On the Curse of Untouchability: The Dalits of India

Untouchability Essay
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Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar at the opening ceremony of ‘Paro’ (Story of an untouchable girl) at West End Theater, Bombay (1949). See page for author, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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Being an Indian born and raised in India and fairly educated in India’s history, Untouchability is not a rare or uncommon concept for me. Many people living in the south of Asia, and almost every single person inhabiting the subcontinent of India, have heard and are aware of the concept of untouchability.

For those of you who are completely clueless about the concept of untouchability, please read on, for this essay aims to address exactly that.

So what exactly is untouchability? Well, to put it succinctly, untouchability is a form of social institution, a social practice, that legitimizes discrimination, exploitation, humiliation, and exclusion of certain groups of people who are deemed to be untouchables or pariahs or outcasts.

These so-called untouchables are considered the lowest of the low social group that undertakes the lowest of the low occupations such as cleaning, sweeping, skinning, washing, tanning, manual scavenging, fishing, etc. These jobs are generally regarded by upper castes as polluting or dirty activities, thereby leading to untouchables being regarded as polluted and dirty.

Now, although untouchability is a social evil found in many parts and cultures across the world, including in countries such as Tibet, Japan, Korea, China, Somalia, Nigeria, France, and Yemen, in this essay we will only be discussing untouchability in the subcontinent of India.

In India, the institution of untouchability is closely associated with the rigid and dogmatic caste system, which originated in ancient India and continues up until this very day. The social evil of untouchability has been a part of Indian society for centuries now, stretching back to ancient times. It is the practice of ostracizing a group of people deemed untouchables due to their low position in the caste system. They form the lowest stratum of the Indian caste system.

In India today the untouchables are commonly referred to as Dalits, even though the official term assigned by the Constitution of India is Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The term Dalit means broken or scattered and is a self-applied term for anyone that falls outside of the traditional Hindu caste hierarchy.

In ancient India, these groups were excluded from the four-fold varna system of Hinduism as described in ancient texts such as Manusmriti. Varna refers to a social class in the hierarchical caste system, and Manusmriti ranks and describes the four varnas into which people were divided.

The first varna comprised the Brahmins, who were priests, Vedic scholars, and teachers. The second varna comprised the Kshatriyas, who were the rulers, warriors, and administrators. The third varna comprised the Vaishyas, who were farmers, merchants, and agriculturists. And the fourth varna comprised the Shudras, who were the servants and laborers.

These varnas, or classes, were considered to be idealized human callings. People falling into one of these four varnas were called savarna Hindus. While, on the other hand, people who did not fall into any one of the four varnas formed the fifth varna. This fifth varna, also known as the Panchama, included people whose jobs were considered polluting or dirty, such as manual scavengers, cleaners, sweepers, washers, fishermen, tanners, skinners, etc.

This fifth varna generally included the Dalits and the tribals, who formed the majority of the untouchable population. The people of the fifth varna were known as avarna Hindus.

This rigid social stratification ensured that the members of each varna and their descendants could only practice the occupations and perform the duties that fall into their varna, thereby making progress in society impossible for the untouchables.

The widespread practice of untouchability across the Indian subcontinent, especially in rural areas, enforced several restrictions on the untouchable community. For instance, the untouchables were prohibited from the following practices – entering places of public worship, using common village roads, using common public properties and resources such as ponds, taps, wells, temples, etc., wearing sandals or holding umbrellas in front of upper caste members, using the village cremation and burial grounds, entering the houses of upper caste members, marrying upper caste members, eating with upper caste members, sitting with upper caste members (even in schools), using the same utensils as the upper caste members, etc. They were subjected to social boycotts if they refused to perform their assigned duties and were also subjected to bonded labor.

Now, you might be wondering how did such an evil institution come into existence in the first place, wherein not only is the discrimination, exclusion, exploitation, and humiliation of fellow human beings legitimized but also encouraged on religious and spiritual pretexts? How did such an evil practice start and how and when did it obtain religious sanction?

Well, in all honesty, the birth of untouchability and its development in Indian culture and society is still debated to this day. Scholars have tried to explain its origins and its development with the help of the caste system, but this has only led to too many different theories and speculations, many of which often contradict each other.

Let us take a brief look at some of the theories put forward by scholars to explain the origin of untouchability. And what better person to start with than the great Indian social reformer and scholar Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, who is known as the Father of the Indian Constitution?

Ambedkar himself was born an untouchable and worked his way up with the help of education and hard work to become a great social reformer, economist, jurist, political leader, and scholar. His life would serve as an inspiration to millions of untouchables across the Indian Subcontinent.

According to Ambedkar, untouchability came into existence in Indian society sometime around 400 CE, mainly as a result of the struggle for supremacy between Brahmanism and Buddhism. He theorized that the practice of untouchability was a deliberate policy of the upper caste Brahmanas who despised the people who gave up and abandoned Brahmanism for Buddhism.

However, Ambedkar’s theory has been refuted by several scholars over the years on various grounds.

Prominent Indian scholars such as Vivekananda Jha, Suvira Jaiswal, and R.S. Sharma propose that untouchability was not an ancient practice but a later development in Indian society which came into existence after the solidification of the caste system sometime between 600 to 1200 AD.

To support his argument, Jha points out that no mention of untouchability can be found in the Rigveda, which is the earliest Vedic text. Even later Vedic texts do not reveal the existence of untouchability in the society of the time. It was only sometime between 600 to 1200 AD that groups labeled as untouchables begin to be mentioned in texts.

