#Inda- Burying democracy in human waste


January 8, 2013

Prabha Sridevan, The Hindu

Every day that the practice of manual scavenging continues is another day that negates the right to a life of dignity for those still forced to engage in this demeaning work

The Supreme Court had recently admonished a District Magistrate for filing a “wrong” affidavit stating that there was no manual scavenging in his district. Just a day earlier, Union Minister of Rural Development Jairam Ramesh had publicly apologised for the continuance of the practice of manual scavenging. And I thought of a documentary on manual scavenging that has haunted me ever since I saw it.

It is really what is described as an “in your face” documentary. A scene is of a small girl in a blue frock, and with liquid eyes — what in Tamil we would call “Neerottam.” She answers the questions about her experience in school (what I give below is not a verbatim reproduction of the script, but an imperfect one).

“Did you like school?”

“Yes.” (A shy smile)

“What happened?”

“I stopped.”

“Why?”

“I used to sit in the front row. Then my classmates did not want me to sit next to them. So the teacher asked me to move to the last row. I went for some days. Then I stopped.”

This did not happen decades ago, but in this day and age. It must have been a government school. Where else will a poor Bhangi’s child go? Article 17 of the Constitution states: “Untouchability is abolished.” If a government schoolteacher can ask a child to go to the back row because her classmates do not want any contact with her, when was it abolished?

Let us all feel on our skin the sandpaper-rub of exclusion. We are not done with that little girl yet. The camera stays on her face, while she looks back at us. Slowly those deep eyes, which have known a pain that no eight-year-old should, well up with tears and she whispers:

“I wanted to become a nurse or a teacher.”

Fraternity, we promised ourselves; fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation. What does fraternity mean? Dr. Ambedkar said, when the Constitution was in the making, that: “Fraternity means a sense of common brotherhood of all Indians — of Indians being one people. It is the principle which gives unity and solidarity to social life. It is a difficult thing to achieve. Castes are anti-national, in the first place, because, they bring about separation in social life. They are anti-national also because they generate jealousy and antipathy between caste and caste. But we must overcome all these difficulties if we wish to become a nation in reality. For fraternity can be a fact only when there is a nation. Without fraternity, equality and liberty will be no deeper than coats of paint.” The truth must be told, we have not overcome. Why else did the teacher ask that child to sit away from her classmates?

How do we apologise to her for the insult to her dignity, the vandalism of her dreams, and the destruction of her desire? How do we make amends? Can we, in one lifetime, do it? This was a denial of fraternity, a violation of the basic principle of democracy. We, the units of humanity, are interconnected and respect for each other is a sine qua non of all human interactions. There can be no dilution or compromise on this. It is not dependent on who the one is or who the other. This interconnectedness is fraternity — the spirit that assures and affirms human dignity. That is why it is imperative that fraternity informs all State actions and all social transactions. The dynamics between equality and fraternity work like this: in the absence of substantive equality, there will always be groups whose dignity is not acknowledged resulting in a negation of fraternity. Of the five senses, touch is the least understood. But it is the only sense that establishes fraternity that also establishes kinship. A bridge is built when you touch another in kinship in a way that it is not when you look at, talk to or listen to the other. And “a continent of persons” within India has been denied that “touch,” that kinship. It is because we have not understood the principle of fraternity, that there is no “they” and “us,” there is only “us.”

2010 deadline

That young girl of the broken dreams was born to parents who are manual scavengers. This is a group to which the right to fraternity is consistently and brazenly denied, and the most marginalised of marginalised groups. It is acknowledged in public meetings that manual scavenging is a human rights issue and not about sanitation. We read in the newspapers that this practice would soon be banned and that we would become Nirmal Bharat. But it continues. Even if the winds of change are blowing, for the condemned ones even yesterday is not soon enough, any of the yesterdays. There have been many deadlines for eradicating this practice, one such final deadline was March 31, 2010. Deadlines have come and gone. But manual scavengers continue their work, anaesthetising themselves with drinks and drugs from these assaults on their dignity. Their lives are a daily negation of the right to a life with dignity though they have court orders affirming that right.

When a teacher asks a child — like the one whom we met earlier — what her father does for a living, what would she say? “My father carries all your filth on his head?” She probably remains silent. If she speaks those words, her classmates would not see it just as another job. No, it is a job that has to be done by the “other,” so “our” houses “within” will remain clean, and “the other” after cleaning the house will go outside the margin and remain “unclean.” She would be asked to sit away from the rest. So, she is silent.

