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INDIA STINKING: Manual Scavengers in Andhra Pradesh and Their Work by Gita Ramaswamy. Navayana Publishing, Chennai, 2005.

EVEN those engaged with Dalit questions rarely concern themselves with the fate of manual scavengers, despite the fact that this activity represents the worst expression of the beliefs engendered by the caste system – untouchability, purity-pollution, dharma and karma. Few amongst us seem to be aware that despite ‘The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act’ in 1993, over 1.3 million people continue to be employed as manual scavengers – in private homes, in community dry latrines (CDLs) and deep sewers managed by the municipality, in the public sector such as the railways and by the army. Nothing, however, is more telling about our attitude than the fact that this arrangement exists in many district courts and worse, the judiciary at least in one instance held the destruction of such latrines as illegal. Clearly, even destruction of ‘illegal’ public property, more than a decade after the passing of a central legislation, is deemed a crime.

Nothing about this slim booklet by publisher-activist Gita Ramaswamy makes for a pleasant read, and not merely because of the subject matter. Ramaswamy is suffused with rage at the continuation of this degrading activity. Even more that progressive radicals seem so unconcerned. As she explains, both her husband and she, when they first came into public contact with the scavenging community, were only involved with matters of education and wages. It was as if improvement in material circumstances and knowledge would be sufficient to eradicate this social evil, a continuing Marxist fallacy. Today, she is wiser.

Based on an extensive survey of the practice in Andhra Pradesh, and subsequently a movement to destroy such ‘conveniences’, Ramaswamy and her colleagues in the Safai Karmachari Andolan hold out a mirror to our social attitudes. Slowly we realize that an activity which can easily be abolished through use of technology, resources and training still continues primarily because of our unconcern. Unfortunately, those stigmatised as bhangis too develop a stake in the system, seeing even these menial jobs as ‘reserved’ for them and thus a source of security. They, one suspects, know only too well how difficult it is to escape the clutches of untouchability. And perchance we think that the scourge is confined only to the Hindus, Ramaswamy introduces the reader to Muslim-Dalit subcastes engaged in these tasks.

How did the system of manual scavenging emerge? After all, excavations at Lothal reveal that our ancestors had water-borne toilets even in Harappan times. Even medieval townships had more sophisticated sewerage systems. So why did it continue? Is it, as Ramaswamy suggests, that given our social prejudices we refused to improve the technology of sanitation? This seems a little too pat. Nevertheless, a proper explanation is still awaited. Meanwhile, given the nature of our habitations, both rural and urban and neglect of toilets – the demand for manual scavengers continues unabated. And as labour is cheap, there is little impetus to either improve systems – in railways and municipal sewerage – or introduce technology.

Equally, I am not fully convinced by Ramaswamy’s discussion of Gandhi and Ambedkar with respect to eradication of untouchability. Possibly she could profit from reading the tract ‘The Flaming Feet’ by the late D.R. Nagaraj who perceived both leaders as complimentary and subsequently highlights the grudging respect that the two social reformers developed for each other and their respective social projects to eradicate untouchability – one seeking to alter the self-perception of the twice-born Hindu, the other to eradicate the caste system. As she herself admits, Ambedkar’s movement, for all its radical promise, failed to involve the bhangis and effectively transcend his Mahar base. And the communists too concentrated primarily on forming unions and striking for higher wages, neglecting issues of culture and identity. Various government programmes to convert dry latrines into water pour-flush systems languished. Interestingly, even the Sulabh Shouchalaya programmes, though representing a definite improvement in toilet technology, continue to employ only the scavenging castes in their various facilities, thus failing to break through the untouchability barrier. Today, Ramaswamy advocates a complete demolition of such facilities, arguing that the state will move towards alternatives only when faced with no-option.

The rest of this brief booklet presents a menu of what we as concerned citizens can do. The options may appear somewhat utopian or insufficient; nevertheless they do have the merit of forcing us to face ourselves and our prejudices.

Harsh Sethi


THE SHAPING OF MODERN GUJARAT: Plurality, Hindutva and Beyond by Achyut Yagnik and Suchitra Sheth. Penguin, Delhi, 2005.

GUJARAT has suffered an image problem ever since March 2002. Quite undeservedly so. Mention Gujarat, and people start talking about Godhra and communal riots and Narendra Modi and the Baroda Bakery case. Indeed, the subtitle of this book draws attention to that episode. But let the tail not wag the dog. The first rule to follow when reading this excellent book on Gujarat is not to worry about the last three years of Gujarat’s history but look at the previous two or three thousand years instead.

