The Suraj Yengde interview | 'With COVID-19 pandemic, it is high time we acknowledged Dalit labour'

The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined society's historical legacy of discrimination against the marginalised. G Agoramoorthy and MJ Hsu, in their research paper titled How the Coronavirus Lockdown Impacts the Impoverished in India, write: "Whether or not the lockdown has led to the control of the coronavirus pandemic, it apparently has no effect on the longstanding social epidemic of prejudice against the oppressed."

An assessment by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) observed that most Indian Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes households were deprived of the COVID-19 relief packages distributed by the government. The atrocities faced by the Dalits and other marginalised groups in the country are conveniently superimposed by the rhetoric surrounding the labour of the 'frontline warriors' (who mostly come from Dalit or 'lower' caste backgrounds) — mortuary workers, sanitation workers, sweepers, cremation-ground workers among others. During the pandemic, many of them are being officially engaged to particularly manage the mortal remains of COVID fatalities every day. That these people are made to — or rather expected to, by virtue of their birth in a particular caste — routinely expose themselves to the virus without any safety measures or compensations speaks volumes of how caste politics plays out in the country.

Dr Suraj Yengde, noted scholar and author of Caste Matters spoke to Firstpost over a Zoom call where he discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the chasms in our social structure and why it is high time we, as a nation, acknowledged and addressed the discrimination towards India's marginalised. Edited excerpts below:

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Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit India, there has been a plethora of reports, statistics and narratives around it. However, this data that we encounter every day is undeniably biased. While deaths, doctors, hospitals, vaccines etc comprise much of the COVID-19 rhetoric in the media — which is not a problem — one has little to no information of the pandemic's impact at the grassroots level, at the fringes of the society. Why do you think when we talk about 'frontline warriors' we only think of doctors, police, armed forces, volunteers etc? What about the sweepers, conservancy workers, crematorium workers, garbage collectors etc? Where do you think the discrepancy in the gaze with which we look at our frontline workers lies?

The viewpoints of the marginalised and the vulnerable don’t ever feature in the mainstream narrative. What I mean by that is, even to come to the Dalit issue or the Dalit cause, what has to come through is a Savarna. It is not through a Dalit experience. And I think this is very emblematic of how India treats its own maladies. It doesn’t really offer an overall picture of where we — all citizens — are going wrong and what we need to do.

Ever since the pandemic started, I’ve been thinking that in India we don’t have the data on how COVID-19 is affecting Dalits. In America, we have that for Black people; their data is aggregated and thus we can identify the most affected and can talk about their health and welfare. That’s how every country does [it]. You need demography. You need data points to break up. A bania (an Indian caste of merchants, money-lenders etc) who sits in his shop/establishment his whole life has different health as compared to a working-class Dalit who’s either in a factory or a farm. And, this is again speculation, nothing can be foregrounded, but COVID-19 certainly attacks the already existing bodily harms, whatever you have...

For me, a question to really think about is: Is it (COVID-19) impacting genetically derived diseases as opposed to something you developed in your lifetime? We have very few studies that go with caste-wise data break up, to really make sense of how such diseases take place. Especially in central India many Dalits – I think even Adivasi communities too – have a special disease which is called sickle cell anaemia. It attacks them and makes them vulnerable, and that is something they have got genetically.

Representational image. Photo via The Press Trust of India

India has always taken Dalits for granted. And because we are taken for granted the elites have always played with the emotions of the Dalits. In fact, the Dalits themselves didn’t go deep into addressing their own emotions. I think this is what it has come to in this crisis.

Is there a way we can talk about Dalit labour without really acknowledging that it is Dalit labour? Yes, India always does that.

Isn't it ironic that when you celebrate workers' rights etc, little attention is paid to understand who those workers are? They are not the Sharmas, the Bengali bhadraloks, or the Maharashtrian Brahmins, they are basically the Dalits. If you think about it, you will realise that any calamity or crisis anywhere produces the worst outcomes: it breaks public health infrastructure; cities and towns get flooded, among many other things. And, at the same time, that worst outcome has 'disgust' attached to it; it is something completely out of our view, or much worse — we don't want to talk about it. Because that is where real humanity comes to test. So, who does that bit? The Dalits.

Also, one very important thing to note here is that the disgust that is attached to this is not to the Dalits, but to their own relatives, near and dear ones. They are disgusted by the corpse. So they need someone to handle their "wastage".

How many crematorium workers belong to the Savarna Hindu castes? How many gravediggers in the qabristans belong to the Savarna Muslim caste?

