The Brahmin who fought to be a scavenger

A little after Gandhi’s much-maligned ‘epic fast’ in 1932, he had gone on another little fast in the same year. The story behind that fast is interesting. It was in solidarity with the semi-fast by one of his colleagues, Appasaheb Patwardhan, who was insisting on his right to do scavenging work at the prison (semi-fast, since, he didn’t want to weaken his body, and therefore, dodge other work). He was barred from taking up scavenging work, because he was a Brahmin and scavenging was alloted only to Dalits, even those who were not scavengers outside.

Suresh Venkatadri has written in detail about how much he was moved by the story of Appasaheb Patwardhan’s fast, which I narrated during my speech at an event organized by Aruvi yesterday.

I first heard about Appasaheb, in one of the speeches of Narayan Desai. But there is little about him on the internet. The whole sequence of events had been compiled earlier by Raattai Ragunathan R. I think Appa’s letter to Gandhi is a masterpiece, and brilliantly anticipates every objection to his claim, and interestingly, is in line with Gandhi’s own arguments with the Jail authorities (though Gandhi and Appasaheb had not corresponded on this before).

Appa Patwardhan

Gandhi’s approach to sanitation is criticized by some as glorifying a menial task, thereby becoming a tool to keep them under the yoke.

Bringing pride and dignity to a work despised by the general public is extremely critical till other work is found for those workers, working conditions are improved for them, and alternatives are found for that work. Gandhi attempted to do all of these. It is not easy to dismiss his approach as merely condescending.

By taking up to scavenging himself, and inspiring other upper caste colleagues like Vinoba and Appa Patwardan to take up scavenging, he brought dignity to the work. (That is my reading – I can’t say that was his stated intention.) He said the job of a scavenger and a lawyer are equal. He said he wanted to be reborn as a Bhangi.

Going further, he and his associates, continuously, explored and experimented with alternatives. He offered spinning as a revenue stream for people of all creed.

Wardha toilets are an important innovation.
Appasaheb is said to have later installed the first biogas plant based latrine in India. Inspired by him, a Doctor in Dehu village near Pune, Dr.S.V.Mapuskar “built several toilets in Dehu and eventually spread the idea to other states, too. These were no ordinary toilets, but came with a biogas tank. The gases generated from this plant were used to cook and provide gardening water. Even today, several houses in Dehu village are verdant with the plants that grew from this amenity.

Such was Mapuskar’s stature among villagers, that when he was once – and only once – transferred out from the Dehu PHC, the locals actually took out a morcha to the district collector’s office and forced a stay on the shift of their beloved doctor.” (…/articleshow/56785976.cms)

Dr. Mapuskar was awarded the Padmashri award last year. His organization is named after Appasaheb.


Excerpts from the letter of Appasaheb Patwardhan to Gandhi:

Outside I am free to do without the services of  a professional scavenger, or even if I employ one, I need not look down upon his work. But here conservancy work is regarded as degrading, it is forced upon the unwilling Harijan and I am forced to take his services.
I contend therefore that the usage inside jails is not simply a copy of the outside usage but a distorted copy. Or what is usage outside becomes hardened law inside.
I am aware that the responsibility for this injustice belongs primarily to the outside (mainly Hindu)  society and only secondarily to the jail administration, who consulted expediency rather than justice in copying, with adaptations, outside usage. The jail rules owe their origin to the attitude of outside highcaste public, highcaste jail authorities and also of high caste prisoners. It is upto all these to undo the injustice of their own doing.
But jail administration ought not to stand in the way of reformers.
So long at least as volunteers are available to do conservancy work and it can be assigned to them without detriment to normal or efficient working, the work should not be forced upon unwilling prisoners, especially of ‘low castes’.
If this were granted I felt I could wait for the final solution of the problem. I explained in the application that almost all the congress prisoners in this jail (nearly a hundred) and even some non-congress prisoners were eager to do the work as a matter of duty, leaving the authorities a wide field to choose from.
The application was rejected, that was all I was given to understand.
Another application to the I.G.: 10-11-32
Thereupon I addressed another application to the I.G. Therein I requested to be allowed to do at least my share of conservancy work; “the work could be assigned to me as a whole day task or I may be allowed to do it over and above my daily task, e.g. on Sundays when I have no other task to do. “
I made the request in an individual capacity without raising questions of general policy. I was content, and wd be grateful, to be allowed to do the work as a matter of sufferance or even indulgence. “It ought to be easy for you to grant my present request, whatever the general rules in that behalf, might be. Because I know from personal experience, that the rigour of jail discipline is in particular case tempered to make allowance for individual or communal prejudices.”
“Outside jail, I have tried as far as possible to do without the services of a professional scavenger. I have been doing scavenger work for my home or for the colony to which I happened to belong for the time being. And after the expiry of my present term of imprisonment I intend to to do scavenger work as a profession for at least one year, and, if circumstances permit, even longer.
“If if I am given the work I shall feel grateful and shall not expect any more facilities for myself than are ordinarily enjoyed by conservancy workers.
Notice of direct action:  “I hope to get a favourable reply from you within a fortnight at the latest, failing which it will be most unwilling duty to have resort to a mild sort of direct action. I shall eat no more than half the prescribed jail ration and I shall reduce it even further provided that I do not make myself physically helpless and unable to take care of myself.”
Though I present  my request in an individual form I also made mention, “in order to simplify matters for you of a fellow-prisoner of mine, who shares my views and feelings in this matter and is  resolved to go to the same lengths as myself, if he too is not given the work like myself.
(I shall strongly discourage sympathetic action on the part of other prisoners.) If however more prisoners come forward with similar requests and it becomes difficult for you to satisfy a larger number, both of us are ready to withdraw our demands in favour of them.”
P.S. I wrote this in English instead of Gujarati in order to render it easier for censoring if necessary.

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