The Age Old Cultural War and Broom Wielding Footsoldiers


This interview was done more than a year ago during a research concerning social prejudices in mass media of India. The research compared projection of Ganesha festival in Mumbai and Dr. B R Ambedkar’s death anniversary. Both of these events draw a huge crowd from different social groups. However, the mass media has been vehemently prejudiced when portraying these public ceremonies. Ironically, what Dr. Ambedkar had said about bramhanical mindset being “ascending scale of reverence and descending scale of contempt” continued to be a part of the nation’s cultural fabric and even made his legacy to disappear from mainstream public spheres.

Here is an interview of a former sanitation worker who like most others is from a socially and economically backward caste. He comments on the current nature of the cultural war between brahmanic and non-brahmanic forces that have been taking place in Indian peninsula for more than a thousand years. There exists a hidden apartheid in India where the former untouchables are still doing the duties allocated to them in traditional rural socio-economy. Most of the sanitation work in urban India is done by these castes without any hygienic facilities availed to them or any social security. These jobs are done on contract basis and carried on for generations even after India achieved independence. Most inhuman among this work is entering the manholes without any safety equipment and cleaning human excreta by broom and hand.

Some of the revered figures of this land who justified manual scavenging are M K Gandhi (well known as Mahatma) and current Prime Ministerial Candidate from BJP Narendra Modi. Even another Prime Ministerial candidate Mr. Arvind Kejriwal, who in the most gandhian fashion, is being described as virtuous also did not take any steps which he promised to the sanitation workers in capital region after hijacking their plebian broom as a symbol for his political party.

A recent article in a national newspaper is “surprised” over the existence of manual scavenging in India which is more offending than the existence of manual scavenging itself. Nonetheless she does try to save the last shred of upper caste journalist morality by saying “How can a country that sends rockets into space not be able to figure out how to prevent trains from discharging toilet waste on to the tracks? It’s the same nation whose capital city’s world class metro system has an unmanned ticket checking system but where men and women still have to get into sewers when they get clogged.

Interview of Mr. Ramesh Haralkar, a former Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) clean up worker. He is now a full time activist in Ambedkarite movement.
Date: 9th December 2012.
Venue: Centre for Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policies, New Campus, TISS, Mumbai.

Researcher: What is your opinion on Ganesh Festival?

Ramesh Haralkar: After Dr. Ambedkar’s conversion, the educated Buddhists started spreading the de-hinduizing message of Buddhism. To counter that, Ganesh idols which were inside the home, were brought out on the streets. ‘Sarvajanik Ganesh Mandals’ were formed. From those Mandals political leadership started appearing. From that leadership, Corporators, MLAs, MPs were born. Then, they became conscious of their roles as leaders and the need to protect religious identity and culture. On one side there stood (Buddha’s) Dhamma and on the other there was (Brahmanic Hindu) Dharma. But they noticed that, these people (Scheduled Caste Buddhists) criticize Hinduism but a lot of them still follow it. We (SC Buddhists) critique Hindu gods Ram, Ganesh etc. and make scientific questions about their non-human bodies and behavior. At the same time, they know that a large chunk still follows Hindu traditions. We lacked the co-ordination to implement this revolutionary thought of Babasaheb. We started following Hindu methods of celebrations blindly. We started celebrating Dr. Ambedkar’s Birth Anniversary like they do their festivals. They also started supporting it. They have a powerful mechanism to support such mass participation in grand public ceremonies. So they will encourage Christians, Buddhists et cetera to have rallies and grand celebrations. It is a ‘give and take’ policy. You scratch my back, I will scratch yours. We have adopted their culture. They play cards in the Ganesh Pandal and the lower caste people in the vicinity will also join them. Having such public ceremonies is a platform to gain political weight. The organizers will invite local politicians and the number of participants becomes a tool of displaying political power. Because of such mass processions in a crowded city, a sick person requiring urgent medical attention dies on the way to hospital. This happens regularly. When Bal Thackeray died recently, all the cameras were focused on the procession but no one cared about people’s access to hospitals. There should be some law and order but no one is willing to question this. Such is the terror (in people’s minds).

Researcher: So the processions are all about display of power?

Ramesh Haralkar: Yes. Display is the correct word.

Researcher: During this research I participated in the immersion procession of Lalbaugcha Raja as an observer. There is a mosque near Byculla railway station and the surrounding area was packed with Rapid Action Force, Bomb Squad, Reserve Police Force. So on one side, celebrating Hindu festivals like Ganesh Festival and Diwali is projected as being secular but at the same time we see a subtle discourse of Hindu nationalism in the celebration. No mass media talks about this.

