Untouchability: Overview

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Untouchability: Overview

A basic idea of social grouping emerged in one of the late poems in the earliest of the Hindu scriptures, the Rig Veda. In this mythic account, probably composed about three thousand years ago, the primeval man was sacrificed to make the varnas (castes): the Brahmans emerged from his head, the Kshatriyas from his arms, the Vaishyas from his thighs, and the Shudras from his feet. It is clear there is some ranking here, but the full-scale hierarchy based on degrees of purity and pollution emerged later, and untouchable castes became a category as avarnas, without varna, probably sometime after the fourth century c.e.

We find a development of this idea in the law books called Dharmashastras (300 b.c.e. to 500 c.e.). The first three varnas are known as the twice-born and are composed of Brahman priests and advisers, warriors and rulers, and merchants, all of whom undergo a ceremony in their youth admitting them into high status. Shudras, generally any caste that did manual work, were denied the privilege of studying the Vedas and were cast into a servant position. Untouchables were and are below the Shudras in any ranking, considered polluting to all and generally given the work in society that is filthy or demeaning.

In both law books and the epics, we find references to burning ghat workers, individuals who generally worked in the burning ghats with corpses and are considered unclean. A play from around the fifth century c.e., Mrichcha katika (The little clay cart) by Shudraka, includes two executioners who are actually quite intelligent and humorous but nevertheless untouchable. Burning ghat workers and executioners are two of the occupations still considered most polluting. The idea of persons who pollute was present early on, but the phenomenon of polluting castes developed later.

Parallel to the varnas and outside scripture were jatis, meaning "by birth" and also translated as castes. A jati is an endogamous group, sharing many customs and often an occupation, usually based in one language area. There were hundreds of jatis within each varna, and while untouchables were avarna, without varna, they were members of specific jatis.

The Origin of Untouchability

There are many theories about the origin of caste and, subsequent to that, the origin of untouchable castes. The untouchable leader B. R. Ambedkar (18911956) held theories on both. He wrote that the caste system originated from the Brahman requirement of endogamy to preserve its purity and from that was spread to lower castes. Untouchables, he held, had been Buddhists isolated and despised when Brahmanism became dominant about the fourth century. His theory is important both because it led to his conversion to Buddhism and because it represents the need of all untouchables to explain their status. Most untouchable castes have a myth of origin usually relating to a cosmic mistake; almost none assume that a past karma of bad deeds has resulted in an untouchable status in this life. On the other hand, most caste Hindus think that sins or good deeds or the careful fulfillment of duty in a previous life produce the karma that determines the caste into which one is born.

Vivekananda Jha agrees on the time period of Ambedkar but disagrees with the idea of untouchables' Buddhist past, as do most caste Hindu writers. An influential book by Louis Dumont (1970) focuses exclusively on the concept of purity and pollution as determinants of the entire Hindu hierarchy. For Dumont, untouchables are necessary for the purity of Brahmans: "It is clear that the impurity of the Untouchable is conceptually inseparable from the purity of the Brahman. In particular, untouchability will not truly disappear until the purity of the Brahman is itself radically devalued" (p. 54). Other theorists limit the role of purity and pollution, holding chiefly that the purity needed for ritual spread to other occasions in life. A Marxist approach presumes tribal groups coming into the caste system found a ranking dependent on their economic opportunities. Many inside and outside of India hold that race is behind caste distinctions, especially that of Brahman and untouchable, and this belief is reflected in many untouchable belief systems, such as the supposition that untouchables were indigenous people ruling the land, forced to submit to invading Aryans (people speaking an Indo-European language and coming from outside India). Whatever their beginnings, untouchable groups were clearly delineated by the seventh century, when the Chinese traveler Xuanzang listed butchers, fishermen, public performers, executioners, and scavengers as marked castes living outside the city.

The Voices of Untouchables

In the medieval period a few voices of untouchables emerged. In the fourteenth century in Maharashtra, Cokhamela and his family of the untouchable Mahar caste were part of a religious movement generally called bhakti devotional religion. Intensely personal, the movement included all castes, and their songs have come down through the ages. Cokhamela complained bitterly about the concept of purity, and one of his poems calls out, "We are born in impurity, we die in impurity, O God, who is pure?" (unpublished translation by Anne Murphy). He is saddened by his inability to enter the temple of his god. According to legend, he was born to a mother and father whose duty as Mahars was to take the village produce to the ruler, and he died while mending the village wall. Eknath, a Brahman bhakta, wrote two centuries later as if he were a Mahar, and more duties can be noted: caring for the horses of government officials, sweeping the village streets and hauling out the dead cattle, getting firewood for the village headman, and guarding the village.

