatriyas should clean toilets? Don’t you know what responsibilities are assigned to us by tradition?”
“Would you ask Christian priests or Muslim maulvis to clean toilets? It is the Kshatriyas who protect the nation, how dare you insult them by asking them to clean latrines?” they asked. Chacko said that there was no reason for priests and maulvis to not clean toilets, and that it is the army and police — comprising men and women from every caste — that defend the nation. They recorded Chacko’s views on their phones and left.
Read | Vigilantes have no role here
In a few hours, Chacko’s interview began circulating on the Internet, and a number of Gujarati TV channels arrived at the college campus where the institute is located. By afternoon, a crowd of around 20 angry young men gathered at the campus demanding that Chacko apologise. The police finally arrived and dispersed the men.
The next day, more men gathered, and when they could not meet Chacko, they smashed windows and flower pots outside the office. Many joined in to condemn the advertisement, including Hardik Patel’s outfit and for good measure even a Muslim organisation. The institute issued a ‘limited’ apology for unintentionally hurting sentiments, but did not retract the advertisement.
Dalit and human rights groups on the other hand rose in solidarity across Gujarat issuing statements in support of this gesture for advancing the idea of social equality. Jignesh Mewani, a Dalit activist and lawyer said, “Narendra Modi has declared that sanitation work is a spiritual exercise. Then why should the upper castes be denied this opportunity?” The matter simmered for a while, and is now dormant, but Chacko continues to be on leave.
The fury and indignation of upper caste organisations is instructive of how entrenched the idea of caste remains in India. On the other hand, simply the accident of birth into disadvantaged-caste households makes it fine for low-caste youth to be trapped in this work that the upper castes so despise. The country is building toilets in every rural school, which is welcome, but the responsibility for cleaning these toilets frequently fall on students from these oppressed castes, who are shamed into doing work that would so offend their higher-caste classmates. This too causes no outrage.
It is evident that the value of different lives still varies infinitely in India based on the chance of where children are born. For some, the skies are within reach, and the idea of cleaning dirt is sacrilege. For others, clearing human waste is a fitting destiny, and reaching for the skies is sacrilege.
Harsh Mander is convenor, Aman Biradari. The views expressed are personal.