Untouchability in India goes back to hoary past, though its origin and practice remain vague or unknown. Till the early 1930s, the de jure definition of the depressed classes, as they were then known, was in terms of the religious concept of pollution. The depressed classes were defined as “Hindu castes, contact with whom entails purification on the part of high-caste Hindus”. In 1851 census, the Census Commissioner J.H. Hutton adopted several criteria to be employed for identifying the depressed classes. These criteria did not work welL Therefore, some adjustments were made before the promulgation of the schedule in 1935.
Though our Constitution outlawed the practice of untouchability and the Untouchability (Offences) Act of 1955 declared it as a legal offence, yet since Hindus are still deeply steeped in their concern for purity and pollution, the practice of untouchability has not been completely uprooted in the social and religious life of the country. Thus, untouchability may be understood from two angles :
- The stigma attached to certain people because of ceremonial pollution they allegedly convey and
- The set- practice engaged in the rest of the society to protect itself from the pollution conveyed by the untouchables.
The social stigma of the untouchables manifests itself in all walks of life. They are denied access to temples and to the services of the Brahmins and are shunned by the higher castes. They are born as impure and live as impure. The rest of the society is so much concerned about purity that they permanently keep untouchables in a state of economic, social and political subordination. The stigma, congenital according to one’s caste, lasts for a lifetime and cannot be eliminated by rite or deed. Defined in relation to behaviour, untouchability refers to the set of practices followed by the rest of society to protect itself from the pollution conveyed by the untouchables. However, this concern with ritual pollution is not limited to the role of untouchables; it also served to keep the untouchables in an inferior economic and political position through physical separation. It is generally believed that the untouchable groups have come to realize that their problem can be solved only through effective political action. In recent times, due to reservation of posts in Parliament,Vidhan Sabhas, jobs educational institutions, etc., and other privileges granted by the government, a low ritual-status man has a better chance to achieve high economic and political status while high social status becomes an individual matter.Sociologists like L.P.Vidyarthi, Sachchidananda, etc. have attempted to study social transformation of dalits with reference to the caste disabilities, their educational efforts, acceptance of innovations, political consciousness, integration with the larger society, level or aspiration ,internalization of modern values, position of women, their leadership, dalit movements and so on.
Though many dalits have given up their traditional caste-based occupations yet a good number is still engaged in polluting occupations. The change and diversification from polluting occupations has not only moved the stigma of their untouchability but has also enabled many to rise in class mobility. Some of them are owners of landed and household properties.They have been beneficiaries of various economic benefits of properties.They have been beneficiaries of various economic benefits offered to the scheduled castes by the government The status disabilities now largely confined to the village discriminations in the matter of using the public wells or the temples are not as widespread as before. High public servants and those who occupy higher position are less subject to disabilities in social intercourse. There now exists a direct correlation between the politico-economic status of an individual and his social status. In some cases, however, their ascriptive status scores over their achieved status, for example, in the field of marriage, the entry of a Harijan in modern profession like medicine, engineering, administration, colleges. This is partly because of the stereotyped hatred and partly because of competition and jealously on account of protective discrimination in their favour. Even the Harijan elite studied by Sachidan and in Bihar in 1976 pointed out such jealousy.
A large number of Harijans suffer from an inbred inferiority complex which makes them sensitive to any treatment which they think smacks of discrimination. This does not mean that such alleged discrimination is always made and accusation is true. The immobility of the Harijans has also given place to mobility. This has been made possible by migration from rural to urban areas, education and entry in public services and in politics. All this points out how the structural distance between the dalits and others has considerably narrowed.
Dalits are a marginal group in rural India, both in economic sense and in view of low-status members of Hindu society. The two features observed about dalits in rural society are :
- Most dalits do not own land nor are they tenants, and
- Most dalits earn an important part of their income by working on the land of others and/or by attaching themselves to landholding cultivators.