These days the relatives of the deceased aren't going to the crematoriums for the final rites because there is the fear of infection. People may not like to hear this but it is true. So it has to do with this historic lineage of caste that we talk about. Unless and until we push that radically; push every conversation through that, people will not come to sense.

Is there a historical record or documentation that talks about the plight of the Dalit community during past pandemics? Have you come across anything like that?

Yes and no. We had the Bubonic plague, and it was a big thing then. It was one of the diseases that consumed Savitribai Phule. She was serving the Dalit children, and that's how she contracted it and died. So that’s a very alive memory in the minds of the Dalits, at least those that are conscious of their history and aware of their past. In addition to that, we don’t know much though.

Over the years, people have messed up a lot. In the older days, there was not much infrastructure and the value of human lives was not that much. We don't know the proportions of casualties owing to the diseases that have attacked our communities. That’s why I would like to reiterate that we need to find out what castes of people are dying in a crisis like COVID-19. Otherwise, how will we be able to make sense of it?

We are not recording the historical record of the pandemic now. I highly doubt if we would have done that 100 years ago as well. One thing however I would like to believe is that the British officials must have made some records. They were conscious about these things; they were data crunchers. Also at that time, the idea of the census wasn’t very mature; it was still in its nascent stage, and hadn’t even taken its full form.

Even if we look at the other kind of epidemics that we have seen in the past such as chikungunya or bird flu, it’s unfortunate we don’t record caste-wise data optics, to really make an appropriate public suggestion. For any state, this is what they need to effectively govern. That's how they can be well prepared, and unfortunately, India isn't. To my limited knowledge — and I cannot tell with much confidence and authority — I have not seen much caste-wise data break up. There’s no research! I know only one or two professors that work on caste and health. I do agree that if I don’t know the data, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. But I’m also the kind of person who keeps an eye out for these things, and I have not come across anything so far.

When we talk about the pandemic and its aftermath in the lives of people, especially death, it is the abstract — grief, loss, void, memories — that dominates the narrative. And mostly, these are upper-caste Savarna narratives. Of course, one can't undermine death and its impact on the lives of people. But what about the people who are dealing with death in its absolute physical form? What about the people working at the crematoriums or burial grounds; people segregating toxic waste (used masks, gloves, body wastes etc) at the hospitals and homes? Aren't most of these people from the Dalit community? Why does no one talk about how the Dalits cope with death during the pandemic?

This is something that invites a spiritual response. It has an eclectic variety — the question has that colour. Okay, let me put it for you first and then I will explain it. Dalits bring people into life, and they are the ones who bury them, on their last ride. In between, people mess up so many things and end up harbouring hatred towards those same people (the Dalits).

Most of the midwives and nannies are our (Dalit) women. My grandmother was a midwife. It is rather shocking that people do not have empathy for those that really, literally brought them into this world. Even today, public health hasn’t reached many rural areas in India; there are no primary health clinics for deliveries etc. So these are mostly Dalit women. And this mechanism has been in place for years, nobody seems to be doing anything about it.

Also, I feel the Savarnas see it as a threat to accept the Dalit contribution in their lives, because if they do then there will be nothing else to be proud of. Right now they are proud because they think they’re superior. But if one really assesses that idea of superiority, they won't be superior anymore. If they start acknowledging the Dalit importance in their life, and in the everyday circulation of society, they will lose. So they constantly keep on retelling myths against Dalits and teach the same to their children.

Still from a crematorium in India during COVID-19 pandemic. Photo via Facebook

Also read — Lockdown Caste Atrocities: Online campaign addresses violence against Dalits in the pandemic through art and dialogue

And when we talk about the Dalits handling corpses, I feel it has got to do more than just death and dead bodies. In the light of the pandemic, think about the wastage; the enormous amount of hubris we might have created. There is a kind of pompousness in the mechanism of waste creation, a sense of entitlement that makes one completely forgetful.

During COVID, my people are dealing with toxic waste every day, and are more controversially transmitting the virus than one could imagine. It is so because even though you have given them the jab — I don’t know how many of them have been vaccinated — even if you have provided them with protective gear, controversy remains that there are people of this caste for whom it is required to do this job. It has not equalised humanity.

We have seen so many videos and posts on social media where people are thanking the doctors and other frontline warriors, and without a doubt, they are doing a great job, but it is sad we hardly ever acknowledge — let alone thank — my people. They have been at it since day one after all.

