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Article 17 abolishes untouchability: Open letter to Bengaluru Prestige Shantiniketan residents

Segregating workers is reminiscent of “Indians and Dogs Not Allowed” signs in public spaces in colonial India

By Maitreyi Krishnan and Clifton D’ Rozario

That, on this, the 125th birth anniversary of Dr. BR Ambedkar, we are compelled to address this open letter in response to the notice issued by Prestige Shankti Niketan in regard to restrictions on the movements of domestic workers, is a matter of shame.

In the article titled “A gulf, maid in B’luru” appearing in Bangalore Mirror on April 24, 2016, it is reported that the residents’ association has put notices stating that “no maids, cooks and other help staff are allowed to walk on the podium level”, and that that podium and swimming pool were a “strict red zone” for them. This form of segregation is reminiscent of “Indians and Dogs Not Allowed” signs in public spaces in India during the colonial era, and the “Blacks not Allowed” posts in the US.

It is shocking that such abhorrent prejudices find their place in modern society. Discriminating against the workforce of domestic workers merely because they are poor and belong to the working class reveals your class and caste prejudices and intolerance; definitely not befitting persons living in this day and age.

The reason for invoking Dr. BR Ambedkar in this context is that it is his foresight that ensured “Fraternity” being inserted in the Preamble of our Constitution, when in the Constituent Assembly he described it to mean a sense of common humanity of all Indians; the principle which gives unity and solidarity to social life, especially in India, where castes brought about separation in social life. The importance of the idea of fraternity has also been recognized by the Supreme Court of India which noted in Raghunathrao Ganpatrao vs Union of India that in a country like ours with so many disruptive forces of regionalism, communalism, class and linguism, it is necessary to emphasize and reemphasize that the unity and integrity of India can be preserved only by a spirit of brotherhood. The constitutional dream is of an India, founded on the fundamental notions of democracy and secularism, securing for all its citizens justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. The fundamental rights, directive principles and the Preamble being the trinity of the Constitution, the right to a life with dignity and without being discriminated is assured to every Domestic Worker in their exercise of their citizenship including their daily interactions with other members of society, whether at the work place or elsewhere.

The notice issued by you, enforcing segregation between classes of people in the apartments is a fundamental attack on the Preamble’s promise of ‘fraternity’ and on the very Constitutional order. The promise of fraternity held out in the Preamble is what is sought to be nullified by this notice; the notice is antithetical to the idea of “We, the people of India” as it insists on the segregation of some classes of people from others. The words of Martin Luther King need to be recalled in this context: “Segregation…not only harms one physically but injures one spiritually…It scars the soul…It is a system which forever stares the segregated in the face, saying ‘You are less than… “You are not equal to…”. And it is exactly this feeling that your notice is intended to invoke in the domestic workers.

Your actions apart from being an attack to the idea of fraternity embodied in the Constitution, is also an attack on the idea of equality that is embedded in it. You perhaps are unaware of Article 17 of the Constitution, which abolishes untouchability, forbids its practice in any form and makes it a punishable offence to enforce any disability arising out of untouchability. The practice of untouchability in any form, which you attempt to practice, is not merely a crime against the Domestic Workers, but against society and the Constitution itself. In State of Karnataka v. Appa Balu Ingale, the Supreme Court held that; “The thrust of Article 17 is to liberate society from blind and ritualistic adherence and traditional beliefs which has no legal or moral base. It seeks to establish new ideal for society – equality to the Dalits as par with general public, absence of disabilities, restrictions or prohibitions on grounds of caste or religion, availability of opportunities and a sense of being a participant in the main stream of National life“. Your notice is an affront to these ideals.

Equally alarming is the underlying casteism in your notice. It is hardly surprising that a predominant percentage of domestic workers belong to the dalit community. Our Union has persistently highlighted the caste discrimination in the employment of domestic workers. Apart from this notice, domestic workers are also routinely subject to various caste based discriminations within the household, reservation of separate vessels for eating and drinking, not being allowed to use the toilet, not being permitted to enter the kitchen or the puja room, all of which are also unconstitutional and illegal attempts to continue practices of untouchability. In some apartment complexes, domestic workers are compelled to use only the service lifts and not the lifts used by the “residents and visitors”, if at all. Further also is the employment of domestic workers from same or equivalent castes for cooking and cleaning of pooja rooms, and simultaneous engaging workers from the Scheduled Castes for other purposes including toilet cleaning, etc. None of this, ofcourse, applies that to visitors to these households and apartments.

All of these actions are manifestations of untouchability and amount to atrocities under the Scheduled Castes and the Schedules Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. The Supreme Court of India in Swaran Singh and Ors. Vs. State notes that it is a disgrace to our country that in many parts of our country persons belonging to scheduled caste communities are oppressed, humiliated and insulted. While speaking about the need for strict implementation of the Act and the constitutional protection of equality, the Court stresses that in the age of democracy no people and no community should be treated as being inferior.

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, while speaking of the real way to protect rights, stressed on the social and moral conscience of society. Political democracy cannot last unless there is social democracy, that is a way of life, which recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life, and a union of this trinity is the only way to safeguard and ensure democracy. Needless to add it is social, economic and political equality that can ensure liberty and fraternity.

It is in this context, in order to safeguard these values of equality, liberty and fraternity embedded in the Constitution that we are compelled to issue this open letter.

We demand you to immediately withdraw the notice issued by you and ensure that no form of segregation or discrimination of domestic workers and other staff take place within the apartment or within any household.



(The writers are members of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions)

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