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Untouchability in India - An Overview
Submitted by admin on 30 November, 2005 - 09:50
In an article in International Humanist News (May 2005) we gave a graphic account of the situation of the millions of Dalits, the 'Untouchables' in India, and of IHEU's efforts to bring their plight to international attention. In this article we provide an overview of the historical and religious roots of the problem and suggest what now needs to be done to help the Dalits help themselves.
Untouchability is not unique to India; it was practised in parts of Europe until a few centuries ago, and Japan still has a large number of 'untouchables', called the burakumin. But it is in the Indian sub-continent that this system survives, closely bound with culture, religion, history and contemporary politics. Today over 170 million men, women and children in the India are considered untouchable, and improvement in their lot has been slow despite legal safeguards and government programs.
The Indian Caste System
There are four castes in Hindu society and each caste has assigned duties, responsibilities and privileges. The Brahmins are the learned, the Kshatriyas are the warriors, the Vaishyas are the traders, and the Sudras perform menial tasks and physical labour. Brahmins are on the highest rung of the social hierarchy, and Sudras are on the lowest. For thousands of years the relations amongst the castes and their sub-castes have been governed by religious and moral laws - the most influential of them is a compilation called Manu Dharma Sastra or the Manu Smriti, believed to have been written around the beginning of the Common Era.
The Manu Smriti says that the first part of a Brahmin's name should denote something auspicious, that a Kshatriya's name should be connected with power, and that a Vaishya's name should denote wealth. The first part of a Sudra's name should express something contemptible and the second part should denote service and humility, because of the Sudra's low origin. According to Hindu practice, only the upper castes have the right to study the Vedas. The upper castes alone have the right to the thread ceremony which is performed as a rite of passage, allowing them to be termed twice-born.
'If the Sudra intentionally listens for committing to memory the Veda, then his ears should be filled with molten lead and lac; if he utters the Veda, then his tongue should be cut off, if he has mastered the Veda his body should be cut to pieces' says the Manu Smriti. In the epic Ramayana, subsequent to Lord Rama's assumption of the throne of Ayodhya after his return from exile, a Brahmin accuses him of causing the death of his son by his toleration of Shambuka, a Sudra who recited the Vedas. In order to redress the situation, Rama finds Shambuka and slays him. The Brahmin boy comes back to life... In Manu Smriti different punishments are reserved for the same 'crime', depending on the culprit's caste.
If this is the lot of the Sudras, what is the treatment reserved for the 'untouchables' who are outside the caste system, and placed even lower than the Sudras in society? In the 1500s, during the rule of the Marathas and the Peshwas in today's Maharastra state, 'untouchables' were not allowed within the gates of the capital city Poona between 3.00 pm and 9.00 am. The reason was that during this time their bodies were likely to cast long shadows, with the attendant danger that the shadow of an 'untouchable' might fall on a Brahmin and pollute him. An 'untouchable' had to carry an earthen pot around his neck so his spittle may not pollute the earth. In Maharashtra an 'untouchable' wore a black thread either in his neck or on his wrist for ready identification, while in Gujarat a horn had to be worn for identification.
The 'untouchables' constitute 15% of the total population of the sub-continent and have been referred to as Depressed Classes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Local names for the 'untouchable communities' vary in different parts of India: Bhangi, Pakhi, Chandala etc. Mahatma Gandhi called them Harijans or children of God. Now they are called Dalits, which means broken people.
Purity and Pollution
There are many theories about how there came to be 'untouchable communities'. One theory is that the warrior-like Aryans came in from Central Asia via Iran and that they conquered the more peaceful and better settled indigenous inhabitants of the sub continent. The conquered became slaves, and later untouchables. Another theory speculates that the off-spring born of relations prohibited by the caste system were considered untouchable. Since the Aryans were fair skinned and the Dravidians were dark skinned, the Varna system - or system of colour - came to be established as the basis of graded inequality.
Concepts of purity and pollution have had a role to play - for example, a washer man who handles items polluted by blood or human waste, a leatherworker who works with animal skins, a weaver who creates cloth, a person who cremates or buries the dead, a manual scavenger, a carrier of the night soil, an executioner who implements a capital punishment, fisherfolk in some parts of the country are all considered untouchable. Some 'untouchables' eat beef, others eat rats and snakes - a dietary habit considered disgusting by the rest of the population.
The 'untouchable' is not expected to occupy or practice jobs and skills reserved for those belonging to a caste. In the epic Mahabharata, Ekalavya, a tribal boy knows he would never be accepted as a student by Dronacharya, the royal teacher. So he practises in front of a statue of Dronacharya and soon becomes the best archer in the realm. When Dronacharya comes to know of this, he exacts his 'fees' from the autodidact in the form of Ekalavya's thumb - thus rendering him incapable of archery anymore.
