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The problems of untouchability in India

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 3603 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The researcher has used both types of methods qualitative and quantitative research. Quantitative approach will be used to gather and investigate numeric data to represent the various facts available. In this research qualitative approach seems more flexible and realistic. Hence the belief is that qualitative approach can satisfy the aforementioned objectives.

SOURCE OF DATA: The researcher has primarily referred to secondary sources. The secondary literature will constitute newspapers, books, journals and internet materials to discuss the above mentioned issues


Untouchability Today: A Background

Untouchability today outlines the context in which untouchability is practiced in the current scenario. India emerges as the world’s largest democracy and fastest growing economy yet the practice of untouchability remains in stark contrast to the image of progress that the Indian government seeks to promote to the international community. The issue of untouchability is one of the most divisive issues in the country’s history and a lived experience of all people in India, including the Dalits who number over 164 million, and non-Dalit perpetrators and witnesses. Despite growing domestic and international concern, Constitutional prohibition, and a legal enforcement regime as well as international human rights protections, the daily life of many Dalits stills remain unchanged till date.

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Untouchability is an ancient form of discrimination based upon caste which is a complex and pervasive problem in India, although its practice is not limited to India alone. For millennia, the practice of untouchability has marginalized, terrorized, and relegated a sector of Indian society to a life marked by violence, humiliation, and indignity. The discrimination is so pervasive that many Dalits come to believe that they are responsible for their own suffering and exclusion. Thus believing it to be there faith and in turn perpetuate the practice of untouchability. Like a shameful secret, a “hidden apartheid,” untouchability remains an extremely sensitive issue in India. Its practice is never fully defined, never fully explored and, thus, never fully understood. Thus this research paper is an attempt to understand the problems and issues underlining the practice of untouchability in the Indian context

What is untouchability?

Untouchability is a direct product of the caste system.  It is not merely the inability to touch a human being of a certain caste or sub-caste. It is an attitude on the part of a whole group of people that relates to a deeper psychological process of thought and belief, invisible to the naked eye, translated into various physical acts and behaviours, norms and practices. [1]

Untouchability is the product of casteism and the belief in purity of so called upper castes. It is generally taken for granted that Dalits are considered polluted people at the lowest end of the caste order. All the menial tasks were to done by the low caste, like removing human waste (known as “manual scavenging”), dragging away and skinning animal carcasses, tanning leather, making and fixing shoes. They are supposed to reside outside the village so that their physical presence does not pollute the “real” village. They are restricted in terms of space and their houses were to be of inferior quality and devoid of any facilities like water and electricity.

Identifying Conditions and Practices Associated with Untouchability

1) Water for drinking,

2) Food and beverage,

3) Religion,

4) Touch,

5) Access to public facilities and institutions,

6) Caste-based occupations,

7) Prohibitions and social sanctions

8) Private sector discrimination.

Untouchability is present in nearly every sphere of life and practiced in an infinite number of forms. At the village level Dalits are barred from using wells used by non-Dalits, forbidden from going to the barber shop and entering temples, while at the level of job recruitment and employment Dalits are systematically paid less, ordered to do the most menial work, and rarely promoted. Even at school, Dalit children may be asked to clean toilets and to eat separately. [2]

As an instrument of casteism, Untouchability also serves to instill caste status to Dalit children from the moment they are born. For e.g. some of the names given to Dalit boys in Gujarat are Kachro (filth), Melo (dirty), Dhudiyo (dusty), Gandy (mad), Ghelo (stupid), Punjo (waste).This is deliberately done so that a child becomes conscious of his caste or sub-caste identity. The person treated as untouchable submits himself or herself to untouchability practices because of a generational belief that it is right, justified, religious and natural. Untouchability in this sense is directly related to the caste system, and the only way to get rid of it is to get rid of the caste system itself. 

Who are Dalits?

The word “Dalit” comes from the Sanskrit root dal- and means “broken, ground-down, downtrodden, or oppressed.”  Those previously known as Untouchables, Depressed Classes, and Harijans are today increasingly adopting the term “Dalit” as a name for themselves.  “Dalit” refers to one’s caste rather than class; it applies to members of those menial castes which have born the stigma of “untouchability” because of the extreme impurity and pollution connected with their traditional occupations.  Dalits are ‘outcastes’ falling outside the traditional four-fold caste system consisting of the hereditary Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra classes; they are considered impure and polluting and are therefore physically and socially excluded and isolated from the rest of society.

