Who Gives the Shit.
A look into the Dalit participation in electoral politics of Gujarat.
Humanising something is so easy for us; giving human attributes to inanimate objects, personifying animals with human emotions. We do it all with such ease and passion.
But, when it comes to certain people, rather, communities, we dehumanise them with the same ease and passion, with a dash of neglect. This neglect forms no pathway for these communities to be a part of the decision making process; the stakeholders from the community have no say. Restricting power to limited dominant classes is normalised to an extent where the people who need it, often do not have the agency of choice to even opt for it.
I attempted to understand the extent of electoral participation of the Valmikis thinking that decentralising the issue would make it simpler to understand and deal with, just like Gandhi suggested. Even after reserving seats for members of the SC communities to represent themselves, I wondered why the representation bit was not coming up at all. But then it struck me, I realised that there is no monolithic, pan-Indian Dalit vote, which makes it difficult to trace a homogenous pattern of voting and electoral participation. Due to numerous reasons ranging from migration to cultural and geographical diversity, the Dalit communities across India are distributed across in such a manner that more often than not, they stand in isolation on a grass root level.
In Gujarat alone, the Dalit population constitutes at least 7-8% of the total population, as per the 2001 census. This two decades old data also highlights the fact that more than two-thirds of the Dalit castes and subcastes are invisible and underrepresented, if they are represented at all. ‘Dalit’ is a canopy term used to describe the Schedule Classes across the country, defining all depressed classes under one. However, the fact that there are several subcastes that remain under this rock of ‘Dalit’ is little known to the common public.
The Valmiki community is one such subcaste that falls outside the hierarchies of caste, having to face the wrath of atrocities even from other dominant Dalit communities. Considered the lowest in the hierarchy of Dalit castes, it has historically failed to produce leaders of its own because members of this group live on the margin are poor and very few in number.
Even though the population of Valmikis has high numbers as a whole in the country, individual constituencies have very low representation. Living in the biggest democracy of the world, having less representation in each constituency shouldn’t matter, considering that there are reserved seats and political parties working with the downtrodden communities. But in actuality, the few numbers in each constituency signify only one thing: their vote or representation has no value. No matter the party, no matter the political affiliation.
So much so that when members of political parties stand for elections, as representatives of the people, they don’t even consider Valimiki houses humane enough to visit them; not even to bribe them. Valmiki areas are rarely visited by representatives themselves; the representatives say ‘we cannot come there’. The bribes that come in forms of desi daaru offered or merely a round of chai are all the physical interaction the marginalised classes receive in return for their vote.
In rare cases where a Valmiki is inspired by the Ambedkarite consciousness that they may feel, these candidates are shot down with limited or no resources to contest elections, let alone holding the post. If they collectivise resources and somehow make it through the process of standing for elections, what happens when they lose because no one voted for a Valmiki? Politics is unavailable to the marginalised; it’s out of their reach and it’s out of their jurisdiction, even if they want to be a part of it.
“It’s my dream to become a MLA, we too have dreams. But I’m afraid. Politics is out of our reach. Even if I want to, I cannot. But we, too have dreams.” says Purushottam Vaghela, a community leader and Dalit activist.
Having worked as a community leader for more than 25 years now, Purushottam Vaghela is also the Director of Manav Garima Lok Sanghathan. As a part of the Valmiki community himself, he voices the untold stories of many, across Gujarat. Ahmedabad has no representation of the Valmiki community and has minimal leaders to represent them, says Vaghela. The Valmikis are lower than the lowest as they bear the burdens of segregation at all levels; be it personal, financial, health related or electoral. Moreover, the isolated and limited bastis, areas where the Valmikis stay, makes it more difficult for them to represent themselves.
In a metropolitan city like Ahmedabad, there are more than 200 identified spots where manual scavenging is still practiced; 200 identified spots where Dalits and Valmikis clean human shit with minimal equipment and even lesser dignity. Visiting only three public washrooms in the old city made me physically uncomfortable as I reached home to my brother complaining about how I smell of shit.
The efforts that the state puts in uplifting or humanising this community are minimal and rather ironic. I came across an article published by The Wire which stated that the Gujarat government designed a programme for the Valmiki community and a part of one of the workshops offered was to teach them how to offer puja like a Brahmin.
Teaching a community that isn’t even allowed to drink the same water as the other Dalit subcastes how to offer puja just does not make sense to me.
“Hindu toh mei bhi hu aur aap bhi. Lekin fir aap hume apne mandir Mei kyu nahi Jane dete? Humari chai kyu nahi Peete?” asks Vaghela.
It is not that there is absolutely no representation and acknowledgment by state sanctioned authorities. In fact, the Safai Karmi Union is supported by the BJP in Gujarat. But the point of contention here is that their agendas and priorities are different. They may focus on employment and occupation, but they do not acknowledge their mental health, lifestyles, their families or their access to resources. Even when candidates from the community are occasionally elected, they end up getting roped in by political agendas and personal motives.
“Vyavastha parivaratan mei sangharsh karne vaale kam hei,” says Vaghela, drawing attention to the fact that members who would be willing to struggle for the slow systematic change are handful.
Respect is not quantifiable and cannot suddenly be handed out to the people hailing from the margins of the margins. It needs to be woven into our society after centuries of systematically discriminating against certain communities. Political participation and representation is a step towards humanising the ‘others’, letting them shape their political identities and recognising their worth.
It is time we clean our own shit.
Written by: Manasvi Nag.