The Caste-Class Divide on Water: Four Scenarios

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The purity-pollution dichotomy of our society has gnawed into the social fiber of our country. A slice from Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar’s life shows us how barbaric and uncouth we are, animals are better off than human beings. Taking the thread of water, Arindam weaves four scenarios from history and one of his own experiences.

It’s the 125th birth anniversary of the architect of the Indian Constitution, Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar. I was thinking how to pay tribute to the great man. I stumbled upon a Facebook post, exactly a year ago. Perhaps we all are far more barbaric and uncouth than the caveman, who to us wasn’t civilised enough. I feel we have taken a giant leap back on the evolutionary scale.

A little aside, before we get along with the topic. On April 13, last year, Anumita, our Managing Editor, and I, were discussing Dr. Ambedkar. The idea of this write-up sprouted then.

I present four scenarios, from various points in history, including an experience of mine, to illustrate how a natural resource like water has been the marker of the caste-class divide in India.

Scene One: Water for Animals, not Low-caste Children 

Here’s an extract from the biography of Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar, for whom we will pay glowing tributes, on his birthday, a few hours from now.

“During his school days, Ambedkar had several humiliating experiences, which made him realize what the stigma of untouchability meant. Once, Ambedkar and his brother were going to Goregaon from Masur Railway Station. They hired a bullock-cart for this purpose. Hardly had the cart gone a few yards when the caste Hindu cart-man realised that the two boys in his cart were “untouchables”. He threw them out on the road in a fit of rage, because he felt that they had polluted his wooden cart. Ambedkar and his brother calmed the cart man’s anger by paying double the fare. Ambedkar’s elder brother drove the cart, and the cart-man followed the cart on foot, as he was afraid of being polluted! Ambedkar and his brother could not get drinking water during the whole journey.”

The brutality of the caste Hindus were red in tooth and claw. While there was no water for two young boys, there was no dearth of it for the bullocks. The stigma of untouchability was so severe that these lads were, for all practical purposes, worse than animals.

Two: Different Meanings of Water, the Rural-Urban Divide 

Few years ago, during a seminar, in Allahabad, Prof Rajen Harshe, former Vice-Chancellor of Allahabad University, quoted an interesting anecdote from a Marathi story, Pani. Sorry I don’t recall the author he mentioned. Prof Harshe said that water means different things to different people. This story tells us about two lads, about 10 years. One lives in a posh apartment in Mumbai. For him, ‘pani‘ is the cold bottle of water that is in the fridge that quenches his thirst. The other boy is a villager. He lives in arid village. He knows that the womenfolk of his house, mother, aunt, sister-in-law, walk ten long miles, each way, to bring few pots of water. Each drop of water is precious for him. He sees the toil of his people. He drinks water only when he is very thirsty.

The rural-urban divide of water is glaring. Do we in the cities pause before we use (or misuse) water?

Three: Sex and Water: ‘They sleep with me but don’t drink Water from my Hands.’ 

It was mid-nineties. I was in Purnia, investigating a story on flesh trade. I was a decoy government official from the Child and Women’s Welfare Department. I was talking (read interviewing) a pretty young sex worker. It was summer afternoon. I was thirsty. I asked for a glass of water. She was shocked.

Aap hamare hath se pani piyenge, Babuji!’ (You will drink water from my hands, Sir). I nodded affirmative. She washed a glass, several times, poured water from the earthen pot and offered it to me with great reverence. I was surprised. She kept looking at me, in utter disbelief. She was in tears. She said, ‘Babuji, itna ijjat koi nahi diya hum ko…’ (Sir, no one treated me with such respect).

She added, with nostrils flared, that men slept with her, used her body. But, no one ever drank from her hands. She was a lowly woman. She sold her body. I played by the ear and ate with her.

Most of the story flowed from her, along with her grateful tears.

I recalled Rabindranath Tagore’s Chandalika, as I left her musty, dark room…

Four: Adi Shankracharya was Silenced… 

It is well known that Adi Shankracharya was silenced by a question from a sweeper (Safai Karmachari is politically correct these days).

On the Ghats of Ganga at Kashi (old name of Varanasi), just as the sun was rising, Adi Shankracharya was startled to see an unkempt and dirty sweeper, carry a bucket of water. On seeing his reaction, the sweeper had asked him if the reflection of the morning sun in the water f Shankracharya’s Kamundal was any different from its reflection in the bucket, in which he carried night-soil. Before Shankaracharya could answer, the sweeper had vanished.

Truly, water does not change. We do.


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Arindam Roy has 37 years experience in various newsrooms. He was the Managing Editor of a reputed Gurgaon-based Citizen Journalist portal and has held senior positions in several publications. As Correspondent and Bureau Chief, he has written extensively for Associated Press, Times of India, Hindustan Times and multiple news outlets. He has contributed 13 chapters to various publications. Of these, seven chapters were published in two Coffee Table Books, published by the Times Group. He is a co-author of a novel, Rivers Run Back that he penned with Joyce Yarrow. The novel was launched at the American Centre, New Delhi, on January 2015. He lives in Allahabad.