Dalits represent a community of 170 million in India, constituting 17% of the population.  One out of every six Indians is Dalit, yet due to their caste identity Dalits regularly face discrimination and violence which prevent them from enjoying the basic human rights and dignity promised to all citizens of India.  Caste-based social organization extends beyond India, finding corollaries in Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, as well as other countries outside of South Asia. More than 260 million people worldwide suffer from this “hidden apartheid” of segregation, exclusion, and discrimination.

Provisions for the safeguard of Dalits:

Article 17of the Indian constitution declares untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of untouchability shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law.

The Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 punishes the preaching and practice of Untouchability.

Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 criminalizes certain acts against members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes such as traffic in human beings, ‘begar (free labor)’ and forced labor in any form.

Problem of Untouchability in India

When the constitution of India outlawed untouchability in 1950 many national leaders believed that a centuries old practice had been brought to an end. But now nearly 60 years later there is no total success of the statutory measure. Millions of Dalits across the country who account for roughly 1/5th of the population continue to suffer birth-based discrimination and humiliation. In states like Tamil Nadu which boasts a long history of reformist movements is no exception. In fact untouchability has not only survived the constitutional ban but taken new avatars in many parts of the state. Caste-based discrimination has often led to violence, leaving hundreds of the disadvantaged people in distress particularly in the 1990s.

The Segregation of Dalits is seen almost everywhere in Tamil Nadu’s villages. But nothing can perhaps beat the high wall 500 meters long that has been built at Uthapuram in Madurai district as a barrier between Dalits and caste Hindus.

While untouchability is still rampant and is taking new forms particularly in villages, the constitutional ban and compulsions of modernity and development have to some extent blunted its rigor. Rail transport has been unifying forces in society. Yet the Railways have been among the worst offenders in respect of the law against manual scavenging.Dalits constitute a significant portion of its workforce of manual scavengers along railway lines.

Although all state governments claim that they have abolished manual scavenging reports reveal that this practice is very much alive in many places. Postmen have also been found to practice untouchability.A study conducted in Tamil Nadu noted that in two villages in Madurai district postmen did not deliver postal articles to Dalit addressees.Dalits were required to collect the articles at the post office. There are also road transport related violations of the law against untouchability.Among them is the unwritten rule that gives caste Hindus priority over Dalits in boarding buses in many areas, buses not stopping in Dalit areas, transport employees picking quarrels with Dalit passengers without provocation and Dalits not being allowed to use bus shelters. State government still follows a traditional procedure of making announcements in villages by beating a drum and for that they deploy Dalits.

Worse still are the roles of schools and teachers in perpetuating untouchability and sowing the seeds of caste-related discrimination in young minds. The Dalit children are often discouraged by teachers and fellow students belonging to caste Hindu social groups. In many schools Dalit pupils were not allowed to share water with caste Hindus. To punish an erring or naughty Dalit boy teachers scold him by calling him by his caste name. If the teacher decides that the boy needed a beating as punishment the task was assigned to another Dalit boy. There is also systematic refusal of admission to Dalits in certain schools particularly at the plus two levels.

In some villages during the temple festivals Dalits are supposed to stay hidden from caste Hindus. The two-tumbler system under which Dalits and non-Dalits are served tea in different vessels is still prevalent in some teashops. In some eateries they are compelled to sit on the floor.

Caste and Untouchability

The caste system has been mainly criticized for its treatment of outcastes or untouchables. This group has been termed the panchama (the fifthvarna), collectively designating all who fall outside the regular four classes.

The notion of untouchability may have been present in the original varna system, though it is not clear precisely how it operated. Puranic texts mention untouchables, stating that they should be well-supported, but intimate connection with them avoided. They also state that those who fell from their status within the higher “twice-born” varnas were called dvija-bandhu (friends of the twice-born) and were accommodated within the shudraclass. In actual practice, some who abandoned key rituals or moral standards were altogether ostracised. Additionally, jobs deemed to be particularly contaminating were held only by outcastes. These include sweepers, leather workers ,and crematorium attendants. They were not allowed to live within the confines of regular village life, nor to share public facilities such as wells and temples.

