A striking feature of the current Valmiki protests about the Hathras caste crime is that both the image of Ambedkar and sloganeering deployed by the Ambedkarite/Anti-caste protestors are largely missing.
The recent injustices perpetrated on the Valmiki family of the Hathras gang-rape and murder victim show the hideous face of caste in 21st century India. We are not writing to re-tell that story. As ethnographers working among urban Dalits in general and sanitation labour castes in particular, we are interested in the larger issues of the sanitation labour castes in general and Valmikis in particular.
The ideas put forth in the following sections have been largely drawn from the insights we have gathered in the field.
Hindu Right and Valmikis
Historically, the Valmikis of Uttar Pradesh have practised non-Hindu religiosities i.e. they were the followers of Prophet Lal Beg. It is as recent as the 20th century that they had been ‘Hinduized’ by the consistent efforts of the Arya Samajists and other actors.
Gandhi also took a deep interest in convincing the ‘Bhangis’ of how essential and ‘sacred’ their work is. Today no less than the current prime minister suggested that the Valmikis are involved in manual scavenging for a ‘spiritual experience.’
The mythology propagated by the Hindu right symbolically associate Valmikis with Hinduism and drench out the inhumane form of labour from a community. Now they proudly proclaim to be descendants of the sage Valmiki, the putative author of the Ramayana. The sage is hailed as ‘shristi rachaiyata’ and ‘Ram-Ram’ is their usual intra-community greeting.
More recently, the Hindu Right has sought to symbolically incorporate Valmikis in the Hindu fold, periodically gesturing towards their pride in being the sage Valmiki’s descendants. This has produced a unique socio/cultural space for them that no other Dalit sub-caste experiences.
The Hindu Right has been particularly invested in Hinduizing sanitation labour castes because of the category of ‘saaf-safai’ in which the community is largely employed forms the ground for the concept of ‘touch’. This ontology of touch forms the base of caste functioning.
The Swachh Bharat Mission also started from a Valmiki Basti in Delhi, further essentializing the myth of caste being division of labour and not labourers as pointed by BR Ambedkar (1935).
The Hathras incident invoked a blast of anguish across the country, and the call for protest by the sanitation workers (Valmikis) seeking justice for the victim should also be a good moment to discuss the Valmikis resistance both symbolically and ideologically. What insights can we glean from the everyday forms of resistance by sanitation workers? What effect on society can sanitation workers protests have?
Ambedkarite movement and Valmikis
A striking feature of the current Valmiki protests about the Hathras caste crime is that both the image of Ambedkar and sloganeering deployed by the Ambedkarite/Anti-caste protestors are largely missing. The protestors have sought justice on humanitarian grounds and targeted the state rather than social structure. Larger emancipatory vocabularies and universal frameworks for justice are absent.
The organisers of one such Valmiki protest in a slum in suburban Mumbai speaking to one of the present authors suggested that Valmikis are interested in ‘knowing’ about Ambedkar but had found little opportunity to do so.
Valmikis are only symbolically associated with Hinduism and are devoid of any social and cultural capital. They are considered as the ‘lowest’ among Dalit groups, making them more vulnerable. Together with these, their absence from anti-caste discourse or, alternatively, the Ambedkarite movement’s failure to expand beyond certain Dalit caste groups has left sanitation labour castes in general and Valmikis, in particular, vulnerable to caste/Hindu incivilities by detaching them from universal emancipatory languages and networks of progressive groups.
Despite being both insiders and outsiders to Hinduism in this manner, the Valmiki community protest in various forms. We see these actions as an anti-caste assertion. Through their protests, Valmikis are not merely making demands of the government. It is social rather than economic.
Usually, when sanitation workers protest for wage increments, for safety gear, or for their rights it is characterised as a strike. Rarely are they recognised as assertions for dignity, rights, and justice.
Following the Hathras caste crime, one of the major demonstrations in the eight-day long protest involved sanitation workers boycotting their duties. While sanitation workers strikes are not new, so far — the characterisation of such resistance movements is dominated in a framework of labour — with a focus on political economy — neglecting their social meanings.
In recent years there has been a cautious expansion on the discourse of sanitation work from its reformist concerns to a more sophisticated conception of state-society relations. The central premise in most of the discussions on sanitation is that sanitation in India adheres to the Brahminical ideological construct and predominantly follows the caste system’s logic and patriarchy and unless we fix the caste problem, it will be impossible to imagine the sanitation work in more egalitarian ways.
So far, while placing caste at the centre, these intense engagements have critically investigated sanitation workers’ core concerns. Taking stock of events over Hathras, we intend to expand this discourse by repositioning the sanitation worker to the centre and understanding specifics of caste dynamics.
In India, the recruitment of a sanitation worker is intrinsically based on one’s own social location and not on merit. Sanitation work in India is a unique social function — obeying the rules of controversial, but widely accepted social hierarchy — caste. Although the majority of the sanitation workers are the Dalit, not all Dalit castes are conscripted to do sanitation work: a small number of Dalit castes among a huge number of Dalit castes are made to do sanitation work. For members of these castes, irrespective of whether they do sanitation work or not, they are all sanitation workers in the social imagination.
It is in this context we hope to understand sanitation workers’ strike or, the eight-day call for protest by the Valmikis in particular. Through resistance movements, the sanitation workers both fundamentally and symbolically remonstrate against the Brahminical ideological construct — caste.
In so doing, they posit their abhorrence of the caste system and challenge such impositions while extensively democratising their negotiations. Caste, as a tradition, preserves itself through normative power. For those Dalit castes, proscribed into sanitation work, caste tradition buttresses the link between sanitation labour and sanitation infrastructure through symbols and perceptions. In this light, demands for wage increments and safety gear by sanitation workers fundamentally are protests that disrupt the social imagination of a sanitation worker forged by caste.
The Valmiki protests following Hathras are not just to pressure the state to deliver justice to the victim. It is also a Valmiki fight against the caste system. Moreover, the annihilation of caste as a constantly debated framework in sanitation discourse has been already initiated by the sanitation workers themselves. They need trustworthy ideological support from Ambedkarites to radically translate their manifesto, thereby rescuing them from the clutches of the hitherto existing trade unionist monopoly.
Raju Chalwadi is PhD candidate at Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Bombay. He is researching on urban religiosities among Dalits in Mumbai and can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org. Kanthi Swaroop is PhD candidate at Centre for Policy Studies, IIT Bombay. He is researching Manual Scavenging in Hyderabad and be reached out at email@example.com
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