Ramesh Haralkar: No. They don’t talk about it. When a muslim conducts ‘Aarti’ of Ganesh, he attains a status in his area. He is also respected by (Hindu) youth of Lalbaug. No muslim then dares to interfere with him. He gains political weight. Even those religious leaders issuing ‘Fatwa’ don’t dare to question him. They are worried about their own safety. The Imams of Delhi speak only when told by the political leaders.

Police standing outside Hindustani Masjid near Byculla station few moments before Lalbaucha Raja’s procession was about to pass by.

Police standing outside Hindustani Masjid near Byculla station few moments before Lalbaucha Raja’s procession was about to pass by.

Researcher: Please tell us about the treatment given to clean up staff during festivals.

Ramesh Haralkar: The clean up staff is also made to work more than 8 hours. They are treated like servants. Anyone mistreats them. At the time of immersion cleanup workers are considered as servants of that religion and not as BMC employees. (emphasis mine) Having so many festivals is a necessity of their religion. Their festivals are like garbage. Even small festivals leave huge heaps of waste. There are no guidelines or restrictions to it. Whether its Hindu festival or Muslim’s Roza, we are there to clean it 24 hours.

Researcher: 99% of them (cleanup workers) are Scheduled Castes.

Ramesh Haralkar: Yes. The clean up duty of Mahars in the village has continued in the cities. They have no saviors. All the Hindu religions are about noise pollution and waste. If a procession is passing by your house and an elderly person dies, you can’t dare to go out and tell people to stop their instruments. Those noise mapping instruments are used only in Shivaji Park . In the small alleys of city you can’t complain about noise.

Garbage outside Lalbaugcha Raja Pandal, Ganesh Galli, Mumbai

Garbage outside Lalbaugcha Raja Pandal, Ganesh Galli, Mumbai

Reseacher: What about the garbage on Dr. Ambedkar’s death anniversary? Is it because of internalization of populist Hindu culture?

Ramesh Haralkar: The people, who come to Mumbai for Dr. Ambedkar’s death anniversary, only want to pay homage. They don’t beg for any material desires. They roam the city and buy some books. I don’t know which caste group you belong but Dr. Ambedkar was a Hindu Mahar and so all of those who converted were only Mahars. Dr. Ambedkar was cremated in a small place outside Smashaan Bhoomi in Dadar. The whole neighborhood is dominated by Deshpandes, Bapats et cetera (Brahmins). They feel disgusted about the untouchables. The current scenario is that only old people reside near Shivaji Park and their children live in Thane, Pune et cetera. All of them vacate the place by 1st December to stay with their children. The incoming population of rural SCs doesn’t know the concept of cleanliness. In rural areas the waste has been traditionally organic. Throwing it anywhere was not a concern since it would be naturally neutralized. They will eat and sleep anywhere on Shivaji ground. It’s not as if they don’t want cleanliness but they don’t know the usage of dust bins. We have been serving food through stalls on 6th December since 1975. If you tell them not to spread waste, they will certainly listen to you. They will also wash their hands in the dust bin. That is why we must tell our people not to spread waste. Politicians and urban followers should tell them about this. Not because of the fear of Brahmins but as a necessity of maintaining cleanliness. It is our duty and not Brahmins’. After all, it will be ‘our’ (Scheduled Caste) cleanup worker who will be picking up waste. Brahmin will not be cleaning it. Now we will know (Shivaji Park residents’ attitude) about wastage because a large chunk will again gather on the grounds to commemorate Bal Thackeray’s death anniversary but they will be touchable folks. So no controversy about their wastage will emerge. The Ambedkarite people don’t get enough information about BMC’s sanity infrastructure so they will attend nature’s call in any less visible place they find. If a Brahmin shouts at them for peeing under the building, our people will threaten them. This gets published in print media immediately because ‘their’ people only handle it. Now on the coming 17th November we will see that all the arrangements are done perfectly by BMC on Bal Thackeray’s death Anniversary. Last year, we asked the Ward Officer about insufficiencies of sanity infrastructure on 6th December. The Sanity Van did not have flush. They were not attached to drain. By the Supreme Court order, they should have been attached to drain. Again, ‘our’ clean up worker will do those arrangements. There is no co-ordination. One more aspect of administration I would like to share. Wherever there is a majority of a certain caste or community, people from those social groups will be appointed by the government to arrange administration. In Muslim festivals a Kulkarni (Brahmin surname) is not sent. In Muslim dominated areas, only Muslims are appointed in Police stations. SC officers can also be accommodated but Brahmins are not sent in those areas.

Garbage on Girgaum Chowpatty after 10th day of Ganesh festival

Garbage on Girgaum Chowpatty after 10th day of Ganesh festival

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