Many people attempted to change the system: Buddhism condemned both the caste system and the practice of untouchability. In South India, the Hindu religious leader Ramanuja (1017-1137 CE) condemned untouchability and adopted many 'untouchables' as his disciples. In Andhra Pradesh Veera Brahmendra Swamy (10th Century CE) condemned the practice while Minister Sri Basaveswara of Mysore State (1131-1167 CE) fought it with great vigour. Minister Brahma Naidu of Palnadu (14 Century, CE) in Andhra Pradesh condemned the practice and appointed an 'untouchable' named Chenna as his army chief. The monotheistic Sikh religion was born in 1496 partly as a reaction to casteism - but soon fell victim to it. Vemana (circa 15th CE) the deist rationalist poet sneered at the practice of untouchability and admonished the people to respect the 'untouchables'. So did Jyothirao Phule (1827-1890 CE) and Ranade (1842-1901) in Maharastra, and Narayanaguru (1856-1928) in Kerala. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) who was born into the third caste supported the caste system, but wanted to eradicate untouchability to save Hinduism.
Atheist and Humanist reformers like Periyar (1879-1973) and Gora (1902-1975) fought against the indignity of the caste system and introduced inter-dining - thus trying to break one of Hinduism's biggest taboos. 'Untouchable' poets like Gurram Joshua (1895-1971), as well as Humanist writers like the recently departed Mulk Raj Anand (1905-2004) exposed the people to the gravity of the problem. Humanists like Tripuraneni Ramaswamy (1887-1943) questioned the morality of the Gods in Hindu mythology and created new drama that caught the imagination of people, thus inaugurating a new era of rationalism in literature that flourished between the 1930s and the 1980s.
Legal and Political
The Constitution of India has special provisions dealing with the abolition of Untouchability. Central Legislation exists in the form of the Protection of Civil Rights Act 1955 and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act 1989. In colleges and universities and in state employment positive discrimination exists and a percentage of seats and jobs are reserved for those from the socially and economically backward sections of society.
But the practice of untouchability continues and Dalits continue to live outside villages, excommunicated from society. They are denied entry into temples, they are not allowed to share community wells, they are forced to drink water from separate glasses in some rural cafes, and they are frequently attacked or abused if any sign of defiance is shown. When they cross an upper caste house they routinely alight from their bicycles and push the bicycle rather than ride it. When walking in front of a powerful upper caste man's house, they take off their footwear till they clear the exclusion zone. The police are reluctant to register their complaints or investigate cases filed by them. Some decade-old massacres of Dalits have not yet reached the prosecution stage.
Strangely, the Sudras or the so-called backward castes have become advocates of political Hinduism or Hindutva, and have emerged as the biggest threat to Dalit rights. The backward castes have progressed economically over the past century, and being peasant communities, their interests clash with those of the landless Dalits.
The Dalit Response
Dr. B.R. Ambedkar is one of the most famous Indians of the last century. Father of the Indian Constitution and one of the greatest Indian intellectuals and political agitators, Dr. Ambedkar was born into an 'untouchable' caste. After 2000 years of Manu's anti-human laws when India needed a new lawgiver, she turned to one who was born an 'untouchable'.
In 1956 Dr. Ambedkar, along with half a million other Dalits, converted to Buddhism - Dr. Ambedkar's interpretation of Buddhism is a modern and humanistic one. Such is the intensity of the problem and the yearning for dignity that many Dalits are converting to Christianity, and thereby foregoing the meagre advantage of educational and job reservations for Dalits (see Surepally Sujatha's article on page 21) but denied to those who convert to Islam or Christianity.
Dalits themselves have begun to organise themselves politically. Several political parties exist today: Republican Party of India, Bahujan Samaj Party, Dalit Panthers etc. Ill served by its leaders, the Dalit movement has been reduced to asking for more reservations in educational institutions and jobs in governments, whereas they should be asking for reform in society. NGOs play an important role in creating awareness - but unfortunately many are religiously inspired and tend to push sectarian agendas. Important work is being done by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, the secular Dalit Social Forum etc. Organisations like the Centre for Dalit Studies and other Ambedkarite organisations make information available about the various government schemes for the advancement of Dalits.
The government has appointed numerous commissions of inquiry, like the Justice Punnaiah Commission, to find out more about the status of the Dalits in the country and to explore remedial measures. The recommendations stress the vital role that education can play, and the need for an active role for the Police and the District Administration.
What Should Be Done?
Both upper castes and the lower castes need liberation from the oppressive religious ideology which is at the heart of this terrible situation. The Dalits themselves need economic self-sufficiency without which they will be unable to survive. Any long-term solution to this deeply entrenched problem will require a social, cultural and moral transformation of society.
The basis of everyone's rights lies not in their religious identity or affiliation but in their humanity. Dalits need education and training in Human Rights. As victims of superstition, they need exposure to rational thinking. The succour and superstition of another religion will do little to change the lot of the Dalits. The problem of untouchability is more than an issue of law and order - it is a deep rooted, millennia-old malady that afflicts society. Unless the Dalits have belief in themselves and are empowered to assert their own humanity, unless they themselves discover their inherent human dignity, they will continue to be where they are - on the extreme margins of society. But empowerment of the Dalits will can only happen when their fractured movement unites on the basis of democratic principles.
Emancipation is a personal achievement, and the victim needs to enact his or her own emancipation. Others - be they Humanists or Hindus or Christians or Muslims - can only help as facilitators. And the facilitators must remember that the Dalits need education, not pity, justice, not charity.