Untouchability in India: A Reading List

Although constitutionally banned, untouchability is still practised in both rural and urban India, by upper castes and lower castes. But how was the untouchability question answered in colonial India? Did attitudes change during the fight for independence? And despite the ban, why is the practice still prevalent in India today? 

The caste system in India involves “rank and gradation,” Sukhadeo Thorat explains, which make “the rights and privileges of higher castes, become the disabilities of the lower castes, particularly the untouchables.” 

According to Amit Thorat and Omkar Joshi, being India’s “quintessential social and individual identifier,” caste receives a lot of scholarship focusing on its creation, evolution and manifestation. For instance, over the years, it has been discussed and debated whether caste originated in India or was introduced to India by “invaders.” 

Regarding the evolution of caste, when answering the “untouchability question,” Gopal Guru, in his review of the book, Untouchability in Rural India, writes that, “…there are scholars who obliquely suggest that caste is a rumour and untouchability has become irrelevant in India.” Guru argues that those who deny the existence of caste and those who believe that a practice like untouchability exists only in a “mild form” are either “guilty” or “embarrassed” of the very existence of caste and untouchability. 

The manifestation of caste is based on the notion of purity which goes beyond mere physical contact and is applied to a larger set of social norms. Thorat and Joshi note that “the notions of ‘purity and pollution’ are ideas that, despite the spread of education and the advent of modern lifestyles, tend to stick and prey on our religious and social insecurities.”

This reading list looks at the manifestation of caste, particularly in the form of the practice of untouchability. It traces the origin of the practice, how it evolved and how it was enabled under the British, how the “anti-colonial nationalists” felt the need to provide leadership to the Untouchables and finally how and why the practice is still prevalent in India today.

The Indian Caste System

In their paper, “The Continuing Practice of Untouchability in India,” Thorat and Joshi explain how India, the largest democracy and the second-most populous country in the world, has its religious majority divided on the basis of “jati” or “caste.” While jati is derived from the Sanskrit word jāta (born), “caste” has different origins. 

The word caste … derives from the Spanish/Portuguese word casta meaning race, lineage or breed. It was used formally for the first time in India by the British to identify and enumerate the various groups in India as part of their census exercises.

But “caste is not the same as race,” write Thorat and Joshi. The usage of the term “caste” does not imply a difference in race, but a difference in “characteristics.”

Caste is hierarchical, hereditary and endogamous in nature, and has historically been linked to specific occupations. However, some occupations like agriculture have traditionally been caste-neutral.

Throat and Joshi write that the caste system was derived from “the Chaturvarna system or the fourfold division of society.” 

This divides the society into four varnas or classes that are hierarchical in nature. On the top of this ranking are the priests (Brahmins), followed by the warriors and erstwhile rulers (Kshatriyas). The next to come are the farmers and merchants (Vaishyas), while the last in the hierarchy are the workers and craftsmen, among others (Shudras).

There exists a group of people who were considered “physically and ritually polluting” due to their occupations. These “outcastes” enjoyed no rights and were considered impure. It is primarily against this community that untouchability was and continues to be practised.

A fifth group existed outside this fourfold classification, that of the non-classified (avarnas) who did work that was, and is still considered, physically and ritually polluting, such as cremation and the handling of dead bodies, removal and skinning of dead animals, removal and cleaning of human bodily fluids and excreta (manual scavenging) and basket weaving. 

However, B R Ambedkar, in his work, Who Were the Shudras, writes that the division of society based on occupation was a later addition to Hindu scriptures to secure religious sanction for “control and hegemony.”

Defining Untouchability 

Marc Galanter, in his 1969 paper, “Untouchability and the Law,” traces the relationship between the British legal system and the Indian “caste order” in colonial India. Discussing the “constitutional meaning of untouchability,” Galanter writes:

The Constitution does not define “untouchability,” nor is it clear what constitutes its “practice in any form” or “a disability arising out of ‘untouchability.’” The English term “untouchability” is of relatively recent coinage; its first appearance in print was in 1909 and, while it gained wide currency, it did not gain clarity. 

Based on the pronouncements of Indian courts, Galanter writes that broadly, “untouchability” could be defined as follows:

…Might include all instances in which one person treated another as ritually unclean and as a source of pollution. In this sense, women at child-birth, menstruating women, persons with contagious diseases, mourners, persons who eat forbidden food or violate prescribed states of cleanliness or are subjects of social boycott might be considered to be untouchables.

Galanter goes on to refine this definition:

A … somewhat narrower sense of the term would include all instances in which a person was stigmatised as unclean or polluting or inferior because of his origin or membership in a particular group—ie, where he is subjected to invidious treatment because of difference in religion or membership of a lower or different caste. 

