Is Bengal recruiting only members of the Dom community to dispose of Covid bodies?

Not exactly. Dom is also the problematic title of a designation that does see general caste and OBC recruitment.

Is Bengal recruiting only members of the Dom community to dispose of Covid bodies?
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Last week, Live Law reported that Bengal was selectively recruiting only members from the Dom community to dispose of the bodies of those who died of Covid.

The Dom community is a scheduled caste group, and the report alleged that the government had directed the “specific engagement of individuals from the Dom caste”. Live Law noted that the government order in this regard was casteist and in violation of the Indian constitution.

“In West Bengal, the Dom community among Dalits is being thrown into the vortex of severe social and economic exploitation by being selectively employed for the hazardous task of managing Covid positive dead bodies,” the report said.

The cremation and burial of bodies has long been forced on the lower castes. As Live Law pointed out, members of the Dom community face discrimination and social ostracisation and are forced to work as “scavengers, corpse-burners, and sweepers under the caste system”. So, the authors of the report raised issues worth discussing.

However, they are not entirely correct in this instance.

The Bengal government is not selectively recruiting members of the Dom community – sometimes spelt “Dome” – for the specific work of disposing Covid bodies. There is, however, a government designation called “Dome” or “Dom” – a nomenclature from the colonial period.

A scrutiny of the government’s recruitment orders, including the ones cited by Live Law, reveals that the government has been issuing notices for recruitment to the post of “Dom”. While the government admittedly does give “preference” to members of the Dom community – see here, here and here – the recruitment isn’t restricted to them.

Government officials said that the state has also recruited people from outside the Dom community for this post and some of them are from the general castes and other backward classes.

This recruitment notice from Panihati state general hospital on May 19, 2021, mentions Dom as a post and calls for walk-in interviews.

This recruitment notice from Panihati state general hospital on May 19, 2021, mentions Dom as a post and calls for walk-in interviews.

“Dom” is a formal name of a government services post that comes under the “D” category, part of four categories of government employees. The designation exists in the departments of health, police and municipal affairs.

In the health department, the post is found in government hospital morgues with descriptors such as “dissection hall attendant” or “laboratory attendant”, though these are always mentioned with the formal name of the post: Dom/Dome. The municipal affairs department has the post for the removal of unclaimed or unidentified bodies and animal carcasses from streets. The police post is for the removal of bodies related to unnatural deaths.

What must be criticised here is that the post for the work of disposing of bodies is named for a community that has been historically forced into the work. This ensures that the work of disposing of bodies is made synonymous with the community.

This order from 2020 mentions 'post of Dissection Hall Attendant (Dom)', the pay matrix level, and the pay band scale for government employees.

This order from 2020 mentions 'post of Dissection Hall Attendant (Dom)', the pay matrix level, and the pay band scale for government employees.

This notice mentions 'vacant posts of Dome' and also states 'candidates with working experience as Dome or belonging to Dome family will get preference'.

This notice mentions 'vacant posts of Dome' and also states 'candidates with working experience as Dome or belonging to Dome family will get preference'.

“The government can advertise recruitment only in a post and not of the members of a community,” explained a senior bureaucrat. “The normal rules of reservation apply just like in all government recruitments.”

He cited an example from January, when the Kolkata Municipal Corporation announced the appointment of three persons to the post of Dom. Two of them belonged to the general castes and one was from a scheduled caste community. The advertisement to the post – issued on March 4 last year by the West Bengal Service Commission – stated that two vacancies were in the unreserved category and the other was reserved for the scheduled caste community.

There was no minimum educational qualification required. Candidates had to be physically fit to perform outdoor duties. These duties were “to collect small and large carcasses from the lanes, roads, streets etc of various wards under KMC”.

This Kolkata Police document lists the names of different posts and it includes one for Dom and one for Junior Dom.

This Kolkata Police document lists the names of different posts and it includes one for Dom and one for Junior Dom.

It should be noted that many of the recent recruitments advertised by the state government are temporary. Appointees are paid up to Rs 10,000 a month, as Live Law noted, instead of a government payscale and other benefits that are made available for group D employees.

A community and a designation

The Doms have historically been regarded as one of the more marginalised Hindu castes and were treated as “untouchables”.

According to this Planning Commission report: “The Dom are spread over Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh...Scavenging, mat-weaving and basketry, drum beating, removal of dead carcass and attending to cremation grounds, are the traditional occupations associated with the Dom. Many of them have found employment as sweepers in government and private organisations.”

