gandhi`s prescription: health and hygiene in the

DOI: 10.1177/0262728014533854
Vol. 34(2): 155–169
Copyright © 2014
SAGE Publications
Los Angeles,
New Delhi,
Singapore and
Washington DC
John Mattausch
Royal Holloway College, Egham, UK
abstract For Gandhi, swaraj was premised upon the ethic of
self-mastery and self-reliance, including taking responsibility for
personal and public hygiene, which Gandhi himself was keen to
practise and instil in his followers. While the article shows that
much of Gandhi’s biography and development occurred by chance,
it focuses ultimately on the persistence of ‘night scavenging’ in India
today, perhaps the starkest failure of Gandhi’s swaraj campaign.
The fate of Gujarat’s numerous Bhangis, who remain trapped in
lives of misery, filth and danger, is contrasted to that of England’s
earlier ‘night workers’, whose extinction as a professional class—it
is argued—was brought about by chance events rather than by
political design, intention or political campaigning. Ultimately,
though, some people still have to do ‘dirty’ work which, in some
cases, may be attractive even in India.
keywords: Bhangis, biography, caste, chance, dalits, Gandhi, hygiene,
India, London, night scavenging, pollution, purity
I have no new religion to give, no new truth to expound. My humble role is that of a
scavenger both literally and spiritually. I know the outward art of cleaning the streets,
commodes and latrines, and I am endeavouring to the extent of my ability to clean
my inside also, so that I may become a faithful interpreter of the truth as I may see it.1
As a self-appointed scavenger, Mohandas Gandhi devoted most of his adult life to
Indian liberation from British rule. Self-rule, swaraj, was for Gandhi founded upon
Indians taking responsibility for their own lives, including responsibility for cleaning
up their own mess and not depending upon outcastes to do this for them. The caste
burdened with carrying away the excrement of the higher castes, the Bhangis, became
for Gandhi towards the end of his life revered carriers of Indian wisdom as well as
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excrement.2 But whilst national independence was achieved, the liberation of Bhangis
and other outcastes from their filthy traditional hereditary occupations has not as yet
been realised in India, or in the Mahatma’s home state of Gujarat.
Arguing that the Hindu caste system and its practices are health measures which
have evolved so as to protect its followers by means of a hierarchical social immunity
system,3 this article connects discussions about Gandhi’s approaches to swaraj, health
and hygiene to aspects of caste discrimination. It critically examines how and why
certain caste communities remain disproportionately represented in ‘dirty’ work in
India today. While the discussion strongly emphasises the element of chance in the
development of personal trajectories as well as public institutional provisions for better
and more effective hygiene and prevention of diseases, contrasting developments in
Imperial London to those in India earlier and today, there remains significant concern
that ascribed low caste status restricts far too many people to unhygienic occupations.
This, it is argued, reflects systematic patterns of discrimination that have been outlawed
in independent India and elsewhere, while it does remain necessary for some people
to engage in ‘dirty’ work.
Studies of Gandhi, and of Gandhiism, have tended to favour analyses and
explanations focused upon formative values, ideology and the psychology of the
Mahatma. For those writers of a psychological bent wishing to identify crucial episodes
in the autobiography of Gandhi, the well-known, much-discussed, death of his father
when Mohandas was just sixteen provides almost an embarrassment of analytical
riches. On that ‘dreadful night’, having been relieved by his uncle from attendance on
his bed-ridden father, Gandhi rushed off to waken his pregnant young wife for relief
from his ‘animal passion’, only to be disturbed five or six minutes later by a servant
knocking at their bedroom door with the news that his father had died.4
In this single episode rests more than enough material to launch a raft of
psychological explanations for the development of Gandhi’s adult personality. However,
in this article, rather than speculating upon the psychological effects of this particular
‘double shame’, being absent when his father died, and being overcome by ‘carnal
desire’, I want instead to tread a rather more prosaic, somewhat dirtier analytical path.
Rather than examining the psychology of shame and the development of Gandhi’s
personality, I want instead to trace his campaigns to improve the health and hygiene of
Indians, show how these campaigns were involved in the struggle for swaraj, and then
demonstrate how these struggles were steered less by Gandhi’s maturing personality,
and much more by chance.
