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Updated: July 9, 2013 01:55 IST

The risks of sweeping the floor

  • Krishna Kumar
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A Congress politician’s sycophancy has reinforced the stigma, surrender and subordination inherent in the act of cleaning

The more India changes, the more it remains unchanged in some of its core values. Any activity related to sanitation has traditionally carried a stigma. Objects and persons related to such an activity share the stigma. In our languages, the metaphorical value of the words related to such activities has remained intact, indicating their continued capacity to stigmatise. This is evident from the statement made by a Congress party official and minister from Chhattisgarh who reportedly said that if the party president asked him to sweep the floor, he would do so (The Hindu, June 18).

The press has seen the statement as yet another example of the culture of sycophancy that prevails in India’s oldest political party. That, of course, is a worrisome fact, but equally worrisome is the use of sweeping the floor as a sign of total loyalty and lack of self-respect. Despite Mahatma Gandhi’s persistent struggle to impart status to cleaning, its links with lowliness persist. If sweeping the floor were merely a routine necessity, it would carry little value as a metaphor of surrender and loyalty. It acquires this value from its associations with caste and gender. In both cases, the physical requirement of bending or kneeling down imparts visual proof to its social import. Those who belong to caste groups associated with cleaning and sanitation have a low enough status in the social hierarchy to bend or kneel as a matter of routine. When a low caste person is sweeping the floor or the street, the upper caste passerby hardly needs to stop and take notice. In any case, what is there to notice? If the sweeper is someone whose father was also a sweeper, that too is part of the established order of things, hence there is no need to take note.

The wife who sweeps the floor every morning faces a similar invisibility. When a woman sweeps the floor with a broom, she is seen as doing her normal household work. In the established hierarchy of the sexes, her essential place is in the home, and the task of keeping it clean belongs to her. She may be highly educated and well employed, but her husband and his parents have a customary right to expect her to sweep the floor. Indeed, they would expect her to do it as a matter of habit, for that is what she would have learnt since childhood, i.e. to perceive it as a girl’s job to help the mother in keeping the house clean. In the division of labour between the sexes, this arrangement reinforces gender roles and difference of status. Culture protects it from becoming worthy of notice. Last year, in my class on sociology of education, no student was keen to concede that division of labour in a modern family is anything more than a convenient arrangement. I asked them to imagine a nuclear family where both husband and wife are medical doctors. They come home from a journey and discover that the maid had not been coming, so the floor is dirty. ‘Who will see this as something to be addressed with instant action — husband or the wife?’ I asked. No one missed the point or disagreed that sweeping the floor was a marker of status and the wife will get on with it.

Political use

Let us now turn to the political use of sweeping as a metaphor. The Congress party official who has expressed his willingness to sweep the floor if the party president asks him to do so is using the metaphor at two distinct levels. That he is a senior worker of the party and now an official, and is yet willing to do something as lowly as sweeping the floor conveys obvious humility and absence of ego. He is not merely obliging or obeying; rather, he is conveying the point that advancement has not gone to his head. He is making this point to his followers or voters. They are supposedly going to say, ‘Our leader will go far because he is so humble and loyal.’ He can count on this impression because the culture of this imaginary dialogue is well established in the party he belongs to. Numerous men have gone up the party ladder precisely by using the route of obsequious behaviour in public. What happened to those who hesitated? We can’t say with confidence because the cases to consider are so rare. Even the highly talented seem to have found the risk of being seen as hesitant sycophants unnecessarily high. The Chhattisgarh leader’s humility acquires an extra social value because it is addressed to a woman. In offering to sweep the floor when a woman asks him to, he is offering to transgress gender roles which is nothing less than a phenomenal social adventure in our set-up. But the key difference between the Chhattisgarh politician and the ordinary sweeper or housewife is that he has volunteered to do something that others, who do it routinely, do out of compulsion. That is a basic distinction.

