When Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP, made a remark that construction of toilets should be accorded priority over building temples, he made a mistake. He made the remark almost apologetically – by qualifying that, although he is identified as a Hindutva leader, he believes in prioritizing sanitation over sanctums. He could have rather declared with just pride that he made the statement because he is a Hindutva leader.

Hindutva is not about building temples. It is about building a healthy and vibrant democratic Hindu society to promote the Hindu values for global harmony. Narendra Modi has internalized this truth better than many half-baked religious fanatics and ignorantly arrogant pseudo-secularists, who can be found in abundance across the political class and the media.

No. Modi did not conjure up this sound byte for the sake of electoral battle. “Although Gujarat is one of the progressive states, it is sad that sanitation coverage is low.” This statement is not from a trenchant Modi-critic but by Narendra Modi himself in 2006, while addressing a state level conference in Ahmedabad organized jointly by the state government and UNICEF for promoting Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC). Modi roped in Morari Bapu, a highly venerated spiritual leader, to send home the message of the importance of sanitation. Later Modi stated

“Sanitation is not a programme, but a way of life. We must make a sincere commitment to ourselves to ensure a clean environment in the villages and thus contribute to a healthy and prosperous society.”

In 2009, the UNICEF report was saying the following:

Gujarat, with a population of 55 million, has had a poor track record with 20 per cent rural sanitation coverage (NFHS-3) four years ago. However, with consistent efforts made by the Government and the community, the situation is now starting to turn around. Out of 18,000 villages, 1,300 villages have already been declared open defecation free.

Associating spirituality with the sanitation has a long history in the Indic tradition. Upanishadic seers declared that every organic function is as divine as every other function. The highest cognitive function is as divine and in no way superior to the so-called lowly function of excretion. Subala Upanishad declares

Vak is adhyatma, that which is acted upon by vak is adhibhuta, and Agni is Adhidaivata. The nadis bind them. He who moves in vak, that which is acted upon by vak, Agni, the nadis, prana, vijnana, that akasa of the heart, and within all else- that is Atma. It is that which should be worshipped. It is without old age, death, fear, sorrow, or end…. The anus is adhyatma, the excreta is adhibhuta, and Mrtyu is adhidaivata. The nadis bind them. He who moves the anus, the excreta, Mrtyu, the nadis, prana, vijnana, ananda, the akas of the heart, and within all else – that is Atma. It is that which should be worshiped. It is without old age, death, fear, sorrow or end. (Khanda V)

It is in this context that we should also see the empowerment programme by Modi for Dalits. Section of Dalits, traditionally forced to perform manual scavenging, are now being trained to become temple priests. Interesting enough, the anti-Hindu leftists have as usual raised their voice against this scheme. The anti-Modi hate peddlers love to paint this as a conspiracy of upper caste Hindutva with their convoluted theoretical arguments. But the fact remains that the association of divinity with the so-called defiled professions, is a time tested method to remove the stigma and democratize the so-called defiled jobs. The one organization in India that has done stellar work for the sanitation workers and attempted to break the caste barriers in sanitation services has actually used religion the very same way as Modi has used, but long before Modi, to empower the Dalits.

The Sulabh Foundation has used many Hindu customs and traditions to empower the Dalits who were forced by tradition to be sanitation workers and break the social taboo associated with scavenging. But even more important and related is the dehumanizing practice of manual scavenging, which in Indian context is definitely associated with the topic of sanitation. Modi-baiters at one point out the 2011 census data which states that there are still over 2,500 households in the state where the night soil is removed physically by humans. A study from Tata Institute of Social Sciences commissioned by Gujarat state owned Safai Kamdar Vikas Nigam  reveals that  2456 households with with 12,506 individuals in Gujarat are involved in manual scavenging of which 4,333 persons are directly involved in the practice. 

But what Modi-baiters forget is that why should a Gujarat state-owned firm employ a premier social science institution to bring to light the real state of this dehumanizing practice. That in a state like Gujarat which has been for long conservative there are now only less than 5000 persons associated with manual scavenging is actually a welcome sign.  After all, after decades of progressive leftist rule in West Bengal the 2011 census data reveals that there are 1,30,000 manual scavengers and in that Islamic paradise Kashmir, despite its small size, there are    1,78,000 manual scavengers.

Modi’s concern for sanitation and democratization of the sanitary services, the empowerment and liberation of Dalits involved in the oppressive system, has a long tradition in the history of BJP itself. If it was Atal Bihari Vajpayee who inaugurated the People’s Commission on the Abolition of Scavenging set up by Sulabh Foundation in 1998, three decades before him it was another BJP leader (then Jan Sangh) who was the first to abolish manual scavenging in the municipality of which he was the youngest municipal president – late Dr.V.S.Acharya.

So in Modi, the legacy continues…

Now on the green joker Jairam Ramesh, Remember in October 2012, Ramesh was booted out by Manmohan from Drinking Water and Sanitation department and the portfolio allocated to Bharatsin Solanki with Independent charge.  Jairam Ramesh has a favorite statement which he uses from tigers to toilets. The statement is “I admit that there has been a failure of governance and administration” In 2010 he stated that with respect to the death of tigers in the Congress ruled Rajasthan, where mining was happening dangerously close to the Sariska National Park.

He repeated the same, albeit with a slight modification, with respect to MNREGA, calling it a ditch digging programme. The ex-sanitation minister now admits that UPA-ruled India has been a big failure in sanitation also. It is a complete travesty to compare and contrast the statement of an attention seeking antics of the eccentric Jairam Ramesh with that of Narendra Modi – an achiever and a person who understands the problems at ground zero, just because they both talk about toilets and temples.

For Modi the statement is out of conviction and from his heart. For Jairam Ramesh it is simply one of the many ‘shooting from the mouth’ that he indulges in from his ivory tower.

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Aravindan Neelakandan

Co-author of acclaimed book "Breaking India", Aravindan Neelakandan has worked for the past decade with an NGO in Tamil Nadu serving marginalized rural communities in sustainable agriculture. He is also a popular science writer in Tamil and is part of the editorial team of highly popular Tamil web portal www.tamilhindu.com.

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