Gandhi, Purity and Pollution
Let us return to that ‘dreadful night’, but this time shorn of psychological
preoccupations. Surprisingly little about his father has been revealed in biographies
of Gandhi. Like so many other inferred early influences, the detail is weak, and so we
depend upon Gandhi himself for the portrait of his father and of his relationship to his
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Mattausch: Gandhi’s Prescription157
son. Gandhi Senior makes his appearance on the first page of his son’s autobiography
where he arrives garlanded with admiring adjectives. Notwithstanding his short temper,
and possibly strong sex drive, Gandhi Senior is presented to us as ‘truthful, brave and
generous’ and a paragon of impartiality (Gandhi, 1987 [1927]: 3). We also learn that
he was a ‘lover of his clan’, presumably a lover of his caste, a romance that would,
after his death, come to weigh upon his son’s career choices. Rather more prosaically,
in the ninth chapter, in the retelling of that ‘dreadful night’, we are given glimpses of
Gandhi Senior’s attitudes towards hygiene and medicine. Having fallen from a stagecoach racing to Porbander so that he could attend his sons’ child marriages, when
Mohandas, his elder brother and also a cousin, were married all together so as to save
on wedding expenses, Gandhi’s father became bed-ridden and suffered from a fistula
on his neck. Ayurvedic ointments, Hakim plasters and the nostrums of ‘local quacks’
failed to cure this. An English surgeon, too, had been unsuccessful in treating the
fistula. So, as a last resort, the Englishman recommended an operation to be carried
out by a well-known surgeon in Bombay. This operation, which in Gandhi’s own
later estimation would have meant that the fistula could have easily healed, was at the
last moment refused by Gandhi’s father in favour of various medicines prescribed by
the trusted family doctor, who disapproved of an operation being performed at such
an advanced age. Towards his end, his father, as Gandhi (1987 [1927]: 25) records,
…was getting weaker and weaker, until at last he had to be asked to perform the necessary
functions in bed. But up to the last he refused to do anything of the kind, always insisting
on going through the strain of leaving his bed. The Vaishnavite rules about external
cleanliness are so inexorable.
At the time, Gandhi (1987 [1927]: 25) tells us as well, he ‘had nothing but
admiration’ for his father’s insistence upon getting up from his sick bed to perform
his ‘necessary functions’. But with hindsight, having learnt what ‘Western medical
science has taught us’, he came to realise that all the functions could have in fact been
done in bed and that, as he put it, ‘I should regard such cleanliness as quite consistent
with Vaishnavism’.
Aside from the rather obvious contradiction between Gandhi’s willingness to learn
a lesson from ‘Western science’ and his earlier disavowal of ‘Western’ teachings,5 this
sad and intimate detail of Gandhi’s father’s death is revealing. In fact, the wish not
to perform the ‘necessary functions’ whilst in bed is a quite natural proclivity for all
humans, not just for Hindus. But Gandhi presents his father’s insistence on getting
out of bed as a religious ethic, as being consistent with his father’s Vaishnavism.
Characteristically, thus, Gandhi views the event through a religious lens.
For Gandhi, matters of cleanliness are next to his Vaishnavite godliness and this
connection betwixt cleanliness and Hinduism is intimate and foundational (Mattausch,
2012). In my view, Hinduism functions to protect the health of its followers by
perpetuating a ‘behavioural immune system’, a social system evolved to bolster the
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body’s natural abilities to avoid potential health threats. For, as Park and Schaller
(2009: 942) have written, our body’s natural immune system,
…is incapable of the simplest form of defence: preventing parasites from coming into
contact with the body in the first place.
It has thus been suggested that animals evolved an additional system of defence that
enables them to physically avoid germy things and other infected hosts. This system is
designed to employ perceptual cues (appearance, odour, etc.) to detect the presence of
infectious parasites in other things—including humans—the detection of such cues may
trigger aversive emotional and cognitive responses that motivate behavioural avoidance.
This behavioural mechanism offers a first line of defence against disease-causing parasites
and hence has been called the ‘behavioural immune system’.
Here, then, we are moving away from the comparatively gross and towards subtle
environmental influences, from the visible world of the Rajasthani Court and the early
life of an Indian Dewan’s son, to the hidden, then unknown, invisible, microscopic
world populated by innumerable small organisms, some of which may harm, and
could even kill us. In my reading of Hinduism, including the Vaishnavism of Gandhi’s
family and other Gujarati merchant caste families, the religio-cultural sphere helps
protect its ascribed followers by giving them a social code, an ethic of cleanliness.
This Hinduistic ethic is premised upon a dichotomy of purity and pollution, of
cleanliness and uncleanliness, which finds religious expression and justification.