Post-independence planners of economic and social change had thought that education would weaken the forces of tradition and erase the stigma that the caste system imparts to sanitation. In the 1950s, children studying in basic schools cleaned the toilets themselves, irrespective of caste backgrounds. That is one reason why basic education did not last. A colleague of mine who recently visited rural schools in Chhattisgarh found that in some of them, the task of sweeping was assigned to a girl suffering from disability. When this was queried, the teachers said that the girl was happy fulfilling this responsibility. It was impossible to convince them that this was a case of double discrimination, completely against the vision of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA). Why does the government not provide money for hiring a sweeper under SSA, they wanted to know. On this matter, officials of the Ministry of HRD routinely emphasise that SSA is supposed to encourage community participation, so it is expected that sweeping the floor would be done by community volunteers, whatever that might mean. As for teachers doing it, I recall the dialogue between two eight-year-old boys who noticed that their teacher was sweeping the floor of her classroom. One boy said to the other: “Look at poor m’am, she has to sweep the floor!”

The contract workers who keep the institution where I work clean do so under a new arrangement. Sweeping has been withdrawn from the list of permanent government jobs. After the promulgation of the Sixth Pay Commission, all ‘class IV jobs’ as they were called are outsourced to contractors. This is apparently a measure based on the idea that services of reliable quality require permanently insecure workers. Contractual work of this kind belongs to the unorganised sector, hence there is no mandatory structure of rules to protect the rights of sweepers. In certain organisations, sweepers are given a uniform — a mode of recognition, perhaps — but their small, fixed salaries imply that they must remain poor. This marks a change from the policy that India’s welfare state had followed before the advent of neo-liberalism. As salaried employees of the government, they could afford to give a stable upbringing to their children, some of whom translated the opportunity into modest upward mobility. Sweeping as a contractual form of work supposedly reduces fiscal deficit of the state, but this is hardly a sign of India’s entry into capitalist social relations. Sweeping continues to stigmatise those who do it, except for political purposes.


In the present case, the sycophancy communicated through willingness to sweep is especially disturbing. If there is one State where free exchange of thought is crucial to the maintenance of democracy, it is Chhattisgarh. Its tribal population is caught in what is perhaps the most tangled set of circumstances India has seen since independence. The political consensus that emerged around Salwa Judum, and the tenacity with which the project was defended by the local political class, have shocked the rest of the country. The deep political introspection required to resolve the terrible conflict in which the State is caught can hardly occur in an ethos marked by sycophancy. True, this is not a special failing of Chhatisgarh or of politics alone. Sycophancy dominates all spheres of life and no administrator can escape its capacity to encroach upon common sense. But in Chhattisgarh, a civilisational disaster is unfolding and a political culture based on sycophancy can only exacerbate it.

(The author teaches education at Delhi University and is a former director of NCERT)

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We live in a world where we tend to rank everything we see. The same holds with profession as well. We can may be bring up the status of sweeping or cleaning but it still remains as a backward profession compared to others. Like, thought cleaning tables is considered as a backward profession, cleaning at a pizza hut or KFC is considered better than at an ordinary hotel.

from:  manu
Posted on: Jul 11, 2013 at 00:35 IST

Congress is in need of only sweep all the scams under the
carpet !

from:  S.Rajagopalan
Posted on: Jul 10, 2013 at 11:24 IST

A well written article. It takes on the question of unadulterated sycophancy exhibited by political leaders and also the undercurrents in such public utterances. The article is well thought out and brings out a complete perspective of the remarks made by the political leader and the social relevance of such remarks.

from:  Elaya Kumar S
Posted on: Jul 10, 2013 at 00:23 IST

a very good article written by the eminent author and praising their way of elaboration such type of topic..

from:  Ravi Singh
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 23:35 IST

sycophancy is a part and parcel of the culture of politicians. During
emergency The congress president stated that "Indira is India "!!!!.
The leaders Dravidian parties who say that there is there is no God, and
any one who worships is a fool, want their followers to do sastanga
namaskarams to them !!!!

from:  VTVenkataram
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 23:25 IST

In western countries cleaning the floor of malls, streets etc is done with the help of machinery. Though India does not face any labor shortage, in view of the "stigma" attached to the act of cleaning, it may be advisable to use machinese to clean our streets. The operators of the machine will have self-respect and earn better.

