First published in Scroll.in on 1 December 2014.
A new survey shows that untouchability is still rampant in India. This is important because many like to pretend caste is a thing of the past.
The survey of over 42,000 households across India by the National Council of Applied Economic Research and the University of Maryland shows that 27% of India still practices untouchability. More than one in every four people.
Even in rural India, there is awareness that caste discrimination is politically incorrect. So if you ask people if they practice it, they will probably claim that they don’t. Travelling as a journalist in north India, I have often heard people say, “Here there is no caste.” Ask them specific questions about inter-caste relations, and the lie is exposed.
That is what this survey did. To those who said they did not practice untouchability, it asked, “Would it be okay for a Scheduled Caste person to enter your kitchen or use your utensils?” That is how the survey found that respondents practice untouchability.
I would argue that many of those who would not allow a Scheduled Caste person to enter their kitchens would have lied on even this question. So the real extent of untouchability is likely a lot more than 27%.
The survey also found that amongst caste groups, Brahmins practice untouchability the most (52%). Amongst religious groups, it was Hindus (35%).
The Twitter spin-doctors who’ve made careers defending social conservatism and unreason were quick to act. Wrong question, they said. How do you know they’d let another Brahmin, or anyone for that matter, enter their kitchen and use their utensils? Besides, who are you to ask? My kitchen, my utensils, my choice.
The sort of sophomoric argument that sounds logically correct but shows complete ignorance of the real India beyond Twitter, airports and malls.
There’s something called soap
The first sign of a casteist person is one who claims not to be casteist. The second sign is that they talk about work and hygiene in the same breath. The idea is simple: one who cleans the washroom can’t cook food, and vice versa, because of hygiene.
That is how you have a caste system, with various people allotted to different tasks, some cleaner than others.
While most people think of caste as being about division of labour, it is equally about the ideas of purity and pollution. Those who clean the world of human excreta or skin dead animals are impure because they are polluted, because of hygiene. And thus, if they enter a sacred space like the kitchen, they would make it impure. That’s casteism and untouchability 101.
If it’s hygiene rather than casteism, we are faced with several issues. Does the “maid” who cleans an upper-caste person’s washroom go home and cook her own food? And is that hygienic? And those upper-caste people who clean their own washrooms – when they live abroad, for instance – should they be cooking their own food?
There’s a simple answer: soap. There was a time when the Indian government used to broadcast advertisements urging viewers to use soap to clean their hands after defecating. Soap companies advertise the ability of their products to vanquish germs. Here is one such old Lifebuoy ad.
Now if the rest of us can take care of hygiene by using soap, why can’t the domestic worker who cleans the bathroom wash her hands with the same soap and proceed to the kitchen to cook a meal?
‘Unhygienic’ by birth?
For some people, the domestic worker whose job is to only clean the washroom doesn’t become clean by merely washing her hands. That’s because such a domestic worker’s very being is seen as unclean. There’s a whole community whose profession, as ordained by caste, is to clean toilets and streets. They are called the Valmiki caste, and that’s only the politically correct name. Much of India addresses them by derogatory caste names.
If you are an Indian living in India, chances are that you have faced this reality and know it. Chances are that if you asked your cook to clean the washroom, s/he will refuse. S/he will say, “We don’t do that.” Cleaning other people’s toilets is what the Valmikis do, the lowest of the low in the caste hierarchy.
As part of a research project once, I went to two Valmiki settlements in Delhi. One of them is near Rajghat, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently inaugurated his Clean India campaign. Thanks to municipal jobs, they are able to rise quickly. Not one of the children wants to carry on the caste profession, because then they are identified as unclean, unhygienic. They were on their way to becoming teachers and tailors. Some of the women worked as house maids cleaning utensils, and they said they were able to do so only by pretending they weren’t Valmiki. If they employers found out their caste, they’d lose their jobs.
We live in a caste society. Having domestic workers is enabled by caste. We the upper caste also happen to be rich enough, and they the lower castes also happen to be poor enough, that they make a living making our food and cleaning our houses. It is one thing to live in a caste society, and another to be casteist.
If you ask the washroom cleaner to enter the house only from the back door, if you can’t imagine yourself eating a meal cooked by your washroom cleaner – you are casteist, someone who practices untouchability and caste discrimination.
Such untouchability was “abolished” by the Indian Constitution, but you could always hide behind the arguments of privacy and freedom. Who cooks your meals and who cleans your bathroom is your personal choice, and certainly can’t be a legal issue. But if you are going to publicly declare that the one who cleans your washroom is not hygienic enough to cook your meal, the least one can say is that you are casteist and that’s unacceptable.