A still narrower definition is provided by Galanter:

…As referring only to those practices concerned with the relegation of certain groups “beyond the pale of the caste system.”

In an attempt to answer the question, “does untouchability exist among Muslims?” Prashant K Trivedi et al gave a more exacting definition of untouchability.

In a comprehensive study of untouchability, Shah et al (2006: 19) define untouchability as a “distinct Indian social institution that legitimises and enforces practices of discrimination against people born into particular castes and legitimises practices that are humiliating, exclusionary and exploitative.” 

From one’s occupation to their social interactions, caste dictates everything in a person's life. As a result, those “beyond the pale of the caste system” were at the receiving end of untouchability, a practice that could take up “vicious” forms.

…That mere touch or a shadow of an “untouchable” falling on someone else pollutes them. 

Framing Muslims for Importing Untouchability  

In the late 1800s, when “elite Indian nationalists” were trying to articulate the “new social order,” the Chaturvarna system posed an uncomfortable reality. Prashad explains elite Indian nationalists as “bourgeois historicism” which “locates its past in distant antiquity and clothes it in Brahminism.”

To return to the problem as proposed by the nationalists, how does one organise a new social order in which the Bhangis are liberated without losing their labour which is essential for menial tasks? 

According to Vijay Prashad, in an attempt to overcome the contradiction of liberating the “untouchable” from menial jobs, while still making them continue their job of cleaning and sweeping, the Indian “elite liberators” came up with a new “Aryan social polity” that placed conduct over birth in determining a person’s occupation. So, how did the elite liberators justify the “perversion” of this social polity over time? Prashad writes: 

Only one community is made to bear the burden for the perversion of the polity in these and other tracts: the Muslims. It was the “cruel bigotry of Muslim Emperors” and the practices of the “foreigners who ruled over India for several centuries” which ended perfection. This statement has a long ancestry, even in the biography of Shraddhananda, who as Munshi Ram in 1891 wrote that “there was no trace of the present caste system during the puranic age. It is a direct outcome of the advent of Muslim rule in India.”

According to Prashad, “It was not just the [Muslim] rulers who earned the wrath of [Hindu intellectual] writers, but all Muslims.” Various books and speeches from the early 1900s claimed that untouchable “sweepers” were originally Rajputs who were captured by Muslim rulers and forced into the occupation. And thus, the “elite Indian nationalists” attributed the origin of untouchability in India to Muslims.

Jairamdas, a staunch Gandhian, writes that although “untouchability is ages old, the evidence hitherto collected shows that there were no professional scavengers before Mohammedan conquest.” What is the ‘evidence’ for this? None is cited, except some ahistorical and acontextual stereotypes.

Arguments that there existed no Sanskrit equivalent of the word “Bhangi,” that there was no need for Bhangis in an Indian village in the first place and that Muslim women required indoor toilets as they were forbidden from stepping out, were all used to accuse Muslim “villainy” of introducing untouchability to India. 

A story is being told which portrays the Muslim as the villain and the Hindu as the saviour, with the untouchable as the character who waits on the stage of history, caught between good and evil, waiting only for a judgment which is beyond his/her control. 

By attributing the existence of untouchability to the “invading Muslims,” writes Vijay Prashad, the Indian “elite nationalist” “reveals its Brahminical and anti-Muslim standpoint.” 

Untouchability in Colonial India 

“The legal system of British India supported certain aspects of the caste order,” writes Galanter. They also withdrew their support in the years “preceding independence.” 

Many still believe that the British are behind the existence of the caste system in India. While that is not accurate, it is argued that the British did reinforce the caste system in India. As Galanter notes:

Caste groups did enjoy active support of the courts in upholding their claims for precedence and exclusiveness. Courts granted injunctions to restrain members of particular castes from entering temples—even ones that were publicly supported and dedicated to the entire Hindu community.

 

Damages were awarded for purificatory ceremonies necessitated by the pollution caused by the presence of lower castes; such pollution was actionable as a trespass on the person of the higher caste worshippers. It was a criminal offence for a member of an excluded caste knowingly to pollute a temple by his presence.

According to Galanter, “the overall British policy toward caste was a policy of non-interference.” However, an analysis of the court rulings from that period shows that the courts did give the “Hindu ritual order” precedence over the general law. 

Untouchable Mahars who entered the enclosure of a village idol were convicted on the ground that, “where custom . . . ordains that an untouchable, whose very touch is in the opinion of devout Hindus pollution should not enter the enclosure surrounding the shrine of any Hindu god,...” such entry is a defilement in violation of Section 295 of the Penal Code. As late as 1945, Nair users of a public temple were granted damages for pollution for the purificatory ceremonies necessitated by Ezhavas bathing in the tanks. 

