By Nisha Susan
The 1984 Malayalam movie Panchavadi Paalam (Panchavadi bridge) had a scene in which a small child is taking a poop on the bridge. A cop comes along to scold the child. The child’s mother suddenly materialises to shout at the cop and warn the child: you poop right there, right there, kid. No one has the right to tell you to not poop there. My family likes to quote this scene when wanting to cite someone’s general bloody-mindedness or specific lack of deference for noble-sounding civic missions.
Has there ever been a more noble-sounding civic mission than Swachh Bharat? Who could possible object to a clean India? Who could possibly not want more loos? I have long harboured desires of violence against one Kerala bus company who told me that if I objected to being shoved with a torch to pee in a bulb-less shack in the bush on the side of the highway from Bangalore to Coimbatore, then I should have taken a ‘tour bus’. In the words of the conductor, a ‘tour bus’ sounded like a luxury yacht or caviar or potato chips covered in chocolate – not the normal desire to pee without worrying about a snake hovering near your bum.
So why wouldn’t every right-thinking person support a desire for a clean India, an India full of loos, an India of regulations, an India full of streets at right angles. For some reason, regulations and right angles seem to arrive in India with righteousness and rigidity. And while we are on the ‘r’s, repulsiveness.
Take this story. On 16 July in Pratapgarh in Rajasthan, five municipal council officials, including the municipal commissioner, reportedly killed a man. Zafar Khan, the middle-aged victim, had apparently objected to the officials going about taking photographs of women defecating in public. Commissioner Ashok Jain of course denies that they were trying to shame women. They were merely trying to educate people about health and hygiene. Khan was the one who assaulted them, says Jain. He told the Hindustan Times, “This man, Zafar Khan, arrived there and started abusing us and later also assaulted one of our sanitation staff. Following that, he left the place and returned to his home. At that time he was perfectly healthy.” Far from having his health increased by the visit of the municipal officials to his neighbourhood, Khan is now dead. And his neighbourhood has been taught a lesson: object to other people’s opinions of how you ought to live, and you could die.
The Pratapgarh officials are not the only ones who think ‘shit-shaming’ is a good plan. Reportedly, instead of building loos or figuring out what kind of loos do work, our government had decided a while ago that uploading photos on social media of people defecating in the open is a solid Swachh Bharat move. The idea was first floated in 2014 and obviously was found pleasing. Last year, Mathura district’s Chief Development Officer told the media that his team had toured 18 villages and posted hundreds of pictures on Whatsapp of people on their way or back from the fields. (I did wonder then what said CDO Manish Kumar would make of someone with a camera asking him as he came out of the loo whether he had washed his behind thoroughly.)
This finally gave me a sense of why right-thinking folks, even those who like things neat, clean and orderly, should reexamine their desire for neat, clean and orderly.
Whatever is the driving emotion behind what the Pratapgarh officials did and what other states are doing – it’s certainly not a nation-building, hum sab saath saath hein feeling. It’s a desire to shame and punish. Why would you want to shame and punish someone who doesn’t have the resources to safe, clean and private defecation? As a municipal official, why isn’t it your shame that you haven’t provided those facilities? It isn’t logical unless the vardi of municipal official, the costume of nation-building, is just a chance for you to do what you’ve always wanted to do: shame and punish the poor, shame and punish those different from you.
Gauri Maulekhi, an activist closely associated with the Central government’s new notifications for cattle slaughter, called this manner of violence just ‘naughty business’, just a little collateral damage. Her phrase sounded deranged the first time I heard it, but then, not so much. If your life is a seething, hissing permanent ‘ishhhh!’ sound of wishing to clean up the dirtiness of other people, whether they are shitting in the open or saying things on WhatsApp, then a little killing is perhaps very well just a little naughty business. Which is why I found it remarkable that Ashok Jain, municipal commissioner, Pratapgarh does not seem to have expressed any remorse or sadness that Zafar Khan is dead. If you had got into an argument with an annoying, bloodyminded character at work and a few hours later, he was dead, a death you had nothing to do with, wouldn’t you feel startled, worried, feel bad even about the tussle you got into? Why is there no room in our public life for either remorse on the part of Ashok Jain or admiration for the possible contrary-mindedness of Zafar Khan, who, like the mother in Panchavadi Paalam, was saying that we will shit without your permission, thanks. (I would have liked to see what that mother would have said in an era where municipal officials wanted to upload pictures of her kid pooping.)
We are now tightly in the grip of an imagination that feels like if we just beat people hard enough, if we just shame them enough in person or on Whatsapp groups, they will fall in line. They will stop shitting, they will stop eating, they will stop fucking. And if they don’t fall in line, they will thankfully be dead, and isn’t that the right place for them to be?
I don’t know how much power the municipal commissioner of Pratapgarh has or how much power the men who recently beat up the Tamil Nadu officials transporting cattle through Rajasthan have. I am hugely intrigued by yet another ambitious and dewy-cheeked young person who surfaced a few days ago to announce that all those who eat beef should be hanged – Sadhvi Saraswati. This week she has been on top of the Killboard Top 10. I’m also intrigued by the other ambitious young person, Renjith Abraham Thomas, who has the idea that Christian girls in Kerala now need to be saved from the seductions of Muslim men, with a helpline if you please. How much power did they each have in their lives until they refashioned themselves? Whatever they have acquired by now with the Shame & Punish Bharat Scheme, you can bet that they are holding on to it as tight as they can, as tight as Swachh Bharat hopes we will hold on to our shit.
Shit, food, love, sex. It’s not accidental that these are the things provoking the most rage and violence, the most desire to shame and punish, in our public officials, our politicians and our public-minded. It’s because nation-builders know that the heart and intestine consistently resist right angles. In the words of the great poet Miley Cyrus, “And we can’t stop. And we won’t stop.” Not even on this bridge.