By Martin Macwan*
The year was 1976 and the month was May. I had appeared for matriculation exam, 11th standard, the last year of the old SSC before the State of Gujarat switched to a new system, 10 + 2, from St. Mary’s High School, Nadiad. I was then not aware of the complexities of the caste system. I had not heard or read much about Dr. B.R. Ambedkar or the works of Savitri and Jyotiba Phule, since it was not part of the curriculum or the Christian missionary educator’s zeal to inform students about the excluded history of India.
As a child of 8, I had worked along with my grandmother in the farms of the grandmother of Ashwin Patel, my friend, located in Chhintiyawad, Nadiad. Studying in class 3, Ashwin and I were great friends and competitors; we would compete in getting best scores in mathematics, though I was always the topper. At the farm, however, while I worked, Ashwin would sit on the pile of dry hey of bajra, watching me work, unable to play as we did in the school. I was served water, poured from above in my cupped hands as a practice of intouchability. I was too young to understand the sarcastic comments of his family members on my canvass shoes, which reinforced my image of a labourer.
I would struggle hard to understand Ashwin’s grandmother, who would often visit my home and sit for hours with my grandmother, weeping and sharing her difficulties she faced at home with the sons and their wives. My grandmother would console her and order tea for her from the market before she would depart. The visitor wouldn’t accept tea or water from my home. Later I witnessed that her sons would secretly visit our home to taste meat curry and would, of course, have water after the meal, too.
A friend motivated me to take Ashwin to a workshop at Mt. Abu in May 1976. This was on social awareness and personal growth conducted by the Behavioural Science Centre, located at St. Xavier’s College – BSC is now called Human Development and Research Centre (HDRC). It is the same HDRC which recently attracted media attention for a controversial advertisement for the post for ‘cleaning job’, put up on its notice board on 6th April 2016 – the year the country is celebrating the 125th birth anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar, the architect of modern India. It led to some scuffle and an attack on the premises of the HDRC. The incident has prompted me to write about 40 years of churning in my mind around the issue of annihilation of cate…
The workshop helped me understand my personal experiences of untouchability, although I was not Hindu. My grandparents from both father’s and mother’s side had converted to Christianity, probably around 1915, 40 years before the clarion was call given by Dr. Ambedkar to Dalits to give up Hinduism. While Gandhi was hurt by this call, a manifestation of the deadly strike at the heart of Hinduism for its inability to delink itself from the varna system and untouchability, Dr. Ambedkar was supported in his mission by a progressive Shankracharya, Dr. Kurtkotty.
After the workshop, I joined St. Xavier’s College as a student. During my graduation years I would often visit professors, who set up BSC in villages to undertake a survey on the socio-economic condition of Dalits. BSC would also conduct workshops for farmers on personal motivation and innovating methods of agriculture for a better yield. The participants would be from all castes of the rural areas in which they would be held.
BSC was set up officially in 1977 as a result of introspection by some professors at St. Xavier’s College after they were dissatisfied with the education offered in the curriculum. They found it irrelevant to the masses of India. Hence, they took a plunge in setting up BSC as a centre for rural development, and resigned from the college. The pioneers were four professors – a non-Indian Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim and a Parsee. All these four professors belonged to the strata of society not covered under ‘reservation’, and hence would qualify as meritorious for the first preference of selection, if they would have to apply for the job as a cleaner in the context of the HDRC advertisement. The first officer appointed at BSC was my friend and colleague Gagan Sethi, equally eligible for the post, if he wished to apply for the job! I have worked with all these colleagues, as I too joined as lecturer in BSC in 1981, and worked there till 1989. We never asked what caste each of us belonged to, as we had over-grown these human inventions – the hierarchical caste system that has weakened the nation for centuries.
St. Xavier’s College has had a long association with the caste system.. It is related to the issue which is at the centre of the present turmoil around the controversial advertisement. The College was set up probably in 1955. Dalit students, including converted Christians, then, on account of caste discrimination, did not find a place in the college hostel. They would stay on the first floor of the old canteen. Food was brought to them from the mess after “others” had finished their meal. This led to protest by some progressive priests, including one of the founders of BSC, for such anti-Christian practice. Dalit students were finally allotted three rooms in the hostel, exclusively reserved for them. Those orthodox Hindus who blame Christian missionaries for conversion must thank this church institution for supporting and perpetuating caste system!