The employment of the dalit labour is determined by agricultural product and wages paid The higher demand is at the time of harvest The demand for the labour increase when there is more cultivable land, more irrigation, more fertilizers and more capital. Modern agricultural implements like tractors, etc., increase the demand for skilled labourers but decrease the number of persons needed The employer (landlord) gets labour from dalits as well as non-dalits. The labour, thus, is not homogeneous. Preference is always given to non-dalits as they are considered more hardworking. It is for this reason that the dalit in rural areas is referred to as ‘marginal’.
- Gandhian perspective to untouchability is reformistic. He believed that untouchability is a crime against God and humanity. Being a true humanist, he believed that every human is a child of god; everyone is equal in the eyes of God The value of equality is cherished in Hindu Dharmashastra.
- Gandhi believed that untouchability is a product of aggressive caste system driven by the principles of individualism and materialism. He appreciated Varna system because it is giving way to hereditary learning of occupation without conceptualizing any occupation is superior or inferior. Gandhi speaks about division of labour dealing to self-sufficiency in society, neutral-occupation among the people and harmony of persistent in collective life. He teaches self- discipline, humanism, control of materialistic needs.
- He wanted caste to perish away from India by initiating reforms that includes permitting untouchables to enter into Hindu temples, accelerating inter-dining, encouraging higher caste to take up the occupation of the lower caste to get a experience about the agony of untouchables and to ensure forgetting inter caste differences and internalizing the humanistic values of Hinduism. The Hindus of India should stand integrated.
- Gandhian approach to untouchability was no difference from SNDP movement in its ideology. Hence starting from reform movement, to Gandhi untouchability is considered as a culturo-historic mistake that can be addressed through reform, compassion, providing space for integration between higher castes a lower caste (untouchables).
- Gandhian approach was contradicted by Harold Gould. He considers that socio-religious movement of the untouchables is not a search for equality with Brahminic and Sanskritic groups rather through this movement, untouchables of India manifested a protest indicating, that they can imbibe Brahmanic and Sanskritic values.So equality is not a grace for them neither a concession, rather it’s a right earned by them. So reform is a form of protest and not a search for equality of status with Brahmins as a form of concession or grace.
- According to dialectical approach to untouchability, in no society, economically empowered group ever subjected to social and cultural discrimination. It is a matter of facts that untouchables of India were the original inhabitants of the country. They were subjected to territorial and political aggression at different points of time, leading to loss of land and further leading to loss of livelihood So controlling over land and agriculture, the dominant class pushed untouchables into the village-outskirts, imposed a ban on untouchables like ban on planting tree, milking cow, practicing agriculture etc. This led to pathetic condition for untouchables.
- According to this approach, poverty was the prime cause of exclusion of the untouchables of India. This was further supplemented by a new ideology offering a cultural justification to untouchability.
- David Hardiman considers that dalit movement in India is not different from mobilization of blacks in Europe. Both the movement is the manifestation of economic exploitation, giving rise to other forms of exploitation.
- Contemporary approach to untouchability largely borrows ideas from Ambedkar. He considers that untouchability not contextual practice its intensity varies from one situation to another. Ambedkar’s engagement with untouchability, as a researcher, intellectual and activist, is much more nuanced hesitant but intimate as compared to his viewpoint on caste, where he is prepared to offer stronger judgements and proper solutions. However, with untouchability, there is often a failure of words. Grief is merged with anger. He often exclaims how an institution of this kind has been tolerated and even defended. He distinguished the institution of untouchability from that of caste, though the former is reinforced by the latter, and Brahmanism constituted the enemy of both. He felt that it was difficult for outsiders to understand the phenomena. He thought human sympathy would be forthcoming towards alleviating the plight of the untouchables, but at the same time anticipated hurdles to be crossed – hurdles made of age-old prejudices, interests, religious retribution, the untouchables could muster. He found that the colonial administration did little to ameliorate the lot of the untouchables. He argued that the track-record of Islam and Christianity, in this regard is not praiseworthy either, although they may not subscribe to untouchability as integral to their religious beliefs.