This dichotomy is familiar from the work of Mary Douglas (1966) whose seminal
discussion has more recently been revived in a postcolonial perspective by Anderson
(2010: 169) who like Douglas is interested in ‘how pollution can be used analogically
or symbolically to reinforce moral and social order, to demarcate categories and express
transgression’. Here, sticking to my dirtier analytical path, my analytical focus is upon
the non-symbolic socio-biological mechanisms of Hinduistic practices, a connection
long familiar to British people visiting India.
The caste system, perpetuated by ‘arranged’ marriages, is a hierarchy of purity and
pollution with the cleanest humans, animals and birds placed on the highest rungs.
Traditional religiously-sanctioned customs, practices, diets and much else, are caste
relative, and serve to protect Hindus, within the parameters of their hierarchical caste
boundaries, from potential threats to their health. Hence, for illustration, one could
mention the rules of commensality; separate wells or taps for outcastes; not physically
touching outcastes; not marrying those from lesser, less clean castes; and always washing
before all religious rituals, except in funeral ceremonies where washing happens after
the ceremony has ended. Indeed, it is easy to list the many ways in which Hinduistic
customs, practices and doctrine serve as a hierarchical immunity system, offering
increasing protection against threats to health the higher you are placed on the caste
Perhaps the most bluntly evidential illustration, and the one pertinent to this
discussion, is the practice of only touching food and serving-dishes with your right
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Mattausch: Gandhi’s Prescription159
hand. In many cultures the left hand is sinister. For Hindus (and many other Asiatics)
it is unclean, polluted when they use it to clean themselves after their ‘necessary
functions’.6 We may safely presume that Gandhi’s father faithfully followed these rules
for using his hands, and we may also presume that once he had performed his ‘necessary
functions’ and returned to his sick-bed, his excrement was cleaned up by an outcaste
person called Uka, thus by a ‘night scavenger’ and not by Gandhi’s father himself.
Persuading Hindus to clean up their own mess, including cleaning up after
defecating, was to become a life-long campaign for Gandhi, a component of swaraj. So,
too, was the Mahatma’s concomitant campaign to reform the caste system and abolish
untouchability. This latter campaign failed, as untouchability has persisted, as did night
scavenging, whereas the English caste of night scavengers, known as ‘night-workers’,
had become virtually extinct by the time Gandhi arrived as a student in London.7
Night Workers and Night Scavengers in the Metropolis
Why and when Gandhi became obsessed with cleanliness is unclear. Scholars tend
to skirt demurely around topics such as personal hygiene,8 but we do know from his
autobiography that on board ship bound for England he, ineptly, used soap ‘taking
its use to be a sign of civilisation’ (Gandhi, 1987 [1927]: 39). A key fillip arose when
he encountered British toilets and hygiene, allowing him to compare these modern,
Imperial, foreign ways with those that he had left behind. Regardless of the precise
origins of his concern with the topic, persuading his followers and other Indians to be
cleaner in their personal habits became a life-long feature of the Mahatma’s politicking,
beginning when he founded his South African communities and continuing upon his
return to India. A rather vivid example of Gandhi’s obsession, and of his characteristic
approach of teaching by example, is found in his account of attending the Indian
National Congress’ Conference in 1901, reported by Adams (2010: 75):
At the conference venue Gandhi made his customary inspection of the sanitary
arrangements and found them disgusting. He complained to the volunteers who had
come to help with the meeting but they were not interested, considering such work
to be fit only for untouchables. Gandhi asked for a broom and cleaned a latrine. Later
he invited volunteers to help him clean faeces from the veranda outside the dormitory
where he was staying, where delegates had defecated during the night. They declined,
so he found a broom and did it himself.
By the time Gandhi arrived in London in November 1888, the British caste of ‘nightworkers’ was in terminal decline. Gandhi would certainly have noticed that, unlike in
Gujarat, people used both hands when eating and that amidst the city’s millions living
in abject squalor, housed in slums, there were hardly any night scavengers.
