India's Untouchables

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India's Untouchables

Excerpt from "Untouchable"

   Written by Tom O'Neill

   Published in National Geographic, June 2003

The ancient caste system in India is an extreme version of social class stratification. Stratification means people in a society are separated into different social groupings and the groupings are placed in a descending order, with the most respected at the top and the least respected at the bottom. India's caste system is rigid and does not allow for movement between different levels. Prejudice and discrimination among castes is a defining characteristic of the Indian caste structure.

India is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Its population at the start of the twenty-first century was about one billion. Seventy-five percent of the population lives in rural areas. Religion is a very important part of Indian life. Two of the world's major religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, originated in India.

"The Hindu caste system has its own instruction manual. The Laws of Manu, compiled at least 2,000 years ago by Brahman priests, prescribes … what to eat, whom to marry, how to earn money, when to fight, how to keep clean, whom to avoid."

Hinduism is followed by a large majority of India's population, about 82 percent. India's caste system, interwoven with the Hindu religion, dates back 1,500 years. The caste system is based on Hindu legend about a primordial being (a living organism that existed at the beginning of evolution from which all life came). From this being's mouth came Brahmans, the priest and teachers in Hindu society. Brahmans are the highest caste system. From the legendary figure's arms come the government leaders and soldiers, members of the second-ranking caste, the Kshatriya. Farmers, merchants, and businessmen are in the third ranking caste, the Vaisyas. Vaisyas come from the being's thighs. The lowest caste is the Sudras, laborers, that come from the being's feet. Within each caste are many subgroups associated with the particular occupations.

Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas, and Sudras are the four Hindu castes. These castes or groupings are called varnas. Whatever caste or varna a baby is born into will be his or her varna for life. Marriages for young people are arranged within one's caste. Each caste has its codes of conduct and unique lifestyles. For example, upper caste members receive better education. For centuries lower caste members were forbidden to even acquire books. Sudras' work never allows them to gain financial independence or accumulate wealth. All wealth in Indian society is reserved for the top three castes.

Below the four varnas is a fifth group called Achuta, known as Untouchables. Another name for Untouchables is Dalits. The Untouchables did not come from the Hindu legendary being and are not considered a caste. Instead, they are considered a filthy, polluted, unworthy grouping. One in six Indians is an Untouchable, approximately 160 million Indians. Restricted to where they can live and what jobs they can hold plus lack of access to education and medical care, they face discrimination throughout their lives.

When a baby is born to Untouchables, that baby is labeled impure at its first breath of life. Untouchables perform the most menial jobs and tasks that others would not even talk about. They empty and clean latrines, remove dead animals from the streets, and unclog sewers by dropping down manholes into the filth of human excrement, clearing the plugs with their hands and buckets. Only Untouchables cremate the dead because touching the dead is a polluting act. Untouchable women perform jobs such as hauling rocks at quarries in baskets on their heads and carrying and stacking newly made bricks. The red brick's dust fills their lungs resulting in debilitating lung disease.

Castes are distinguished by degrees of purity and pollution. Any close contact with people of lower caste pollutes the person of a higher caste. Following contact with Untouchables, the higher caste members must undergo a ritual purification process, such as a short bath. The polluting Untouchables are not allowed to use the same water sources as others or live in the same housing areas as people of the castes. Working in unsanitary jobs and being forced to drink unsafe water lead to a high rate of diseases among Untouchables.

The caste system grouping and discrimination has been banned by the Indian constitution since the mid-twentieth century. Nevertheless, the system continues with all its prejudices and discriminatory practices. The ban is rarely enforced by police or courts. The primary reason is that Indians believe the caste system was in fact divinely ordained (created by God). It is and always has been a basis of the Hindu religion.

By 1950, the Indian constitution included a quota system attempting to allow Untouchables a way to improve their lives. A quota system reserves a certain number of places in government or higher education for the discriminated group. Fifteen percent of seats in the legislature were reserved for Untouchables. Although widely opposed by the Indian population, the quota has allowed some Untouchables and their families to significantly improve their lives.