from:  Natarajan
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 22:26 IST

The author’s intentions were right. No act should be demeaning and no actor should be stigmatized.
However, there is a distinction between the activity and the result. Cleaning a dirty place is a nasty job irrespective of who does it. The resulting clean place is great. We should realize that cleaning is one of the necessities for healthy and good living. Ultimately, no person should be expected to take up a cleaning job by making sure that the place does not become dirty in the first instance or by employing machines to do the cleaning.
In the US, plumbers who do sewer work use advanced machines and they are well compensated. They get the same respect as any other professional.

from:  Som Karamchetty
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 22:25 IST

A new way of looking at the traditional division of labor.

Extremely well written without the rhetoric.

from:  Animesh
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 21:09 IST

Is it ok for men to fall prostrate before a woman just for the sake of making him a minister.Let this stop first before we move somewhere.

from:  kirubakaran
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 21:07 IST

"Ready to sweep the floor, if Sonia asks" says a politician. How low
can one get?
Sycophancy is an appropriate description. But it needs to be
qualified in this case.
How about 'Abject' or 'shameless' or 'cringing' or 'underfoot'?
The extent to which the politicians of the present day go (down?) is
Hey, why not that word 'abominable' for qualifying sycophancy ?


from:  Veevip Sarathy
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 20:43 IST

Voters must boycott such leader inspite of seeing it as a symbol of humbleness and loyalty..govt should rethink about the needs of sweepers before giving sweeping to contractors and most importantly, parents and teachers should teach their children to respect the sweepers.

from:  Rahul
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 20:11 IST

No doubt, it is a beautiful article and tells like what it is. But what should we do to change this culture? It is easy to lament and bemoan. Do we, of the middle class not employ sweepers to clean our houses? We should introspect.

from:  R.Sundaram
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 19:11 IST

Very well writter article..shows the current thought process of the
people and their ministers.

from:  praneet
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 18:49 IST

A well-written incisive article -- congrats to the author and Hindu!
In Attenborough's movie "Gandhi", there is an emotional situation --
When Kasturba refuses to clean the Ashram's lavatory, the Mahatma gets
angry and then calms down, but politely conveys the fact that even
cleaning the lavatory is mandatory for every ashramite and must be done
willingly and approviingly. He went on to elaborate that no job is
menial and that while one is at it, it is the most important task in the
world! Today, the whole world needs the Mahatma.

from:  Jay Ravi
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 17:57 IST

truly an eye-opener!
i wish people understand the gravity of the issue being raised and
start viewing 'sweeping' as just another form of a job instead of
awarding it a 'derogatory' status.
moreover, it's imperative to break down the chains of caste and gender
associations of this task and this can be done only with a change in
the mental make-up of the citizens of this's in fact
shameful and at the same time alarming that a politician uses
'sweeping' to project his humility and obedience! the writer of this
article definitely deserves an applause for identifying the presence
of this neglected issue in this instance,which otherwise, could have
gone easily unnoticed.

from:  SHIPRA
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 17:10 IST

The NCF was introduced under the able leadership of the the author way back in 2005.The curriculum was a landmark specially with respect to political science education where it critiqued the everyday discrimination amongst people across gender, class ,caste, disability etc. It looks as if all those lessons are to pass exams and not for real life practice. The large variety of sycophancy exhibited by a large section of people at all levels ,to remain in the good books of their " Boss" is responsible for the perpetuation and continuation of feudal mindset in our so called Democracy!

from:  lalitha
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 17:00 IST

Surprisingly we see this very easily with regional parties and also criticize but when it comes to the congress this is seen as democratic, secular and what not. Time we introspected within as a people as to what we really need, just our needs fulfilled at any cost or the pride of holding our heads high as a soveriegn nation.

from:  Rajesh
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 16:53 IST

Very well written article.

I request to read about "Sant Gadge Baba" a social reformer in this subject.