However, their disappearance was not a victory for any public or political movement
for their liberation of the kind Gandhi would mount in support of untouchables
in India. One key difference in the political economies of night-workers and night
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scavengers was that in London and other larger British cities of the nineteenth century,
night-work had become rather lucrative.9 As the British population grew rapidly and
more and more people moved from the countryside to the towns and cities during
that century, sanitation became a new and pressing issue. It also offered new economic
opportunities for those prepared to work at night emptying the growing numbers of cess
pits. Urban expansion had not been planned. There was woefully inadequate housing
to accommodate the burgeoning city populations and no provisions had been made for
their sanitary needs. Novelists, newspaper reporters, artists and early social investigators
such as Chadwick (1842), all drew attention to the appalling conditions endured by
the majority of Londoners. There was a common concern with plagues and illness, as
cholera had arrived 50 years before Gandhi, at a time when, before the mid-century,
very little was understood either about the cause or cure of such epidemics. All these
factors heightened public interest in sanitary issues (Fisher and Cotton, 2005).
The filthy and dangerous,10 often physically hard but well-paid ‘night-work’ could,
by law, only be carried out between midnight and five in the morning, the ‘legal
hours’. Unlike their Gujarati counterparts who were forced into the trade by cursed
parental inheritance, in the Imperial metropolis men worked voluntarily, in gangs of
four—a tub man, a rope man, a hole man and a gang master, the ‘master nightman’.
Again unlike their Gujarati counterparts, the night-workers of London, according to
Mayhew (1851), always did night-work as a sideline, never as their main occupation.
Mayhew (1851) recorded: ‘A rubbish-carter, a very powerfully-built man, told me he
was partial to night-work, and always looked out for it, even when in daily employ,
as “it was sometimes like found money”.’ However, the unforeseen consequences of
growing urban populations which led rich and poor to share a common concern with
measures to protect their health, and filled more and more cess pits, would lead nightwork to become far less financially attractive.
Once the ‘night soil’ had been collected from the cess pits it was taken, by cart, to
‘night yards’, where it was left ‘to desiccate and mature before being sold as manure
to farmers and gardeners’. According to Mayhew (1851) there were about 60 such
yards in London until about 1848. Alternatively, the night soil was taken by barge
on the Grand Union Canal to more distant customers. However, the London night
yards were suppressed after the passing of sanitary measures in September 1848
(Eveleigh, 2006: 13). As the capital expanded, farms, the night-workers’ main
customers, retreated further and further from the urban centre, adding to the time,
trouble and cost of the night-work economy (Halliday, 2007: 133). In fact, though
social scientists may now remember 1848 as the ‘year of revolutions’, for nightworkers that year was significant for the introduction of new parliamentary acts
and policies which impacted more upon their lives than the revolutions sweeping
Europe. As Eveleigh (2006: 15) notes:
In the second half of the nineteenth century, the primitive privy-midden [a hut or
room with a pit dug in the floor] was slowly replaced in towns either by dry closets
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Mattausch: Gandhi’s Prescription161
or water closets. From the 1840s successive governments passed legislation directed
at improving levels of cleanliness and health in the rapidly expanding towns: by 1850
roughly 50 per cent of the country’s population was urban. In London, the Metropolitan
Sewers Act of 1848 forbade the construction of new houses without a water closet
or privy and created a body, the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers, which began
the work of removing cesspools: within about 6 years, 30,000 had been abolished.
The first Public Health Act of 1848 established a General Board of Health at national
level and enabled local boards of health to be created in districts where the death rate
exceeded 23 per 1,000.
Dry or water closets were after 1848 mandatory in London. Of these two varieties it
was to be flushing toilets that would predominate, obviously to the ruin of the nightwork trade. Water closets had been known in Britain since Elizabethan times but were
at first expensive and unreliable. It was not until the beginning of the nineteenth
century with the improved designs and mass-production techniques of men such as
Joseph Bramah, George Jennings and, best known, a certain Thomas Crapper, that
potential customers could be confident in Crapper’s advertised promise of ‘a certain
flush with every pull’. In London the 1844 Metropolitan Buildings Act mandated all
new buildings to be connected to the sewers, a reversal of earlier sanitation mandates
and one made in the pressing battle against misunderstood diseases as raw effluent
from the capital’s water closets travelled through the sewers right into the Thames
from whence drinking water was taken. Water closets, as well as leading to epidemics
of disease in London, also ruined the jobs of night-workers employed in districts still
using cess-pits. Halliday (2007: 133) observes:
When flushed, the WC despatched a small quantity of human waste and a far larger
volume of water into the cesspool, which consequently filled up twenty or more times
as fast with liquid that was difficult to transport and that no farmer wanted to buy.11
Moreover, after 1847, farmers could now buy a better, more attractive alternative to
desiccated human waste, guano. Rich in nitrogen and phosphor, and blessedly free of
odour, this South American import was a superior—and thanks to the development
of steam ships readily available—cheaper nail in the night-workers’ coffin.