But Galanter also notes that while one could be excommunicated from their caste for “associating with sweepers and shaking hands with them,” the untouchables did enjoy certain rights in the 19th century owing to the abolishment of slavery.

Indian Liberalism and the Question of Untouchability 

Vijay Prashad notes that in the 1930s, members of the untouchable communities of Chuhra, Bhangi and Mehtar (now known as Balmikis) joined the chamar community in escaping caste oppression by converting, fleeing bonded labour and forming political associations. 

The union of untouchables in opposition to the Congress plagued elite Indian nationalists. How could they represent themselves as a nation when a major segment of the population would not support them? 

The elite Indian nationalists argued that the “union of untouchables” were mobilised by “outside agitators.”  As Prashad highlights: 

Gandhi confided to Patel and Mahadev Desai that political separation will “lead to bloodshed.” “Untouchable hooligans will make common cause with Muslim hooligans and kill caste Hindus.”

So when the Indian National Congress passed a resolution to abolish untouchability in 1917, Ambedkar called it a “strange event.”

In Ambedkar’s analysis, the resolution was a “strange event” not for itself, but because the Congress “forgot the Resolution the very day on which it was passed. The Resolution was a dead letter. Nothing came out of it.” On the platform of the nationalist meetings, the untouchable appeared in word and, later on, in pious deeds.

 

Ambedkar pointed out in 1946 that, “Mr Gandhi does not appear to have taken any active steps for the removal of Untouchability or get himself interested in any activity beneficial to the Untouchable during this period.”

Untouchability in Post-independence India

According to the Constitution of India, “the state shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, place and birth or any of them.”

In his paper, “Oppression and Denial Dalit Discrimination in the 1990s,” Sukhadeo Thorat notes that along with the constitutional provisions, a number of protective and developmental measures were initiated by the government. 

In the “protective sphere” untouchability was legally abolished and its practice in any form foreboded by the Anti-Untouchability Act, of 1955. Nearly two decades later, in 1976, the 1955 Act was reviewed in order to make it more stringent and effective, and the “Protection of Civil Rights Act 1955” (PCR Act) was enacted. In 1989, the government enacted yet another Act, namely the Scheduled Castes/Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act in order to prevent atrocities against members of the SC/ST. The need for this additional act was felt because under the circumstances, PCR 1955 and normal provisions of the Indian Panel Code had been found to be inadequate to provide safeguards to SC/ST against several crimes. 

Legal measures have been taken to eradicate the practice of untouchability. But Thorat and Joshi have noted that:

Although the practice of untouchability has been constitutionally banned since the passage of the Untouchability (Offences) Act of 1955, it continues in certain forms not only in private social interactions, but also in the public sector. 

As Sukhadeo Thorat explains, the “Hindu social system” does not consider a family, let alone an individual, as the basic unit of society. 

The primary unit of society is caste. There is no room for individual merit and the consideration of individual justice. Any rights that an individual has, are not due to him personally; it is due to him because he belongs to a particular caste. 

 

In this particular order of hierarchy, the brahmins are not only placed at the top but are considered to be ‘superior social beings’ worthy of all special rights and privileges. At the bottom, the untouchables are treated as ‘sub-human beings or lesser human beings’ considered unworthy of any rights. Untouchables are considered as inferior social beings and therefore not entitled to any individual rights, i e, civic, religious, political and economic. 

In a society that continues to be ordered by a caste-based system, would it be possible to eradicate the practice of untouchability? Despite it being more than half a century since the anti-untouchability law came into existence, how is the practice still prevalent?

In 1969, Galanter acknowledged the difference between the existence of a law and the reality in practice.

There is, of course, no exact correspondence between this higher law and the behaviour that it purports to regulate, nor even with the day-to-day operations of the magistrates, officials, lawyers and police who staff the lower levels of the legal system. 

His observations are applicable even today. In “The Continuing Practice of Untouchability in India,” Thorat and Joshi found that even in 2020:

The mindset prevalent amongst the upper castes is that people belonging to the lower castes are physically and/or ritually unclean, and therefore, they should not be allowed to enter the kitchen (a sacred and clean place) or use the utensils that the household members use for consuming food. 

Sukhadeo Thorat tries to answer why the practice of untouchability and its “mindset” is still prevalent in India. He asks:

In the end the question is that why do higher caste persons continue to practise untouchability, and discrimination in social, cultural, religious, political and economic spheres. Why do they resort to physical and other violence whenever the untouchables try to gain a lawful access to human rights and equal participation in social, political, cultural, religious and economic sphere of community life? The reasons for the wide spread practice of untouchability, discrimination and atrocities as well as violent reaction by high caste persons are to be found in continuing belief and faith of the high caste Hindus in the sanctity of institution of caste system and untouchability.

 

 

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