I am sure it will be great pleasure to understand the respect he tried to provide to the community.

from:  Rgp
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 16:17 IST

We are all aware of the state of the affairs of our country. We have
made progress in many areas and there do exist areas which we need to
improve upon. I'm reminded of Gandhiji's quote in this context: "Be the
change you wish to see in this world". Instead of harping upon the
current state of affairs we could find small ways to express ourselves
in a better way.

from:  C D Kuruvilla
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 16:05 IST

An excellent article at a time of need. It is still a long way to go for Indian people to change their mindset on this topic.

from:  Hirain CKK
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 15:29 IST

Nicely written. I wish if these articles are read and understood by our political class as well as the general voters.
After reading about the Indian History what I have understood is that any work which is manual was never appreciated hence they were assigned to the lowest rung (read caste) of our society. The manual jobs from cleaning to fine art, from making iron vessels to making clothes were all made so low paying jobs that the people in that were forced to use their next generation in the same profession so that a vicious cycle starts and that family can never come out of that profession, there by reinforcing the culture of caste (by birth).
It is important that questions are raised about them and the next generation be inspired to find out the answers.

from:  shekhar
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 15:15 IST

Sycophancy has become part of our life and work culture. This clan
would always ahead of all others. So why only single out leaders elected
by us.

from:  Nagarajan
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 14:57 IST

A very well written article brings to light the crippled thinking of ours. We all need to chew the cud on this matter.

from:  Vibhor
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 14:32 IST

Good article by writer. I strongly feel that our leaders will fall down to any extent for the sake of position there is no feel of responsibility or willingness to work for better- ment of nation.

from:  Vineeta
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 14:32 IST

Time and again Hindu covering important issues neglected by our other 'SOAP OPERA MEDIA'

from:  DEEPAK
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 13:33 IST

Prof Kumar has very well connected the dots relating to social stigma
attached with a profession in our society. At the time, when we are
discussing equity, this is the ground reality. We all need to be
little sensitive about respecting a profession. This is what we are
lacking as progressive society. This coupled with Government's apathy,
like making class 4 jobs contractual or passing Domestic Workers Bill
without considering the implementation framework, are adding to the
woes. The question remains-how can we ensure people respect
professions? May be, we can use schools where students get an
opportunity to see how much effort it takes to do a work or experience
the same work. Or, parents engage them on holidays doing some domestic
chorus like washing utensils etc. However, such measures apply to
future generations only. The need of the hour is sustained conviction
from government and from us to respect the profession. At least, Lets
do our bit, Say hello to our enablers sometimes!

from:  Gaurav
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 13:08 IST

A beautiful article. The word 'Sweeping', which till now I considered
as simple, has been expressed in many different ways depending upon its
situation. I congratulate the author and the Hindu for this article.

from:  M K Keswani
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 12:54 IST

A very different and interesting article. Even though other political party workers are successful by surrendering to their leaders, Congress has sweeping victory for the past 9 years by bending their policies and agendas by forming coalition governments.

from:  marudah
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 12:33 IST

Really.... wow what an article.... really says what we know already.... but in a way that makes one think aboit it in a much deaper way.... good!

from:  Sigma Azadi
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 12:06 IST

A well written article this is indeed. The social stigmas and taboos are prevalent in all strata of society. It is not just sweeping floors that has such derogatory association, but also washing clothes, cleaning vessels, cooking, etc.
Education has become some abomination - purely theoretical, used merely as a tool to achieve high marks and reach good colleges. The teacher at the beginning of the school year enters the class and talks for an hour about getting "Centum" . Parents rush to book admission for their kids in such schools. Kids choose to follow their parents, peers and teachers and believe it is reality to be casteist, sexist and that it is impractical to live free of corruption.

from:  Elvis
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 11:17 IST

Kudos to the author for bringing up such a fine issue. Labour in India
is cheap, thus taken for granted. Also the caste system and patriarch
mentality developed over hundreds of years still has a very strong hold
over our society. So it was not surprising (even for the educated) to
find sweeping, a job associated with 'lowly poor people' or 'responsible
Indian bahu', to be said of as something which demands full loyalty and
no self-esteem. Is that what is required of housewives and poor people
in India? That's how "Bharat ka nirman" is taking place since years?