‘What do you know?’

I once heard at the National Judicial Academy, an excruciatingly painful experience shared by Bezwada Wilson, who campaigns against manual scavenging. He had seen some persons who were manual scavengers, digging in a pile of excreta.

He asked, “What are you doing?”

“The pail has got buried in the filth; we are trying to retrieve it.”

“So you will dig there with your hands?”

“If we do not get it back, we cannot do our job tomorrow, and we will not get paid. What do you know?”

He said, “I walked and walked for a long time out in the fields and I stood there and cried to the moon, I cried to the wind, I cried to the water, I cried and I asked why?”

In his book “The Strange Alchemy of Law and Life,” Justice Albie Sachs of South Africa writes, “There are some things human beings cannot do to other human beings.” He said it in the context of torture; it is just the same in the context of this abomination. The Supreme Court in State of M.P. vs. Ram Krishna Balothia (1995 SCC (3) 221) rejected the attack on the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989, saying that a special legislation to check and deter crimes against them committed by non-Scheduled Castes and non-Scheduled Tribes is necessary, in view of the continued violation of their rights. S.3(1)(ii) of this Act says: “Whoever, not being a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe —

i. ………

ii. acts with intent to cause injury, insult or annoyance to any member of a Scheduled Caste, or a Scheduled Tribe by dumping excreta … in his premises or neighbourhood,” is punishable.

But the work of manually lifting and the removal of human excreta is inextricably linked with caste and is another form of “dumping.”

Mr. Wilson writes in his Foreword to Gita Ramaswamy’s book “India Stinking …” (2005) that, “(A)n estimated 13,00,000 people from dalit communities continue to be employed as manual scavengers across the length and breadth of this country — in private homes, in community dry latrines managed by the municipality, in the public sector such as railways and by the army.” This is why the heart of a little girl who wanted to become a nurse was broken and she dropped out of school. There are some things one human being does not do to another human being.

(Prabha Sridevan, a former Judge of the Madras High Court, is Chairperson, Intellectual Property Appellate Board.)

The third gender’s right to dignity


PRABHA SRIDEVAN, The Hindu

They came beautifully dressed, some a tad brightly, but all beautifully and proudly, there was much chatter, and a lot of sisterhood. It was the public hearing of transgenders at Delhi. An excluded group must definitely feel cheered in a gathering, where the members of that group form the majority. True, the transgender experience is full of pain. It is a story of gross human rights violation, but today they had a voice, they had visibility.

The Pakistan Supreme Court recently ruled that those who do not consider themselves to be either male or female should be allowed to choose an alternative sex in their national identity cards. I thought of the times when I fill up forms, mindlessly marking (F), and what it must be like to have the pen faltering then, not knowing if I should mark the one or the other. I thought of the times when I enter the public restrooms for women, and if at all something hits me it is the sensory assault of those pit-places, and what it must be like to feel a sense of achievement that finally I gained my right to enter the restroom of my choice. A body which is built in one way, houses a mind which is crying to be something else. It is difficult to walk in those shoes, but that does not mean those shoes are not there.

Heart-rending

The stories are heart-rending. Every citizen has a right to life, the right to self-expression, under the Constitution. The right of gender expression is inherent in it, as much as the right of expression of sexuality. This is a facet of the right to life. The space of the third gender is not a space that is easy to inhabit for the ones who are there, and not easy to imagine for the ones who are not there.

Parents and siblings do not understand why this child cannot be like the others. Nor does the child know why, when he looks like his brothers, he wants to be like his sisters or the other way round. Acceptance is denied and the child faces exclusion even at home. In Sunil Babu Pant vs Nepal Govt and others , the Supreme Court of Nepal used the Yogyakarta Principles and held that sexual orientation is not “mental perversion” or “emotional and psychological disorder” and that the people of different gender identities are entitled to enjoy their rights without discrimination.