Popular Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948), beginning in the 1930s, tried to dispel the idea that any human was impure. Gandhi attempted to halt prejudice and discrimination against Untouchables by giving the name Harijan, people of God, to the Untouchables. However, Gandhi never officially rejected the caste system and is resented by many Untouchables as not a true reformer. Untouchables consider Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891–1956) and Martin Macwan (1959–) as heroes and leaders for their cause (see sidebar).

Things to remember while reading excerpts from "Untouchable":

  • In everyday Indian life, open acts of discrimination against Untouchables occur regularly.
  • When Untouchables attempt to assert legal rights or protest their treatment, they are frequently met with violence, including sexual violence against the women, and destruction of homes. Crime against lower caste members and the Untouchables almost always go unpunished.

Outstanding Untouchable Leaders

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was an Untouchable born in western India. Extremely bright, he managed to obtain scholarships to study in the United States, Britain, and Germany. Ambedkar returned to live in India and practiced law. He worked to improve the lives of Untouchables and helped secure representation for them on government legislative groups. Between 1947 and 1950 he led the way to outlaw discrimination against Untouchables in the Indian constitution.

Martin Macwan was born an Untouchable in the western Indian state of Gujarat. He became a child laborer but managed to obtain an education receiving a college degree in 1980. In 1980 he founded Navsarjan Trust to advocate for the Untouchables. Macwan's trust trains Untouchables how to be leaders for the Untouchable movement. The movement addresses many areas of discrimination including violence against Untouchables, just wages, women's rights, and clean drinking water. Navsarjan Trust works with Untouchables in over two thousand villages. Macwan has received many human rights awards including Human Rights Watch highest recognition in 2000 and the Seventeenth Annual Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, named after the former U.S. Attorney General who had worked for civil rights causes and was assassinated in 1968.

Excerpt from "Untouchable"

The sins of Girdharilal Maurya are many, his attackers insisted. He has bad karma. Why else would he, like his ancestors, be born an Untouchable, if not to pay for his past lives?

Look, he is a leatherworker, and Hindu law says that working with animal skins makes him unclean, someone to avoid and revile. And his unseemly prosperity is a sin. Who does this Untouchable think he is, buying a small plot of land outside the village? Then he dared speak up, to the police and other authorities, demanding to use the new village well. He got what Untouchables deserve.

One night, while Maurya was away in a nearby city, eight men from the higher Rajput caste came to his farm. They broke his fences, stole his tractor, beat his wife and daughter, and burned down his house. The message was clear: Stay at the bottom where you belong.

Girdharilal Maurya took his family and fled the village of Kharkada in India's western state of Rajasthan. It took two years for him to feel safe enough to return—and then only because human rights lawyers took up his case, affording him a thin shield of protection.

"I see them almost every day," Maurya now says of his attackers. "They roam around freely." Maurya has agreed to meet me—after dark—in the dirt courtyard of his village house. He is a tall, handsome man of 52, his hair white, his face lined with worry. On a chilly February night he pulls a bathrobe tight around him. His wife moves in the shadows preparing tea. They live with the rest of their caste on the southern end of the village, downwind of the upper caste families who believe that they must not smell Untouchables.

The court case against his attackers drags on, Maurya explains in a tense, level voice. He tries to sound positive: Untouchables use the well pump now; one of his sons has advanced to college, the first of his caste from the village.

But once Maurya confesses that he is still scared of his attackers, his voice rises—and his wife turns up the radio inside to mask it. "The government refuses to address problems like this business about the well because they say the caste system legally does not exist. Well, look around you. People treat animals better than us. This is not natural. We're only asking for human rights." His voice grows even louder to beseech the surrounding night: "Why did the gods let me be born in such a country?"…

Embedded in Indian culture for the past 1,500 years the caste system follows a basic precept: All men are created unequal….