Scholars Jaiswal and Sharma suggest that untouchability as an institution came into existence when the aboriginal tribes came to be seen as impure by the privileged classes due to the nature of their means of livelihood, which usually included some form of manual labor, something that was looked down upon by the upper caste members of society. These aboriginal tribes were also looked down upon because of their low material culture.

And once these tribes were assimilated into the existing Brahmanical society, the privileged classes, in order to protect and assert their superior or higher status, began to dissociate themselves from the people of these tribes whom they considered to be inferior or lower in status. Over the years, these tribals became untouchables as the caste system grew more rigid and inhumane.

Another Indian scholar, Nripendra Kumar Dutt, proposed that the origins of the concept of untouchability lay in the pariah or outcast treatment of the indigenous people of India by the early Dravidians, who acquired the practice from Indo-Aryans.

These are not the only theories put forward by scholars though. Several non-Indian scholars have also proposed theories to explain the origin of untouchability.

For instance, British anthropologist John Henry Hutton suggested that untouchability began as a taboo on accepting food cooked by a person from a different caste, which may have been due to concerns regarding cleanliness. According to Hutton, this practice may have led to the taboo on inter-caste marriages as well.

However, this theory does not explain how and why certain social groups were isolated and deemed untouchables.

According to Austrian ethnologist, Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf, untouchability came into existence as class stratification in the urban areas of the Indus Valley civilization, where poorer workers involved in unclean occupations such as tanning or skinning, or sweeping were segregated and banished outside the city limits. Gradually, over time, personal cleanliness came to be identified with purity and the concept of untouchability slowly spread to rural areas as well, where it was followed with more rigidity and seriousness. He further speculated that after the decline of the Indus Valley towns, these untouchables probably spread to other parts of India, thereby spreading the evil practice throughout the Indian subcontinent.

However, scholars such as Suvira Jaiswal have refuted this theory by stating that Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf’s theory lacks evidence and fails to explain why the concept of untouchability is more pronounced in rural areas.

Unfortunately, all these above-mentioned theories were pieced together with whatever evidence was at hand. These explanations theorize and suggest and postulate, but none can yet be declared to be correct or accurate. Not surprisingly, these theories are partly, and in some cases largely, based on speculation. However, no doubt some of the theories put forward are more likely to be true, or close to the truth, than others.

It is difficult, and maybe even impossible, to pinpoint the exact period, reason, and manner in which the concept of untouchability came into existence. But until more concrete evidence has been discovered, we have no choice but to make do with the explanations we have managed to come up with.

Today, there are over 200 million Dalits inhabiting India, comprising around 16.6% of India’s population. Most of the Dalits live on the outskirts of villages.

After the Constitution of India came into force in 1950, the practice of untouchability in any form whatsoever was officially and legally abolished and made illegal. The Constitution gave Dalits the official terms of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. And the interests of such communities are advocated and looked after by several organizations and commissions, most notably the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

Further, steps have been taken in public services and educational institutions for people belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes communities, such as guaranteed seats and quotas in educational institutions and at central and provincial levels of public services, as well as other concessions.

Now, this begs the question: Has the plight of the untouchables improved? Has the discrimination against them ended? Are they now treated respectfully and not exploited or humiliated? Do they have equal rights now?

The answers to these questions are mixed, somewhere in between yes and no. Although the situation and status of Dalits have improved a lot compared to the past, that is before the Constitution came into force, the truth is that discrimination against them still exists across India. If one pays attention to the news and happenings of contemporary Indian society, one would hear of disturbing instances of discrimination against what many upper caste members still consider untouchables.

The Dalits are still at times treated as outcasts, especially in the rural areas of India. They are still at times treated with contempt, and humiliated, exploited, and excluded from society, again mainly in rural areas, where the concept of untouchability and the caste system are still rigid and adhered to. Dalits are still at times beaten, harassed, and even killed by upper caste members for committing acts they are not supposed to do as per tradition. Many are still forced to practice the humiliating occupations of their ancestors and are denied opportunities for advancement.

Needless to say, this needs to stop. The discrimination the Dalits face must come to an end at any cost. Any and all religious or spiritual sanctions given to the institution of untouchability must be discredited and abandoned. The concept of untouchability did not, does not, and will never have any moral, spiritual, religious, social, or political force. Such an evil practice cannot be justified by any means, and it is time the people of India realize that this evil and inhumane practice of dehumanizing a fellow human being must be put to an end at the earliest.

Is this easier said than done? Of course, it is. To actually accomplish such a task will be quite difficult but not entirely impossible. It may take years, maybe even a century or two, to finally, completely, and absolutely rid our society of this evil practice.

There are several important, significant, and indispensable activists and organizations dedicating and sacrificing their entire time and energy to the cause of eradicating untouchability from Indian society. But to arrive at that stage someday in the future, the government and the people need to work together. The change must come from both ends, that is, from the top through legislation and severe punishment for continuing its practice, and from the bottom by educating and informing the masses and getting them to change their regressive mentality, especially in the rural areas where the practice of untouchability is still rampant and is in existence sometimes openly and sometimes in secret.

However, the people of India need to realize and understand that no matter how many laws are passed to prevent the continuation of untouchability and no matter how severe the punishments ascribed for breaking those laws, the real change shall only come when the people change their backward and inhumane mentality toward such marginalized groups.

True change in society can only come from the people that comprise it, not from external structures and institutions like governments.

Arthinkal Magazine