“If powerful, famous people practice this kind of untouchability, then what of small people like us?” asked Sajni, a resident of a Dalit basti in Banda, Uttar Pradesh. “This will only continue and perpetuate like a custom, and never disappear.”
She was referring to last month’s incident in Kushinagar district, about 470 km from Banda, where the state administration handed soap bars and shampoo sachets to 100-odd Dalit families in Mainpur Deenapatti village, and asked them to bathe before they met Chief Minister Adityanath who was visting the village the next day to launch a vaccination programme for children.
Caste hierarchies and its lethal by-product, untouchability, have reigned supreme in India through the centuries, and members of the Dalit community have borne the brunt of this oppression. According to legend, Gautam Buddha himself inducted a manual scavenger in Kushinagar into Buddhism to make a point about equality. Centuries later, that lesson still has not been learned. Dalits in Malin Basti and Brahma Dera in Banda, who spoke to Khabar Lahariya, are both angry and amused at that fact.
A soap and shampoo facade
About 20.5% of India’s so-called Scheduled Castes live in Uttar Pradesh, its most populous state. In the Banda bastis – as in the Kushinagar village – Dalits live in tiny hutments criss-crossed by open sewers. Hunger and illness is a constant.
“We people don’t have enough to eat,” said Chandrapal, a resident of Banda. “From where will we get also this shampoo-vampoo? Maybe the government should worry about that first.”
Others pointed to the fact that if the government actually worked to improve the lives of the poorest people in the state, it would not have to resort to such gimmicks. “The overall position of Dalits should be uplifted in such a way that they can afford their own shampoos and soaps, and afford to use it every day – not just when a mahant comes visiting,” said Javahar Lal.
Another resident, Santoshi, laughed as she asked what Adityanath hoped to achieve by getting people to smell good for a few hours.
Following the Kushinagar soap and shampoo distribution, Dalit activists in Gujarat announced that they would gift Adityanath a 125-kg bar of soap embossed with the face of the Buddha so that the chief minister could use it to “clean his casteist ideologies”. The Buddha’s face on the soap bar alludes to his message against casteism made at Kushinagar itself. (Incidentally, Buddha died in Kushinagar, which is also a major Buddhist pilgrimage site).
‘Lead by example’
Ever since the BJP was swept to power at the Centre in 2014, it has attempted to reach out to the Dalit community to erase the common perception that it is a party of upper castes that only looks after upper caste interests.
Recently, as part of this outreach, which was timed to coincide with the third anniversary of the Narendra Modi government, party leaders were instructed to eat a meal at a Dalit home while touring their states. However, incidents like the soap and shampoo distribution in Kushinagar, in a state ruled by the BJP, expose such attempts at outreach as hollow.
Leaders must never perpetuate discriminatory practices, said Sushila, who, like Sajni before her, questioned how deeply entrenched attitudes would ever change in India if its rulers did not lead by example.
“The head of the house needs to lead, that is his duty,” said Sushila, who lives in Malin Basti. “He has to take everyone along...Here, it is the opposite. We have the biggest leader of the state, the chief minister himself, practicing such bhed-bhaav [discrimination].”
Kunvra in Brahma Dera did not hide his anger. “Bade aaye mahant [He’s one to be called a chief priest]”. He suggested that Adityanath shift focus to “andar ki safaai [internal cleaning]” instead.
But it is Sushila who arguably has the last word. “If a minister does not see and treat everyone as equal, he has no right to be where he is,” she said.