Just as species extinction in the natural world is often caused by chance events, so,
too, the ending of the night-trade in London and other cities and towns in England
had several chance causes. Driving the processes of change along were the growth
and urbanisation of Britain’s Victorian population, a demographic motor leading
to metropolitan overcrowding in dismally unhygienic conditions, perfect for the
incubation and spread of deadly diseases. Long before Gandhi visited London, an
earlier arrival from India, the cholera bacterium, had found the capital to its liking,
first in 1831, then again in 1849, leading to terrifying epidemics, galvanising efforts
to improve the capital’s sanitation by introducing water closets. However, locked into
the miasma epidemiological paradigm, the all too plausible theory became that disease
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was caused by malodour, basically bad air. Along with the ruin of the night-trade,
a further unintended consequence of introducing water closets was thus an increase
in disease, as ever more polluted water from these closets flowed into the Thames,
from which drinking water was still taken. In the words of a Victorian government
statistician (Carter, 2006: 97–9):
Almost coincidentally with the appearance of epidemic cholera, and with the striking
increase of diarrhoea in England, was the introduction into general use of the water
closet system, which had the advantage of carrying nightsoil out of the house but the
incidental and not necessary disadvantage of discharging it into the rivers from which
the supply was drawn.
It would take the deaths of tens of thousands of Londoners, and the un-ignorable ‘Great
Stink’ rising from the horribly polluted Thames, to persuade the British Parliament, in
1859, to fund building a proper sewage system, a hugely impressive system designed
and meticulously executed by Joseph Bazalgette, son of French immigrants, and a
man who recognised the need for the capital’s sewage outflows to be built above the
river’s high-tide mark.
The rapid growth of London’s population in the nineteenth century was wholly
unplanned, as were the filthy, crowded conditions in which many were forced to live.
The illnesses and diseases these unplanned demographic changes promoted, just like
the arrival of cholera, were chance outcomes met by a faltering process of trial and
error. This led eventually to far better sanitation in the metropolis at about the same
time as guano became a vastly preferable type of manure. These wholly coincidental
factors combined to lead to the complete ruin of the night-trade, so that by the time
the young Gandhi arrived in London, the extinction of the night-workers had been
brought about by coincidence, by contingency, indeed by chance.
Chance Factors in Gandhi’s Development
Gandhi himself was blessed by chance, largely by good fortune, at crucial times
during his life, as was his political campaigning. As with us all, chance first spawns us
of two unchosen parents in unchosen circumstances. In Gandhi’s case, as the son of
the Dewan, the first minister in the comparatively small and unremarkable Princely
State of Porbander, his fortuitous birth as son of the second most important man in
this state was then compounded when the family moved home. Spodek (1971: 362)
records familiar facts:
When Gandhi was a child, his father moved to Rajkot from Porbander and assumed
two new political positions, one with the local government and one with the British
government. He became diwan, or prime minister, to the ruler of Rajkot State and he also
became a member of the Rajasthanik Court which had been established by the British
in 1873 especially to decide legal disputes among landholders and princes.
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Mattausch: Gandhi’s Prescription163
Rajkot, though another small and unremarkable Princely State like Porbander, was the
base for the British Political Agency of Kathiawar. In 1873, in an attempt to lessen the
endemic disorder and violence on the peninsula, the British set up, at the local Princes’
expense, a special law court, the Rajasthanik Court, to offer disinterested adjudication
in the frequent disputes over land and tribute that lay behind much of the violence.12
Gandhi’s father had been seconded to this court by the Rana of Porbander, a rather
nice appointment given that Gandhi’s paternal uncle Tulsidas would automatically take
over as Dewan, keeping the post and its remuneration in the family. Moreover, Rajkot
was the only place on the Kathiawar peninsula which offered secondary education
delivered in English and in English style. It was also good that the family relocated
because Porbander had become notoriously misruled and the Rana of Porbander was
to prove, in British eyes at least, such a determinedly poor ruler that, in 1884, he was
deposed by the British, one of the very few Kathiawari Princes to be deposed after
Empress Victoria’s declaration to the princes (Copland, 1982: 10).
