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Freedom From Filth

Terrorism in India can be defeated by toilets, and not just guns

5/31/2017 4:19:45 PM
written By : M J Akbar Print

More than two decades have passed, but the memory of a conversation with a very senior leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami Kashmir remains etched in the mind as a formative experience. It was a summer of serenity in the Valley .The patriarch, Sheikh Abdullah, was chief minister. Kashmir was at peace with itself. But this Jamaat cleric foresaw a gathering storm that we missed in our complacence.

“You Indians,” he told me, “look very happy, but your time is over. Our (Kashmiri) children have stopped going to your (state) schools. They are coming to my madrassas. Do you know why? Not because you offered brilliant education. They went because your schools had toilets, and their homes had none. But after years of neglect those toilets are broken. Toilets in our madrassas are clean and covered. If my children spend 10 years in my schools, who will they believe when they leave? Me, or your India?” A decade later, when working in the Human Resource Development (HRD) ministry and still haunted by this question, I convened a meeting of relevant education ministry officials in the winter capital, Jammu. We had a one-point agenda: to repair schools and toilet facilities. Nothing happened. But something had changed outside.

The children of 1981 had become the youth of 1991, and the cry of insurrection was raging through mosque and lane in Srinagar.

Two generations of schoolchildren later, the moment has arrived when a national sanitation campaign can restore the toilets we lost to secessionists. This is not Kashmir-specific. The response to Naxalite violence in Chhattisgarh or Jharkhand or Odisha also begins in schools, for education offers a future that the present has denied to the impoverished. Schools will defeat Naxalites far more easily than guns. Privileged India has never quite understood the insecurity that absence of a toilet represents, or the dignity its presence offers. Our eyes have become smug after centuries of indifference.

We do not think of the poor as equal human beings.

A broom is only a starting point. The real challenge of sanitation is not dry dust but wet dirt. A broom only displaces dust. Modern technology can now deal with a problem as old as existence. One of the agreements signed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Barack Obama was WASH, a water, health and sanitation programme in which USAID and organisations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will offer the latest expertise to the Clean India campaign.

But by picking up a broom, enthusing other icons to follow the lead, and offering Mahatma Gandhi as the lodestar of his movement, Narendra Modi challenged our mindset and ignited an offensive against prejudices deeply ingrained within the social history of India, across all religions. A familiar image of Gandhi shows him with a broom, kicking up dust. Perhaps it should have been an image of Gandhi cleaning lavatories in his ashram. This was compulsory for every inmate. If you could not bear to do so, you were free to leave. He refused to outsource the management of dirt to a designated caste.

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