The National Shit

Recently, I had the opportunity to peer-review an article on the politics of shit in India. It was a fine contribution; I recommended that it be published, and it will, presumably, appear in print at some point in the near future. The author sought to make some connections between the phenomenon of outdoor defecation in India, and the inequalities of caste, arguing, more or less, that Indian attitudes towards shit reflect the extreme exclusions faced by communities that have traditionally been associated with ‘unclean’ tasks. I was persuaded by the arguments, but found myself thinking more broadly about Indian shit.

The politics of Indians’ defecation is not only about caste; it is about nationhood itself. Not surprisingly, when non-Indians have thought about India in the past, they have sometimes felt compelled to talk shit: Katherine Mayo, G√ľnter Grass, V.S. Naipaul, and various others.  Indeed, ‘where Indians defecate’ has entered global public discourse: whenever there is a demonstration of Indian national prowess, such as the ISRO Mars mission, the comments sections of foreign news sites mushroom with reproaches about wasting money on rockets when half your population shits in the open. This has become one of those things that even (or rather, especially) people who couldn’t place India on a map are confident about. Over the past year, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has itself played a leading role in highlighting the toilet issue, trumpeting the cause of “Swachch Bharat” (Clean India) and urging ministers, actors, athletes and other prominent citizens to pose with brooms before the television cameras. These well-heeled jharuwallas are, of course, quite aware that Swachch Bharat will not come anytime soon, and are not overly bothered.

That leaves us with a few questions that I would like to address very briefly. One concerns the persistent popularity of the subject of Indian defecation. Here there is a difference between the ‘foreign’ and ‘native’ discourses. The foreign narrative is either aggressively colonial, or, in a variation, nervously defensive. It emerged in the 1920s, precisely when the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms had given Indian politicians a measure of control over the lower levels of the government of the country. Talk of filth functioned, in this context, as a nullification of this self-government: natives were clearly incapable of running the machinery of administration. In the period after 1947, as Nehru and the Jadavpur/IIT generations made machinery (literally) a new basis of Indian civilization, missing toilets became a technological counterthrust: a way of putting upstarts in their place, and shoring up increasingly precarious distinctions and hierarchies between the natures of whites and natives. Dams and spacecraft swirled into the hole of the absent toilet, giving the lie to their own existence. Just as importantly, they left behind a moral stench, because the accusation was not simply about missing latrines, but about deluded self-indulgence: the refusal to take care of one’s own, preferring Martians to peasants.

The Indian narratives are more complex and interesting. They emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century, in two contexts that remained resolutely separate: the formulation of the middle-class family, and municipal sanitation. In the first, the polemics of cleanliness came largely from people who identified themselves as conservatives, and sought to articulate a ritual purity, in the literal sense of rituals of purity, that could be contrasted with the impurity and unhealthiness of a colonized public sphere. This meant elaborate instructions on how to defecate (do not linger, do not talk, try to avoid sniffing) and how to wash up afterwards (use ashes, not soap). Some of these same men became interested in what Benoy Kumar Sarkar later called ‘mistrification,’ or the cultivation of a mechanically adept subjectivity across the classes: respectable men who possessed, and were not afraid to use, the tools of home repair, and who displayed what became an elusive grail of Indian nationalism: 'scientific spirit.' The householder, conceivably, could be his own mistry, plumber and even janitor. Such schemes enjoyed a glimmer of popularity during the National Education project associated with the Swadeshi movement, but then faded almost entirely.

Municipal action, on the other hand, touched upon shit only in the context of disease-control, and even then very gingerly. Without the pressure of cholera, and sometimes even then, public shit remained somebody else’s problem, because the public defecator was reliably somebody else, and ‘the public’ not much more than an occasionally useful abstraction. It was only when Gandhi began holding up latrine democracy in his communes as the metaphor of a new public life, and pointing his finger at how the respectable continued to shit in their own homes (not very cleanly at all), that some connecting threads began to appear: between the communal latrine and the bathroom, between the toilet and the temple, between caste justice and democracy. These threads were, of course, by and large brushed away with the rest of Gandhi’s agenda of social reorganization.