If the young Mohandas had not been enrolled by chance into this schooling, then
his horizons as an adult would have remained narrow, as entry into the Imperialists’
world was highly difficult for those who could not speak English. Hay (1969: 311)
asserts that the young Mohandas’s ‘positive view of British culture’ had its origins in
this secondary schooling. Chance next enters the young Gandhi’s biography following
the death of his father when, as the brightest of the six children, from four mothers,
Mohandas’ future career became crucial to the family’s fortunes. Mohandas had
hoped to enter medical college and become a doctor. But this ambition was quashed
by his elder brother’s reminder of their father’s caste-based prejudice against touching
dead bodies. This rather neat example of Hinduism protecting higher castes against
potential dangers from communicable disease was a serious blow to the young Gandhi’s
ambitions. On the advice of a Brahmin family friend and the urging of his brother,
Gandhi opted to study law for which knowledge of English was a prerequisite, while
a degree was not needed. Having sent him to school in Rajkot, then to Samaldas
College in Bhavnagar, chance now packed his suitcase for London, where he was to
study law. This was a chance the young Gandhi, who had been struggling with his
studies, and who was keen to visit the land of philosophers and poets, the very centre
of civilisation, eagerly took.
It was during the one-third of his life he spent abroad that the later Gandhi was
forged. ‘Gandhi’ in this sense was made not in India but abroad, signalled by his changes
of costume from a parody of English dress into the faux poor bania’s costume he wore
on his return to India from South Africa, clothing of a kind never actually worn by a
Dewan’s son. His political and professional apprenticeships were served abroad living
amongst the Indian ex-pat community in South Africa. His idiosyncratic religious
philosophies developed in response to having to live, for the first time, amongst a
majority of Christians, some of whom knew far more about Hinduism than did Gandhi.
The passport for the next definitive biographical step was once again stamped
by chance. Having returned from London as a qualified, but inept lawyer, Gandhi
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was readmitted into his caste fold on condition that he took a ritual bath—a
blatant health measure—but he found entry into the Indian legal profession more
troubling. Burdened with his family’s over-egged expectations, Gandhi went to live
in Bombay but failed dismally to build a professional career there and returned to
Rajkot. There, unwisely playing upon an earlier brief encounter in London with
the British Political Agent, Charles Ollivant, when trying to curry favour for his
brother, Gandhi offended the man who oversaw the court in which he sought work
(Gandhi, 1987 [1927]: 97–99). As Arnold (2001: 41) writes, at this crucial juncture
‘Gandhi might then perhaps have vanished into the obscurity of life as a small-town
lawyer’, if chance had not intervened again. As it was, his brother had caught wind
of a Muslim family merchant firm based in Porbander and Natal whose very wealthy
South African-based patriarch, Abdulla, was looking for a barrister to help with a
pending legal case. Arnold (2010: 43) reports:
Though barely literate, Abdulla had made his fortune several times over […] He needed
a man such as Gandhi as an intermediary between his lawyers, who spoke no Gujarati,
and himself (having only poor English). Gandhi, proficient in both languages, legally
qualified and familiar with the trading milieu (he came from a Gujarati merchant caste,
after all), was in the right place at the right time.
That Gandhi was ‘in the right place at the right time’, that he was proficient in English
and legally qualified was, in common with the coincidental offer of a lucrative job in
South Africa, all down to chance. By the time he finally returned to India in 1916,
Gandhi had become a competent lawyer (Kincaid, 1934: 73), a successful freedom
fighter, a quester after truth and Indian swaraj. The manufacturer of all of this was
chance, expressed as coincidence acting in a world circumscribed by the Hindu social
immunity system.
The Unfinished Business of Swaraj
However, not all Gujaratis have been as lucky as Gandhi. Gujarat’s numerous
night scavengers have been especially unlucky. About 110 years after Gandhi left
the Imperial capital aboard the steamship Oceana bound for Bombay, and over
50 years after the Mahatma’s assassination in 1948, half the householders in rural
Gujarat still drew their drinking water from wells or hand-pumps, 86.3 per cent
were without ‘drainage connectivity for waste water outlet’, and 78.3 per cent had
no latrines. Only 11.3 per cent had water closets. These dismal figures, taken from
housing tables of the 2001 Census of India,13 are somewhat better for the urban
population. Nonetheless in 2001, when the majority of Gujarat’s population, 62.6
per cent, still lived in rural villages, only 62.1 per cent of urban households boasted
water closets and only 59.3 per cent of urban households had ‘closed drainage’. In
2001 most Gujaratis, along with some two-thirds of India’s population, still did not
have a toilet. Unlike in late Victorian London, there still remains plenty of work for
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Mattausch: Gandhi’s Prescription165
night scavengers in present-day Gujarat, dangerous, filthy, degrading work carried
out unwillingly by over 64,000 Gujarati night scavengers.14 Along with the 17 per
cent of Gujarat’s population consigned by religious superstition to a life as dalits,
these people also face further dangers from higher castes who regularly subject
them to atrocities. The Government of India designates eleven districts in Gujarat
as ‘atrocity sensitive’.15 This is a side to modern Gujarat unpublicised by Gujarat’s
tourism industry, unmentioned by the state’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi, a
curious omission from a man proud of his beginnings in an organisation purportedly
dedicated to the well-being of all Indian citizens.
