BOBBY KHARE IS NOT THE FIRST PERSON TO be utterly confused by a 75-year-old. He will not be the last. Khare is 40 himself, so there is a chance the whole brouhaha could have been a misunderstanding between different generations, especially since the 75-year-old in question is no run-of-the-mill septuagenarian, of course, but a noble, historic entity: the very nation that we this week celebrate.
On July 16, Khare, who works for the Mathura sanitation department, was performing the job he had been hired to do, an undertaking that has been thrust upon the community to which he belongs, a coalition of caste-groups called the Balmikis, for hundreds of years. Khare was entitled to be confused, befuddled, confounded even. Eight years ago, a promise had been made by the prime minister himself that cleanliness would be the nation’s first, foremost ambition, that our streets, rivers, mountains and paddleboat lakes would soon be free of litter. Khare has spent this decade and the one before contributing to this cause that the prime minister named one of the nation’s pressing challenges. In fact, Khare contributed to the cause long before it became this politician’s calling card. You might think 20 years cleaning the streets of a western Uttar Pradesh city notorious for its paan consumption would earn Khare some kind of medal, whether from the municipality or from Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Instead he was sacked.
As most of you know, Khare was sacked because of the work of a species rife in the northern plains, the Officious Busybody (Genus: Succus Succerupus), who, having come to Mathura on a holiday from his native Alwar, in Rajasthan, decided the best way to enjoy this time off was to curry favour with the most powerful person in the state. Upon completing this he decided to try the radical act of currying favour with the most powerful person in the country.
The Officious Busybody did not ask for this responsibility. He never does. There he was, enjoying his holiday, when Khare happened to appear in his eyeline. He might never have given Khare another thought, indeed, most likely would never have given Khare another thought, but he noticed, in the maw of the rusted metal cart, a photograph of an orange-robed, orange-turbaned man, and with the unerring eye of an experienced opportunist immediately distinguished this man in the photograph from all the other orange-robed and orange-turbaned men who rule and rouse in this the 75th year of our independent nation.
Let us imagine the scene. Succus Succerupus turns to his friends: “See! A photograph of the respected Chief Minister in the trash. And this poor and undereducated man seems to have no idea.” We can imagine their delight: “Film this sanitation worker! Shame him on social media! Marshal the full might of the troll army! Rob him of his subsistence-level job!”
Khare was reinstated to his position and livelihood after a couple of days. There had been some righteous indignation on social media, but far more effective than that was the threat by his fellow municipal workers that they would strike. As we found out during the first Covid lockdown, nothing, not even a potentially deadly disease, has rich Indians distressed and discombobulated quicker than having to clean up after themselves. The authorities buckled, peace was restored, Khare went back to work.
I do not blame the Busybody. We have a tradition of worshipping power in this country. Indira Gandhi enjoyed this briefly. While Nehru did not countenance such treatment, his mentor Mohandas Gandhi was quickly elevated above the political fray by thinkers such as Rabindranath Tagore. Rahul Gandhi was once prayed to, but it turns out the Doon and Welham Alumni Association is not quite the parish it once seemed.
Most people who saw those two photographs amid the refuse in a cart might well have thought nothing of it, assuming, perhaps, that some government office or school had discovered mould growing along the backs of the frame, or that a new set of headshots of the chief minister and prime minister had been commissioned and issued. The tourists instead put on a careful performance— crafted, it seemed to me, for social media—where the framed photographs were rescued, lovingly washed, then displayed in just the manner a religious idol is. It is hardly the first time our prime minister has been equated to a god.
Like the Mahatma, Modi seems mindful of the promotion but not exactly opposed to it. In 2014, when Laxmikant Bajpai, president of the Uttar Pradesh unit of the BJP, coined the phrase, “Har har Modi, ghar ghar Modi,” it was an important first step towards beatification. Only after a prominent religious leader objected and the Congress asked the Election Commission to take cognizance did Modi request his followers to stop the chant.
A recent article by Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay in the Wire, documents some of the sycophantic statements by senior BJP leaders in this regard. He points to the video shared by JP Nadda, president of the party, in June 2020, in which he calls the prime minister “suron ke bhi neta”, or leader of the gods. Not simply a god, mind you. He is captain. Sycophancy aside, this begs one question: does Nadda believe himself to be one of Modi’s divine functionaries or, like the rest of us, merely mortal?
Another interesting trend reported in the media explained the latest shopping craze among those young North Indian males, devotees of Lord Shiva, who undertake the arduous pilgrimage known as the kanwar yatra. For the past couple of years the most popular t-shirt features twin portraits: Modi and Yogi. According to the tradition Kanwariyas would only wear an image of Lord Shiva or the Shivling, so this has come as something of a surprise to most people—though not, presumably, to the shrewd businessman who had the t-shirts printed. Prime Minister Modi and Chief Minister Yogi have achieved many things in their lives, but outselling god at a religious pilgrimage has to be one for the books.