They are now, apparently, being picked up again by the Modi regime, but these are of course not the same threads. They are at once a charade and a distortion, first because they are not accompanied by an agenda of economic and caste justice, second because they constitute an empty gesture of purposeful statecraft that is itself sinister, and third because they mistake public toilets for a public habit.  An important part of the BJP’s support base, including the prime minister himself, is openly enamored of the cleanliness of places like Singapore and leaders like Lee Kuan Yew. This is not a new trend in Indian nationalist discourse; the longing for a strong leader who will clean things up in the name of the state goes back at least as far as the 1920s. Since Indian political realities have stubbornly refused to either accommodate or legitimize that kind of state or elite action, the interventions have typically been sporadic, illicit or theatrical: pogroms, the Emergency, and less malignantly, Swachch Bharat. None have solved the problem of filth in Indian society, except in terms of providing a transient satisfaction to those who understand the connections between cleanness and power.

One of the laudable things about the Swachch Bharat program is that it has included the actual building of latrines: both public facilities and home toilets. (In the later case, it has carried forward an initiative which actually began under the previous government.) The problem, as everyone involved in these projects knows, is not only that proudly-built sewage lines terminate in rivers and on beaches (Indian municipal sanitation is largely about moving the stink downwind), but also that even when the toilets are made available, Indians continue to prefer the great outdoors when nature calls. There is a practical side to this perversity. Private homes often have a premium on space, and cannot spare a room for the bowels. Anybody who has visited a public toilet in India – in a bus station or on a train, for instance – knows that these are extensions of hell, best avoided. Words fail the user; there is no need to proscribe talking. Even facilities that the middle class (would rather not) use, such as school toilets, inspire a dread that must be smelled to be believed; boys at the most respectable schools shit in their pants rather than venture into the latrine. Nowhere is there an assurance of soap and water, let alone ashes. No institution, government or private, invests anything substantial in training or compensating those who are charged with cleaning public toilets, and such staff – where they exist – are treated with the dual contempt that is reserved in India for the low-caste and poor, who, in their undernourished skins and dirty uniforms, function as a race apart. For them, indifference to their assigned tasks becomes a perfectly reasonable form of resistance.

Practicality, however, is only part of the problem of Indian toilets, and it is of course not distinct from ideology and politics. It can hardly be denied that for many Indians, the toilet itself is inherently unclean, something to avoid and banish from the home. And even middle class householders make themselves at home with - but not in - dank, slippery, roach-infested bathrooms that are a sort of afterthought to domesticity. While caste prejudices have something to do with this, much of it is connected to a compartmentalized tolerance of filth, and patterns of urban dirtiness we would recognize in the fairly recent history of the European city, where people might simply pitch their shit out the window with a warning shout of “Gardyloo!” These are the habits of urban peasantry, who became ‘civilized’ in Europe partly through the mitigation of extreme poverty, and partly through absorption into the more or less horizontal community of the national population.

In India, where poverty remained romanticized as ‘authentic’ but nationhood remained fundamentally vanguardist, there was no corresponding mass de-peasantification. The most glaring failure, I would suggest, came in the area of primary education. When Nehru and his colleagues declined to prioritize public education, they neglected a basic function of the nationalizing project of the modern state, which is the transformation of habit into the stuff of historical agency. In this project, compulsion is as automatically legitimate as nationhood itself, and the refusal of the Indian state to enforce compulsory education was the abdication of a power that is prized in the rhetoric of the left as well as the right. “There must be compulsion,” Benoy Sarkar had remarked about urban governance, without feeling he was being anti-democratic or illiberal. The modern citizen – the fascist as well as the liberal – will shit right only if subjected to a measure of compulsion; toilet-training is a part of what Norbert Elias saw as the civilizing process both within and without the family. Bentham's invisible guard must of course be internalized, but the little savages must first be hauled into the circles of civilization.

Relatively few Indian children attended school consistently. Those who did, learned to hold it in. Yet it is children who are not afraid to shit at school that recoil from the prospect of public defecation, and it is those who have been trained to regard brooms and plungers as ordinary implements that do not shrink from toilets and janitors. In India, where such people are mainly fantastic, the failure to compel children to go to school is intertwined with the resounding refusal of the national elites to teach themselves the value of working with tools. The Indian model of development produced, ironically, a nation of engineers who disdain mechanical proficiency and regard mechanics as dirty, but see dirt as both normal and external to themselves. They take it for granted but refuse to own it, holding their noses, as it were. Disgust with and tolerance of shit –the unpleasant bathroom that one uses but does not inhabit – then undergirds a national habit, producing, among other things, a rhetoric of cleansing power that is itself a discursive habit of ressentiment nationalism. But development is first and foremost the building of habits that can sustain and be sustained by infrastructure. It is, consequently, in the arena of habit that India continues to be a grossly underdeveloped nation.

September 4, 2015