Hindus believe a dip in the waters where the Ganges, Yamuna, and mythical Saraswati rivers meet during India’s Kumbh Mela Hindu religious festival cleanses them of their past sins, giving them a clean slate and helping them attain salvation.
When a group of about 100 women from lowest rank of society, dalits – formerly known as “untouchables” or “manual scavengers” – took a bath at the sacred site, of itself an extremely rare if not unheard of event for members of their community, they came out of the water proclaiming that their low status as “untouchable” had been dissolved.
Dalits are known as one of the most discriminated against people in India, generally prohibited from even touching members of higher castes. They are not generally allowed to perform most Hindu rituals, including the Kumbh dip.
Yet, when the group emerged from their holy bath at the festival earlier this month, Hindu priests who belong to the highest Hindu caste, welcomed them to mainstream society by blowing conchs, chanting hymns, smearing holy ash on their forehead, and declaring that the women were no longer “untouchables.” It’s the biggest sign yet of changing attitudes about India’s outdated caste system, say experts.
“This Kumbh ceremony should be viewed as a bold and successful step toward the egalitarian inclusion of the downtrodden in the religio-social world of the Hindus,” says retired sociology professor Hetukar Jha pointing out the historical importance of the high caste Brahmins supporting the women.
Swami Anand Giri, one of the 150 religious leaders present at the ceremony said that the “Liberation of the Untouchables,” marked a landmark day in Hindu history.
“Following the liberal tradition of Hinduism we welcome these sisters to our mainstream Hindu society today,” says Mr. Giri, who shared meals with the “just-liberated” women.
The Kumbh ceremony has had an overwhelming affect on the women from the scavenger community who, shunned by the high caste Hindus, are still marginalized.
“Although 300 of us in (Rajsasthan’s) Alwar district left scavenging 10 years ago, most high caste Hindus around us view us as untouchables. They usually avoid all social interactions with us,” says former scavenger Laxmi Nanda who took the Kumbh cleansing dip.
“So, apart from announcing that we were no more untouchables, when the high caste Hindu leaders shared meals with us at the ceremony, to me it was an incredible experience,” says Ms. Nanda. “I felt I was re-born that day.”
The banned caste system
The caste system is the ancient Hindu system of social hierarchy defining a person's value and code of conduct based on social status inherited at birth.
Originally divided into four separate categories, with priests at the top and servants at the very bottom, the system has morphed throughout the past 2,000 years to include numerous sub-castes, each with its own traditions and levels of worth. While dalits are considered the lowest of the low, manual scavengers are considered the lowest subcategory among all dalits.
The Indian Constitution aimed to eliminate the caste system decades ago, starting out by banning the lowest rung of the system. However, particularly in villages, caste hierarchy continues to pervade daily life.
One way it is still seen is in the job of “manual scavenger,” which is a euphemism for those who, using a wire brush and iron pan, clean up and cart away human waste from non-flushing toilets.
Manual scavenging was specifically banned in 1993 in an effort to end what was seen as the inhumane forced labor of those who performed the hazardous and extremely low paid caste-based job. Yet, because of poor implementation of the law, tens of thousands of bucket toilets are in use across the country. So thousands of manual scavengers are still trapped in the work.
Better toilets, better life
The Kumbh cleansing ceremony for the former manual scavengers was organized by Sulabh International, an Indian social organization that – among other things – fights for elimination of manual scavenging in India. The organization developed an eco-friendly inexpensive toilet system that converts waste into dry fertilizers and bio-fuels, and is known as the "Sulabh toilet," named for the group.
In the past four decades Sulabh International has converted 1.3 million bucket toilets across the country and has helped rehabilitate 1 million manual scavengers into other jobs, said social activist and the organization’s founder Bindeshwar Pathak.
“By training and rehabilitating the former manual scavengers into other well-earning jobs we had helped upgrade their economic standard. Yet, the Hindu rituals remained taboo for them – they were not being accepted socially,” says Mr. Pathak.
“So, in an attempt to bridge the divide, some years ago we planned to take them to the Hindu temples where they had never been allowed before.”
Despite high caste resistance, the organization managed to take some former scavengers to a few temples for prayer in recent years.
“Then the Kumbh dip came on line. The ceremony there became incredibly successful with the unusually enthusiastic participation of high caste Hindu leaders,” says Pathak. "The Kumbh ceremony shows that the level of social acceptance of the community is rising.”
However, not everyone believes that rituals like the Kumbh dip can help upgrade the social status of the former manual scavengers in their day-to-day lives.
Social activist S. R. Darapuri called the Kumbh dip a “meaningless ritual."
“The high caste-dominated aggressively caste-ist society would continue to view them as untouchables even after those Kumbh rituals. The mindset of the mainstream society would not change in favor of the former scavengers that soon,” Mr. Darapuri says. “So, this Kumbh dip was nothing but a gimmick by the organizers.”
Activist and writer Madhu Kishwar agrees that it will take much more than the Kumbh dip to change perceptions across the country of 1.2 billion people, but applauded the organization’s efforts to remove manual scavenging.
“The stigma attached to manual scavenging vanishes fast when society creates proper sanitation systems and provides dignified working conditions along with good remuneration. There is no stigma attached to being a vacuum cleaner at a swanky airport,” says Ms. Kishwar, a fellow at New Delhi’s Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
“Lifting human excreta from filthy latrines would invite stigma and low status anywhere in the world – not just in India.”