No one can doubt that the BJP has been successful in its aim of bringing the Hindu nationalist project to the centre of Indian public life. But in its previous dispensation it had some claim to democratic principles. The fact is that deification defiles and defies democracy. Gods can’t be questioned, and our country needs answers.
ONE ASPECT OF SWACHH BHARAT ABHIYAN that everyone seems to have forgotten about (no, not the programme itself. Please continue reading) is that Prime Minister Modi nominated nine celebrities to help kick off the campaign. At that first gathering this august nonagon featured Sachin Tendulkar, Amitabh Bachchan, Shashi Tharoor, Baba Ramdev, Salman Khan, Mahendra Dhoni, and (cheating, somewhat) the entire cast of a television show called Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah.
What were these celebrities doing at the launch of a trademark government scheme? This is the bit we tend to forget. Prime Minister Modi’s idea was that each of these nine celebrities would call upon nine friends (fame not necessary) to begin sweeping the streets, and these 81 would each in turn call upon nine friends of their own to begin sweeping the streets, and the movement would grow in this exponential way until the entire population of India had been entrusted with sweeping a bit of our damned mess up. This was a new one for India, a national government scheme that seemed to hinge its success on the fact that our country is dangerously crowded.
It is the kind of plan that is sometimes called multi-level marketing—used by Tupperware to brilliant success—though it is called a pyramid scheme when deployed by Bernie Madoff types. For a while the news channels carried clips of these celebrities cajoling nine of their friends into early morning trash pick-up. But the movement seemed to peter out at that level. Certainly we were never told who Sachin’s nine friends called upon, and whether those 81 called upon a further 729 we might never know. (Could a different member of the Officious Busybody species submit an RTI?) The only evidence I have at hand is that Tendulkar is a resident of Bandra, as I was at the time, and if a craze for street-sweeping had moved through the posher buildings of our beautiful coastal suburb with the viral efficiency of foot and mouth disease I would surely have heard.
When I read the news about Bobby Khare I found myself thinking of this infinitely growing pyramid of upper- and middle-class street-cleaners that Modi had envisioned back in 2014. When launching the Swachh Bharat scheme, how did a politician as politically savvy as our prime minister forget the caste-led notions of cleanliness that are so deeply embedded in most of the country? He seemed not to consider that Indian streets and public spaces are filthy even as we keep our homes spotless because for the great majority of our countrymen it is a wilful choice. Anyone can drag a broom along a road while the cameras are about, but all of us know, whether we admit it to ourselves or not, that to really clean a public space in India is to be seen doing the work of the lowest castes. That first round of celebrities, so freshly blessed by the prime minister, seemed rather less cheerful a few days later when the news-cameras appeared at their gates once again at the crack of dawn. What was said off camera we cannot ascertain.
Which is why, eight years after the scheme was launched, it remains Khare’s work to keep Mathura clean. He is no doubt back at it now. Khare and almost all the municipal street sweepers of India are members of the very bottom of another pyramid, of course, the pyramid of caste, and the municipal officers who manage their lives are invariably from the rungs higher up. How little some things have changed in 75 years of independence became clear a few months ago, when a letter from the All India Lawyers Association for Justice (AILAJ) came to light. For one thing, the letter helps highlight India’s curious, conflictual, possibly schizophrenic embrace of modernity.
A new scheme had been implemented that mandated the Safai Karamcharis of Chandigarh, Ranchi, Nagpur and various other places had to wear a GPS-enabled tracking device to track them during work hours. They were told it was a way to mark attendance. But every school and company in the world does a fairly good job of this without forcing students and employees to wear GPS devices on their wrists. The Safai Karamcharis were spot on when they compared the constant monitoring to “the ancient practice of upper castes exerting control over lower caste workers.”
Apparently, the devices also had embedded cameras. According to an open letter published on InternetFreedom.in, the Safai Karamcharis “stated that the devices, which track movements, record conversations and film them, are being used to fine them for taking breaks and push them to work more hours. Further, women workers were worried about being surveilled by male supervisors and “some women workers have stopped going to the bathroom during work shifts as they fear the camera on their trackers might be used to record them in the toilet.”
Which brings us back to Bobby Khare. I’m coming to think the man is right. India can be pretty confusing. In the video, Khare is pushing a hopelessly rusted metal barrow that looked like it was about to lose its right wheel. We’ve all seen carts exactly like the one in the video. There is no screen cover that can be set upon it so Khare does not have to smell the refuse he has to wheel to the dump. Khare is not wearing gloves or a face mask. Like most of the safai karamcharis of India, he had not been issued any.
Every day in urban India we can see old men and young men in tattered uniforms slowly sweeping the streets with bristle brooms. Government after government, year after year, our society seems determined to spend as little as possible on helping these people do this vital job safely and with dignity. Yet we are happy to spend hundreds of crores on devices if it enables us to monitor and record and film their every move. It’s like setting up an elaborate camera system in the nets to help a young cricketer perfect his technique and then expecting him to score centuries with a plywood plank. Seventy-five years in, a confusing country indeed.