In a judgement that leaves a Dalit couple poorer than when they first approached the court for justice, the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court has asked them to pay a sum of Rs 25,000 for "unnecessarily wasting the court’s precious time".
The couple had alleged harassment by Anna University Dean Chitra Selvi in July 2017 in a video that was shot by documentary filmmaker Divya Bharathi.
The couple, who had been working at the Anna University, Dindigul campus, for five years alleged that they had been forced to do household chores at the dean’s residence. The woman had also alleged that she was sexually harassed by the dean’s husband.
Speaking to TNM at the time, the woman had said, “All the problems started after this new dean, Chitra Selvi, took over two years ago. She would make us go to her house and work by turn. At times, we were also asked to go and work in her mother’s house in Karur. In the last one year, her husband started harassing me sexually. When there was no one else in the house, he'd ask me to go and get his underwear and towel while he was taking a bath.”
Pronouncing the judgement in the case on January 10, Justice T Raja observed, “When she is employed as a Scavenger/Cleaner in the fifth respondent college and on routine basis, she is also posted in her house, she has to clean the toilets in the house and also wash her dresses irrespective of the fact that whether it is her dresses or the inner dresses of her husband or other members. It does not make any difference.”
The couple who worked as contract workers under the job title of ‘Sweeper’ had taken up employment on the understanding that they would be working at the college campus. 15 fellow sanitary workers who had initially supported and accompanied the couple to the collector’s office to submit their grievances later withdrew. They submitted an apology and went back to work at the college while the couple was reportedly refused work.
Equating employment as domestic help with that of a contractual sweeper, the court goes on to say: "Similarly, when a sweeper/scavenger is employed, he/she has to clean up the toilet also, because she was appointed for washing the clothes of all the family members for which she has been paid therefor. Hence, being a domestic maid appointed as Sweeper and Cleaner, she has to wash all the clothes irrespective of the clothes, whether it is inner cloth or outer cloth. Similarly, a Sweeper cannot complain that she cannot be compelled to clean up the toilet, therefore, making a complaint that the scavenger was compelled to clean up the toilet, is wholly unacceptable.”
Speaking to TNM, the devastated husband said, “The court has not dealt with any of our grievances. We are living in hiding even today because we have a death threat hanging over our heads if we venture out. Our sons are not going to school because we no longer have any money left to pay. Our livelihoods have been destroyed because we refused to put up with harassment.”
The couple had alleged that they were compelled to clean the drain and toilets without following the mandatory requirements under the provisions of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Rehabilitation Act, 2013.
The Dalit couple belong to the Arunthathiyar caste while Chitra Selvi belongs to the Devendrakula Vellalar (Pallar) caste.
In Tamil Nadu, there are three main castes among the Dalits – the Pallar, the Paraiyar and the Arunthathiyar. While all of them face oppression from caste Hindus, the Devendrakula Vellalar and the Paraiyar have, relatively among the SCs, more education, resources and opportunities, than the Arunthathiyar.