- Ambedkar felt that untouchables have to fight their own battle and if others are concerned about them, then, such a concern has to be expressed in helping them to fight rather than prescribing solutions to them. He discussed attempts to deny the existence of untouchables and to reduce the proportion of their population in order to deny them adequate political presence. He resorted to comparison with what he called the parallel cases, such as the treatment meted out to slaves and Jews but found the lot of the untouchables worse than theirs. He argued that in spite of differences and cleavages, all untouchables share common disadvantages and treatment from caste Hindus: they live in ghettos; they were universally despised and kept outside the fold He maintained a graphic account of the course of the movement of the untouchables, although this was much more specific about the movement in the Bombay Presidency.
- He threw scorn at the Gandhian attempt to remove untouchability and termed it as a mere pretense aimed at buying over the untouchables with kindness. He presented voluminous empirical data to defend such a thesis, and suggested his own strategies to confront untouchability, warning untouchables not to fall into the trap of Gandhism. He exhorted them to fight for political power. Although he did not find the lot of untouchables better among Christians and Muslims, he felt that they had a better option as they did not subscribe to untouchability as a religious tenet. Ambedkar was also deeply sensitive to insinuations offered by others to co-opt untouchables within their political ambit.
- Ambedkar rarely went into the origin of untouchability in history. He rebutted the suggestion that race has anything to do with it and did not subscribe to the position that caste has its basis in race either. However, in one instance, he proposed a very imaginative thesis that untouchables were broken men living on the outskirts of village communities who, due to their refusal to give up Buddhism and beef-eating, came to be condemned as untouchables. He did not repeat this thesis in any central way later to the fold either. It has to be noted that the thesis was proposed when Ambedkar was fighting for the recognition of untouchables. He thought that untouchables were separate element in India and, therefore, should be constitutionally evolved with appropriate safeguards.
Untouchability as practiced
- When the Constitution of India outlawed untouchability in 1950 many believed that a centuries old practice has been brought to an end But even after so many years there is no full eradication of untouchability in India. Millions of Dalits across the country who account for roughly 1/5th of the population continue to suffer birth based discrimination and humiliation.
- Dalits have been deprived of their right to education and the right to possess land and other forms of property. Left with nothing but their physical labor to earn their livelihood they have all along forced to do the toughest and most menial jobs for survival.
- They are denied access to public roads, tanks, temples and cremation grounds with segregation of Dalits is seen almost everywhere especially in rural India. The constitutional ban and compulsions of modernity and development have to some extent blunted its rigor.
- Although all state governments claim that they have abolished manual scavenging reports reveal that this practice is very much alive in many parts.
- There are also road transport related violations of the law against untouchability. Among them is the unwritten rule that gives caste Hindus priority over Dalits in boarding buses in many areas, transport employees picking up fights with Dalit passengers without provocation.
- Teachers and fellow students belonging to upper caste Hindu social group often discourage the Dalit students. In many schools Dalit pupils are not allowed to share water with upper caste Hindus. There is also systematic refusal of admission to Dalits in certain schools.
Emergence of Dalit Consciousness
- Dalits occupy the lowest position in the local hierarchy of castes. They are from the former outcaste group of untouchables who adopted the nomenclature of dalits following the original usage of the term by Mahatma Jyotiba Phule.During British period a number of movements came into existence that showed concern for dalits at various levels. Mahatma Jyotiba Phule, Dr Ambedkar, and reform movements fought for the Dalit cause.
- Dalit term became very popular after 1975 when Namdeo Dhasal, Raja Dhale and other Dalit literary personalities and youth launched a movement, called Dalit panther on the lives of Black Panther in USA
Dalit Demography: According to census 2011, Dalits are 17.1% of Indian population. In terms of percentage of state’s population in Punjab they are 28%. In Bengal they are 24%. And in UP they are 19%. In terms of absolute numbers the highest is in UP, more than 40 millions, then in West Bengal and then in Bihar.
Dalit identity has become important no because of their numbers but because of their identity and assertion. They have been consistently moving in social political and cultural terms. It is their identity and assertion which have made them important.
