Violence as an event, as a topic, as a source of discussion and outrage dominates India. Yet, for all the velocity and intensity of discussion, the debate on violence is selective. Worse, it is full of silences. Some kinds of violence are never talked about. Statistics about them are treated like a state secret. This is the example of incest in India. We do not want to deal with it officially or unofficially.
It is not that our list is short. We talk of rape, genocide, car accidents, caste atrocity, dam displacements, dowry burning, sex trafficking, Naxalbari but there is one set of events we deny, erase or pretend they do not happen. Violence to domestic servants falls into this category.
The recent case of a Member of Parliament and his wife mistreating their domestic servant evokes this space. The question however is this, is our outrage because the perpetrators were MPs? Or was it because of a deeper sense of injustice?
The problem of the domestic servant is a part of folklore. The word covers a range of people from different backgrounds. It could be the poor cousin living with the family playing domestic till s/he finds her/his way into the city.
It could be the legendary ayah, one of the great subaltern characters of history, a character who has even become the stuff of films and advertisements playing saheli, critic and informant. There is the family retainer, a version of the feudal domestic. He is another folk character, often quite dominant, even loving, in fact a dada-like figure who plays family conscience and memory, often sustaining the family in a moment of crisis.
At the other end, the domestic servant is close to bonded labour in the type of treatment, the lack of wages, the violence inflicted, and the demeaning nature of the relationship. Actually, our MP’s wife had treated the servants virtually as bonded labourers, beating them on whim, starving them, virtually enforcing a form of captivity. Here, work and life become a form of depravity, with the servant living like a plantation worker in a colonial economy.
The problem of the domestic servant is a particularly poignant problem. It touches on the informal and the domestic — two domains where law and citizenship are reluctant to enter.
One has to ask what kind of a worker is the domestic servant and follow it by asking what kind of a citizen is the domestic servant. As an inhabitant in an informal economy she could live in a slum nearby, rushing early in the morning.
Cities like Mumbai have helped unionised domestic staff but they are not yet “workers” in the official sense, with weekend leave and bonuses. What they receive they have fought for. Yet as members of a domestic economy, they often live on the leftovers, playing domestic scavengers to sustain the ease of the housewife.
In many a houses, the servant not turning up almost becomes a scene of crisis. The modern economy’s dependency on the domestic is amazing. Many a housewife poaches domestics in the area attracting them with better terms. This sense of competition, at least, provides some bargaining space to the domestic worker.
The domestic servant splits into two kinds: The local urban domestic who works serially in a range of houses doing a limited set of tasks within a given time. Such a group is semi-formal and are able to capture market properties to attain a set of freedom.
The other kind of domestic servant is the young tribal or villager we bring to the city and who is totally captive to the house. One gives him a bit of space, maybe a chattai on the floor and one expects him to slog from six in the morning to 10 in the night virtually doing errand after errand.
Often they are children, carrying heavy bags to the bus stop, watching other children go to school. They are at the beck and call of everyone; all work is outsourced to them, all mistakes, missing objects are blamed on them. At this moment, they are like local automatons that have to deliver.
Yet the domestic servant could be a pleasant memory. As children, I remember they taught me to climb trees, played partners in cricket, even listened to long boring discourses cheerfully, waited for us at bus stops, played surrogate brothers and parents. Even if they were the same age, they were seen as more responsible.
Our childhoods were prolonged because their childhoods were suppressed. Sometimes it feels odd meeting them later, confronting their affection, their sense of nostalgia because the baba is now a fully hatched babu. I admit it is an unequal relationship which had its moments. Yet there is fondness, gratitude, even a friendship in these relationships. Only one wonders where the rich boy has moved on and the servant lives in a “static” world, comforting himself in the masters’ success.
The new domestic servants as I shall dub them do not share the same relationship. There is distance from them, they become objects and are often beaten at the whim and fancy of the mistress.
The housewife plays the tyrant declaring a reign of terror. The domestic domain becomes the variant of the panopticon, the household, a site for banal terror. Scandals explode occasionally but such violence continues in every house silently.
There is a sense that they are almost subhuman and we feel that the morsels we give them are acts of generosity. Given the nature of rural and tribal displacement, given the nature of urbanisations, domestic servants are going to be a part of urban life and the informal economy.
I think it is for the neighbourhood and civil society to enforce civility and decency. The idea of the domestic servant is hierarchical, unequal but it can be an enabling structure providing space and occupations for migrants, easing the coerciveness of urbanisation.
One cannot officialise this change. For every case of violence to domestic servants, we have cases of domestic workers murdering old people. To confront both, we have to create a different system of caring and transparency. As life now stands, the domestic is important for urban process.
One cannot wish him away but one can make his life more dignified, tolerable, allowing him a greater sense of rights while still sustaining the old sense of reciprocity which we often condemn as feudal.
One has to realise that abolishing the domestic servant may not be realistic. One hopes a spirit of reform however permeates this space pressuring, coaxing and socialising people not to treat the domestic as an object but as a fellow citizen.