Swachh Bharat posters showing freedom fighters BR Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi evolving from apes and throwing trash into dustbins were removed from New Delhi railway station on Thursday after protests from Dalit groups. They contended that the images insulted Ambedkar’s legacy by depicting him as a manual scavenger – an occupation that Dalits were once forced to carry out but has been banned since 2013.
The posters were up for almost a week but came to wider attention only on Thursday, when a photo of them was uploaded on social media, sparking protests.
On Thursday, a group of Dalit youth led by Bahujan Samaj Party media representative Devashish Jarariya held a demonstration at Delhi Railway station, describing the poster was “casteist” in its portrayal of Ambedkar as a manual scavenger, the euphemism used to describe workers who clean excreta from pit toilets, often with little equipment.
“The majority of the manual scavengers are Dalits and thousands of them die in our sewers while cleaning the waste,” said Jarariya. “Babasaheb [Ambedkar] had emphasised the importance of education and had urged his followers to leave the jobs of manual scavengers and street cleaners to lead a dignified life.”
Neeraj Sharma, the Chief Public Relations Officer of the Northern Railways, said that the posters had been put up without the Railway’s permission by a company called the Antodaya group, which hoped that the use of these icons would encourage people to use the dustbins. In addition to Ambedkar and Gandhi, the poster series included the movie character Bahubali.
The posters were taken down after they were brought to the attention of the authorities, Sharma said.
Saurav Panda, the CEO of Antodaya Group, defended the decision to use Ambedkar in the cleanliness campaign. “Our research in behavioural studies points that a person’s ideology, philosophy and political affiliations affect our views towards sanitation and cleanliness,” he said. “We had no intentions of maligning Dr. Ambedkar’s image. We only used his image because a lot of Indians look up to him. Similarly we would have used Maharana Pratap in Rajasthan, Shivaji in Maharashtra and Netaji Subash Chandra Bose in West Bengal.”
But that kind of reasoning did not impress Gopal Guru, who teaches at the Center for Political Sciences at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. “It is true that Babasaheb Ambedkar was concerned about the problem of personal hygiene particularly of his people,” he said. “But to associate him with any campaign for swchata or cleanliness is simply to miss the point. This is because his main struggle was to interrogate the caste of mind which he thought was stuffed with a deep sense of untouchability.”
Guru added: “His radical purpose was to address such a mind; mind that continues to be mired in moral dirt. Moral dirt that corrodes moral personality of both who is the repository of this dirt and also those who are at the receiving end of such dirt.”