The war that Gandhi could not win

He won us independence from colonial rule but the battle against untouchability has not been won. Sixty-six years after Mahatma Gandhi fell to an assassin’s bullet, one in four Indians admits to practicing untouchability in some form or the other. The National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) and the University of Maryland, US, conducted a survey in over 42,000 households across India and found that untouchability was widespread across the Hindi heartland. The details of this survey will be available next year.


The prime minister has encouraged building of toilets in schools, villages and urban slums. But who will clean those toilets? There are thousands of defunct toilets across the country, which lie unused precisely because cleaning is meant to be done just by people of one caste. Representation pic

Does it shock you? Most Hindus, Sikhs, Christians or Jains would baulk at the suggestion that somebody in their family practices untouchability. But how would you answer a question that would you allow a Dalit to use your kitchen utensils? Think about it. Would your mother-in-law ‘allow it’? Would you share a hostel room with a Dalit? Would your parents ‘allow it’? When posed with such questions, one in four Indians admitted to practicing untouchability.

And it isn’t just Brahmins or Kshatriyas who practice untouchability. Sikhs do it too. 23 per cent Sikhs and 18 per cent Muslims. Caste segregation transcends religions. And it hasn’t diluted. Caste discrimination hasn’t gone. In the Badaun rape case, the families of the two girls who were found hanging from a tree feel that the reason they never got a fair investigation is because the prime suspects were the Yadavs and the police in the thana were Yadavs. They say it as a matter of fact. Caste discrimination is neither shocking nor out of the ordinary for them. Speak to any journalist in UP or Bihar, they will tell you the same thing albeit off
the record.

Manual scavenging is banned but it is still rampant. There are number of cases where people from the upper castes demand that their toilets be cleaned by women from the scavenging caste.

According to the Human Rights Watch, Panchayats in Maharashtra who wanted to get open toilets cleaned last year, hired boys on the basis of their caste.

The prime minister has encouraged building of toilets in schools, villages and urban slums. But who will clean those toilets? If they are not cleaned, who will use those toilets? There are thousands of defunct toilets across the country, which lie unused precisely because of this reason… because cleaning is meant to be done just by people of one caste.

There are many other reasons as to why people don’t use toilets that are being constructed at breakneck speed under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. But it is also necessary to educate people to use those toilets — and clean those toilets. They need to realise how dangerous open defecation is, that it pollutes water bodies. They also need to kill the mindset that cleaning toilets is not meant for their caste. And those who clean toilets are good people, because they bring hygiene in everybody’s lives. Building toilets is half the battle. The other half is battling cultural, social and caste barriers.

Nobody wants to tackle untouchability. If Gandhi couldn’t win it, who can? Is it something we will never win against? It is still funny to laugh at Mayawati with a designer handbag but if a glamorous upper caste politician flaunts a designer bag, it derives no sarcastic tweet or comment. It is the same sneer that Mani Shankar Aiyar had when he called Narendra Modi, a three time chief minister, a mere ‘Chaiwala’.

It must be reiterated that it isn’t just upper caste Hindus who practice casteism, especially its most debased form... untouchability. It is rampant in all religions in the subcontinent. Untouchability is present in Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan too. Christians are treated as untouchables in Pakistan, relegated mostly to clean toilets and pick up garbage. Irene Aylworth Douglass in An American Woman in Pakistan: Memories of Mangla Dam writes “If the child required diaper changes, a Muslim man would not perform that chore as he would not clean the toilets. Sweepers who were Christians usually did those ‘unclean chores’.”

If you find it discomforting to know that you and your family practice untouchability perhaps in subtle ways it is time to correct it. Not just by cleaning your own toilet, that is silly, that is something most of us do as a routine chore. Just as we dust or sweep the leaves in our yard. The real change will come when we share our social spaces and cultural activities with people from all castes and religions. It is only then that Gandhi’s and Ambedkar’s task would be complete.

Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash

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