The discrimination against the third gender is embedded in our consciousness and is aggravated by ignorance and insensitivity. Even well-meaning persons are uncomfortable if they face someone who does not fit in the Procrustean beds of “the normal”. One might well ask, why a person who has a man’s body, can’t mark (M) in application forms, or queue up in the men’s restroom and be done with it. I will give you two answers. The first comes from a member of the community, “In public places, we are treated differently. If I am out and visit the women’s washroom they won’t like it and if I go to men’s washroom … you know it would be a different story. Where should I go?” The next answer is from Justice Albie Sachs‘s The Strange Alchemy of Law and Life : “There was an abysmal decision by our top court, the appeal Court, in the 1930s, when people of Indian origin objected to being excluded from post office counters where white people would queue. Three out of four judges could not see the problem; the applicants could be served just as well in the one queue as in the other. Only one judge, Gardiner said, ‘It touches on the dignity of people to be excluded, it’s not simply a question of functionality’.” The brown man will get the same postcards in the other counter. So why complain? No, it is about dignity, real dignity to all barring none. Justice Sachs speaks of the equality of the vineyard (grading up) or the equality of the graveyard (levelling down). The choice is entirely our people’s and of their representatives.

‘Invisible’

That day at the public hearing for “Access to Justice and Social Inclusion” Aradhana Johri (Additional Secretary, National AIDS Control Organization) narrated an incident at a parliamentary consultation. She said: “Avina [a transgender] got up to speak and asked the audience, “Do you see me?” and when they said yes, she said that though you ‘see’ me you don’t ‘see’ me. I am invisible, I am nowhere, we are the third gender.” Our country must be having the highest percentage of “invisible” people, people who do not matter, the disabled, the third gender, the old, the oppressed, the pavement dwellers, the list goes on. Perhaps that is why the forgotten ones vote in large numbers while for the others, it is a matter of option. For the invisible groups, it is important that they vote, because an election is the only time they count. That is why this community fought for the right to indicate their gender as “O” for ‘others’ in the electoral rolls, and got it in 2009.

Recently, the fight for equality of transgenders scored a remarkable victory. The Argentine Senate unanimously passed the Gender Identity Act, which has been described as the most progressive and liberal in the world. It recognises that a person’s subjectively felt and self-defined gender may or may not correspond with the gender assigned at birth. This is the right that the participants at the public hearing claimed, which is acknowledgment of their “human-ness”. If their gender identity is not accepted then even if they are elected, their election may be nullified. This has happened in our country.

The State of Tamil Nadu has a fair record of recognising the rights of the transgender community. But let us remember that this is not state largesse, this is the state performing its duty under the Constitution. One participant said in poignantly poetic words that we have day and night and the beauty of dusk and dawn too, the in-betweens, and asked why their worth cannot be recognised. Transgender persons walking alone are subjected to harassment, and so, in defence, they adopt a loud and aggressive behaviour. There are highly qualified, educated and articulate persons who cannot secure employment because of the difference. They pleaded, “Please do not drive us to sex-work. If we have no other option, what do we do?” They argue that if there can be reservation for the differently-abled, there must be for the differently-gendered too. One speaker said, “I too want to nurture my child.” There are no answers in a climate of non-acceptance.

The experience of the transgender community with the police is dignity-destroying. The case ofJayalakshmi v State of Tamil Nadu is an example. A young transgender named Pandian was interrogated by the police regarding a theft case. He was so abused and sexually harassed by the police personnel that he poured kerosene and set fire to himself. The Madras High Court ordered compensation. If the face of law which should protect the citizen turns brutal, to whom will the weak and vulnerable turn? Hear this voice from the community, “When [the police] saw my body they said that there is no hair on your body anywhere so you get yourself waxed or what do you do. First they began asking nicely then they told me that night time is the time for the police. After that I never went to the police.” How far can one go in reducing the dignity of another?

The young transgender drops out of school because of exclusion and one participant argued, “Provisions should be made that in whatever attire a child comes to school the right to education cannot be denied.” A safe childhood and access to education is their right. When state and society have no space for the different ones, they are doomed to be excluded. So wherever there is a form to be filled or there is a definition of “person” as male or female, this group goes invisible. The community wanted to know how the domestic violence against them can be addressed if the law recognises protection of women alone. They wanted an Indian protocol put in place for the sex change process.

All they want is to be recognised as persons and treated with dignity. I will end with their own words: “Today … we want to earn a decent livelihood, live with dignity.” In short, they assert their right under Article 21 of the Constitution.

(The writer is a former judge of the Madras High Court and Chairman of the Intellectual Property Appellate Board)

 

By recognising the rights of the transgender community, the state is not doling out largesse; it is only performing its duty under the Constitution

 

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