Another poet-saint's voice is that of the Ravidas in the sixteenth century, who refers to his caste as an untouchable Chamar and his duties as working with leather: "O, people of the city! My notorious caste is Chamar! In my heart is the essence of all good qualities. I carry cattle-hides all around Benaras." He believed in purity beyond caste: "Whether one's heart is Brahmin or Vashiya, Shudra or Kshatriya, Dom, Chandala, or Malech (a foreigner), through the worship of the Lord, one becomes pure" (unpublished translations by Anne Murphy). Ravidas is honored by both Sikhs and Hindus. Untouchables who convert to Sikhism from Chamar castes often take the name Ravidasi. It should be noted that anything to do with a dead cow or its hide is the work only of untouchables. A caste of drummers in the south known as the Parayan contributed the word pariah (outcaste) to English. In this case, the drumhead made of hide is polluting.

We do not hear from untouchables again until the nineteenth century. Then there are again direct voices: a plea from Mahars to be allowed to reenter the British army, closed to them after a century of employment; an adi-Hindu (first or pre-Hindu) movement in the north, an adi-Dravida (original Dravidians) movement in the south; a movement among toddy tappers to secure their economic base, become educated, and be considered no longer untouchable. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the British began recording and codifying caste, and more untouchable castes based usually on occupation emerged: Bhangis or removers of human waste in the north; Doms, the caretakers of the extensive burning grounds in the holy city of Benaras (Varanasi); Dhobis, laundrymen who handle polluted clothing.

The Beginnings of "Affirmative Action"

The British government had allowed separate electorates for "depressed classes" in the 1932 announcement of future government in India made after the Round Table Conferences in England. This provision was made at the insistence of the untouchable representatives, B. R. Ambedkar from the province of Bombay and Rao Bahadur Rettamalle Srinivasan of Madrasthe two most active areas of reformwho felt, in the face of demands for separate constituencies from all other minorities, that proper elected representatives could only be elected by untouchables themselves. Mohandas K. Gandhi, then in prison for activities against the government in the interests of independence, thought separate electorates were too divisive and began a "fast unto death." Ambedkar gave in but bargained for reserved seats for untouchables in all elected bodies to be elected by the general electorate. Gandhi then began the Harijan Sevak Sangh (Organization for the Service of the People of God), which was intended to bring the issue of untouchability as an evil to the public mind and to bring change to the hearts of caste Hindus. Harijan became the most popular word for the general public, replacing depressed classes, exterior castes, outcastes, and untouchables, terms previously used. Ambedkar and other politically awakened untouchables rejected the word as patronizing and meaningless. The basic disagreement was between belief in a change of heart and belief in legal and political means of securing human rights.

By 1935 it had become clear that untouchable castes must be listed to determine who exactly would be eligible for the reserved seats and for educational and economic benefits. The criteria for listing stipulated specific castes in specific areas that were denied religious rights of entry into temples and civil rights of entry to public places and the use of wells. The word specific was necessary because the ways of identifying who is an untouchable can vary. Occupation is not always a reliable guide. Laundrymen (Dhobis) and barbers may be untouchables in certain areas of the north but not in the state of Maharashtra. The new term scheduled castes, those on a list or schedule, was applied to 429 castes. (By 1993 the number was given in a survey conducted by K. S. Singh as 4,635, using the same criteria but noting subcastes and small castes not previously identified.)

The background for these concessions, probably the first "affirmative action" in the world, was from movements among untouchables themselves, which were especially important in Madras and Bombay, provinces that in the early decades of the twentieth century decreed that "depressed classes" should be represented in government bodies and, in the case of Bombay, that public places should be open to all. There were a number of leaders in various movements for dignity and human rights in many areas, but the dominant figure since the late 1920s was B. R. Ambedkar, who continued to be important in the early twenty-first century.

Ambedkar was born to a Mahar army schoolteacher and was urged to secure education both by his father and by caste Hindus interested in reform. He graduated from Elphinston College in Bombay, one of very few untouchables in western India to do so, and with the help of the reform-minded non-Brahman princes of the princely states of Baroda and Kolhapur was given a chance to secure an M.A. and a Ph.D. in economics from Columbia University in New York and a D.Sc. from the University of London. He also became a barrister in the course of his two periods overseas. He returned to India as one of the most highly educated men in western India and an instant source of pride to untouchables. From then on, Ambedkar tried to convince the British to give attention to untouchable needs and to awaken all untouchables to progress through conferences, newspapers (although the literacy rate was very low), and an occasional public demonstration for rights. He founded political parties as well as social organizations and an educational system, and in 1947 he was asked to serve as law minister in newly independent India's first cabinet. In that capacity, he was chair of the drafting committee of the Indian constitution.

