The Moral Right to Labour
The elitism of Delhi protests
The more recent mobilisation of the Valmiki community all over India was significant, not only in the fight for justice for the 19 year old woman from Bulgaddhi, but because earlier the protest of the Valmiki community was confined to the local level.
In September 2019 there was a protest against a TV serial in Punjab, where the Valmiki Action Committee demonstrated against Ram Siya ke Luv Kush which aired on Colors TV.
Also in September 2019, in Bhavkhedi, Shivpuri, Madhya Pradesh, two men reportedly beat to death Roshni (who was 12 years old) and Avinash Balmiki (10) for defecating in the open, allegedly near the house of a Yadav family.
According to reports Roshni wanted to become a doctor, but had stopped going to school due to casteist harassment perpetrated by teachers at her school, who would make her sit separately from other children and demand that she bring her own utensils from home.
In Bhavkhedi according to reports there are only two families from the Valmiki community and both were engaged in cleaning toilets in the village. The other village residents did not attend the funerals, according to media reports. The murder led to protests elsewhere in Shivpuri district demanding the arrest of the culprits, identified as Hakam Singh and Rameshwar Singh.
Again in September 2019, members of the Valmiki community protested when it was found that a statue of Valmiki had been demolished inside a temple near the King George’s Medical University campus in Lucknow.
The month before, when the Delhi Development Authority demolished a Ravidas temple in south Delhi's Tughlakabad, people from Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and other regions gathered in Delhi where the police lathi charged and fired teargas upon the protestors. That protest was led by Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan.
Even in the time of the pandemic, there has been much news of violence and discrimination against sanitation workers who are performing essential work. In April last year a sanitation worker died in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh as he was reportedly forced to drink hand sanitiser, because he had accidentally sprayed some on the foot of a person. In Lakhimpur Kheri, U.P barbers reportedly decided not to cut the hair of people from the Valmiki community alleging that they were infected with Covid.
From the pandemic’s onset people from the communities engaged in cleaning work were not being provided with basic prevention kits. Yet there were many voices asking for protection kits for doctors. Sanitation workers faced a lot of health risks and hazards, mostly respiratory problems, even before Covid but never were voices raised for the state to provide them with protective gear. Afterwards, instead of providing them with masks their work has been romanticised and flowers showered on them.
Kranti Khode, a social worker who works against gendered violence in Madhya Pradesh, writes of sanitation workers that “It’s not that they are not scared of this pandemic but they get their two-time food from their work only. They can feed their family from their work only.”
From disposing of medical waste to cremating dead bodies and sanitising the cities, this work is done by workers from the Valmiki community. Khode adds that “Work from home does not fit for the community, because they have to work in the city.” She says that people do not even give water to these workers, and even if they do it is tap water which is not clean enough to drink.
While these atrocities were being performed, the news was also being circulated in the Whatsapp groups of community members. There are also many community Facebook groups where information of atrocities is flowing. Even before news of the gangrape in Hathras made it to the big media, it was there on the social networking sites and in the Whatsapp groups of the communities.
The political theorist Jodi Dean in her book Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies says that even new media technologies strengthen the hold of neoliberalism and the privilege of the top one percent on the planet. At the same time, globally networked communications remain the very tools and terrains of struggle, making political change more difficult and more necessary than ever before…
Continuous atrocities against the community in recent times and the flow of information led to the sudden mobilisation of these communities in many parts of India in the fight for justice for the 19 year old girl of Hathras. Members of the Valmiki community of Meerut, Uttar Pradesh were among the first to hold rallies and the sanitation workers decided to strike work for a day. Rapidly, in many other places sanitation workers decided to stop their work. In cities including Agra and Lucknow garbage was thrown in front of Government offices and on the Roads in protest.
This kind of resistance was last seen in Una, Gujarat where sanitation workers stopped sanitation work and threw cow carcasses in front of the Collector’s office. It was on July 11, 2016 that right wing elements brutally beat four members of the Survaiya family with sticks, iron rods and knives on suspicion of killing a cow. Video of the event was circulated all over India, leading to huge protests.
The day after the atrocity, in the Chandkheda area of Ahmedabad the state highway was blocked. Dalit activist and MLA from Vadgam Jignesh Mevani led a huge Dalit Asmita March from Ahmedabad to Una where thousands of people gathered.
I still remember on the last day of the march as I was returning from Una to Mumbai with two of my friends when as we were crossing the village of Samter just 10 km from Una, violence broke out in the village where people from dominant caste communities targeted people from the Dalit community just for joining the protest.
As firing was going on our bus passed through with police protection. As we were coming from the protest and carrying placards of slogans even inside the bus I was scared. When our bus crossed the village I saw that people from Dalit communities were carrying their things and leaving the village due to the violence .
The date was August 15 2016, when the Indian state was celebrating its 69th Independence Day…
After moving further we got many phone calls getting information of violence against people who attended protests in different parts of the state. Even two years after this incident the victims of the Una incident were attacked again by one of the members, who was out on bail, as they were going with their family for the preparation to adopt Buddhism.
