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Bezwada Wilson, TM Krishna: Magsaysay Award a testament to their battle against caste, inequality

Suraj Kumar Thube
Suraj Kumar ThubeJul 29, 2016 | 16:35

Bezwada Wilson, TM Krishna: Magsaysay Award a testament to their battle against caste, inequality

This year, the Ramon Magsaysay Award has been given to two relatively lesser known Indians - Bezwada Wilson and TM Krishna.

The former has been a tireless crusader against the inhuman and degrading work of manual scavenging, while the latter has been a vocal critic against caste, untouchability and all the shibboleths that continue to define our modern society.

Both have different professions but their work ethic converges on the common vision of a liberal, egalitarian, open-minded society. Their story is like many such personalities who happen to come in the limelight only after gaining recognition outside India.

At the same time, it is important that their work is getting discussed as the issues they have been tackling throughout their lives are arguably the biggest impediments in turning India into a "nation".

Wilson is one of the founders of an organisation called the Safai Karmachari Andolan, and presently, serves as the national convenor of the same. The scourge of manual scavenging has been one of the social evils that Wilson's organisation has relentlessly fought against for decades.

Krishna, on the other hand, is a celebrated Carnatic music singer and is widely considered as a leading exponent of the same. His is a unique case as he has managed to work for social inclusivity and harmony through his soulful renditions, an initiative that has gained him immense popularity off late.

If in Wilson's case the battle was against humiliation and suffering that emanates while cleaning dry toilets and collecting human excreta with bare hands, Krishna's social activism has been exposing the elitism and the blinkered visualisation of society by the upper caste audience of Carnatic music.

After starting his work of eliminating manual scavenging since late 1980s, the biggest landmark of Wilson's perseverance was the enactment of Employment of Manual Scavenging and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993.

Since the time, the organisation is credited with liberating close to 300,000 scavengers. The worrying part is that still many more are in need of dignified jobs even after 25 years of economic reforms.

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The scourge of manual scavenging has been one of the social evils that Bezada Wilson organisation has relentlessly fought against for decades.

According to the latest socio-economic caste census 2015, around 1,80,657 manual scavengers are still employed across India under various government bodies. Being in a state of perpetual denial has been the hallmark of all these bodies, most notably that of the Indian Railways, where manual scavenging is still a daily practise.

Furthermore, a recent report of all major states show a complete mismatch in terms of the dry latrines and the number of manual scavengers employed.

In pursuit of projecting an untarnished and unblemished image, states like Himachal Pradesh and Chattisgarh are said to have no manual scavengers. Other prominent states fair no better.

This wanton hypocrisy is meticulously exposed by a senior journalist called Bhasha Singh in her book called Unseen : The truth about India's manual scavengers. It shows how the practise is rampant in practically all the big states of India, even in the much glorified state of Gujarat.

In fact, PM Narendra Modi is said to have equated manual scavenging to being a spiritual activity in his unpublished book, Karmayogi.  

Wilson has been extremely critical of Modi's tenure in the past and is categorical in his disapproval of recent schemes like the Swach Bharat Abhiyan for it seldom tackles the core issue of untouchability, caste and gender attrocities.

Bezwada Wilson, as a staunch Ambedkarite, remains one of the most significant servants for Dalit empowerment.

TM Krishna, on the other hand, has had several issues with the strong Brahmanical hold over Carnatic music as a whole.

His insistence on broadening the social ambit to include all sections of the society in the music fraternity is noteworthy. A perceptive observer that he is, along with being a remarkable singer, Krishna has been a strong votary of making music less sectarian and more egalitarian.

His critical views on keeping devotion out of music (as it diverts the attention from appreciating the various shades of music to merely chanting the name of God) is something that needs to be pondered upon.

Creative reflection upon traditional music sans making any compromises in the overall quality is noteworthy. This has had a wide-ranging effect in including people from the oppressed sections, bringing them on an equal footing with the traditionally revered upper castes and being vehement in resuscitating the increasingly regressing world of music.

He has consistently shown his defiance, be it in singing on a seashore of a Dalit village as protest for their emancipation, to refusing to sing in the popular yearly event called "December Season" as a sign of dissent against the burgeoning Brahminical hold over musical organisations, events and programmes.

Krishna has endlessly worked for opening up institutions for underprivileged sections in order to help bridge the already widening gap between the higher and the lower castes.

A social activist, a commentator, an avid reader of Indian society, Krishna has brought a seismic shift and has ushered in a rekindled hope of a post-Brahminical worldview.

The Magsaysay Award is a timely recognition of the monumental efforts taken by these social activists for shaping a better future.

Their grit, determination and social message should percolate down to our deeply hierarchical society which more often than not toes the line of the establishment and refuses to frontally attack these existing malice.

Last updated: July 29, 2016 | 16:35
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