Achyut Yagnik and Suchitra Sheth have given us a readable, well informed and intelligent book on Gujarat which discusses the history of Gujarat over the many centuries but especially the modern period. The first two chapters provide a general background on the ethos of Gujarat especially its mercantile culture. The next chapter ‘Oppressive Encounters’ goes through the history of Muslim rule. The authors are in the ‘secular’ mode of Indian progressives, so they try to be as fair as possible. The point to make, which they don’t, is that Hindu rulers were no less oppressive and arbitrary than Muslim ones – material conditions of the majority of the population does not vary according to whether the ruler is of one religion or another. The cruel Muslim and the kind Hindu ruler or the syncretic Muslim ruler and the fanatical one are later inventions of the nationalist movement. Kings were exploiters regardless of their religion. All that happens is that an excessive emphasis is placed in the nationalist retelling of history on temples and mosques.

The fourth chapter is on the British Raj. The point is well made that the British were alien but modern rulers who had a framework of law unlike the arbitrary feudal rule of Hindu or Muslim kings. The impetus to social reform given by western education and example is well covered. Chapter five is about the arrival of a modern textile industry and the swadeshi reaction. The next three chapters are about Gandhi and the independence movement except that the eighth chapter is more about Hindus and Muslims. The last three chapters are about post-independence Gujarat and about Hindutva.

There is a dearth of regional histories in India. The independence movement was so focused on playing up the unity of India that it downgraded histories of regions and gave a central role to national history. But as I have argued before (in my Development and Nationhood, Oxford, 2004) India is a supranational idea whose territorial boundaries only got fixed in late 19th century by the British, only to be changed again on partition. The so-called provinces are nations on their own and their individual histories should be studied without presuming that there was always an India with the present boundaries and that provinces were just subordinate creatures.

If we take this approach, what is striking about Gujarat is that it is the first modern nation in India. Bengal has an equal claim but in terms of modern industrialisation by the natives, Gujarat is way ahead of Bengal. Gujarat, in fact, is the first capitalist nation in Asia. Its social structure, even though broadly defined by Hindu society, was much less hierarchical than elsewhere in India since Brahmins were subordinate to Banias and were themselves more worldly than spiritual. There are ample examples of this in the chapter on industrialisation in this book. Brahmins take the lead in starting textile mills and go from a life in administration or law to opening up mills.

This flexibility in the social structure extended to Muslim society as well since the mercantile ethos is shared by both communities in Gujarat. The dominant elite was Vaishnavite but the worship practices were not heavily ritualised and the spirit of the bhakti movement pervaded. Jain influence also modified the virulent orthodoxy of Hinduism found in other parts of India. This is the sort of material Max Weber saw in Protestant Europe which gave rise to capitalism.

After this early start as a modern capitalist society imbued with the spirit of social reform, Gujarat’s trajectory begins to falter only after independence. For one the neutral umpire provided by foreign rule was removed and there was open season for local groups to challenge the hegemony of the old Vaishnavite industrial/commercial elite. The adoption of state-led industrialisation sapped the strength of the old elite as they were now at the mercy of the new apparatchiks for advancement.

Even then things remained stable till the formation of the Gujarat state. The politicisation of Gujarat began with the battle between the elite and the newly emerging communities such as the Patidars who did not share the mild social reformist ethos of the old elite. Things went from bad to worse as the Congress built up the KHAM coalition as a counterweight to the Patidars. Communities were treated as vote banks and Muslims too were just another vote bank. But once you are a vote bank your separate identity as Dalit or Kshatriya or Muslim becomes your valuable marker, your asset in accessing political favours. In the battle for scarce public goods, if I can marginalise your community, there is more for me. So the polity gets fragmented into separate vote banks where citizens are citizens last and their particular caste members first. Ironically the secularist as much as the communalist emphasises the community identity above common citizenship.

Politics also dominates commerce. New money is made by being on the inside of politics rather than by enterprise and so this new money is hand in glove with the political parties. While the old elite was independent of state patronage and indeed hostile to foreign rule, the new elite is a poodle of the politicians. A nexus of crime, money and politics forms everywhere and violence becomes endemic to political life. In this sense Gujarat’s story merges into the tragedy of India as a whole.

The weight of recent events hangs heavy on the authors who are at some pain to be seen as fair and even-handed. But the real merit of the book is in opening our eyes to the story of Gujarat as a modern society evolving out of its medieval origins. The story is told in a wide-ranging manner, dealing with social, economic and political aspects along with literature and culture. Gujarat will no doubt outlive its present bad name. This history tells why it will do so since Gujarat has some deep-rooted strengths, above all the common sense of its commercial culture.