from:  Veena
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 11:05 IST

Civilisational disaster and sycophancy is prevailing in whole of
India,in all spheres and at all levels.Opinion makers devoid of
political bias can help to fight the disaster.

from:  S.Srinivasan
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 10:12 IST

Good article..conveyed a message in a very subtle way..

from:  Radesh Shetty
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 09:59 IST

The author looks at an angle which was clearly overlooked by the entire
media. This aspect is particularly relevant in the context of dalits in
this country and the professions linked to them. We as a country have
failed to change this mindset and our political class have gone a step
ahead and have professed this philosophy. We would be nothing of what
preamble of constitution tells us until we are able to eliminate this

from:  Akshay Kashyap
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 09:23 IST

Amazing article! In a country where there is the utmost need to break
free of the caste and creed barrier and destroy the forces of tradition
to realize the real neo liberal dream, this type of mentality is not
helping. The stinging fact is that in this case the "common man" do not
have the luxury to put blame on the politician because the root of this
social stigma lies in there sphere only. Today we think the definition
of equality and empowerment is trans gender only where as it should be
trans caste only which can ensure inclusive upsurge of the society as a

from:  Abhi Ranjan
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 07:26 IST

Krishnan Kumar, My congratulations for boldly writing about sycophancy in the Congress party. This started from the days of Indira Gandhi. A senior leader of the Congress expressed a similar wish to Indira Gandhi and subsequently elected as President of India. Why restrict the comment to Congress party only. Almost all the regional parties like AIADMK, DMK,SP, BSP, RJD, and number of other parties also follow the same principle. India is not to be considered as greatest Democracy but a Mobocracy.

from:  Narayanan Krishnan
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 05:16 IST

The sycophancy trait does not pertain to congressmen alone. There are
many regional political parties which are ruled by families.Sycophancy
is prevalent in these parties too. A corollary to the sycophancy trait
is dynastic rule. This too has become quite commonplace in our
politics. Thus a political party is family owned wealth which would be
inherited by the successors after death of the patriarch who
controlled the party during his lifetime. We, therefore, witness many
family feuds or succession wars within political parties. After death
of a popular leader, his widow is given party ticket and gets elected
on the sympathy wave. Inexperienced Rajiv Gandhi became Prime
Minister after tragic assassination of his mother. Similarly, when
Lalu had to resign due to corruption charges, he handed over the
mantle to his wife, a political novice. This is Indian version of

from:  Pramod Patil
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 03:32 IST

A very well written and very well thought article. Writer has ventured
in the direction where very few have dared to go. All of us talk of
equality and empowerment of lower classes but we rarely want to take up
the responsibility for their menial work. We don't want to take up their
As writer has rightly pointed out, problem is with our thinking where
we stigmatize work, like sweeping and cleaning you own toilet, as menial
and lowly.

from:  prav
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 02:20 IST

India is a country which sees some of the jobs as stigmatized. Sweeping is just one such example. This 'will sweep' kinda remark is not just a new one and more so not just from Chattisgarh. This kind of practices, I feel, is not just attached with congress and Chattisgarh. Moreover, I'm not able to correlate the author's linking of Chattisgarh's problems with the core of the article, could have been more clearer.

from:  Muthu
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 01:43 IST

What did the Chhattisgarh Minister aim to convey by declaring his
willingness (eagerness?) to sweep the floor if asked to by the Congress

Was he trying to usher in sweeping reforms in the country, sweeping away
any cobwebs in one’s mind about earning a living as a sweeper?

Or, was he talking about sweeping up the dust at any physical location,
or sweeping aside any reservations a party worker might have about
readily taking up any tasks his party President asks him to perform,
including lowly sweeping?

Or, with one sweep of his hand has he swept the floor with his sweeping
sycophantic statement, vis a vis other invertebrate Ministerial
colleagues? Will he win a plum post in a sweeping victory and sweep up
the drive of a Lutyen bungalow in his white Ambassador? Will such
behaviour now spread like a sweeping fire in his party, as others take
note of the sweep of what can be achieved, or will it all be swept away
in the monsoon torrent of election sycophancy?

from:  D Mahapatra
Posted on: Jul 9, 2013 at 01:34 IST
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