By Sharanya Gopinathan
There’s been a really sad new development in the story of a shocking video shot by Tamil Nadu activist and filmmaker Divya Bharathi.
Back in August 2017, we were talking about the video Bharathi shot, in which sanitation workers employed by Anna University spoke about how they were ill-treated by the Dean, Chitra Selvi. The video, published on 1 July, revealed that Selvi forced workers to perform manual scavenging with no protective gear, to perform personal chores in her private residence (including washing her and her husband’s underwear and cleaning their home’s toilets), and that she allowed her husband to sexual harass them.
Bharathi faced violent opposition for having posted the video at the time. Rumours began circulating online that she was an enemy of the Pallar community, to which Selvi belongs. Bharathi began receiving thousands of threatening phone calls berating her for posting the video, was clearly being followed by malignant forces trying to intimidate her, and was finally forced to leave Tamil Nadu for fear of her safety.
And now, the Madras High Court has actually ruled in the case of Chitra Selvi that the Dalit couple speaking in the video should be fined Rs 25,000 for “unnecessarily wasting the court’s precious time”! WTF?!
The court ruling read, “when a sweeper/scavenger is employed, he/she has to clean up the toilet also, because she was appointed for washing the clothes of all the family members for which she has been paid therefor. Hence, being a domestic maid appointed as Sweeper and Cleaner, she has to wash all the clothes irrespective of the clothes, whether it is inner cloth or outer cloth. Similarly, a Sweeper cannot complain that she cannot be compelled to clean up the toilet, therefore, making a complaint that the scavenger was compelled to clean up the toilet, is wholly unacceptable.”
The couple have said in the video, and to the media in interviews, that they believed they were hired by the University to perform university work as sweepers, not to work as manual scavengers or as the Dean’s domestic workers.
Which makes this some amazing legal reasoning. Not only does the Court actually use the words sweeper and scavenger interchangeably, it also makes the amazing leap that people employed to sweep are required by their job description to clean toilets. It seems to take at face value the claim made by Selvi that they were required to work in Selvi’s home, paying no heed to the stated fact that they had not consented to this.
The Court also glided over the fact that the couple had alleged that they were forced to clean the drain and toilets contravening the mandates of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Rehabilitation Act, 2013. There’s no situation of employment where manual scavenging is legal, regardless of whether they were employed by Selvi or the university itself.
Heartbreakingly, the couple said in an interview to The News Minute after the judgement, “The court has not dealt with any of our grievances. We are living in hiding even today because we have a death threat hanging over our heads if we venture out. Our sons are not going to school because we no longer have any money left to pay. Our livelihoods have been destroyed because we refused to put up with harassment.”
It’s exceedingly disappointing that the Court has so badly failed a Dalit couple that dealt with such opposition to even file a case in the hopes of receiving justice. If the Courts are meant to protect the weak who come to it for justice, it really feels like the Madras HC has failed shockingly this time.
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