Gujarat’s night scavengers were not only failed by Modi’s RSS/BJP, they were also
failed by Gandhi and Congress. Of all the Gujarati communities who deserved better
lives in independent India, those who should most have benefited from swaraj, the night
scavengers in the Mahatma’s home state must have a strong claim, yet they continue to
suffer horribly. Why did the Mahatma’s campaign fail them, and their children, too?
The comparatively dirty habits of Indians had been a concern of Gandhi’s which
he included in the first public speech he gave to Indians assembled in Pretoria whom
he admonished for their slovenness (Gandhi, 1987 [1927]: 142):
I had found our peoples’ habits to be insanitary, as compared with those of the Englishmen
around them, and drew their attention to it. I laid stress on the necessity of forgetting
all distinctions such as Hindus, Musalmans [sic], Parsis, Christians, Gujaratis, Madrasis,
Punjabis, Sindhis, Kachchhis, Suratis, and so on.
However, it was the ‘distinctions’ within, and not simply between, religions and
regions which needed to be overcome. These distinctions were the bedrock of the
Hindu social immunity system which had evolved in India to meet the threat posed
by virulent, unpredictable health threats, a hierarchical system in the case of Gandhi’s
co-religionists, a caste ladder whose bottom rung was occupied by those who cleaned
up after the higher castes performed their ‘necessary functions’. As late Victorian Britons
keen to improve India’s sanitary conditions had ruefully noted in the Imperial Gazetteer
of India in 1908,16 this system was and remains highly resistant to change, even if
championed by a Mahatma or challenged by the introduction of new technologies.
Change is at the beck and call of chance, not under the command of politicians and
not to be brought about simply by the adoption of modern sanitation technologies. As
Tam (2012: 29) has shown, the introduction of new technologies in Gujarat’s de facto
capital city Ahmedabad did not liberate Bhangis, it merely allowed them to continue
to be exploited by modern methods:
Sanitation technologies that were intended to replace Bhangi labour have instead
contributed to the preservation of their living and working conditions, perpetuating
the belief that they are irreplaceable and essential to the city. [...] The hope for Bhangi
emancipation therefore cannot arise from notions of development or modernity—they
will only provide new methods for subjugating Bhangis.
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Swaraj under Gandhi meant political independence for Indians who were to be free
to follow their religious callings. In Gujarat, a Hindu-majority region and then a
state, this formula preserved the ascribed hierarchical social immunity system and the
concomitant political privileges (Chaplin, 1999) that condemned tens of thousands
of men, women and children to lives of filth and persecution, a nocturnal army of the
damned. Unlike London’s caste of night workers, they were not rescued from their
misery by chance.17
This hereditary blight has also not fallen by misfortune just upon Gujarati Bhangis
living in their home state. Migratory flows have taken Gujaratis of all castes and
religious persuasions to live throughout the world. In India, beginning in the late
seventeenth century, groups of Gujarati traders began to move down to Bombay after
the East India Company colonised this former Portuguese stronghold. By the late
nineteenth century, there were in fact more Gujaratis living in Bombay than in any
Gujarati city. From this new rapidly growing conurbation arose, it has been argued, a
modern Gujarati intelligentsia and a modern Gujarati identity, too. Just as with the rise
of London, so too has the growth of Bombay offered attractive employment to many
diverse peoples, including notably Gujarati Bhangis, who have come to monopolise
sectors of Mumbai’s public health work (Solanki, 2011: 175–86).
It will be interesting to see whether or not the fate of Mumbai’s Bhangis follow a similar
pattern to their nineteenth century London counterparts, and whether or not in future
the modernisation of Mumbai’s sanitary infrastructure renders night-work obsolete. It
remains to be seen, if and when this does occur, how Mumbai’s Bhangis will respond
to a chance extinguishing of their hereditary curse. Maybe, but again this needs to be
researched, we already find the descendants of those people in airports all over the world,
particularly in the Middle East, where new staff is constantly needed, willing to work
at all hours of the day and to engage in ‘dirty’ work, albeit in more modern conditions.