- In the post independence period the legal sanctions against discrimination made the lower castes accessible for political and constitutional rights. The reservation of electoral candidates for parliament and assembly also created awareness among the Dalits for the assertion of their rights.The legal and democratic rights with numerical strength made the Dalit groups make use of the existing situations. The access to power through political emancipation has strengthened the egalitarian and competitive ideologies and identity.
- The big question is: will dalits ever be integrated in the main stream of the society? The age-long bondage shackles may be shaken off when the dalits equip themselves with education and skills and effectively compete in modern society. Legislation alone will not do away with their disabilities.
- Along with dalits own effort for achieving resources, change in the attitudes of the caste Hindus is equally important for banishing untouchability. We agree with Sachchidananda who holds that the combination of factors like ameliorative efforts of the government, the growing consciousness of the dalits and the liberal attitudes of caste Hindus will diminish the disabilities and discriminations with the passage of time.
- Politically, dalits are becoming conscious of the fact that they have to take advantage of their vast numbers in political terms. They may not be united to form a separate political party but by supporting the dominant national political parties they may extract the price of their support.
- But the problem is that though the educated dalits show evidence of politicians, the masses are not very much touched by this process. The elite have moved from the politics of compliance and affirmation to the politics of pressure and protest but they are still not able to present a common front and adopt radical posture.
The Present Discourse
The Dalit discourse today is mainly centered on exlusion. In opinion of Sukhadeo thorat, exclusion for Dalits indicates either through deliberate intention or by indirect design, Dalits are deprived of public facilities, social honour and prestiage. Badri Narayan says, In Uttar Pradesh Dalits are not allowed to avail marriage halls at the time of their marriages.
One interpretation is that exclusions are not externally imposed rather those groups which are marginalized intentionally get excluded. They include women, minorities, Dalits, Tribals etc. Sociologically speaking as Eric stokes pointed out that nobody voluntarily excludes themselves. It is either the fear of negative reaction or reprisals that, marginalized sections get then excluded Or there is actual reprisal that leads to so called voluntary exclusion.
Special Note :
State and non state initiatives addressing caste and tribe discrimination
- The Indian state has had special programmes for the Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes since even before Independence.The Schedules listing the castes and tribes recognized as deserving of special treatment because of the massive discrimination practiced against them were drawn up in1935 by the British Indian Govt
- After Independence the same policies have been continued and many new ones added Amongst the most significant additions is the extension of special programmes to the Other Backward Classes since the early 1990s.The most important state initiative attempting to compensate for past and present caste discrimination is the one popularly known as reservations.
- This involves the setting aside of some places or seats for members of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes in different spheres of public life.These include reservation of seats in the State and Central legislatures; reservation of jobs in government service across all departments and public sector companies and reservation of seats in educational institutions. The proportion of reserved seats is equal to the percentage share of the SC and STs in the total population. But for the OBCs this proportion is decided differently. The same principle is extended to other developmental programmes of the government, some of which are exclusively for the SC or ST while others give them preference.
- In addition to the reservations there have been a number of laws passed to end, prohibit and punish caste discrimination; especially untouchability.
- The Constitution abolished untouchability and introduced the reservation provisions. The 1989 Prevention of Atrocities Act revised and strengthened the legal provisions punishing acts of violence or humiliation against Dalits and adivasis. The fact that legislation was passed repeatedly on this subject is proof of the fact that the law alone cannot end a social practice. State action alone cannot ensure social change. No social group however weak or oppressed is only a victim. Human beings are always capable of organizing and acting on their own -often against very heavy odds to struggle for justice and dignity. Dalits too have been increasingly active on the political agitational and cultural fronts.
- From the pre-Independence struggles and movements launched by people like Jyotiba Phule, Periyar, Ambedkar and others to contemporary political organizations like the Bahujan Samaj Party in UP or the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti of Karnataka, Dalit political assertion has come a long way.Dalits have also made significant contributions to literature in several Indian languages specially Marathi, Kannada, Tamil Telugu and Hindi.