So to come back to the point of handling death: The idea of waste which is impure, which doesn’t qualify dignity, is then supposed to be [in the custody] of the Dalit. And that’s where the hubris comes in — the arrogance after the death of your loved ones. So if you ask me, if someone in your family dies of COVID, you should do the whole facility by yourself [sic]. That’s the least you can do for your loved ones. And if someone else is doing it for you, don’t compensate for it by just giving some monetary gains. Can you be forever grateful for that person who really helped you give a dignified goodbye to your loved ones? Can we do that? I think that’s the question we all have to ask the country.

I have come across many tweets and comments on social media where people say: "Why do we need to look at the pandemic from a caste lens?" When our society's caste system has been so actively playing out across the board for all these years, why is it that during a calamity everyone wants to look at things through a homogenous lens? Is that even possible? 

See right now we are gathering data on the people who have died after coming to the hospital. Now you tell me, in India how many can afford a hospital? If one is ill, one simply takes aspirin and goes off to sleep; one can’t afford to go to a hospital. And hospitals in India have become like the US where one doesn't go to a hospital unless it's a near-death case, because it’s so expensive. And it is intended to do that because they don’t want the marginalised population like Adivasis and Dalits to access health care.

Now, there are many Dalits, I have a speculation, who are dying in their own houses, because we don’t know if there is enough testing. The pandemic is not a new thing, right? It’s been here for a while. You and I can work on screens so we are not really affected. But there are people who need to actually put their feet on the ground. How many of us did active testing for this population? Perhaps, the government must have done some programme. We don’t know. I don’t know.

"People are dying, why do you want to find their caste?” — when I hear this I want to know then who are the people whose death should be known? I understand that we are not living in a country like Norway, where everyone is blond and blue-eyed. In a country as complex as India, we cannot afford to find out such details. We are not trying to pinpoint which person is dying more and make it an issue of caste and community. When you make it about caste and community, you try to make different judgements about it. But at least we need to know what’s happening. Once we know the data, then we can pass judgements on what’s happening to a particular caste or community. For example, in the US, Black males were the most affected group during the pandemic. As soon as the data was released, the US government immediately took appropriate measures.

In India, let’s assume the most impacted groups are the Adivasis or the Dalits. But they end up vaccinating people who primarily belong to the upper castes, under the guise of "we are vaccinating India". And yet, the transmission is happening at a massive level every day. So what they’re effectively doing is — vaccinating people who are relatively safe; who have relative access to resources; who can perform relatively well under these circumstances. It will be a fool’s paradise if this is happening. And I have a suspicion that this is indeed happening. Many people believe that not many Dalits are suffering. Could be. There are two sides to it. But the whole idea is to adequately have a redistributed justice; redistribution of proper resources.

Historical junctures invite us to think that there might be a possibility of a disparity of caste and class playing a role in this. And COVID exposes the people who have not had an adequate precautionary measure, who cannot self-isolate for 14 days. These are the people who really need to work in an intimate setting, they can’t have their own room and workplace. They really need to put themselves out. These are the people without whom, na tumhare factory me oxygen banega, na tumhare masks banenge, na tumhara cleanliness ka mamla solve hoga (your oxygen won’t be manufactured in factories, neither would your masks, nor would your issues with cleanliness get resolved).

If Dalits remove themselves from this equation, we will be looking at an extended pandemic — people call it a long pandemic, I call it an extended pandemic. The world might assail; we might overcome this thing. But if we don’t honour, encourage and recognise Dalit labour, we will not create a sustainable model, it will again be a broken system.

So, when people say that pandemic is not the time to talk about atrocities against Dalits, what is the time to bring this up, to talk about this?

There will never be a time. That’s my plea. If this is not the time that will invite your humanity to be vulnerable and willing to listen and self-reflect, then at what time will you think about this? In celebration? While celebrating, "oh everything is going fine why are you bringing caste?" These are the same people who say: "You guys are not meritorious, then why do you take reservations." See we know the drill; you and I know the drill. We know how this thing plays out. And it is the responsibility of people like me to bring the world to its senses. See I’ve been holding on, to be honest. I wanted to bring this [up] quite early on. I was seeing but I was also depressed and I didn’t want to bring up a conversation that would filter a divide, so to say. I wanted to give a narrative to it.

The point is this part of history will be gone. The only celebrated people will be those of the Savarna caste; the doctors; the ministers; the Poonawalas and everybody else. The Dalit labour will get a small plaque somewhere at the corner of the hospital. I want them to be at the front; before the Prime Minister, before the doctors, before anybody else. That’s how you address justice. That’s how you correct the past.

