The narrative of an entire community involved in cleaning task finds no mention in official vocabulary

(Written by Radhika Kumar & Kaushal Panwar)

When the rankings for the fifth edition of the Swachh Survekshan were released in August last year, one was struck by the plethora of terms in use under the vernacular nomenclature of Swachhata or cleanliness. These include the Swachhata Samiksha (cleanliness review), Swachhata Pakhwada (cleanliness fortnight) and the Swachh Survekshan. Yet, conspicuous by its absence has been ‘Swachhkar Samaj’, the term used to identify the community associated with the task of cleanliness. The absence of the Samaj is reflective of how the vernacular is often selectively appropriated to build popular appeal.

The popular also calls on the personal to serve the nation by participating in cleanliness campaigns, as the slogan ‘Swachhata hi sewa hai (cleanliness is service)’ becomes salient. Also, the careful leveraging of the vernacular dovetails into the politics of cultural nationalism. In doing so, it changes the frame of reference, leaving little opportunity for the Swachhkar to be audible. So, the narrative of an entire community — those involved in the task of cleaning — finds no mention in the official vocabulary.

But this does not mean that mention of the Swachhkars has always been absent in the mainstream discourse. The first reference to a community engaged in sanitation works is traced to the British administration in India. Nicolas Jaoul, in his piece titled ‘Casting the Sweepers’, argues that the colonial administration leveraged caste networks to recruit members to perform “untouchable tasks” in urban areas; thereby creating the category of the ‘sweeper’.

While many of the sub-castes that took up sanitation work in the city were also engaged in similar occupations in the village, others such as the Dhanuk and Bansphod joined the category of sweepers only after they migrated to the cities. Hence, their incorporation into the urban work force brought them within the fold of new categories of identification. While the British adopted ‘modern’ ways of reorganising and identifying the workforce, they simultaneously disregarded the demands for recognition as a separate community. This rejection was based on the argument that these various sub-castes had common occupations, but for the purposes of official recognition, they were expected to choose amongst the established religions.

In fact, the sub-castes were aggressively courted by Hindu organisations in the early twentieth century to declare their religion as Hinduism. Vijay Prashad writes in Untouchable Freedom that the popularising of Valmiki amongst untouchables was a ploy meant to separate the ‘sweepers’ from the leadership of the Dalits.

After Independence, naming and consolidation of the castes engaged in the task of cleanliness got embroiled in electoral politics as various political parties sought to mobilise ex-untouchables castes. However, as claimed by many sub-castes, the patronage extended to them in terms of government jobs as sweepers proved to be detrimental in the long run. While other ex-untouchable castes such as the Chamars gained through education and occupational diversification, those sub-castes engaged in cleanliness were unable to gain social mobility. These attempts at casting an identity for the ex-untouchable castes aggravated differences amongst the sub-castes. Yet, narratives and movements aimed at Dalit emancipation have flourished parallel to the imposition of these contrived identities.

The term Swachhkar Samaj is said to include all those sub-castes which do jobs such as sweeping, garbage collection and sanitation work. Collecting narratives from the vernacular reveals the uncertain origins of the term, though it is said to be in use since the 1990s. The purpose of the Swachhkar Samaj is to form one umbrella organisation so that various sub-castes may collectively mobilise and assert their “constitutional rights”. Yet the various sub-castes included within the Samaj also claim to have distinct identities.

The Swachhkar Samaj faces a daunting task as it attempts to cast the vernacular in the vocabulary of the mainstream and yet prevent its emancipatory vision from being challenged and hijacked by administrative, religious and electoral agendas of the dominant classes, castes and leaders.

This article first appeared in the print edition on January 24, 2021 under the title ‘A community, their voices brushed under the carpet’. Kumar and Panwar teach at Motilal Nehru College, University of Delhi. Suraj Yengde, author of Caste Matters, curates the fortnightly ‘Dalitality’ column.

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