The ancient belief system that created the Untouchables overpowers modern law. While India's constitution forbids caste discrimination and specifically abolishes Untouchability, Hinduism, the religion of 80 percent of India's population, governs daily life with its hierarchies and rigid social codes. Under its strictures, an Untouchable parent gives birth to an Untouchable child, condemned as unclean from the first breath.

Yet Untouchables don't look different from other Indians. Their skin is the same color. They don't wear rags; they are not covered with sores. They walk the same streets and attend the same schools….

But despite outward signs of normalcy, Untouchables may as well wear a scarlet tattoo on their foreheads to advertise their status. "You cannot hide your caste," insists Sukhadeo Thorat, a faculty member at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and among the few Untouchables in India with a Ph.D. in economics. "You can try to disguise it, but there are so many ways to slip up. A Hindu will not feel confident developing a social relationship without knowing your background. Within a couple of months, your caste will be revealed." Family name, village address, body language all deliver clues, but none so much as occupation. Untouchables perform society's "unclean work"—work that involves physical contact with blood, excrement, and other bodily "defilements " as defined by Hindu law. Untouchables cremate the dead, clean latrines, cut umbilical cords, remove dead animals from the roads, tan hides, sweep gutters. These jobs, and the status of Untouchability, are passed down for generations. Even the vast number of Untouchables who work at "clean" jobs, mostly low-paying farmwork for landlords, are considered impure. In an outwardly free society, Untouchables are trapped at the bottom of a system that can't function without discrimination.

Many people would point out that the crudest, most overt forms of discrimination have largely disappeared, the result of sporadic reform movements before and after India's independence in 1947. It's true that at least in the public sphere, Untouchables have made progress since the days—within living memory—when they were beaten if their shadow touched a higher caste person, wore bells to warn of their approach, and carried buckets so their spit wouldn't contaminate the ground. Untouchables couldn't enter schools or sit on a bench near a higher caste person….

The Hindu caste system has its own instruction manual. The Laws of Manu, compiled at least 2,000 years ago by Brahman priests, prescribes for each varna what to eat, whom to marry, how to earn money, when to fight, how to keep clean, whom to avoid. "Manu is engraved inside every Hindu," said Umashankar Tripathy, a Brahman priest I met in Varanasi, the revered pilgrimage city located on the banks of the Ganges River. Tripathy sat cross-legged on a straw mat in the temple where he teaches. He wore the traditional dhoti, a long loincloth with a tunic buttoned over it. His clothes were spotless, his hands as soft as fine leather gloves.

Tripathy hews to the words of Manu. He explained that as a Brahman he must uphold the code of purity, the basis for dividing society from top to bottom. "I do not eat meat or drink alcohol. I will not eat vegetables like ginger or onion that are grown in the ground. My mind should be as clean as my clothes."

A proper Brahman should never come in contact with an Untouchable, Tripathy instructed, "A Brahman wouldn't even touch the feet of Gandhi," he said, referring to the deified leader of India's independence. "Gandhi was a Vaisya; Brahmans are superior"….

One morning in Ahmadabad, the largest city in the western state of Gujarat, I followed a team of five Bhangis assigned to unclog sewers in the middle-class neighborhood of Khanpur. They belonged to a scavenger workforce of more than 10,000 in the city. The team, dressed in clean, neat street clothes, stopped at a manhole outside a mosque. Dinesh Parmar, a lithe 25-year-old with a gold chain glittering around his neck, removed the cover. Cockroaches scurried from the darkness as the stench from below filled the street.

Parmar hesitated for only an instant, then dropped into the hole—with no gloves, no gas mask. His body hidden inside, he methodically lifted bucket after bucket of excrement over his head, upending them on the street. Flies clustered thickly. Then he stopped, dizzy from the carbon monoxide seeping out of the sewer. The supervisor nodded, allowing Parmar to climb out. The previous year 30 Bhangis had died from gas poisoning in the sewers of Ahmadabad.

Parmar left brown footsteps as he led the way to a nearby lane. He climbed down into several more manholes to scoop up clots of sludge. Women stared from doorways, veils pressed to their noses, speaking only to complain that their toilets were jammed. After the last hole, Parmar stood mutely in the middle of the lane, arms and legs coated in filth.

