Touch of ‘Evil’: Bihar Morgues Rely Heavily on ‘Untouchables’

Rajesh Mallik’s story exposes the hypocrisy of a society, which treats Doms untouchable while relying on their crucial services. This raises questions about the conscience of those who perpetuate such discrimination.
DMCH’s Department of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology
DMCH’s Department of Forensic Medicine and ToxicologyPhoto: The Mooknayak

Darbhanga/Patna (Bihar): Adorned in white jeans and a soft saffron T-shirt, Rajesh Mallik, clean-shaven, made a brief stop at a police post located within the Darbhanga Medical College and Hospital campus for a few minutes to have a casual chat with two cops who often accompany corpses brought to the DMCH’s Department of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology for postmortem examinations.

Rajesh shared moments of light-hearted conversation. Amidst laughter and lighter moments, Rajesh’s demeanor suddenly changed when he received a call. “It’s closed now; if you specify a time, I will be there. But it will be done only tomorrow,” he told the caller and hanged up the phone.

“A chowkidar (a home guard jawan of the Bihar Police) from Ghanshyampur (an assembly segment in Darbhanga district) is bringing the body of a child who has died by drowning. I lost my sleep today as well because he will reach here in the dead of night. I will have to wait for him to receive the cadaver and preserve it in a mortuary freezer to perform an autopsy tomorrow,” he said.

“Though we, the Doms, are considered untouchables, we are indispensable. Without us, cremation cannot be performed. Even marriages cannot be solemnised without us. Using bamboo baskets made by our community is an important ritual of Indian Hindu weddings. What we do is unique, and only we can do it,” he adds with a sense of pride.

In Hinduism, the Doms are considered to be cremators. After a death, they clean the body and bathe, dress and get the corpse ready for cremation. Once the body is placed in the cremation ground on a four-foot-high pyre built with wood, it’s the Doms who lit the fire and hand it over to the deceased son/daughter cremation.

Doms are the primary custodians of the fire that ignites the funeral pyres as well as the guardians of the cremation grounds. “One cannot attain ‘moksha’ (freedom from the cycle of life and death) if their bodies are cremated without the presence of a Dom,” he stated. “Unfortunately, we get respect from the so-called civilised society when someone dies. As a result, we live a life, living among the dead.”

Rajesh assumed the position of a dissection hall attendant at DMCH on compassionate grounds after his father’s passing. His father had been responsible for transporting unmanaged bodies to the Department of Anatomy and preserving them in formalin for educational purposes. Continuing his father’s legacy, Rajesh now holds the same title of Dom, honouring his family’s tradition and dedication to this sacred duty.

Dom — Not Just a Caste, But a Designated Position

Despite the term’s antiquated origins, the government designates those who work with dead remains as Doms. Only the Doms are referred to by their caste in hospital records. This government position is restricted to the community — which is highly marginalised and oppressed.

Rajesh’s job is to dissect cadavers under the instruction of a doctor or a medical board. Sometimes, he dissects in front of medical students who, with the help of medical science professors, study human anatomy.

It’s not a job that Rajesh wanted — living among the dead with scissors, forceps, shears, scalpel, saws, etc. as acquaintances. He had dreamt of becoming a male nurse, as he grew up in a hospital environment, but had to drop out from school after the eighth grade when his father died. Being the eldest in the family of five, the responsibility of meeting the household expenses fell on him.

He was offered the role of Dom in the forensic department because his father died while serving. Left with no option, he joined the department. The first three-four months were extremely tough, as he had never seen a human dissecting the body of a fellow human.

“Initially, I used to often vomit while having meals. At one point, I had begun hating myself. But I got constant support from my ustaad (trainer), who not only imparted to me his skills but also made me realise the importance of my work. He once told me though performing post-mortem on human bodies is visibly an inhuman and dirty act, it plays a vital role in solving criminal cases. Finally, I came to terms and accepted it as my destiny,” he said.

Autopsies — according to him — need expertise, speed and efficiency. Only undamaged cadavers, with no foul smell, are preserved in formalin for anatomy classes. “But in forensics, we get mortal remains in horrible conditions: swelled, decomposed and burnt bodies. Sometimes, the face is lost in accidents where the limbs and head are crushed or separated. To face all this and remain focused, you need to have some perspective on life and the world; one could call it fortitude,” he stated unemotionally.

‘Untouchable’, But Indispensable

Rajesh once again reiterated that Doms are important not just for the medical system, but the society as well. “Irony dies a thousand deaths when ‘upper’ caste men — who consider themselves divine souls and hate us because of our occupation, living style and eating habits — refuse to touch the bodies of their loved ones when it is brought into the morgue or taken out. The Doms perform the job,” he said.

The intrinsic fear of death may be partially responsible for this behavior, he said, but the caste system’s legacy is largely to blame. “The upper castes believe that not only touching the dead but also those dealing with the bodies, such as the Doms, contaminate them,” said Rajesh, who looked calm, persuasive and regal.

At this point, Shambhu Mallik, who also performs post-mortem at the DMCH, is on third party payment roll, and earns a mere Rs 5,000-6,000 a month, intervened and said, “They (the ‘upper’ caste people) never considered us humans. Do you know why we were forced into a hamlet in the south direction of villages? The air flows from two directions — east or west. If we live in the two directions, they say the air will get contaminated.”