In West Bengal, the report added, members of the community were notified as Dom and Dhangad. Their traditional occupation has been basket-making, producing winnowing fans and thatching houses.

According to this research paper on untouchability in Bengal, a survey was conducted in 2010 in a village in West Midnapore district among members of the Dom community. The survey revealed the continued existence of “social exclusion at various levels, like interdinning [interdining] in communal feasts and use of utensils by the Doms at public food-cum-tea shops”. The paper said, “Our survey also revealed discriminatory behaviour patterns of the higher castes towards the Doms under different social situations.”

Among the members of this community in West Bengal, the most common surnames include Dome, Bansfor, Mallik, Kalindi and Badyakar.

The formal name of “Dom” for the post has been around since the colonial period, according to a senior official of the state health department. “Even though nowadays we use an English descriptor for work, the word ‘Dom’ is simultaneously used so that applicants can understand what the work is before applying,” the official said.

Bureaucrats and public representatives said that on several occasions in recent years, the government was flooded with applications from people from all castes, including Brahmins, when such recruitment notices were issued.

According to Arup Das, a councillor of Bardhaman municipality in Bardhaman district, in 2018, more than 50 persons – including those from upper castes and having masters’ degrees – had applied for a post of Dom for a crematorium run by the municipality. The required qualification was to have passed Class 8.

A senior health department official said that in 2017, more than 300 persons, including those from upper castes, had applied for the post of two Doms for a morgue attached to Malda Medical College and Hospital.

In 2020, in response to an advertisement for the recruitment of 22 Doms at the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, over 1,000 people applied. Of this, 888 were called for a “field test” in November and December, where they were tested on their ability to help cremate bodies of Covid victims. A senior KMC official claimed that a number of applicants immediately left when faced with the test.

“Earlier, none outside our community was interested in dealing with dead bodies. So, it’s the members from our community who occupy most of the posts of Doms in different government establishments,” said Sanjay Mallick, who has worked as a Dom at the mortuary of Kolkata’s SSKM Hospital since 2007. “However, over the past two decades, people from the general castes, including Brahmins, are also applying, even though few are finally cracking the job interviews.”

His grandfather and father also worked as Doms in the state government services.

Journalist Sohini, who has researched mortuary workers in Kolkata’s hospitals, said the Dom community still faces “remarkable discrimination” and government jobs provide members with “some security and welfare”.

“When Dom is a designation in government service where members from the community get preference in selection, it works as a manner of reservation,” she said. “They are not unhappy with the nomenclature but the government could do better with the rights and welfare of Dom workers.”

‘Should not equate a community with a particular work’

But is the government reinforcing traditional caste practices by “preferring” to hire members of the community for this specific work?

“Equating a community with a particular work is not acceptable and goes against the basic tenets of the Indian constitution,” said Saradindu Uddipan, a Dalit rights activist. “When the government formally names a post dealing with dead bodies after a community that has historically been forced to be engaged in this particular work, the government is endorsing the continuance of the historical injustice on that community.”

Veteran CPIM leader Ram Chandra Dome, a former six-time member of the Lok Sabha, also sharply criticised the practice.

“This is highly derogatory and an offence against the community,” he said. “A community is being designated for a particular profession. This codification of community with work is condemnable and also unconstitutional.”

Dome also serves as the general secretary of Dalit Shoshan Mukti Manch, a CPIM-backed initiative that describes itself as a “national platform of Dalit organisations fighting against caste discrimination and for social justice.”

When asked why the CPIM-led Left Front government, which governed the state for 34 years till 2011, did not change the name of the post, Dome said, “It somehow got overlooked but we did not advertise recruitment for the post the way the present government is doing.”

He added that the Paschimbanga Samajik Nyay Mancha, another CPIM-backed initiative, has already written to the state backward classes welfare minister and the eastern regional chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes registering a protest against this practice and seeking an immediate end to it.

The state backward classes welfare minister, Bulu Chik Baraik, also agreed that the designation should change.

“For some reason, the issue remained overlooked for years,” he said. “The way we refer to people has changed over the years. Earlier, the tea garden workers used to be called ‘coolies’ and later as ‘labourers’. But now, we call them workers. Similarly, the designation of Dom should change and we should come up with a better name to describe the post.”

The minister clarified that he was speaking in his personal capacity and not as a representative of the government, since the matter has not been discussed at the government level.

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