Thursday, December 06, 2007

Caste-Discrimination: From Subliminal to Sublimated

Maybe we should have a taxonomy of caste-discrimination... I realised this when exposed to two very different expressions of caste discrimination through the news-items during last few days.

One instance was the stray news items which occupied much media attention - and headlines - in the past week about the ban on the Hindi film Aaja Nachlein UP - and Punjab and Haryana.

The reasons were these two lines in a song:

"mohalle mein kaisa maramar hai,
Bole mochi bhi khud ko sonar hai"

[roughly translated: what turmoil is happening in the community; even the cobbler claims to be a goldsmith]

Following a furore and the ban, these lines were removed from the song, and the Mayavati govt in UP lifted the ban... So did Punjab and Haryana (subsequently lifted). Depending where one is sociologically located, the furore was natural or exaggerated... But the indignation that some some/many felt was the implications hidden in these lyrics: that, if the mochi/cobbler (a Dalit/ untouchable occupation) tries to become like a sonar/goldsmith (who can be a schedule caste, a Devednya brahmin, or from the merchant class, sarraf, etc., but "above" the mochi in the caste hierarchy), this is a cause of social turmoil...

In any case, the director of the film, Anil Mehta, clarified:

"... We never meant any offense to anyone... When we were readying the lyrics, we had nothing derogatory in mind. If the idea had struck us, we would never have kept the line in the first place...If you look at the spirit of the film, it isn't about discrimination. It's about the participation of people from all walks of life."

Most likely - at least, I am sure - he was being genuinely honest. These lines were not intended to hurt anyone's sensibilites and sentiments... They did!

This is not the first time, I have experienced this subliminal force which blurs the boundaries between a conscious cultural expression and the unconscious discriminatory motif.

I recall that Kolkata airport used to have an open "smoking zone/area" in the arrival lounge. Some months back they shifted it to en enclosed "smoking section" (even that does not exist now). Needless to say, the enclosure for smokers was like a gas chamber - claustrophobic, with an exhaust fan that would not work, and hot and humid. I overheard one of the smokers grumbling:

"...we have no choice now. We have become schedule castes."


...which is both instructive and worth introspecting: about the innocuously subliminal nature of discrimination, about the innocent pervasiveness of caste-hierarchy (and barriers) in our popular imagery and language... about how it is so very easy for our conscious acts/words to get influenced by our historical-cultural programming... (which may go back to embedded childhood memories of being by friends and called a "bhangi" or a "chamaar", etc...

The other instance reflected the other end of continuum - conscious, blatent, and one which sublimated caste-discrimination into a socially acceptable "spiritual" value.

In a country, which banned "untouchability" in its constitution, and banned "manual scavenging" in 1993, the State Information Department of Gujarat publishes a book, written by the chief minister, Narendra Modi. Excerpts:

"Scavenging must have been a spiritual experience for the Valmiki caste... At some point in time somebody must have got enlightenment in scavenging. They must have thought that it is their duty to work for the happiness of the entire society and the Gods."

Or watch this video:

To a somewhat lesser extent, one finds similar motif of sublimation in this TV ad:

Behind such imageries and descriptions, however, lurks the living reality of the "Life Inside a Black Hole" (Tehelka Magazine, Issue 47(4), Dec 08, 2007), which can be too stark and unsettling for common human consciousness to live with - And thus, the attempts to mask it, discount it, trivialise it...

Excerpts from the article:

"What is the weather really like inside a manhole? What happens to the shit, piss and other waste flushed down by 18.02 percent of the billion- plus population?... At least 22,327 Dalits of a sub-community die doing sanitation work every year. Safai Kamgar Vikas Sangh, a body representing sanitation workers of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), sought data under the Right to Information Act in 2006, and found that 288 workers had died in 2004-05, 316 in 2003-04, and 320 in 2002-03, in just 14 of the 24 wards of the BMC. About 25 deaths every month. These figures do not include civic hospital workers, gutter cleaners or sanitation workers on contract....

...In Delhi, it is a humongous many-mouthed subterranean creature — a network of 5,600 km of sewers with about 1.5 lakh manholes,... which consumes 2,781 million litres of the sewage Delhi generates daily... It is indiscriminately fed a wide range of objects that causes clogs — condoms, sanitary pads, nondegradable thermocol, a variety of plastics, industrial sludge, kitchen waste, toilet cleaning acids, medical waste (syringes, blades, even placenta), glass shards, household gadgets, construction debris....