Parmar asked the watching women for soap and water. Finally one came forward, shrieking at the others that they should be ashamed. Parmar undressed on the street and meticulously washed his clothes, body, and hair.

"It is my fate. I won't get another job, I'm not educated," Parmar said as he walked along the street with his crew, dripping wet but clean again. "Some places I get help to get washed up, others not, but even good people never offer me a cup of tea." Parmar has a daughter. "I will educate her," he vowed. "If her fate is good, she'll get a better job." He broke away and chased after his co-workers, puddles drying quickly behind him.

What happened next …

Discrimination and violence against Untouchables has significantly increased in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Especially in poor, uneducated regions of India, militias have formed to resist Untouchables who try to increase and stand up for rights for their group. Militias carry out vigilante-like (volunteers to punish suspected criminals outside the legal system) crimes, such as murder and rape against Untouchables who dare to speak out.

Hope lies with the Untouchable activists and the few who have been able to hold government positions. Lines between castes have blurred somewhat in the cities but not in the rural villages. Even those Untouchables who have managed an education and have good jobs say they still are unable to conceal their Untouchability. They point out that lines between castes, and the prejudice that accompanies it, continues as a driving force in Indian society.

Did you know …

  • Untouchables divide into subgroups just as the four castes do. Subgroups include the Doms and Musahar. Doms cremate and bury the dead. Musahar scavenge and hunt for rodents. The lowest Untouchable subgroups are Bhangis, Pakhis, and Sikkaliars. All three are known as manual scavengers who do the filthiest work, such as unplugging toilet holes, carting away animal feces, and so on.
  • India boasts that it is the world's largest democracy, rapidly modernizing with software industries and nuclear energy. Yet severe discrimination against Untouchables continues. A horrific practice that occurs almost daily is throwing acid into the face of an Untouchable who dares to step out of line and try to assert himself.
  • In rural India, Untouchables deliver most babies, since delivery involves blood and body fluids that are considered impure, including cutting the umbilical cord. Extra pay is sometimes offered to kill female babies because they are not expected to help the family as much as males in working in the agricultural fields when they grow older.

Consider the following …

  • Research the life of Mahatma Gandhi. Do you believe he did all he could to end Untouchability? Why do many Untouchables, especially the most educated, not consider him as being a leader for their cause?
  • Study the life of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. What positive contributions did he make to increase Untouchables' standing?
  • Research what educational opportunities young Untouchables have.
  • The term Dalit rather than Gandhi's Harijan is preferred by most Untouchables to describe themselves. Where did the term come from and why is it preferred?

For More Information


Bayly, Susan. Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Freeman, James M. Untouchable: An Indian Life Story. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1979.

Jadhav, Narendra. Untouchables: One Family's Triumph over the Caste System in Modern India. New York: Scribner, 2005.

Robb, Peter G. A History of India. New York: Palgrave, 2002.


O'Neill, Tom. "Untouchable." National Geographic, June 2003.


Info Change News and Features. (accessed on December 12, 2006).

Navsarjan Trust, Eujarat, India. (accessed on December 12, 2006).

Karma: Behavior in a past life directly influences or affects his current life.

Revile: Verbally abuse.

Caste: Social class.

Human rights: Freedom from unlawful imprisonment, torture, and execution.

Beseech: To call into.

Precept: Belief.

Belief system: Set of values that guides people's lives.

Hierarchies: Some people valued more than others.

Social codes: Patterns of expected behavior.

Strictures: Religious beliefs.

Scarlet: Color red.

Defilements: Blood or other human wastes considered impure.

Cremate: Burn.

Overt: Clearly visible.

Pilgrimage city: Holy place regularly visited by believers.

Hews: Listens intently.

Deified: God-like.

Scavenger: Trash removal.

Methodically: Steadily.

Carbon monoxide: Poisonous colorless and odorless gas made by decaying human waste.

Meticulously: Thoroughly.