One hundred women from Rajasthan came to the Kumbh with the singular goal of ending the stigma of untouchability caused by their work as scavengers handling human waste. They were present through the efforts of Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International, an India-based social service organization which promotes human rights, sanitation, non-conventional energy, waste management and social reforms through education. This is what Dr. Pathak had to say about his social campaign:

Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak: Founder of Sulabh International
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A S A CHILD, I ONCE TOUCHED AN UNTOUCHABLE. For this infraction I was forced by my grandmother to swallow cow dung as a punishment. I was also made to drink cow urine and bathe in Ganga water to purify myself. This experience ingrained in me what untouchability was in the minds of my community. These women here with me at the Kumbh once cleaned human excrement from toilets, and this made them Untouchables. They had to wear bells around their necks to warn families of their approach. They were forbidden from going to the temple, doing puja, even bathing in the Ganga. They never used to come here to Sangam for the Kumbh. Their children could only play with the pigs and not with children of higher castes.

Solving the Underlying Cause

In trying to fulfill the dreams of Mahatma Gandhi, I have been experimenting with the removal of untouchability. We have started with the towns of Tonk and Alwar in Rajasthan. We first installed Sulabh composting toilets, eliminating the need for manual waste removal and relieving the women from this degrading occupation. We then set up a training institute in Rajasthan and taught each woman a vocation, such as making papadums, tailoring, weaving carpets or doing cosmetics, thereby enabling them to stand on their own two feet. Now they are going to the same houses where they used to clean toilets, and are instead selling products or providing cosmetic services.

Uplifting someone economically can be easy, but creating acceptance in mainstream society can be a real challenge. We worked to have these women intermingle with the world at large. We worked to give them the sanskars (a sacrament or rite done to mark a significant transition of life) of the higher castes, by which they could gain equality. I feel that this is the biggest thing we have done for them. Before this change, being a guest in higher-caste home was for them impossible. We prepared these women to sit together with higher castes and sort things out, with no feeling of animosity on either side. Today these women are one hundred percent accepted by the very same people who once considered them Untouchables. They socialize together, exchange gifts and even share meals. In Tonk and Alwar we have completely eliminated untouchability. It has worked. Anyone can go there and see it. In India we have so many social organizations. If each of them could adopt just one village and work to bring about these caste reforms, then the whole of India would change. This is how a revolution can come about.

The Key Role of Brahmins

Part of our focus has been to inspire a greater feeling of bhakti towards God. Now we are working to encourage brahmins to perform pujas for these women and their families, to offer them prasadam and to have food with them. Then even in the villages this untouchability will disappear. Our slogan is: “Everyone should go to the temple, everyone should bathe in the same pond, everyone should have access to the same well water, and all must have food together.” These are the four things to be done. These are also the four indicators by which you can judge how well untouchability has been eradicated in an area. We are asking brahmins to come forward and take the initiative, since even today many brahmins will not sit and eat with them. Unless brahmins conduct prayers and accept food from these women, then the evil of untouchability will linger.

There can be different definitions of God. All Gods, whether of Hindus, Muslims or Christians, are Gods because of the faith of the people. But the real God is He who creates the jiva. I say, “It is He who has created us all, and there should be no social inequality. It is the duty of every Hindu to tear apart this inhumane injustice.”

Dr. Pathak and this group of former scavenger women celebrate after their first-ever ceremonial bath in the Ganga to remove their status as Untouchables
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Uniting for Change

All that I have done is due to the inspiration I took from Gandhiji. The discrimination these former Untouchables used to face existed for a very long time before he came on the scene. He was the first person to draw attention to their plight. Untouchability has now been banned by the government, but the stark reality is that it still exists. I feel very connected with these former Untouchables. When they laugh, I laugh; when they weep, I also weep. When they tell us their stories of how they were insulted by society, tears begin to flow.

A brahmin recently asked a former untouchable woman to perform his daughter’s kanya daan (the giving of the daughter during the marriage ceremony). This is the kind of change that is blooming in the minds of the people. Today, at my village in the Vaishali district of Bihar, people of all castes sit together and eat. This unity is what we need. All these people are a part of our Hindu society and should not be segregated.

To create change, we must unite. We want our politicians, social workers and industrialists to come forward and help in this movement. This is a grand work, and by no means a small job. I am happy to have taken a first step. Though I alone cannot do everything for this cause, at least we have shown the world a path. Now no one can say it’s impossible.

We know what we can do together. Wherever you are in the world, your life is successful if you can transform not just your own life, but those of others as well.

Casting Off Caste: Village scavengers stand transformed by Mother Ganga

Sharing a meal with brahmins and sadhus—Dr. Pathak believes sharing meals to be absolutely necessary in order to completely eliminate untouchability
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(left) gathering on the dais with swamis who endorsed their new status; (right) The reeducated scavenger women sing and clap on their way to the Ganga for the bath
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