The triad of videos that captured Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Prayagraj are attractive in their aesthetic and powerful in their symbolism. They belong to the many enduring images of his prime ministership, to that special group of visuals that have significant stories to tell. Some that come immediately to mind are of Modi sitting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on a swing at Bapuji’s Sabarmati Ashram, of declining a skull cap offered by a group of Muslims and of his surprise at being hugged by Rahul Gandhi in Parliament. Because the images in the three Prayagraj videos go to the core of our cultural and religious life, they contain a narrative about contemporary India that calls for detailed analysis.
But the three videos are not of a piece. Two of them, of the prime minister performing Ganga Aarti and taking Shahi Snan, although choreographed by electronic media professionals, tell us about the centrality of tradition and of the significance of its rituals for this ancient land. The videos affirm the sacredness of the river Ganga as the source of our cherished legends and the cradle of our ageless civilization. The prime minister’s obeisance to Mother Ganga, through Ganga Aaarti and Shahi Snan, replete with Vedic chants and the pouring of milk at Prayag, sent out an unambiguous message that this is our culture, these our sacred rituals, and this our “punyabhumi”. Millions of people would have watched the videos again and again, proud of their heritage and their prime minister’s public acknowledgment of it.
It is the third video, the washing of the feet of five sanitation workers, however, that I want to decode. If the videos of Ganga Aarti and Shahi Snan contained a narrative whose cultural messages are easy to decipher, the washing of the feet is much less straightforward. If the first two gave a clear message about tradition, the third sends a mixed message about modernity. If the first two legitimise the social order that has emerged from what we proclaim as our Sanatan Dharma, the third undermines this Dharma, challenging its codes and upending its framework of meaning. I suspect even Modi and his media managers may not fully realise what they have created.
A radical public declaration
There are four elements in the video that bear our attention. The first is Modi sitting on a stool that is lower than the chairs of the five sanitation workers.
This is a big statement from the prime minister. For the most powerful man in India to sit face-to-face with sanitation workers, at a level lower than them, is indeed a radical public declaration. For a social landscape contoured by Varnashrama Dharma, where superior and inferior are marked by social occupation, where complex rules of social interaction have, over the centuries, been finessed by texts such as the Manusmriti, where the sanitation worker is not allowed into one’s house even today, to have a prime minister seated lower than a sanitation worker is symbolically very significant. The visual tells us that self-respect is being offered to the discriminated and the disempowered. When, against the trend of our public culture of VIPisation, the prime minister chooses to be filmed seated lower than sanitation workers, he is throwing a challenge to the established normative order. It is a gesture of great humility. It could not have been easy psychologically.
The second element, equally powerful, is the composition of the group – three men and two women.
To have the prime minister wash the feet of two women who are not his elderly relatives or religious leaders in a society steeped in patriarchy – where women hide their faces from men who are strangers, suffer female foeticide as the country’s skewed sex ratio testifies, face death for loving a man from another jati – is fantastic. It must be celebrated more than all Republic Day parades. This is the new republic where women have equal respect. Not only is this a big departure from the social rules of patriarchal India, it is also a major advance for gender justice. There is an almost unnoticed shot in the video of one woman attempting a conversation with the prime minister after he has washed her feet. He looks at her uncertain about how to respond: should he join the conversation or ignore her and move on? He moves on. For that fleeting second the moment belongs to her. Modi comes out second best. One wonders what she was thinking, what she wanted to say.
The third element, the most powerful of all, is the washing of the feet of the sanitation workers. While touching feet, brushing dust off the feet of elders, even washing of feet have resonances in the Indian tradition, such gestures are often made by the socially inferior to the socially superior. For the powerful to wash the feet of the powerless, as Modi did, is an acknowledgment of their human worth. It is a ritual foreign to the Hindu culture.
For Christians in India, however, this is a familiar ritual. Every year, on Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday, priests across the nation wash the feet of 12 members chosen from the church congregation. It commemorates Jesus Christ washing the feet of his apostles at the Last Supper as an expression of his love for all. After he washed their feet he gave them this injunction: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.”
Beginning of a transformation?
Two thoughts come to mind seeing the third video. First, did Modi draw his ceremony of feet-washing from this centuries-old Christian ritual? Was he being deliberately syncretic by borrowing from Christianity, following the example of Pope Francis who, on Maundy Thursday in 2018, washed and kissed the feet of prisoners? Second, was Modi also endorsing the other aspect of Christ’s injunction? Was he telling his followers you too must do what I have done – give sanitation workers, the lowly, dignity and self-respect. If humbling oneself, by sitting on a lower stool and washing feet, is what it takes, then do it. Will the upper castes that support his Hindutva ideology follow his example? Will he insist they do?
I wonder if we should treat Modi’s feet-washing as just a unique event or as the beginning of the transformation of Hindu society from Varnashrama Dharma to equal citizenship? Does the third video undermine the other two?
The fourth element, which is the most puzzling, is his speech after the ceremony. He praises sanitation workers for their work and thanks them for their dedication in keeping the Kumbh Mela township clean. Does he thereby endorse their station in life as a permanent occupation needed to remove the filth produced by the other classes? There was no mention of improving their disgusting working conditions with the help of new cleaning technologies. Will people no longer have to immerse themselves in sewers to unblock them or carry night soil on their heads, as happens across India’s towns and cities? There were no policy announcements to address these problems in Modi’s speech.
Where do sanitation workers go from here? Is the symbolism of the third video more important than that of the other two?
Peter Ronald deSouza is professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi, and author of In the Hall of Mirrors: Reflections on Indian Democracy.