Bindeshwar had his early education in his village, Rampur Baghel, and in Hazipur, the village of his maternal grandfather. The schools in these villages had no toilets either for boys or girls. Pathak says in those days, girls were not encouraged to go to school. However, there were some girl students who had to go back home when they felt the call of nature. In his village too, no house had a toilet. He had a very big house built in 1915, having many rooms, a prayer room, a grinding room, a big courtyard with a well in the compound, but no toilet!

Sanitation and stigma

Right from his childhood, Pathak witnessed several bad incidents, stigmas and evils which occurred owing to lack of proper sanitation in villages and felt how serious the sanitation issue was. While going to school in the morning, young Pathak used to see women cleaning human excreta from a bucket toilet in the landlord’s house. Many a time he saw women carrying excreta on their heads. These women were untouchable scavengers living on the outskirts of the village, in a broken shack surrounded by pigs. Young Pathak also realised the plight of scavengers and the seriousness of the stigma of untouchability in those days.

In the year 1968, by coincidence, Pathak joined the Bihar Gandhi Centenary Celebration Committee as a social worker. In this context, he read the autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi and many other related books. Gandhi’s books had a profound influence on Dr Pathak’s personality. The office of the Bihar Gandhi Birth Centenary Celebration Committee was situated in the Gandhi Museum building. The committee was formed in 1967 to celebrate the birth centenary of Mahatma Gandhi which fell in the year 1969. This committee had taken up several constructive programmes.

One of the programmes was to restore the human rights and dignity of the untouchables who used to clean human excreta manually carrying it as head load for disposal. They were also referred to as human scavengers. Pathak came to know later, that this subhuman practice stemmed from the genesis of untouchability and had been continuing for the past nearly 5000 years through the Vedic, Buddhist, Mauryan, Mughal and British periods.

In the office, one day, Pathak had to meet the general secretary of the Centenary committee. The general secretary told Pathak, “Seeing your commitment and performance in this short period that you worked with the Committee, I would advise you to engage yourself fully to fulfil the dreams of Mahatma Gandhi; his unfinished agenda to restore the human rights and dignity of the untouchable scavengers. This will be the best tribute by the Centenary Committee to Mahatma Gandhi.” Pathak’s reply to this suggestion was, “How can I work with untouchables, as I belong to a Brahmin caste.”

Pathak then narrated an incident in his childhood days which goes like this, “A lady, who was an untouchable, at that time referred to as Dom, used to come to my house to deliver utensils made from bamboos and when she returns, my grandmother sprinkles water up to the area which belonged to us in order to cleanse it. Many people come to my house but why did my grandmother do this, with that particular lady every time she came to the house? People used to tell me that she was an untouchable and whoever touches her will be polluted. Being curious, when my grandmother was not around,

I used to touch her to find out whether I became polluted and also see if there was any change inmy complexion as a result of touching her. One day, when my grandmother started her usual sprinkling of water and cleansing ritual, I touched the lady. Seeing this, my grandmother made a hue and cry and asked the neighbouring boys to catch hold of me and she forced me to swallow cow dung and cow urine. Then she gave me Ganges water to drink in order to purify me. It was such a trauma in my childhood which I have never forgotten to this day. So, how can I work with these untouchable human scavengers?”

Pathak also told him, “Sir, basically I am a sociologist and furthermore I am not an engineer. Unless I give an alternative to bucket or dry toilets which are cleaned by human scavengers, how can I ask people not to use these toilets?” The general secretary heard him patiently and said, “I do not know your caste or whether you are an engineer or not but by seeing your performance, your dedication as well as commitment in this short period that you have worked with us, I see flash in your eyes and strongly feel that you can fulfil the dreams of Mahatma Gandhi to bring the untouchables into the mainstream of the society on a par with others.” To this reply, Pathak had no answer. He became sombre and quietly left the place.

Following the Mahatma’s example

Pathak says his knowledge and insight of sociology, a multifaceted approach which he had imbibed, came to his help for the first time. According to him, in research books of sociology it was taught that if somebody wants to work for the cause of a community then the first and foremost is to build a rapport with the community, so that we may know in detail the lifestyles of people, their attitudes, behaviour, etc.

At times we may have to take food with them in order to gather in-depth knowledge and information about the community. Accordingly, Pathak decided to live in the colony of untouchable human scavengers in Bettiah and Champaran in order to build rapport with them. Pathak lived in these small towns of Bihar for three months. Coincidentally, Champaran happened to be the place, from where Mahatma Gandhi started his freedom movement.

His father was sad and upset and the entire Brahmin community turned against him for living with the untouchable human scavengers. His father-in-law was extremely angry with him and opposed his living in the habitat of the untouchables, working in the spheres of sanitation and building toilets. But Pathak replied to him, “My entire life has undergone a sea change and these are the parts of the process. I have now started turning over the pages of history of India, as far as untouchability is concerned. Either I will succeed or get lost, but I cannot just sit and watch.”

Excerpted with permission from Bindeshwar Pathak – A Social Reformer, Y Ravindranath Rao, Rupa Publications.