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Stooping to Conquer: Will it Work?


In his time Jesus of Nazareth was an oppositional figure, hounded by both the priesthood and the Roman overlords. So, when he gathered his choice followers to a Last Supper, at which he washed their feet and shared his body and blood with them, he told them that their path would be full of thorns and suffering. Although none greater than his own crucifixion on behalf of the meek and the powerless.

Narendra Modi’s replication of the washing of indigent feet at Prayag Raj recently was of another order: here was the all-powerful ruler himself stooping to perform an act of exceptional humility. He called it “vandana”.

We may then be pardoned for expecting that a watershed transformation in the quality of life of the hitherto oppressed and outcast underling is underway, since unlike Jesus, Modiji is rather in the place of Herod himself, and in an unchallengeable position to do as he likes.

But here is the rub: Modiji’s views on the Valmiki samaj, who have remained at the bottom of the caste ladder and consigned by the Hindu social order to do scavenging work, have been discouragingly inconsistent.

In his blog in The Times of India (2002 onward) the journalist, Rajiv Shah, refers to pages 48-49 of an unreleased book, Karamyog which contains Modiji’s thoughts on various subjects, citing Modiji to say: “I do not believe that they (Valmikis) have been doing this job (of manual scavenging) just to sustain their livelihood. Had that been so, they would not have continued with this type of job generation after generation. At some point of time somebody must have got the enlightenment that it is their (Valmiki’s) duty to work for the happiness of the entire society and the Gods.” Thus scavenging is here seen as entirely a voluntary vocation done for spiritual purposes, with no blame attaching to the social order.

To his credit, however, Modiji, after coming to power at the Centre, made a wholly different appeal to the nation in his “Mann ki Baat” programme on April 26, 2015 on the occasion of the 125th birth anniversary of B.R.Ambedkar. Does it behove us, he said, that some people (Valmikis) should carry night soil on their heads? Announcing that the government had decided to put an end to this practice, he invited society at large to cooperate in the endeavour.

And yet, if the record of the last three years is any guide, this honourable resolve may have remained just another politic gesture, and the washing of Dalit feet at Prayag Raj essentially a means to acquiring spiritual merit rather than a policy red line.

In the year 2018, 105, on record, manual scavengers died from toxic suffocation in septic sewers. As the state run by Modiji makes bold to conquer Mars, not to speak of many digital wonders that ambush us day in and day out, nothing seems farther from the ruling mind than to make a priority of finding a technoloty that can help clean out sewers without desperate young men having to descend into them with fatal consequence. Nor is there any mentionable let up in the numbers who still carry night soil on their heads, the ‘Swachch Bharat’ campaign notwithstanding.

As to the larger Hindu social order, there is never a dearth of atrocities committed on Dalits, be it among the educated (Rohith Vemula) or the working class members (Unnao, Saharanpur—to cite just two instances).

Indeed, a new ingenious way has been found to obviate the problem; we are enjoined not to call Dalits “Dalit” even among media reports. The principle behind this Podsnappery clearly is that if you just change their nomenclature to the anaesthetised “Scheduled Castes” then the history—the continuing history—of caste oppression simply disappears.

All this must raise the question as to which of Modiji’s sentiments about the scavenging class is more to the point still—the one expressed in the pages of Karamyog or in his address on the occasion of the Ambedkar birth anniversary.

Gandhi admittedly did not believe in the annihilation of caste; but his anguish at the lives lived by Valmikis did seem of an intensely felt nature, causing him to engage in symbolic acts of identification rather more authentic than a ritual washing of feet. For some time he not only lived among Valmikis, but cleaned his own latrine, carried night soil, and eventually led determined movements against untouchability and ostracisation from temples and other public spaces and facilities. He did not seem to be addressing any electoral agenda.

Neither Jesus, nor Gandhi, not having been in the seat of power could have done anything much more than they did.

But surely Modiji might be expected to do more than ritually wash their feet, risking the uncharitable perception that this might have been just a vainglorious photo-op.

Fond as he is of the so-efficient Zionists, he could surely call upon their genius to provide a suitable technology to clean out modern India’s tozxic sewers, if for no other reason that their ubiquitous persistence continues to make the trumpeted claims of a new India tragically hollow.

As to carrying night soil, he could ensure as the state’s top priority a steady supply of water wherever old and new dry latrines exist. It hardly needs to be said that ‘Swachch Bharat’ latrines must remain merely items for electoral advertisements should water not be available to make them operational.

Often men and women who have greatness thrust upon them begin to live in a swoon and a bubble of self-regard, mistaking commercially constructed images of themselves as their reality.

Yet, in history, they merely come and go as shadows without substance, although mistaken for a brief charmed while as magicians beyond compare.

Not one single scavenger in today’s India may be amenable to bluff. The political system, forged by Nehru, Ambedkar and others, has ensured at least that much.

The author, who taught English literature at the University of Delhi for over four decades and is now retired, is a prominent writer and poet. A well-known commentator on politics, culture and society, he wrote the much acclaimed Dickens and the Dialectic of Growth. His book, The Underside of Things—India and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011, came out in August 2012. Thereafter he wrote two more books, Idea of India Hard to Beat: Republic Resilient and Kashmir: A Noble Tryst in Tatters.

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