Meghnad Desai


A VIEW FROM THE MACHAN: How Science Can Save the Fragile Predator by K. Ullas Karanth. Permanent Black, Delhi, 2005.

ACCORDING to Ullas Karanth wild animals have dominated his consciousness ever since he can remember. His father, a well-known Kannada writer, was not only deeply interested in the natural world himself, but also lacked faith in formal education of any kind. So, until he joined high school directly at the age of 11, Karanth was free to wander the woods around their home in rural Karnataka to his heart’s content, picking up natural history skills that would prove vital years later.

Today, Karanth is a renowned wildlife scientist who has spent virtually his entire adult life actively involved in conservation. His training and single-minded dedication, combined with a gift for clear thinking, makes him a formidable voice of reason, and this collection of 13 essays an invaluable contribution to the growing body of literature on India’s wildlife and its conservation.

Karanth’s metamorphosis from amateur naturalist to wildlife scientist is both unusual and fascinating and is well documented in the first few essays of the book. After graduating from college he tried his hand at being an engineer and, later, toiled for several years as a farmer on the outskirts of the Nagarahole forest. Wildlife was a hobby, albeit a serious one. Then, well into his thirties, he took a radical decision to abandon both vocations and train himself as a wildlife biologist. This decision was spurred by the conviction that for conservation to succeed it had to be ‘based on a solid foundation of modern wildlife biology.’ A meeting with a delegation from the Smithsonian at the Bombay Natural History Society’s international wildlife conference in 1983 paved the way for his journey to the United States to pursue a degree in wildlife biology.

Since then, it is the study of the tiger that has dominated his life, and he has come to be recognized around the world for his exemplary work on the severely endangered big cat. This fascination with the ultimate predator was probably fuelled in no small measure by the shikar tales that he read as a school student, in particular the ‘feverishly gripping’ accounts of Kenneth Anderson. Anderson’s books of high adventure in the South Indian jungles have inspired many an Indian naturalist and Karanth too came under their spell. He got to know Anderson quite well later, and writes with admiration, affection and humour about the irascible Scot, whose enthralling stories have lost none of their shine to this day.

The first six essays in the book are in the nature of personal reminiscences, written in an easy conversational style. These cover the period up to the beginning of Karanth’s study of predator-prey relationships in Nagarahole, Karnataka, in the mid-80s, and include a chapter on his close friend of nearly four decades, the courageous and steadfast forest range officer, K.M. Chinnappa. The two first met in Nagarahole in the late ’60s and found common ground in their passion for watching animals rather than hunting them.

Under Chinnappa’s diligent and tough stewardship, the Nagarahole that Karanth had come to know, with its large-scale logging and rampant poaching, gradually underwent a miraculous transformation, turning into one of Asia’s finest wildlife reserves. It was undoubtedly this transformation that made Karanth’s pioneering research here so productive for over two decades.

While the book’s first five chapters are engaging and informative, its true worth lies in the latter eight. Karanth’s incisive intellect is at work here, and he provides us with rare insights into the world of tigers, helping to dispel the fog of confusion that seems to enshroud their conservation. These essays do demand more from the reader, but they are, in my opinion, essential reading for every serious naturalist and conservationist.

Throughout the book Karanth highlights the need for science in conservation and decries the ‘science deficiency’ that extends to almost every aspect of wildlife management in India including, importantly, the monitoring of tigers. In the chapter ‘The many ways to count a cat’ he demolishes fundamentally faulty ‘home-grown’ methods of monitoring wildlife populations, such as ‘waterhole census’, ‘block census’ and ‘pugmark census’, which gained widespread acceptance only because they have gone unchallenged for far too long. This ‘pseudo-data’, according to him, then enters the public domain without going through the scientific process of peer review and publication. The result of this, he argues, is that reliable, scientifically proven methods are ignored.

Wildlife conservation, he asserts, is no different in many ways to running a large and complex business enterprise. In this enterprise it is imperative that wildlife scientists be the accountants and auditors. While recognizing that ‘old-style natural history and field craft – the domain of traditional hunters, collectors and naturalists – still forms the backbone of modern wildlife biology,’ he points out that this is only valuable when brought under the framework of science. He warns that without scientifically accurate methods to measure the effectiveness of our actions, our efforts are ‘bound to flounder, much like a business enterprise that carries on without ever drawing up a balance sheet.’

