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Untouchable Freedom: A Social History of a Dalit Community. (Reviews).

Untouchable Freedom: A Social History of a Dalit Community. By Vijay Prashad (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000. xx plus 176 pp. Rs.535).

Untouchable Freedom purports to be the social history of the Chuhra Sweepers of Delhi from 1860 to 1960. In many ways an excellent book, I found it very enlightening. However, I also found two problems. Let me explain the first.

In the mid-1950's I did ethnographic fieldwork in a basti (colony) of 'untouchable' ( nowadays, Dalit) Chuhras in Khalapur village in Saharanpur District, Uttar Pradesh, India. All one hundred or so were lineally or affinally related to each other. Most of the adults had worked outside in various cities, mostly on sanitation crews of municipalities, railways or the military, or as cleaners in private homes and offices. Some had done other kinds of work--one oldster had once worked in coal mines; another, a handsome young man, had been a ticket-taker at the Race Course Cinema in Delhi. Most of the work-experiences the Chuhras told me about had taken place before 1947, before the British rulers had left. Indeed, they were generally of the opinion that urban sanitation jobs were more plentiful under the British than after. My unpublished data indicate that the older Chuhra men and women had all worked in several different cities. Out-migrating men often left their families in the village to clean cattle-yards a nd latrines for higher caste patrons (jiijmaris), and when the men came back to the village, they did sweeping work, and/or share-cropping, construction work, raised animals for owners on a half-and-half basis, cut harvest wheat, worked on sugar-making teams, raised and sold pigs, etc.

All this I relay to the reader to explain why I am unconvinced by Vijay Prashad's assessment in chapters one to three that the Delhi Municipal Corporation (DMC) had a stranglehold on the sweepers it employed. I do not dispute the fact (taken from archival records) that, as told in chapter one, the DMC in 1884 made the sweepers of Delhi their direct employees, rather than letting them continue as servants of individual households. The DMC did this because all the sweepers of a mohalla (section of town) so readily went on strike if one of the householders abused one of them. Under the DMC, the sweepers were not allowed to strike nor take private clients; they also were badly paid. Nor do I doubt Prashad's account in chapter 2 that beginning in 1912, because the British land law for the Punjab left artisans and menial castes landless, Chuhras began migrating to Delhi where they joined the municipal sanitation crews, so that by 1921, 82.5% of DMC sweepers were Chuhras. Nor can I question Prashad's account in Cha pter 3 that the colonial sections of Delhi had better water supply, drainage and sewage than the native sections. What I doubt is Prashad's statement that the Chuhras always migrated from villages with their families because local landlords would not allow only part of a family to serve them or to stay in the village (p.43); clearly that had not been the case in Khalapur, just across the river from the Punjab from where, Prashad says, the Delhi Chuhra sweepers came. The Khalapur data make me doubt the implication that DMC sweepers were all permanent residents of Delhi, or that they could not get other kinds of work than sanitation work.

Prashad says that because the Delhi British went to the summer capital, Shimla, that only 25% of the usual DMC crews were employed during the hot season (p.17). Does he mean that the other 75% remained unemployed for those months because they could not return to their villages and could not get other kinds of work? Are there DMC records on the length of employment of their Chuhra employees? Were there not temporary sanitation workers as well as permanent ones?

What I especially doubt is Prashad's crediting the DMC and thus presumably the British with making the Chuhras into sanitation workers (sweepers). He cites H.U. Weitbrecht's 1887 article in Indian Notes and Queries that said the Chuhras in the Punjab were agricultural laborers, not sweepers (p.25). This claim is belied by the 1881 Census of the Punjab wherein Ibbetson begins his account of the Chuhras, with "The Chuhra or Bhangi of Hindustan is the sweeper and scavenger par excellence of the Panjab... (Ibbetson 1883 [1916: 293]). And this is long before 1912 when the Chuhras began to migrate to Delhi to work for the DMC. (1)

Turning to chapters 4 through 6--these chapters focus more broadly on the Chuhras of the Delhi region and on Dalits generally, rather than on the DMC Chuhras alone. Chapter 4, the longest and strongest in the book, concerns the Hindu versus Muslim political struggle between 1909 and 1947 in anticipation of a post-British democracy, as this related to Chuhras, now increasingly called Balmikis. On one side were B.R. Ambedkar (the Dalit stateman), the Communists, and the Dalits' own Adi movement (claiming that the Dalits were the original pre-Aryan inhabitants of India), all contending that the Dalits were not Hindus. On the other side were the Arya Samaj, the Hindu Mahasabha and other militant Hindus who claimed that Dalits were Hindus. The Dalits were betrayed partly by some of their own leaders, who gave into Hindu militants' blandishments, but especially by the British who insisted on counting Dalits in their censuses as Hindus. They also ignored Dalit demand for a separate country, Achutistan, upon partiti on of India.

Chapter 5 concerns Gandhi's attempt to persuade India that sweeping was the highest profession, and his failure to see that the Harijans ("children of God"), as he called untouchables, needed emancipation, not just a better image. Chapter 6 concerns municipal sweepers after Independence in 1947 when they were allowed to voice their demands even less than before, culminating in the 1957 police firing on striking DMC Sweepers.

Now for my second problem with this book: in the Introduction, Prashad cites claims that the Congress-organized gangs that massacred at least 2500 Sikhs in Delhi after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was shot by her two Sikh bodyguards in October, 1984, were composed largely of Churha-Balmikis. I wonder how solid the evidence is for that accusation.

ENDNOTE

(1.) Ibbetson, Denzil 1916 Panjab Castes; Being a Reprint of the Chapter on "The Races, Castes and Tribes of the People" in the Report on the Census of the Panjab, published in 1883 by the late Sir Denzil Ibbetson, K.C.S.I. Lahore: Government Printing, Punjab
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Author:Kolenda, Pauline
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
Words:1094
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