Organised opposition to rigid caste practices began with the medieval bhakti movements. Some of them rejected both caste and its precursor, varnashrama-dharma. Others considered the original varnashrama-dharma to be the genuine system, though it usually took second place to a revitalised spiritual egalitarianism. Some contemporary bhakti traditions continue to initiate non-caste brahmanasfrom amongst communities normally considered untouchable. This liberal practice has met opposition, particularly from caste-consciousbrahmanas.

Gandhi called the outcastes Harijans – the children of God – and wanted to accommodate them within the fourth varna. Ranji Ambedkar, another important reformer, was a member of the untouchable caste who succeeded in attaining a scholarship to study law. He later disagreed with Gandhi over the future status of untouchables, and advocated instead a classless society. He was one of the main architects of the new Indian constitution of 1950, which outlawed untouchability and gave equal status to all citizens. In practice many rigid caste values continue, and former outcastes have organized themselves as Dalits (the oppressed), fighting for social and economic equality. The struggle continues today, and though “positive discrimination” is securing the outcastes equal opportunities, some claim that it is now displacing those who are actually more qualified.

Caste consciousness still continues, and is much debated amongst Hindu scholars and activists. Some advocate the mitigation of social injustice through the complete abolition of social divisions. Others attempt to redefine the ancient varnashrama-dharma in a way that is relevant to post-modern society.

Caste related violence in India

Phoolan Devi (1963 – 2001) was an Indian dacoit (bandit), who later turned politician. Born in a lower-caste Mallaah family, she was mistreated and abandoned by her husband. She was later kidnapped by a gang of dacoits. The upper-caste Thakur leader of the gang tried to rape her, but she was protected by the deputy leader Vikram, who belonged to her caste. Later, an upper-caste Thakur friend of Vikram killed him, abducted Phoolan, and locked her up in the Behmai village. Phoolan was raped in the village by Thakur men, until she managed to escape after three weeks.Phoolan Devi then formed a gang of Mallahs, which carried out a series of violent robberies in north and central India, mainly targeting upper-caste people. Some say that Phoolan Devi targeted only the upper-caste people and shared the loot with the lower-caste people, but the Indian authorities insist this is a myth[2]. Seventeen months after her escape from Behmai, Phoolan returned to the village, to take her revenge. On February 14, 1981, her gang massacred twenty-two Thakur men in the village, only two of which were involved in her kidnapping or rape. Phoolan Devi later surrendered and served eleven years in prison, after which she became a politician. During her election campaign, she was criticized by the women widowed in the Behmai massacre. Kshatriya Swabhimaan Andolan Samanvay Committee (KSASC), a Kshatriya organization, held a statewide campaign to protest against her. She was elected a Member of Parliament twice.

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On July 25, 2001, Phoolan Devi was shot dead by unknown assassins. Later, a man called Sher Singh Rana confessed to the murder, saying he was avenging the deaths of 22 Kshatriyas at Behmai. Although the police were skeptical of his claims, he was arrested. Rana escaped from Tihar Jail in 2004. In 2006, KSASC decided to honor Rana for “upholding the dignity of the Thakur community” and “drying the tears of the widows of Behmai.”[3]

Andhra Pradesh

This state is considered to be one of the least caste-crime infested places of India which has not had many Dalit Massacres


Ranvir Sena is an caste-supremacist fringe paramilitary group based in Bihar. The group is based amongst the forward-caste landlord, and carries out actions against the outlawed naxals in rural areas. It has committed violent acts against Dalits and other members of the scheduled caste community in an effort to scuttle reform movements aimed at their emancipation.

