On Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi put out a video that showed him washing the feet of five sweepers of the Allahabad municipal corporation. Modi described his gesture as an act of worship.
At first glance, the exercise could be viewed as a token of respect. However, considering how and why people get involved in sanitation work in India, it is actually an insidious signal of support for the caste system.
In India, individuals become sanitation workers not of their own free will but because they have been born Dalit. No one chooses to clean other people’s faeces of their own accord. Rather than recognise this injustice and work to eradicate it, Modi’s feting of sanitation workers treats their profession as a voluntary choice – not one dictated to Dalits by the iron-clad caste system.
The people who work as sanitation workers in India are not heroes but victims. From 2014 to 2016, at least 1,327 sanitation workers died across India as they were sent into sewers without any safety equipment. The deaths are just one aspect of this system of exploitation. The very act of manually cleaning excreta is a degrading job, one that strips away a person’s humanity. The existence of hereditary castes of sanitation workers is a dark blot on India, when the rest of the world, even countries poorer than India, have been able to abolish manual scavenging.
There is an old debate over whether professions seen as unclean as per the caste system need to be glorified or the caste system itself abolished. In 1936, in an essay titled The Ideal Bhangi, Mohandas Gandhi had said that Dalits whose hereditary profession was cleaning waste should approach their work as a “sacred duty” – a position repudiated by BR Ambedkar, who pointed out that there was nothing sacred about a caste system that forced Dalits to stick only to certain professions and barring them from others.
In his 2010 book, Karmayogi, Modi described the work of the Bhangi or Balmiki community as an “experience in spirituality”, incredibly arguing that Dalits voluntarily chose to do this work. “I do not believe they have been doing this job to sustain their livelihood,” wrote Modi. “Had this been so, they would not have continued with this kind of job generation after generation.”
This point of view has persisted at the centre of Indian political life for a century. There is nothing spiritual about being forced to clean human excreta as part of a hereditary caste system. It is a facet of Indian society that needs to be abolished – rather than its victims mockingly glorified.