The Cremation Workers and the Pandemic: Interrogating Dom’s Touch and Dalit Immunity
Ms Sreemoyee Paul, Postgraduate Student, Department of Sociology, Presidency University, Kolkata, West Bengal, India
This paper on anti-casteism was conceptualized at a time when India saw consistent healthcare discrimination towards the perceived ‘lower castes’ during the major outbreaks of the Covid-19 pandemic. Scholarship on epidemiology of caste (George 2019; Pol 2020; Verma and Acharya 2018; Barik and Thorat 2015) have already elaborated extensively on medical discriminations based on caste as healthcare involves touching of the patient’s body. Dasgupta and Thorat (2009) have stressed that followed by tribes, Dalits in India have the lowest immunization rate.
During the pandemic, while doctors, nurses and other health care workers were vaccinated at the earliest as they were designated to work in the frontline, the cremation workers who were predominantly from the Dalit caste group ‘Dom’ were in most cases left out. While at times, they were provided with masks and gloves, they had to continue using them for multiple days even if they were torn. This discrimination is not recent but was prevalent even in colonial times as suggested by literature on colonial epidemics (Arnold 2004; Watts 1999).
When I tried to make sense of the reason behind this exclusionary behaviour towards the Dalits, I frequently came across a dominant rhetoric of ‘immunity’ of the Dalit body. For example, there has been a general belief amongst people, that Dalits are immune to the Corona virus as they are used to living in unhygienic conditions. Similarly, scholarship on colonial epidemics suggest similar opinions of the caste Hindus against those perceived as untouchables. Moreover, interestingly, recent media reports have found that certain Dalit communities themselves resisted against vaccination believing the virus affects only the upper castes and the rich.
My effort in this paper has been to comprehend this idea of ‘immunity’ of the Dalit body by looking into the sensory body state of cremation workers. This has been through specific focus in the discourse of Dalit food and Dalit ‘touch.’ I have been majorly influenced by Sarukkai’s (2012) anti-caste writings. Through a comparative analysis of the ‘un-touchable’ state (Sarukkai 2012) of the Brahmins and the ‘untouchable’ state of the Dalits, I have tried to formulate a new reading of the Dalit body, alternative to the upper caste perception. I have also borrowed from Sukanya Sarbadhikary’s (2019) formulation of Ucchishta as the marker of all creation and Dipesh Chakrabarty’s (2021) view of the Dalit body as the ‘planetary body.’
Lastly, I have tried to phenomenologically understand the environmental conditions where the cremation workers work and through an empirical take on the Indian philosophical understanding about the homology of the body and cosmos, I have arrived at the conclusion that the immunity of the Dom is analogous to the transcendental nature of the divine and the crematorium serves as their habitus of immunization.