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The Stink Of Savanur

By Anand Teltumbde

27 September, 2010

On 20 July 2010, some manual scavengers of Savanur, a small town in Haveri district of north Karnataka performed a novel act in protest against their helplessness. They smeared themselves with human excreta in public before the municipal council office. The stink of it strangely attracted many, including Pramod Muthalik of the notorious Sriram Sene, the militant Hindutva outfit to the Bhangi Colony and thrown up numerous issues of consequence.

The Shame of India

India that prides on being one of the high growth economies and emerging super power has many persistent shames. Certainly, the manual scavenging, a euphemism for some people carrying shit of others for living is the topmost. India enacted a special act, as it usually does, way back in 1993, the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act providing for imprisonment up to one year and a fine of Rs. 2,000 or both to those practicing it. Actually, it well constituted a crime under the existing but much dreaded Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. The only impact these Acts had was to send the authorities into denial mode while huge funds were being consumed with the shifting target to end the obnoxious practice. Recently, the Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment Mukul Wasnik admitted in the Rajya Sabha that manual scavenging should have been eradicated two years ago, but now the target had been fixed for March 2010. Well, the government may have sung self congratulatory requiem to this top shame on 1 April, making fool of people. But soon after three months, Savanur stink again exposed the lie and brought the issue to the fore.

The Savanur Protest

The issue was simple, so at least the people in Municipal Council of Savnur thought and ignored it. But it spelt virtual death to Dalits. They were suddenly asked by the Municipal Council to evict the land they lived on for generations just to construct a commercial complex there. The orders in terms of law were illegal but who would contest the authorities. The Dalits kept on pleading but their plea fell on deaf years. On the contrary, to pressure them the Municipal authorities cut off their water connection. Poor Dalits who belonged to the Bhangi sub caste, would be forbidden to take water from any other source because of their untouchability. Buying it was out of question as they barely subsided on a pittance thrown to them for cleaning dry latrines. What may appear simple to others was thus a death knell for them, which drove them to the desperate act of daubing themselves with human excreta. The sensational act attracted media and thereby swarms of politicians. The ministers came, held meetings, issued orders and at least temporarily saved the Bhangis from devastation. As it happens, the action taken may prove to be mere wash up as suspected by the PUCL (Karnataka) fact finding (preliminary) report on the incident. (http://www.puclkarnataka.org)

Hypocrisy, Thy Name India

Although the method of this protest was novel, there was nothing unusual about it. The people who did it, only showed their routine predicament to the public, which just pretended not to notice. When it comes to Dalits, the Indian State as well as civil society always recoils into a denial mode. The hypocritical attitude of the government is best exposed in the international forums where it vehemently opposes caste even being discussed. India always enthusiastically showed up as fighter against racism, colonialism and apartheid being observed elsewhere but when the UN Conference at Durban sought to include caste in its agenda, the government spiritedly opposed it with indefensible alibi like caste is not race or it is its internal matter, or worse, there is no caste discrimination in India. While caste may not be race in technical terms but as the descent based discrimination, there is no functional difference between the two, which is what the Durban conference contended. Indian elite in its cocoon always tend to believe that caste is a thing of past. The hypocrisy no where gets better exposed than in the case of manual scavenging. While it enacted the law against it in 1993, most states had not adopted it until 2003 saying that they did not have any manual scavengers. With all flip-flops in face of the contrary evidence brought up by various surveys, which still maintain that the number of manual scavengers are well over 1.3 million, the government is about to declare the issue as dead.

Even Shit Gathers Vultures

The swiftness with which the authorities acted puzzled many. Within 24 hours the Irrigation Minister Basavarj Bommai, who happens to be local legislator held a special meeting in Savanur to discuss the issue, which decided among others not to evict the 13 Bhangi families from the present place till alternative arrangements are made; to allot them Ashraya plots; to provide basic amenities with immediate effect and to provide them employment as sweepers under contractor. For the next couple of days there was a continuous flow of politicians to the Bhangi colony which culminated in the visit of Pramod Muthalik himself closeting with Bhangis. The mystery lay in the demographic composition of Savanur which has about 60 percent Muslim population and its Municipal Council having predominance of the Congress, commanding 15 members out of total 23, leaving just three for the BJP. Karnataka is a happening place under the present Sangh Parivar dispensation. There is a campaign of sorts to lure Dalits into the Hindutva fold in the communal divide being engineered in the State. Recently, the Pejawar swamy Vishwesha Teertha from the Hindutva camp toured the Dalit colony in Mysore and hosted the Madiga swamy Maadaara Channaiah visiting the Brahmin colony in response to convince latter that the Dalits should shun conversion to other faiths. The Sangh Parivar obviously saw a great opportunity in communalizing the Savanur issue to its own advantage in its communal design. Who knows what is in store for Savanur in future!

Disturbing Desperation

There is something menacing about the mode of protest of the Bhangis of Savanur. The Dalit protest is historically characterized by denunciation of the markers of their humiliating social status. Dr Ambedkar had exhorted his followers to give up dragging dead animals, eating their meat, discard caste indicative ornaments and practices and even later launched a famous struggle against Mahar watans, considered special rights of Dalits by others. Strangely, the Dalit protest here used the very marker of their dehumanization. While it sought to forcefully project their plight, it has also tacitly marked their helplessness and separation from the mainstream Dalit movement. Bhangis have been a miniscule minority among Dalits and are considered untouchable even by other Dalits. As a result, they have always lived in their own ghettoes. This bespeaks of a big malady of the dalit movement, purportedly aimed at annihilation of castes, but paradoxically using caste as its cementing force. It has failed to realize despite persistent failure over six decades to keep its folks together, that caste is no such a force; it rather is a divisive force that splinters what looks together. Although desperation in Savanur act is confined to the Bhangis, in some measure, it indicates the state of generic Dalits, as it is perceived by the others. If the Dalit movement as for instance in the heyday of the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti in Karnataka was strong, such an act would have been inconceivable.

Savanur prompts the entire Dalit movement to rethink its strategy in face of repeated experience with failure to constitute ‘Dalit’. It is high time Dalits realized that their caste centric outlook to oppose caste is not only theoretically and morally incorrect but also is strategically and empirically wrong. It is high time they shunned the caste idiom and regrouped themselves as a class.

Dr Anand Teltumbde is writer, political analyst and human rights activist with CPDR, Mumbai.