In his story ‘Saapla’, Anna Bhau Sathe explains what happens when Dalits decide to stop working in a village. The upper castes in society are more dismayed seeing a cow carcass which nobody will remove from their house, rather than by the death of the cow. With nobody to remove the carcass, the upper castes of the village hold a meeting, scared that if Mahars do not remove it they will have to remove it by themselves.
At the meeting, a member of the upper caste community says, “mhatari malyacha dukkha naahi, pan kaal sokaavtoy hyacha aaj ichaar zala pahije.” – There is no sadness in the death of old women, but we should think that time is passing by. Then a man named Patil says, “mhanji asa, dhor maru dya, pan mhara dokyawar basu deu naka, asach nava.” – You mean, let the cow die, but don't let the Mahars sit on the head, isn’t it?
In the story the upper castes themselves have to remove the dead body of the cow because the Dalits are not ready to compromise.
Despite media attention to the Unnao rape case, where the accused is a former BJP MLA, the family of the victim is dead. And even in the case of Hathras the dominant castes of the village were telling the media, “When you leave we will repeat the same incident again.”
As the philosopher Judith Butler has written, “what we see is that some lives matter more than others, that some lives matter so much that they need to be protected at all costs, and that other lives matter less, or not at all. And when that becomes the situation, then the lives that do not matter so much, or do not matter at all, can be killed or lost, can be exposed to conditions of destitution, and there is no concern, or even worse, that is regarded as the way it is supposed to be.”
Indeed, even after the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act of 2013, sanitation workers’ lives (most of whom come from the Valmiki community) or their social, political and economic conditions did not change. The education ratio of this community is not even one percent. The dominant narratives ask these communities to get educated. But when children from these communities go to school their own teachers ask them to clean the toilets, and other casteist persecution, forcing those children to leave school before they can reach higher levels of education. When they try to change their jobs, they are not given other jobs due to the caste stigma applied on them.
While working on a report titled ‘Justice Denied: Deaths of workers engaged in cleaning sewer and septic tanks’ my team and I visited a district in Madhya Pradesh, where P— who used to work as a sanitation worker, decided to stop his work and do some other work after his older brother died when he got inside a septic tank to clean it. P— started a clothing business in the district. But nobody would buy clothes from his shop because the social psychology of the society did not allow them to buy from scavengers who had become businessmen. P— had to shut down his shop and go back to sanitation work again.
Even when sanitation workers and manual scavengers migrate to the city to work or to get educated, those Schedule Castes considered ‘lower’ in the social hierarchy and members of Schedule Tribes benefit less from such migration, as social discrimination continues to impact them in the places they have migrated to.
The work of manual scavenging and death of sanitation workers has never become a ‘mainstream’ issue. The philosopher Gopal Guru, while talking about the limited understanding of labour in the academy, says the idea of labour is attached only to livelihood, wages, placements, academic qualifications etc. Associated with it are conceptions of labour rights: your rights as a labourer according to your qualifications, and rights according to your capacity of labour. You get your right because of your ability to work. So the right to labour belongs to your physicality and talents.
But Guru adds one more layer beyond physicality and talent, which he calls the moral right to labour, which means one should have labour which will give equal dignity. Dignity, the word included in the preamble to the Indian Constitution, the same preamble which was a “text of attraction” during the anti-CAA protests…
When it comes to manual scavengers’ work, it is not only an undignified job but also inhuman work. Same with a lot of sanitation work. When someone is sent inside the septic tank the person is sent to be dead. But even when the death happens inside the septic tank, their bodies are taken out in an undignified way, inhumanly. The family has to fight even for the police to file an FIR. And even if the report is filed, an Atrocities Act charge is rarely added.
For those who love their data, in the above mentioned report we found that there has been a zero percent prosecution rate in these cases. The family even have to fight for the compensation which they are required to be given as per the Manual Scavenging Act of 2013. Mostly when their demands are not met community members protest at the local level for the FIR to be filed, and compensation given to the family of the deceased. These protests are always ignored by the media, activists, civil societies and academicians. Even in universities where student politics is active, the issue of the deaths of sanitation workers is never part of their protests.
Coming back to the community mobilisation after the Hathras gangrape, this was the right time for the community to raise voice against the systematic oppressions that have been perpetrated for ages. But again their protests and issues were overshadowed by protestors in Delhi and Bombay with their fancy slogans, fancy placards and celebrity activists.
Not to mention the language of those protests, which sounded like any other protest since 2014. Those protestors’ responsibility was to help strengthen the local protest, but all they did was celebrity activism that helped the state suppress these voices.
I will not go into the theory and debate of intersectionality here. But I would like to point to what Gopal Guru said in his address to the Indian Association of Women’s Conference in Delhi last year, that the Constitutional Principles have no intersectionality there. And why intersectionality is a big problem in methodology.
After the Hathras incident there were many webinars, TV debates and talks on the incident. And even though Dalit women were represented in those debates, there was very rare representation of women from the Valmiki community. Which also raises the question of ideology in intersectionality.
B.R Ambedkar in his 1936 book The Annihilation of Caste said that the outcaste is a by-product of the caste system. There will be outcastes as long as there are castes. Nothing can emancipate the outcaste except the destruction of the caste system.
Pralay Nagrale is an Independent Researcher and an Ex-Assistant Professor of Department of Media and Communications, Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune
Cover photo : BBC