1. Gandhi cited in Adams (2010: 216).
2. For Gandhi’s reverential attitude towards Bhangis, see his speech at the closing session of
the Inter-Asian Relations Conference held on 2 April 1947 at New Delhi.URL (consulted
September 2012)
3. An earlier version of this article was presented at the Fourth Biennial Conference of the
Gujarat Studies Association in Dubai, February 2012. I am grateful to the audience for
their instructive comments.
4. This familiar episode is recounted in Chapter IX of Gandhi (1987 [1927]). The child his
wife Kasturba was carrying died a few days after being born, a tragedy which Gandhi,
characteristically, blamed upon his failure to restrain his sexual appetite.
5. Gandhi’s opposition to ‘Western science’, along with the rest of ‘Western civilisation’, in
favour of purportedly superior ‘Indian’ religious culture, is the major theme in his declaratory
Hind Swaraj.
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Mattausch: Gandhi’s Prescription167
6.This was noted over three centuries ago, appropriately enough by an English doctor, at
Surat in the 1670s (see Fryer, 1698: 200).
7. One of the peer reviewers observed that in a metropolis like London today, much of the
cleaning of toilet occurs invisibly before office goers reach their desks in the morning. It
appears that we need fresh research about the various people that are today doing such
‘dirty’ work for others.
8.For example, Hunt (1978) omits any discussion on these topics and yet it is hard to
imagine that Gandhi’s adventures with British toilets were any less notable than modernday European visitors confronting India’s toilets for the first time.
9. Again, one of the anonymous reviewers pointed to intriguing recent evidence from Mumbai
about the various benefits of being hired by local authorities for performing polluting tasks.
This evidence relates directly to dalit groups that migrated over time to the city from Gujarat.
For details, albeit in a rather different context, see Solanki (2011: 175–86).
10. For a nasty example of the dangers of working in sewers, see ‘Tragedy at the Farm, Railway
and Sewer’, a report on the death of a boy aged 14 in the Manchester Guardian of 17
September 1851. He had become wedged in a sewer pipe and died, eleven hours later,
before he could be rescued. URL (consulted 30 August 2012) http://www.theguardian.
11. The separation of waste solids from liquids did not occur, in London, for a further thirty
years after work had started on the new sewers. After 1887 solids were taken by sludge barges
and dumped in the ocean, while liquids were chemically treated before being pumped into
the Thames.
12. The rather obscure Rajasthanik Court had been modelled on the Cutch Jhareja Court and
was in session from 1873 until 1899. For some discussion of this court, see Wilberforce-Bell
(1916: 230–31), where the date for the cessation of the Rajasthanik Court is erroneously
given as 1890. See also Bombay Central Government (1876: 10).
13. The figures are taken from the 2001 Census of India for Gujarat (Volume 24), Housing
Profile, Tables H-8 and H-10.
14. This figure for Gujarat’s night scavenger population is taken from WaterAid India (2009).
15. For distressing details of atrocities visited upon Gujarat’s dalits, see Centre for Dalit Human
Rights (2008).
16. See Volume 1: 152. URL (consulted 8 September 2012)
17. Meanwhile, others in Gujarat have fallen into economic despair and face awkward choices
between accepting ‘dirty’ work and destitution. For much depressing evidence on the
situation in Ahmedabad, see Breman and Shah (2004).
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Anderson, Warwick (2010) ‘Crap on the Map, or Postcolonial Waste’, Postcolonial Studies,
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Arnold, David (2001) Gandhi: Profiles in Power. London: Longman.
Bombay Central Government (1876) Report on the Administration of the Bombay Presidency.
Part II. Bombay: Central Government Press.
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Breman, Jan & Shah, Parthiv (2004) Working in the Mill No More. New Delhi: Oxford
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the Mean of its Improvement. London: R. Clowes & Sons. URL (consulted 30 August 2012)
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Dr John Mattausch is a Lecturer in the Department of Politics and International
Relations, Royal Holloway College, University of London. For the past 20 years he has
been researching diverse topics concerning the joint history of Britons and Gujaratis
from 1608 up to the present day. His publications and academic interests are listed at
Address: Department of Politics & International Relations, Royal Holloway College,
Egham, Surrey TW20 0EX, UK. [e-mail: [email protected]]
South Asia Research Vol. 34 (2): 155–169
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