The controversial advertisement mentions a word unheard in Gujarat, ‘Syrian Christian’, one of the supposed beneficiaries for the cleaning job in the first preference list. Historically, ‘Syrian Christians’ uphold that they were the first to be converted, that they were all ‘Brahmins’, that they were converted by none other then St. Thomas, an apostle of Jesus Christ. Later, members from the castes considered ‘untouchable’ and ‘sudra’ too got converted into Christianity. While Hindus did not allow people branded as ‘untouchable’ then (even today at many places) in temples for fear of pollution, the missionaries adopted a “progressive” system in the church. They tied a rope in the church to separate ‘touchable’ and ‘untouchable’ Christians! They even maintained separate churches for two set of Christians and, of course, burial grounds, since caste continues in its mystical form even after the death! It shouldn’t surprise anyone – I visited a separate church for Dalit Christians in the Communist heartland of Kerala, situated just 50 metres away across the road from a church exclusively meant for non-Dalit Christians.
Indeed, the church has witnessed a lot of tension in India and the world due to the discrimination practiced in Christianity on grounds of caste and race, giving birth to a progressive ideological discourse, ‘liberation theology’. While Dr. Ambedkar has written a powerful essay on how Christian missionaries have dealt with the subject of caste, futile attempts by progressive Christian missionaries to shun discriminatory caste practices has been documented by Duncan B Forrester in his book, ‘Caste and Christianity’.
The controversial advertisement also mentions ‘Saiyed’ and ‘Pathan’ as the preferred social class for the job of cleaner. Is there a caste system in Islam? The caste system does not find a mention either in Bible or the Quran. Yet, it is true that even for Muslims who were converted from ‘sudra’ or ‘untouchable’ castes, there are separate mosques. I recommend watching the film ‘India Untouchable’ directed by Drishti media and made by Navsarjan.
One would ask, what’s wrong about this advertisement, given the fact of persistence of the caste system and its discriminatory practices in society today? My objections are the following:
- Public institutions dedicated in their objectives to remove caste discrimination believe that a human being is required to clean ‘toilet’.
- The institution (BSC, renamed as HDRC) was set up with annihilation of caste as one of its prime objectives. Unfortunately, 45 years after it was founded, it believes through written words that in its own campus segregation of its employees must remain on the basis of ‘caste’, although through a veiled disguise in the form of ‘class’.
- There is a problem with the approach to resolve a social problem. Gandhi would clean his own toilet, and cleaned toilets of hundreds others during the first Congress session. Gandhi introduced the practice of toilet cleaning at Sabarmati Ashram (does the same practice continues today in Sabarmati Ashram or Gujarat Vidhyapeeth, or they have employed cleaners from a particular caste today?) The pioneer of anti-manual scavenging practices in Gujarat and India was Mama Fadke, a Brahmin from Maharashtra. His biography is worth reading. As an award, many scavengers who were annoyed at his call for reforming inhuman scavenging practices, spat on his face. Mama Fadke went on an indefinite fast, joined by Gandhi and others, as British officials refused to assign him the job of cleaning toilets in Ratnagiri Jail. What is a good approach – to tell others to clean the toilets to teach the lesson, or to do it yourselves and communicate that this is not a caste-based occupation?
- The advertisement confirms that their approach to the social problem is casteist and not reformist or progressive.
- The job of cleaning, and particularly ‘toilet’ (sandas), perhaps, has hurt the sentiment the most, as it is intended in the advertisement. Though it is true that even today in many public schools Dalit children are forced to clean toilets and urinals, the question is: Is cleaning toilet a subject of shame? Does everyone in each social group believe so? In the ‘Sulabh Sauchalaya scheme’ there are hundreds of ‘general category’ people, as referred to in the advertisement, employed to clean up public toilets and urinals, though it is true that instead of doing their job for which they are hired, they sub-let the work to people from particular castes. In our own homes there are millions who clean their own toilets. Our principled objection is that cleaning toilets or other forms of manual scavenging is not a caste-based occupation. We under no circumstances can advocate cleaning of toilet to be done by members of a specific social group.
- The advertisement offers the first preference of employment as a cleaner job to a specific social category and naming some of these ‘classes’ for whom there is no ‘reservation’ policy. What is the perceived social ranking of these groups in our minds under the influence of the caste system? Do the framers of the advertisement too share the orthodox social norms of mentioning groups having a ‘higher’ social status as compared to OBC, Scheduled Tribes or Scheduled Castes, who have a different social status? Since the advertisement mentions one of the required qualification for the job as ‘those who have secular language and behavioural practices as per Indian Constitution’, I wish to emphasize that the Indian Constitution is the most revolutionary book ever written in India, superimposed with the legal authority that the identity of all citizens is equal by birth. The Constitution has defeated the 3,000-year-old social and religious norm that people are pure and impure; low and high. It has criminalized discriminatory practices born out of such unequal written, spoken and practiced language.
*Well-known human rights activist, founder, Navsarjan Trust, Ahmedabad