He asked with rage, “Why is the work we do is caste-specific if it is such a noble job? Why do others not do it? Those who hate us should take care of the bodies of their kith and kin on their own. We also don’t want to live among corpses. It’s not our choice but a compulsion. Even today, we are forced to live an inhuman life. Every political party talks about our uplift, but fails to walk the talk. No hiring has been done for decades for Group D vacancies in the government sector.”

When it is obvious that no one will intervene to help, discussions about touching a body almost always result in one or two Doms showing up and completing the work. Rajesh has been allotted a residential quarter within the hospital premise. He is supposed to be on duty day and night, just like any other Dom. A body could be brought to his morgue any time.

Do the doctors whom the Doms assist in the morgue also discriminate with them? Rajesh denies. “They don’t pay attention to caste and untouchability. For them, medical science and scientific findings are important.”

Even the doctors admitted that conducting post-mortems daily without the assistance of Doms is not possible.

“Without the Doms, we cannot accomplish the task that we do. They can literally move 70–80 kilos of deadweight single handedly. All states don’t have a Dom categorisation. But the forensic assistants’ duties are performed by Dalits across the country because we lack trained medical technologists. Since its introduction in 1898, the Code of Criminal Procedure Sections related to forensics have hardly been amended.

The little changes that have been made have not been implemented in medical colleges and government hospitals,” said a doctor of forensics at a district government hospital in the state, refusing to be named.

The first human corpse dissection in Asia was carried out in 1836 at a medical college in Kolkata by an “upper” caste doctor. People had assembled outside the college to express disapproval of what they called a 'sacrilegious' deed.

“He was reported to have been honored with a 50-gun salute because a person from the “highest” caste dissecting a body was a momentous occasion,” he said.

Dissections were performed in early days primarily to aid medical students in their understanding of the human body. “The introduction of the forensic sections in the Cr.P.C. probably marked the beginning of the necessity to handle cadavers in large numbers. There was a greater need for handlers to carry dead bodies because the police were now compelled to investigate unnatural deaths, including accidents, suicide and homicide,” he explained.

Maybe this was the first time the Doms were employed in the medical system. The number of physicians and medical science students was inadequate. In addition, medical professionals would dissect corpses rather than transport them.

“A peculiar paradox emerged: when contemporary Western medicine was introduced in India, a customary caste system was incorporated into the hospital administration. The history books make no mention of any gun salute that may have occurred when the first Dom assisted in dissecting a corpse,” he said.

When Compulsion Becomes a Habit

After decades of his service, Rajesh is now used to living with the dead. The foul smell emanating from decomposed bodies and unclean autopsy tables and not well-kept dissecting halls do not make him uneasy or feel bad.

“I sometimes sleep in the room where I dissect bodies. Though I get a safety gear consisting of a PPE kit, gloves and face masks from the college authorities, I hardly use it now. I have a set of clothes, which I put on during working hours. Once my duty time is over, I go home, take a bath and change my clothes. The next day, I wear the same clothes again,” he said.

A day earlier, when this reporter first met Rajesh in the medical college’s premises, he was in a red T-shirt and black pant. Pieces of human flesh were stuck on his T-shirt, which was partially wet and had spots of fresh blood. He had just come out after performing an autopsy on the body of a 19-year-old boy (the only son of his parents), who died on the spot following a road accident.

Do such cases impact him emotionally? “Of course. I am also a human being, I too have emotions. When I meet grieving and crying families, I also cry. It often becomes difficult for me to cut open the bodies of young boys and girls and children because I am also a father,” he said.

A few years ago, Rajesh lost a brother-in-law who died of drowning. Since it was an accidental case, a post-mortem of the deceased had to be performed. The body was brought to the DMCH, but Rajesh could not gather the courage to perform the autopsy.

“I tried but failed. Finally, one of my colleagues was roped in, and he carried out the dissection. It’s not at all an easy job. It needs a lot of mental strength,” he said.

What about his family? He said his children (two daughters and a son) also know about the nature of his job. “Though my relatives don’t like the work I do, my wife and children are supportive. My wife knew about my profession even before our marriage. I also make sure that my body does not stink, which can make them uncomfortable. I clean the clothes myself everyday and properly wash my body,” he said.

He smilingly shared an incident to establish how receptive his children are regarding his work.

“My only son studied from a private school. During a programme, children were asked to introduce themselves. When his turn came, he said in the presence of a large number of people that his father performs post-mortems. But the school administration ensured that he was not discriminated against by fellow students. The principal in fact called to compliment me for raising the child in such a way that he is unapologetic,” he shared.

But Rajesh does not want his son to follow his family’s traditional profession. “He is in grade 11, and I will ensure that he flourishes in life. I want him to become a doctor,” he said.

The Sorry State of Affairs

Though Rajesh is a permanent government employee, drawing a salary as per the Seventh Pay Commission,  his fellow dissecting hall assistants are surviving on a monthly salary of mere Rs 5,000-6,000 for the same work as Rajesh does.

Since 2000, the government has not notified any vacancy for the position. The Doms and sanitation workers are hired by private agencies, which have been roped in. These agencies allegedly exploit their workers, make them sign on payment vouchers with higher amounts, but pay them a lower  sum. Such workers are daily wagers, who don’t have any security cover and provision of leaves.

Rajesh’s story highlights the vital role of Doms in Hindu cremation process, despite being considered untouchables. They face emotional challenges, particularly when dealing with the deceased who are young, but persistently perform their duties with remarkable strength and dedication. Their indispensable role in performing last rites exposes the hypocrisy of a society that treats them untouchable while relying on their crucial services. This raises questions about the conscience of those who perpetuate such discrimination.

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