Tamil Nadu

The state of Tamil Nadu has witnessed several caste-based incidents both against Dalits and Brahmins .In 2000, three young men belonging to the Dalit under caste were killed in the Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu .This fuelled some localized violence in the caste-sensitive region, which has seen numerous caste-related incidents in which the majority of the victims have been Dalits. Six of the killings have been registered as murders under the Indian Penal Code and others as “Deaths under suspicious circumstances. No arrests have been made in these cases

However, several Dalits have been arrested as goondas (hoodlums). The Chief minister of Tamil-Nadu, M. Karunanidhi, has been accused of having an “anti-Dalit” bias by the radical organization “Dalit Panthers of India”. Theories concerning these crimes against Dalits range from “alcohol bootleggers opposing prohibition movements among Dalits” to “inter-caste relations between a Vanniya boy and a Dalit girl”. Political parties sympathetic to the Dalits have protested against these incidents[4] and have alleged systemic biases against Dalits in several parts of the country.

Bant Singh case of Punjab

On the evening of January 5, 2006 Bant Singh, a poor Sikh Dalit, was attacked by unknown assailants. His injuries necessitated medical amputation. He alleges that this was in retaliation for actively working to secure justice for his daughter, who was gang raped by upper caste members of his village in Punjab five years earlier.[5]

A 55-year-old Dalit Sikh woman, Sawinder Kaur has been tortured, stripped and tied to a tree in Ram Duali village of Punjab because her nephew eloped with a girl from the same community. The police arrested four persons for allegedly committing the crime on 9 September 2007.[7]

In January, 1999 four members of the village panchayat of Bhungar Khera village in Abohar paraded a handicapped Dalit woman naked through the village. No action was taken by the police, despite local Dalit protests. It was only on July 20 that the four pancha yat members were arrested, after the State Home Department was compelled to order an inquiry into the incident.[8]

A Dalit Sikh woman, Sukhwinder Kaur of Sumel Kheri village was molested and beaten up by an octroi contractor of Malaudh when she resisted his attempt to sexually exploit her.[9]

Kherlanji massacre

On September 29, 2006, four members of the Bhotmange family belonging to the Dalit underclass were slaughtered in Kherlanji, a small village in Bhandara district of Maharashtra. The women of the family, Surekha and Priyanka, were paraded naked in public, then allegedly gang-raped before being murdered [1]. Although initially ascribed by the media and by the Human Rights Watch to upper castes, the criminal act was actually carried out by Kunbi[10] caste (classified as Other Backward Classes[11] by Government of India) farmers for having opposed the requisition of the Dalit land to have a road built over it.

On November 23, 2006, several members of the Dalit community in the nearby district of Chandrapur staged a protest regarding this incident.The protesters allegedly turned violent and pelted stones. The police had to resort to baton charging to control the situation. Dalit leaders, however, denied that they had sparked the violence and that they were “protesting in peace”.

2006 Dalit protests in Maharashtra

In November-December 2006, the desecration of a Ambedkar statue in Kanpur (Uttar Pradesh) triggered off violent protests by Dalits in Maharashtra. Several people remarked that the protests were fueled by the Kherlanji Massacre[12]. During the violent protests, the Dalit protestors set three trains on fire, damaged over 100 buses and clashed with police[13]. At least four deaths and many more injuries were reported.

Later, the Kanpur Police arrested a Dalit youth Arun Kumar Balmiki for desecrating the Ambedkar statue. According to the police, the youth had “admitted to having damaged the statue in a drunken state along with two friends”[14]. Earlier in a similar case, a Dalit youth was held for desecrating an Ambedkar statue in Gulbarga, Karnataka[15].

In response to these protests, Raj Thackeray drew attention to another incident in Kherlanji, in which a Dalit allegedly raped a girl and killed her. Thackeray demanded action on those responsible for the rape and the subsequent death of the girl, and also remarked that nobody helped the girl’s family[16].


In the Indian province of Rajasthan, between the years 1999 and 2002, crimes against Dalits average at about 5024 a year, with 46 killings and 138 cases of rape.[17]


On 25 May 2009, violence and rioting broke out when thousands of protesters took to the streets in almost all major towns and cities in the Indian state of Punjab after a dalit preacher, Sant Ramanand, was attacked in a temple in Vienna, Austria. He was among 16 people injured, including another preacher Sant Nirajnan Dass, and later died in hospital. Both the preachers were from a low-caste Sikh sect which has a large following in parts of Punjab and had travelled to Vienna to conduct a special service. Several high-caste Sikh groups had apparently opposed his presence and threatened violence. This happened after the preacher had reportedly made remarks about the Sikh groups.



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