I find myself hesitant to write this post because it touches on two issues that are often harped upon in the Western press when writing about India: the caste system and the status of Indian women. These are both important issues that deserve attention, but the way they are usually discussed in the West is highly problematic. So first some caveats:
There is a tendency to treat both problems as vestiges of Indian “traditional society,” as holdovers from the past in a modern world. I would argue, to the contrary, that many of the troublesome practices surrounding caste and gender relations in India are, in fact, a result of modernity. For instance, the caste system was a much more fluid and dynamic system before the arrival of the British. The British found the system two confusing and didn’t like the fact that people would change their caste identification between one census and the next. The British also found it useful to use the caste system to their own advantage, elevating the status of some castes while furthering the oppression of others. Today many members of the so-called lower castes have achieved both tremendous economic wealth and political power. And there can be no doubt that many Indian women possess both tremendous wealth and power. I can’t even count how many Indian women chemists I’ve met in the past few weeks… Moreover, it isn’t just upper class women who wield power, but many poor women as well. In fact, it is arguable that much of the most visible violence against women in India (such as “kitchen fires”) occurs in lower-middle-class homes, in families struggling to live a lifestyle beyond that which their limited means can afford them. Western liberals love to talk about how oppressed women are in the rest of the world, without examining the very real problems which Western women continue to face, and concern about oppression abroad is often combined with a tolerance for oppression at home.
None of which is to say we should not take these issues seriously. Oppression of any kind is wrong, and the violence still faced by women and lower castes in India should not be tolerated. The story I heard of the Bhangis particularly shocked me, and also served to illustrate how difficult it is to change an entrenched system.
About ten days ago a group of us coming from a conference in New Delhi on “Conflict Resolution,” visited the Action Aid headquarters in Jaipur, Rajasthan. There we met a man, Pavan, from the Bhangis caste who was working as an activist and organizer to try to change the conditions of people in his community. Who are the Bhangis? (Also referred to as “safai kamdars.”) Here is a short introduction:
They can be seen almost anywhere in urban or rural India, wretchedly poor men and women in tattered rags going from house to house and carrying away buckets of human excrement balanced on their heads.
They are called bhangis, or scavengers, and they are members of the lowest rung of a hereditary undercaste of Untouchables, whose occupation Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi, the father of Indian independence, vowed to eradicate.
Gandhi once said, “I may not be born again, but if it happens I will like to be born in a family of scavengers so that I may relieve them of the inhuman, unhealthy and hateful practice of carrying headloads of night soil.
The Mahatma’s crusade to liberate night-soil scavengers from their demeaning labor has remained little more than a dream during most of India’s 37 years of independence. About 600,000 bhangis still collect bucket privies and dump the waste in fields and canals, jaopardizing not only their own health but that of their neighbors.
Pavan was from this caste, although he (like his father) had worked as a tailor before becoming an activist. He was fortunate enough to come from an educated family. His mother had been a teacher. Most Bhangis are refused an education because the teachers and fellow students refuse to have any contact with them. They are discriminated upon even by other formerly “untouchable” castes. In the old days a Bhangi used to
wear a small bell around his neck and stamp heavily the ground with a stick so that the people around him should know that the “Bhangi” is coming and everyone would make their children go inside their houses.
There have been numerous laws, programs, and policies aimed at ending the plight of these people, but the problem persists. Pavan said that if Bhangis try to leave their occupation they are often threatened with physical violence. Programs to give jobs to Bhangis men have little effect because the women and children carry on the traditional work.
Part of the problem is the lack of adequate sewage systems in India. The following was written in 1992:
Out of 4,000 cities, only 217 have a partly functional sewage systems. In 93% of the houses, there are no latrines. Out of 900 million Indians, about 700 million use fields along the railway lines and river banks for their natural call.
I’m sure things have improved somewhat in the last 12 years, but on my trip in Rajasthan and Gujarat I still frequently saw people defecating by the side of the road. The Sulabh International Social Services Organization, founded by Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, has been one of the leading organizations in India trying to remedy this problem. Dr. Pathak developed a “technologically appropriate, socio-culturally acceptable and economically affordable” toilet that can be used throughout India. The organization also runs schools for Bhangis, public latrines, and even a toilet museum which I am sad I didn’t have time to visit when I was in Delhi.
Still, the problem persists. Pavan holds camps and workshops for young Bhangis girls, educating them and trying to convince them to leave their occupation. They face a difficult question: Do they need to provide jobs for them first, and then ask them to leave their occupation? Or ask them to leave their occupation first, and then help them find a job? Pavan said that they found, from experience, that the latter method tended to work better — despite the increased risks associated with it. Part of this is because most employers won’t have anything to do with them until they have already ceased to engage in such an unclean occupation.
One of the problems is that the situation of the Bhangis is connected to that of the status of India’s women. It is important to point out that the status of women varies tremendously within India. For instance, Kerela has some of highest rates of female literacy in the developing world, while Rajasthan has some of the lowest. In Rajasthan many women are not allowed to leave the home. If they are not allowed to leave the home, and they are too poor to own a flush toilet, then someone needs to carry the women’s excrement out of the house — and that person is invariably a Bhangis.
India is changing very fast. Even street-sweepers can be seen chatting on a cell phone as they work. But Indians worry about how far their country is from measuring up to Western standards of modernity — and what Westerners think of India. Local news shows ask reporters from around the world to comment on Western impressions of the latest Indian news stories. Many of the bourgeoisie I have met on my trip are very defensive about how I (as an American) might judge their country. All I can say is that if Indian’s really care that much what the West thinks of them, they should start with sewage and waste disposal systems, not nuclear bombs.
Here is a review of a film about the Bhangis, with some more information (such as the various names used for this caste elsewhere in India).