The last two chapters of the book are devoted to a discussion of the larger questions confronting conservation in India today. How do we define wildlife conservation? Why should we try to conserve wildlife? In these chapters Karanth argues against the ‘newly fashioned paradigm of "sustainable use"’ whose proponents advocate ‘"wise use" of nature reserves by "local people".’ He cites a world-wide study of wildlife hunting that concluded that most local hunting in tropical forest areas, either for the pot or for markets, is unsustainable because it is occurring at intensities way above the productivity of the targeted animal populations.

Karanth is one of the most lucid and pragmatic voices in wildlife conservation today and, in this deceptively small book, he articulates a strong case for more science in conservation. The book’s discrete chapters are extremely useful because I can see readers wanting to delve into some of the essays again and again. This is an important book that has come at a time when the tiger’s domain is besieged by numerous problems, and needs to be read by everyone who is concerned about the conservation of this ‘fragile predator’.

Shekar Dattatri


UNTOUCHABLE CITIZENS: Dalit Movement and Democratisation in Tamil Nadu by Hugo Gorringe. Sage, New Delhi, 2005.

THE book under review is a significant contribution to the emerging studies on the recent assertion of subordinated peoples across the world. A part of the larger project of understanding cultural subordination and Dalit challenge in different regions of India, the book attempts to provide a comprehensive perspective of the contemporary Dalit movements – their struggles, achievements and limitations – in the broader framework of democratic social transformation and politics. Hugo Gorringe focuses on Dalit politics in Tamil Nadu with specific reference to the Viduthalai Chiruthaikkal (Dalit Panther Iyakkam or DPI). For the purpose, he employs data collected through extensive field surveys, and interviews from different categories of movement activists – male and female, leaders and NGOs. The author has consulted numerous source materials, including government records, reports of various commissions and press clippings. Besides, while spending a year (1999-2000) in Tamil Nadu, mostly Madurai district, he also visited many parts of the state as part of the field survey.

The explicit ascendancy of caste in the political sphere as a tool of political mobilisation was a fallout of the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations, especially the 27 per cent quota in central government jobs for the OBCs. The pro-Mandal movement initially earned the solidarity of Dalits across the country and also reopened the debate on caste with renewed vigour, facilitating caste-based mobilisation of different communities towards political ends. Subsequently, the implementation of the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments, particularly in panchayati raj institutions, exposed the deep-rooted casteist mindset of the caste-Hindus, a euphemism for the dominant castes, in a state where the Dravidian movement/politics had espoused the cause of ‘social reform’ and equated ‘social justice’ with anti-Brahmanism. Over the period, the anti-Brahmin politics not only compromised its core ideals but also turned out to be anti-Dalit. Indeed, the book serves as an eye-opener to many who romanticise the Dravidian movement/politics.

As Gorringe rightly argues, caste remains the dominant idiom of social organisation in India, even though its parameters have been significantly altered (p. 123). Change in the socio-cultural realm is considered as a threat to the hegemony of the Backward and Most Backward Castes, if not of the Brahmins. So far as Tamil Nadu is concerned, he says, ‘The immediate opponents of the Dalit were [are] the Backward Castes – Thevars (especially the Maravar clan) and Kounders, and Most Backward Caste Vanniyars’ (p. 122). Further, he maintains that ‘Brahmins remain influential but are seldom in direct competition with the Dalits and so there is little enmity between the two communities. Other landed castes resent calls for land reform and higher wages, but Brahmins are often absentee landlords and so any contact is mediated through the intermediate castes.’ Hence, the Dalit-intermediate caste division has become the prime faultline of caste conflicts in Tamil Nadu.

The meteoric rise of the Viduthalai Chiruthaikkal in the political firmament of Tamil Nadu, especially in the northern parts, comes at a historic juncture wherein the Dalits remain isolated and have increasingly become the target of caste-based repression even for genuine demands for better wage and basic facilities. Gorringe has traced the emergence of the DPI in Madurai since 1982 when it was led by M. Malaichami. After his demise in 1990, R. Thirumaavalavan took over the reins, drawing inspiration from the Dalit Panthers of Maharashtra, and made it a mass movement. Gorringe provides a sketch of the different phases of DPI – from a radical social movement to a political party which participates in electoral politics. Its earlier position of ‘a blow for blow’ and boycott of electoral politics had more appeal among the younger generation. The shifts in its political stand, mobilisation strategies and even compromises have been discussed at length. Since then, the organisational structure had a convenor (R. Thirumaavalavan), and two general secretaries at the state level. Downwards, there have been a number of assistant general secretaries, district secretaries and coordinators, city representatives, women’s wing leaders and prominent activists with a support base. However, all offices and positions in the movement are purely informal, and are yet to be institutionalised into a formal structure and mode of functioning.

