By Kancha Ilaiah
Oct 21, 2014
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is surely going to have impact on our environment, health and education as well.
India does not have a culture of cleanliness because it suffered from the notion of indignity of labour for millennia. Those who worked and produced goods and commodities, those who cleaned and created an environment of healthy living were treated as unclean and untouchables. Those who did not produce, those who did not clean their living environment were treated as clean and sacred people.
The clean and unclean categories were constructed in the spiritual realm and later legitimised as sociological categories. The Indian Brahminic sociology created “purity'” and “pollution” as socially valid categories and Indian sociologists started using concepts like “clean” and “unclean” castes. What they essentially meant was that castes that do not clean their own living environment were “clean” castes or communities, and those castes which cleaned their own living environment and that of others were “unclean” castes. This sociological language was derogatory and dehumanising.
During the 2014 election debate, when Priyanka Gandhi used the term “Neech (Rajneeti)”, Narendra Modi understood it to mean “Neech Jati” and he was of the view that caste-based derogation was part of the Indian discourse. That debate is history now. The point, however, is that in Indian sociological language, those who produce goods and commodities or those who work to keep the living environment clean have come to be known as “neech” people.
Having experienced this social stigma himself, Mr Modi launched an initiative where everybody should participate in keeping their living environments clean. This certainly brings the issue of dignity of labour back into our lives.
His recent “Shramev Jayate” slogan, which is like the traditional saying of “Satyamev Jayate”, will also go a long way in this process. But industrialists should not use this slogan to justify their unfair hire-and-fire policy. However, the slogan in itself is good. The notion of satya (truth) is subjective. But the function of Shram is objective and verifiable. That is why teaching “Shram Gaurav” (dignity of labour) in our schools is most important to inculcate respect for Shram (labour) among our future generations.
Earlier Indian Prime Ministers were keen to Sankritise (in essence, Brahminise) the state apparatus by using all Hindu mythological concepts. One should be happy that Mr Modi seems to have started changing that process. He is in a way trying to “Shudra-ise” or “Dalit-ise” the state apparatus, beginning with Delhi. One has to wait and see how far he will succeed.
This certainly poses a challenge to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Hindu spiritual system with which his party is deeply connected. The Hindu caste culture constructed a deep disrespect for labour and constructed enormous respect for leisure. Hence, the higher layers of the society live “leisure as life” while the lower sections live “labour as life”.
Unless we change the core value of this caste-centred living process, Swachh Bharat will be a distant reality.
No Congress Prime Minister has dared to venture into this area because the same BJP, RSS would have accused them of tampering with the traditions of Hindu culture. Let us not forget that Mahatma Gandhi himself was not their icon, leave alone his respect for “Shram Sanskriti”.
Yet, today, many Congress leaders sport a visible saffron thread on their wrists. While Mr Modi, quite curiously, sports only a small black thread. The younger Congressmen’s display of religion is vulgar. Why have they given up the bold and truly secular lifestyle of Nehru who never used to go to any temple and was, after Gandhi, the most respected man?
In any case, now Mr Modi seems to be owning Gandhi and we have to wait and see how the RSS treats Gandhi in future.
The problem with the secularists and communists was that they could not shake anybody’s tradition, right or wrong. They did not touch social reform area at all. They were always busy with economic growth and distribution. They never understood that poverty is also a cultural issue.
Till this deeply-entrenched cultural malady is not addressed seriously, the stature of the nation will not grow. If we want to see India develop, mere economic agendas are not enough. People must work for social reform, attitudinal change and Indian men particularly need to change their approach to cleanliness, public space and labour.
If Mr Modi is able to inspire the nation and solve the problem of “unclean” India, he’ll truly bring in a cultural revolution.
Kancha Ilaiah is director, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad