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Bezwada Wilson, Amitabh Bacchan and collapse of a Gandhian legacy

Annup Sonii, Bezwada Wilson, Amitabh Bacchan
By Rajiv Shah/ Yesterday, Bezwada Wilson, a well-known Dalit rights activist who has for long been campaigning for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers, was on superstar Amitabh Bacchan’s “popular” Kaun Banega Crorepati show on Sony TV. I was a little surprised, but thought it was indeed a good opportunity for him to put across the plight of the most disadvantaged section of Dalits, Valmikis, before an audience which largely happens to be from dominant castes.
I decided to watch the show and listen to what all Wilson had to say. I also thought it was good of Bacchan to give Wilson, who heads the Safai Karmachari Andolan and is a Magsaysay awardee, an opportunity to tell Crorepati audience on issues that bog this most oppressed community. The level of ignorance that exists on the law banning manual scavenging in any form was revealed, during the show, by none other than the man who accompanied Wilson, top TV actor Annup Sonii.
After Wilson gave details of legal issues related to manual scavenging, Sonii was frank enough to admit during the show (in which both together played the “crorepati game” and won Rs 25 lakh) that till this day he didn’t know that it was illegal for anyone to go in and manually clean up gutters. Sonii promised to do all he could to help Wilson in every possible way.
As for Bacchan, who appeared to be properly briefed about manual scavenging issues, he praised Wilson for doing “great work” for building a new India, though at one point he did reveal a common perception asked by many from the dominant caste people. Bacchan said, he was witness to a machine made by an Andhra Pradesh company, which cleaned up gutters. Following his request, the company sent across three such of these, which he delivered for cleaning up gutters.
“Several months later, I inquired how those machines were and whether they were useful. To my utter surprise, no one used them. These were disposed of”, Bacchan told Wilson, wondering why does this happen, and why those cleaning up gutters were refusing to use the machines even though they were offered so that they could be free of the “dirty job.” While Wilson brushed it aside as “just one instance”, I thought, Valmikis who are given such machines wouldn’t be trained to use them.
Be that as it may, Bacchan did a good job for Wilson in putting across to the audience how the manual scavenging job, though banned, has been socially considered a work exclusively of the Valmiki sub-caste of Dalilts. The Crorepati even showed footage of Valmikis cleaning up gutters, with Bacchan telling viewers, “You can switch over some other TV show if you don’t like this, but one must confront this reality.”
I don’t know whether the Crorepati show was able to impress the viewers and how much, and whether some viewers “switched over” to some other show instead of listening to what Wilson had to say, yet, what I know is, the awareness with regard Valmikis’ plight and untouchability is extremely poor, at least among what are identified as upper castes.
Apparently, this stands in sharp contrast to the days of the freedom movement, when Gandhiji took up the Valmikis’ cause, going so far to call Mathe Melu (the Gujarati word for manual scavenging) as “national shame.” I recall, my mother, as part of Gandhiji’s anti-untouchability movement, would go among what were then called Harijan bastis, and have meal with them.
When her parents, my grandparents, came to know of it, she would tell me, she was asked to repent and observe some religious rite, which my mother refused. She was shown the door, which she immediately accepted, deciding to start living with her maternal uncle (mama), who was known to be close to Gandhiji. Apparently, this Gandhian legacy – of fighting untouochablity, and manual scavenging as part of it – appears to have disappeared today.

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