A conspiracy of silence — that’s how filmmaker Divya Bharathi describes the uneasy quiet that shrouds the death of men and children in sewage tanks. Earlier this month, when six men choked to death in Delhi, the reaction was on expected lines — nothing beyond knee-jerk moves, she says.

There have been 11 such deaths this month in the country. “That we look the other way when another human being cleans human excreta, is evidence of the deep inhumanity around us,” says the advocate-activist as she recounts her own harrowing fight against the banned practice of manual scavenging.

Her hard-hitting documentary Kakkoos (latrine) captures the life-threatening working and living conditions of manual scavengers and sewer cleaners in Tamil Nadu. ‘ Kakkoos ’ is a slang derived from the Dutch kakhuis (sh*t house) and used colloquially to refer interchangeably to public latrines and defecation.

The 109-minute documentary also throws light on the unrelenting caste discrimination and cruelty faced by the workers.

“Manual scavenging is not a job — it’s caste violence and a crime against humanity,” says the 27-year-old Madurai resident, who has been fighting police cases, and harassment from authorities and political outfits that called for a ban on Kakkoos . A CPI(ML) worker, Bharathi was involved in Dalit activism during her student days. The death of two septic tank cleaners in her hometown, in October 2015, spurred her to join an ongoing protest in front of the Madurai General Hospital; she then went on to make a documentary on the issue.

“At the time of the protest I was not well-versed in the various Acts of Parliament that were intended to end manual scavenging — the 1993 and, later, September 2013 Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act,” she says. During the shooting for the documentary over one-and-a-half years, she realised that not only was manual scavenging unlawful but also people chose to overlook it owing to entrenched casteist reasons. “When a brother goes down a sewer to clean it, we look the other way,” she says.

Kakkoos is not an easy watch. It begins with a sharp dedication: “To your conspiracy of silence on the septic tank deaths”. The documentary squarely blames the stifling and unrelenting hold of caste practices for the failure to end manual scavenging. It mentions the Pallars, a Dalit caste in Tamil Nadu, whose members are predominantly engaged as manual scavengers.

In March 2017, the first resistance to the documentary came from the Central Board of Film Certification, which refused to certify it. Police authorities in Nagercoil and other parts of southern Tamil Nadu began to call on her, advising her not to screen the film, she tells BL ink on the phone.

“I was not given any cogent reason... They said they were acting ‘on orders from above’,” she says, adding that she still does not know where the orders came from.

Financed mainly through crowd-funding and the help of friends, the documentary was finally released on YouTube in 2017 and viewed by over 1.7 lakh people.

The film’s success led to shrill calls for its ban. Prominent among those opposing it was N Krishnaswamy, founder of the political party Pudhiya Tamizhagam. The Pallars — among the castes the film mentions as involved in manual scavenging — constitute Krishnaswamy’s vote base. According to Bharathi, Krishnaswamy filed a case against her on the grounds that her documentary defamed the community. In its complaint, the party said the film’s release would affect the “unity and diversity of India”.

Social media attacks and harassment followed. Bharathi’s phone numbers were shared publicly on Twitter and Facebook. “I was threatened with acid attacks, physical harm, rape and received 2,000 abusive phone calls,” she says. She was arrested in connection with a protest that was organised back in 2009 and released after two days. Even today there are cases registered against her in 12 cities in Tamil Nadu.

“Krishnaswamy’s party is now aligning with the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party, in power at the Centre] and it’s not difficult to see the conspiracy in buying the silence of people who speak out against caste,” she says.

According to Bharathi, her experience on the ground during the filming of her documentary shows there are over two lakh manual scavengers in Tamil Nadu alone.

She accuses the Central government of playing down the numbers, especially in the wake of the launch of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nationwide cleanliness mission Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Despite a 2013 Act that outlines measures for the rehabilitation and training of existing manual scavengers for new jobs, “nothing seems to have been done”, she says.

She is dismissive of the recent protests in Delhi over the deaths of manual scavengers, arguing that they have no meaning in the absence of any long-lasting solutions. “Why do we wait for a death to stir up protests, or why does the media only write about it in the aftermath of a tragedy,” she asks.

Sudha G Tilak is a Delhi-based journalist

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