This is a process of our reconciliation. If you want to bring up a united nation, we need to create adequate policies, or take necessary actions that will make us united. What will make us united is acknowledging the humanity and dignity of others. By bringing this out, we don’t want anything extra, just an acknowledgement of our humanity.

And of course, we need to compensate for all the labour etc — that’s the least important thing right now in the purview. And when we do that, then you think to yourself: "These people really did all that. I was not there on the field, they were. This is the kind of dangerous job I would’ve never done. Thank you”. That’s how, my friend, you reconcile and bridge a nation. And once you are bridging this nation together, you can build on it.

You cannot build on something that is taken for granted. That is why I keep talking about the idea of taking for granted. Let’s not do that. We’ve been telling that all along; when the tsunami happened, the pandemic struck – the Dalits were there. The Dalits were discriminated against even in the redistribution programme. The reason we are concerned about Dalits right now is because we have a history, especially during a calamity... In Odisha, the Dalits were not even allowed inside an evacuation shelter during Cyclone Fani. The whole village had been wiped out. Dalit families were excluded. Women and kids were outside begging to be taken into the shelter that a calamity had created. Nature equalled them, but the casteist mind didn’t. And that’s why it’s concerning. Not only me, but it should concern everybody. The same thing happened when the government was sending food packets, Dalits were asked to sit aside. A cyclone has hit at a speed you can’t imagine, and amidst all that, you are thinking what caste people belong to? How do we train these dirty minds? By pushing out more such narratives. If they don’t acknowledge, it doesn’t matter. We will have to keep speaking. We don’t need everyone to accept. We want the select few, who are influential, to recognise. Then the message will percolate. I think the media does a good job of doing that, or at least let’s hope they do that.

Representational image. Photo via The Press Trust of India.

Do you think Dalits themselves acknowledge the kind of effort they’re putting in or have put in over the years? Or have they been conditioned to accept it as their way of life, as their fate?

They definitely know. Jo mehnat karta hai na, unko pataa hai woh kya kar rahe hai (Those that work know what they are doing). But the point is we don’t go and ask them this question, do we? I can’t speak for the people working on the ground, because I’m not in touch with them. But there is a sense of acknowledgement they want. Acknowledgement has many forms, not just compensation, but recognition and honour. That never happens, does it? That’s why there is a rebelliousness in Dalit blood. Because they never acknowledge themselves. That’s why a Dalit labour who is providing service might be like "haan yaar naukri mil gayi (I have a job now)", might as well do it. But it’s not just that; they also take some responsibility, that "I am doing something for someone else". I mean, who picks up all that rubbish, corpses and waste? It’s a risky job. If you have a family, kids, you don’t just do that for the sake of money. They know they are doing something more. That’s why I say Dalit labour is unacknowledged.

Just because we don’t say it, doesn’t mean we don’t know it. We have been creating this democratic space for us to exchange each other’s humanity, but it was never reciprocated. For that, we need to go spend some time with the safaiwala. or the ward boy, as they call them — the derogatory word. And you will notice there is a sense of nationalism within them. Not this right-wing nationalism, but in a sense of service to the larger humanity. True nationalism. Not the fake one, the façade put up by the capitalists, the bourgeoisie. Elites always make the nation.

Amidst all this darkness do you see a silver lining? Are you hopeful? Do you think the COVID-19 pandemic will be the chapter that opens up this discussion for the future?

I think, no. But we will have to do it. So that’s the hopeful part. The first response is pessimistic. How many people have raised the issue of caste and Dalits in this pandemic? Of course, we are talking about levelling of this disease, but they’re the same Gupta uncle and Sharma aunty. And I am not demeaning a death here, one needs to be respectful about that. But my point is, we will still celebrate the warriors of Sharmas and Bannerjees. When will we bring this to the ground to my people? For us to really do this, people like you and me have to push, for a cordial way of letting people know.

Media in the US does that; they tell people so wonderfully that people think, "yeah, this is right". Who says that in India? Even when they write about the safai karmacharis, they do it at their own convenience. Exorbitant convenience. So yes, it is a leveller, but it hasn’t trickled down to levelling us also. There is no Dalit in that view. Muslim-Hindu is the prevalent debate we look at.

Now we should be critical and radical in pushing this. So, no. It is not necessarily an equaliser. It should be. Death is an ultimate virtue. The entire Hindu tradition always talks and teaches about death but it never comes to the idea of how death is to be lived. Dalits live death every day. For us to philosophise this experience, we have to put out a narrative, thanking Dalit labour. Just saying, a thank you.

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Transcription courtesy Tanav Karthikeya


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