The cadres and sympathizers of the DPI are drawn mostly from the Dalit communities, with the Paraiyars being numerically dominant though the Pallars and Arundhathiars constitute a significant support base. The DPI’s radicalism (despite the transition) and the skill and charisma of Thirumaavalavan, a powerful and eloquent orator, are the reasons that continue to attract the Dalit youth as well as masses to the movement.

Moreover, Gorringe provides a critique of a whole range of issues which he considers vital to the DPI, viz., centralised decision making, absence of a systematic organizational network, overdependence on the leader/hero-worship, and lack of encouragement to women officer-bearers and activists. Nevertheless, in a short span of time, the DPI has been able grow as a political force in Tamil Nadu. It goes to the credit of the DPI that it has given confidence and security to the marginalised in several parts who are/were in the thrall of repression by police and caste-Hindus.

Further, Gorringe reveals the naked realities prevailing in the state despite the existence of several statutes and constitutional guarantees. He explains why the exclusion of Dalits from the main body of society continue in many forums – physical, spiritual, material and cultural (p.73). Discussing Article 17, abolishing untouchability, and the Bonded Labour System (abolition) Act 1976, he comments on the absence of effective enforcement and implementation of these statutes at the grassroots level. To strengthen his argument he provides empirical evidence. The case of Somankottai village in Erode, the home district of ‘Periyar’ E.V. Ramasamy, rationalist leader and founder of the Dravidian movement, offers a painful example. Prevalence of the pernicious two-glass system in tea stalls in the village exposes the tall claims of the Dravidian movement/politics. Gorringe also highlights dichotomist perceptions about its prevalence: rural vs urban, from among Dalits. While the urban Dalit is appalled and says that he would rather die than take tea like this, the rural Dalit laments whether the practice would come to an end if one dies (p. 113).

Gorringe’s book stands apart from others inasmuch as it adequately substantiates using relevant data, the economic and material conditions through which cultural subordination is permeated. It argues that persistence of caste discrimination and strongly embedded prejudices are primarily due to the Dalits’ dependence upon the dominant caste landlords for their livelihood. ‘Nearly 80 per cent of Tamil Dalits in the employment market work in the agrarian sector and 64 per cent of them are agricultural labourers’ (p. 154). In the government sector too they face discrimination right from the point of recruitment. The constitutional provision for reservation in employment remains unfulfilled in most government sectors. Only 31.6 per cent of the vacancies for the Scheduled Castes, notified through the employment exchange, are filled up (p. 153). In other words, around 68.4 per cent of the vacancies reserved for Scheduled Castes remain unfilled. Even a cursory examination reveals that only the lower categories of jobs have a higher proportion of Dalits viz. sweepers account for 81 per cent in group IV. Such being the case in government, one can easily imagine Dalit representation in the private sector.

Gorringe also touches upon problems of Dalit entrepreneurs and their limitations. A recent newspaper report details the pathetic plight of the TAHDCO industrial estate at Tirupur, the booming hosiery town. An exorbitant rate of interest at 16 per cent, bureaucratic red-tapism and apathy has made a group of 54 entrepreneurs, who gave up lucrative professional jobs to opt for this, languish without adequate capital. The denial of opportunities and quotas on hollow grounds have crippled their business ventures even as their counterparts continue to reap profits. This definitely shows a definite correlation between caste, capital and socio-economic status (p. 147). Indeed, this has created a disjunction between the aspirations fostered by democratisation and the continuing dependency of the community, which jeopardises their (Dalit) upward mobility and empowerment.

A point of criticism, though. Gorringe uses the term Tamil Dalits and Tamil Dalit women (p. 166, 189, 205 and elsewhere) causally without realising that this could mislead the reader. The intention might be to denote Dalits in Tamil Nadu, but this assumes different connotations when a linguistic prefix is used to refer to a socio-political and cultural identity. This could even be construed as misrepresentation, considering the passion for language with political overtones in the state. This is important since a sizeable section of Dalits speak languages other than Tamil, and continue to cling to their linguistic identity.

This apart, the book is an important contribution to the study of caste and political mobilisation in Tamil Nadu, of great use to students and scholars alike.

C. Lakshmanan