Her revolting words were music to my ears.
By Vidya Bhushan Rawat
'Even if you hang me on a lamp-post for not cleaning your 'shit', I am ready for it but I will never do this. Never do this, never do this', said Champa Devi when I interviewed her first in the late 1990s when I started going to Mohammdabad, a small town of district Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh where the families of those engaged in manual scavenging work became my extended family. I always wanted to hear the words from those who are victims of our racist caste system that assigned the work of cleaning human excreta to a particular community of untouchables, known in this region of eastern Uttar Pradesh, as Rawat. Champa Devi always believed in 'sukhi roti khayenge lekin jhadu nahi lagayenge, malmutra nahi dhoyenge' (We would rather eat simple dry bread yet won't touch broom to clean human excreta of others). These words were music to my ears as I felt that the biggest roadblock in our war against manual scavenging is the mental slavery, which has been imposed on the community for centuries. There is no denial of factor that the brahmanical system enslaved people mentally and compelled them to do the work but ultimately the liberation need our own convictions to fight it back. It is therefore important to acknowledge many of those who may not have been celebrity but lived life on their own conditions despite prevailing socio-cultural environment of gender and caste prejudices.
Champa Devi was working in the Mohammdabad Municipality as Safai Karmchari i.e. sanitation worker, when I met her for the first time around 1997. I was visiting Mohammdabad and trying to understand various issues that Rawat community was facing here in their engagement with the sanitation work, which is a sophisticated acronym for manual scavenging. Many of the young girls were interested in studying further but most of them had left their school due to financial constraints as their parents were unable to support their education. As I roamed around, spoke to many who were engaged in the manual scavenging work, the quick-fix reply was, 'What do we do? Where is the alternative? Who will feed us?'. And if you compel them to speak they would say,' If you want us to leave then we will leave it." It was a way to suggest that we need economic alternative to do that. I would often question them as what do they get out of it and the answer would be 'economic security' but the fact is that it is not economic security but 'security of life'. What is the 'economics' when somebody clean the human excreta of the other human being without getting anything in return? The only thing the 'bade-log' i.e. dominant caste people whose toilets are cleaned would provide 'leftover food' in the afternoon. Is not that a humiliation of the people who strive hard to live their life? And in the year end, during some festivities, they get 20 kilogram of rice or wheat and some left over cloths. Champa Devi had always despised this in her typical style,' What do you get after working day in and out. The filthy leftover food and you don't feel humiliated in begging for it. What cant you do other work which other community people do. None of the other community people do this work if they don't get the work", she would retort.
Mohammdabad is dominated by the Muslim Ansaris and rural areas by Bhumihar Hindus, who are powerful landlords and both have deep faith in the caste hierarchy. In the city area, it is the Ansaris that calls the shot politically but in the villages both the Muslims and Hindu upper castes run the show. For the Rawat community here untouchability exists both the side however its forms may be different in the town and the village. Just last year when some of our friends started a sewing centre for young girls in a village called Ranipur the upper caste Muslims refused to come to the house of the Rawat community people, as they remain untouchables.
Champadevi lived life according to her own convictions. She was married in childhood but never really able to live with her so-called in laws and revolted. She could not confine herself to domesticated village life engaged in manual scavenging hence left the village to life her life independently. She moved out and found the job of a Safai Karmchari in Mohammadabad. It was her conviction that she decided not to marry again and live the life the way she wanted. Her job with the Nagarpalika made her independent and she started supporting the families of brothers and sisters apart from encouraging young girls to study and men to leave manual scavenging.
Every time, I met her, she would appreciate the work that we have been doing in the community. 'These young girls must grow. They must study and become independent. It is important for girls to learn sewing, computer and other related things', she would say. It was always good to hear her putting her viewpoint strongly. She was ready to fight and die for the cause of society.
Once, I asked her opinion on what many people think about the issue of manual scavenging will become irrelevant if we increase the money given for the work and pat came her answer,' You pay me Rs 10 or 20 for cleaning your shit, I am ready to give you triple the amount please do come to my home and clean my latrine', she would challenge those who place such arguments. I am ready to be hanged she often said to me than cleaning the human excreta of anyone else. It is inhuman and against our self-respect. I want to ask my community people to come out of this mindset, educate your daughter, chose respectful occupations and live a dignified life.'
Champa Devi was not a theoretician or a politician but a simple woman who faced untouchability and left the life of indignity and disrespect so her feelings and expressions are focused more on the community and not on the government. The fact is while we all ask the government to invest more money and give more resources; it is also important that we listen to the voices of the likes of Champa Devi and introspect. We do not absolve government from its duties towards elimination of manual scavenging but a change is also needed from within and a bigger social awareness campaign inside the communities as the government and its upper caste officials may wait for next hundred years to 'eradicate' untouchability and manual scavenging but the community should not even wait for a day to leave this inhuman and undignified work.
Those of us who devote our time with the community it is essential to acknowledge the spirit of the community elders like Champa Devi which may not look very 'glamorous' and 'mentionable' to the feudal elitist mindset which define people in the name of 'this or that' ideology and not what they fight daily because of birth based discrimination due their caste identities. Champa Devi lived a full life and remains independent till end. Whatever she may be, but Champa Devi's words rejecting the culture of manual scavenging on her own and choosing a life of self respect and dignity would always sound like rhythmic music in my ears forever.