...Entering the narrow, dark drain, the worker pushes his only weapon, the khapchi — a spliced bamboo stick — to dislodge the block... It is then that a sudden blast of putrid sludge — besides methane, hydrogen sulphide, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide — assaults the person. “Even if we manage not to swallow the toxic muck, it manages to enter our bodies.” Odourless and colourless, the carbon gases can cause suffocation. If the worker survives the initial ordeal, he crouches inside and loads the sludge into leaky metal buckets or wicker baskets for his team to haul out. Depending on the clog, the entire operation could take up to 48 hours. “We often work after midnight. When people sleep, the flow in the sew- ers is lesser, and our work does not disturb road-users,”...

...The CEC’s 2005 survey of 200 DJB manhole workers found that... 91.5 percent of them (were)from suffering injuries and 80 percent suffering eye infections. The survey found that diseases like leptospirosis, viral hepatitis and typhoid were common....

...Not surprisingly, most of the workers die before retirement. Owing to loss of appetite and inevitable alcoholism, many men shrink to half their size if they work 20 years. The average lifespan of a manhole worker is about 45. And if a worker does not die inside a manhole, the civic body does not offer any monetary compensation for illnesses/deaths owing to occupational hazards. In Delhi, permanent workers get a monthly “risk allowance” of Rs 50..."

The CEC (Center for Education and Communication) also reported that among those who worked in the manholes:

  • Few workers in age group 50-59; most die before retirement

  • 35 percent illiteracy

  • Monthly wage for daily wagers Rs 2,950

  • More than 40 percent of workers are not permanent though more than 90 percent of them have been working for more than five years continuously

  • 60 percent of workers enter manholes more than 10 times a month

  • Acute illnesses:
    - eye irritation (79%),
    - upper respiratory tract irritation (57%),
    - difficulty in breathing (38%),
    - skin rash (60.5%),
    - cut and injury (91.5%).

  • Chronic illnesses:
    - fatigue (76%),
    - watering/burning of eyes (36%),
    - cough (72.5%),
    - skin irritation (41%),
    - skin roughness (36%),
    - skin rash (45.5%),
    - lower backache (27%)

    Hardly the life-conditions for "spiritual enlightenment" or experiencing the "yeh suhana mausam" (this lovely weather)!.... And if one wants to move out/up to the metaphorical state of a sonar, wouldn't that be natural?

    Maybe that is why we need to map caste-based discrimination on a contunuum of Subliminal to Sublimated...


    Vivek Kumar said...


    Have you read the full lyrics of the song in question?

    I think it is implied that the turmoil is not about claiming a change of caste, but about the heroine's golden nose-ring and everyone clamoring to get close to her.

    Mene galti kari thi
    Meri nathni padi thi

    Ki sone mein usko ranga gai
    Mein ranga ke atariya pe aa gai
    Mohale mein kaise mara mar hai
    Bole mochi bhi khud ko sonar hai
    [end quote]

    The reason everyone is claiming to be sonar/goldsmith is her golden nose-ring. Presumably, it will allow them to get closer to her (for inspecting it, e.g.).

    The maramar/turmoil is about everyone claiming to call themselves a sonar/goldsmith, not because of a mochi/cobbler claiming to be a sonar/goldsmith. If it were to be the latter, this would be a movie about social reforms etc.

    The song doesn't have much literary value, so it doesn't deserve so much analysis.. but I think the "offensive" bit has been the use of the word "mochi" itself, and not what he is said to be doing in the song.

    Kind of like the "maramar" over the N-word in the US.

    In fact, it is a criminal offence (non-bailable too, IIRC) in India to call SCs by their caste names. Can't give you examples because I have no desire to be arrested.

    Madhukar said...


    thanks for the comment.

    I had read the lyrics, and the use of words in the song is obviously metaphorical.

    Heroine's "sone ki nathni"/ golden nose-ring is a folk-metaphor as well... In the folk-metaphors of northern India, Nathani has a specific sexual/power-based connotation. In fact, "Nathani Utarana" is a metaphor of "deflowering"/ sexual conquest...

    Within this literary/folk metaphor, the 'maramar' to "allow them to get closer to her (for inspecting it, e.g.)" is not about the innocent "inspecting it" - it is about access to power, masculinity and 'virility'... etc.

    However, as I had written in the post: "...Depending where one is sociologically located, the furore was natural or exaggerated...". What I meant by "sociologically located" was, how much one is rooted in, and cognizant of, the native cultural motifs and metaphors...

    Ajayprabhu said...

    Nice blog..Sir...

    kuffir said...

    more than half the dalits employed in the central government work as sweepers etc., what would you call that professor?

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