The Contemporary Period

Five phenomena mark the contemporary period: the reservation policy's results and disputes; the increased violence against untouchables; the growth of Dalit literature; the presence of a new and effective political party; and the image of Ambedkar all over India as a symbol of achievement and a claimant to all human rights. The reservation policy that provided a quota system for scheduled castes in all governmental political bodies and services and in educational institutions aided by the state was extended to "backward castes" in 1991 and produced a backlash from Brahman students who feared they would not be employed. Since that time higher castes have also claimed the right for reservation on economic grounds, but with the privatization of much government enterprise, the possibility of government positions for any caste is greatly lessened. Meanwhile, the years of reservation have created a large middle class among untouchables.

Increased violence, usually in the rural areas, when untouchables claim economic, religious, or social rights disputed by higher castes, is reported from all parts of India. The practice of untouchability was prohibited by law in the constitution, and there are many court cases, but much injustice is still handed out by police and higher castes, as detailed in the Human Rights Watch's publication Broken People.

A flowering of Dalit literature, "the literature of the oppressed," began in Marathi in the early 1970s with the poetry of the Dalit Panthers in Bombay and has now spread to almost every language area in India. Dalit means "ground down, broken up," as in the title Broken People. But like the African-American use of the word black, it is not a term indicative of victimization but a proud term indicating that an untouchable is not polluting but oppressed by others and that even a middle-class untouchable should identify with those still oppressed. The organization of young men who called themselves Dalit Panthers in imitation of the Black Panthers in the United States is no longer active, but Dalit has replaced the words untouchable and harijan in most public pronouncements and the press.

The name of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) means the party of the majority, and in its founding by Kanshi Ram, an untouchable Sikh, in 1984 it was intended to include all nonelite groups, the majority in India. It has been very successful in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where Mayawati, a Chamar woman, served three terms as chief minister. Mayawati stressed the importance of Ambedkar and his liberal political philosophy but joined with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a conservative party led by Brahmins, in order to secure power to make changes in the state.

It is impossible to ignore the role of B. R. Ambedkar in any discussion of untouchables or Dalits in the early twenty-first century. His image is in every town and many villages, often represented by a statue of a man in suit and tie, the dress of most of the educated, holding a book that represents the constitution. He is a symbol of pride and revolt, an inspiration for continuing progress.

Untouchability outside Hinduism

The caste system has permeated other religions in India, and untouchables exist in Christianity, Islam, and Sikhism, although without scriptural legitimacy. A movement among Dalit Christians for equal rights within the church is especially strong.

Many Dalits attended the 2001 United Nations conference on racism in Durban, contending that "descent-based" groups suffer the same discrimination as racial groups, a concept opposed by the government of India. Caste-like discrimination has been found in some other countries, with the Burakumin of Japan suffering in much the same way as Indian untouchables, although the rest of the caste hierarchy was not present.

See also Hinduism ; Untouchability: Menstrual Taboos ; Untouchability: Taboos .


Ambedkar, B. R. "Castes in India." In Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Writings and Speeches, edited by Vasant Moon, vol. 1. Bombay: Education Department, Government of Maharashtra, 1979.

. "The Untouchables." In Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Writings and Speeches, edited by Vasant Moon, vol. 7. Bombay: Education Department, Government of Maharashtra, 1990.

Broken People: Caste Violence against India's Untouchables. New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999.

Chokhamela. On the Threshold: Songs of Chokhamela. Translated by Rohini Mokashi-Punekar. Delhi: Book Review Literary Trust, 2002.

Deliège, Robert. The Untouchables of India. Translated by Nora Scott. Oxford: Berg, 1999.

Dumont, Louis. Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications. Translated by Mark Sainsbury, Louis Dumont, and Basia Gulati. Rev. ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Jha, Vivekananda. "Stages in the History of Untouchables." Indian Historical Review 2 (1975): 1431.

Mendelsohn, Oliver, and Marika Vicziany. The Untouchables: Subordination, Poverty, and the State in Modern India. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Moon, Vasant. Growing Up Untouchable: A Dalit Autobiography. Translated by Gail Omvedt. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.

Singh, K. S. The Scheduled Castes. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Valmiki, Omprakash. Joothan: An Untouchable's Life. Translated by Arun Prabha Mukherjee. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Zelliot, Eleanor. From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on the Ambedkar Movement. 3rd ed. New Delhi: Manohar, 2001.

Zelliot, Eleanor, and Rohini Mokashi-Punekar, eds. Untouchable Saints: An Indian Phenomenon. New Delhi: Manohar, 2004.

Eleanor Zelliot