For other uses, see Untouchable (disambiguation).
Untouchability is the practice of ostracising a group by segregating them from the mainstream by social custom or legal mandate. The excluded group could be one that did not accept the norms of the excluding group and historically included foreigners, nomadic tribes, law-breakers and criminals and those suffering from a contagious disease. It could also be a group that did not accept change of customs enforced by a certain group. This exclusion was a method of punishing law-breakers and also protecting traditional societies against contagion from strangers and the infected. A member of the excluded group is known as an Untouchable.
The term is commonly associated with treatment of the Dalit communities, who are considered "polluting" among the people of South Asia, but the term has been used for other groups as well, such as the Burakumin of Japan, Cagots in Europe, or the Al-Akhdam in Yemen.
Untouchability has been made illegal in post-independence India, and Dalits substantially empowered, and attempts have been continuously made to end the hostilities.
Diverse ethnicities population in South Asia
According to Sarah Pinto, an anthropologist, untouchability in India applies to people whose work relates to "death, bodies, meat, and bodily fluids". In the name of untouchability, Dalits have faced work and descent-based discrimination at the hands of the dominant castes. Instances of caste discrimination at different places and times included:
- Prohibition from eating with other members
- Provision of separate cups in village tea stalls
- Separate seating arrangements and utensils in restaurants
- Segregation in seating and food arrangements in village functions and festivals
- Prohibition from entering into village temples
- Prohibition from wearing sandals or holding umbrellas in front of higher caste members
- Prohibition from entering other caste homes
- Prohibition from using common village path
- Separate burial grounds
- No access to village's common/public properties and resources (wells, ponds, temples, etc.)
- Segregation (separate seating area) of children in schools
- Bonded labour
- Social boycotts by other castes for refusing to perform their "duties"
According to Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, untouchability was born about 400 AD, due to the struggle for supremacy between Buddhism and Brahmanism (an ancient term for Brahmanical Hinduism).
Government action in India
During the time of Indian independence, Dalit activists began calling for separate electorates for untouchables in India to allow for fair representation. Officially labeled the Minorities Act, it would guarantee representation for Sikhs, Muslims, Christian, and Untouchables in the newly formed Indian government. The Act was supported by British representatives such as Ramsay MacDonald. A separation within Hindu society was opposed by national leaders at the time such as Mahatma Gandhi, although he took no exception with the demands of the other minorities. He began a hunger strike to protest this type of affirmative action, citing that it would create an unhealthy divide within the religion. At the Round Table Conferences (India), he provided this explanation for his reasoning:
I don't mind untouchables if they so desire, being converted to Islam or Christianity. I should tolerate that, but I cannot possibly tolerate what is in store for Hinduism if there are two divisions set forth in the villages. Those who speak of the political rights of the untouchables don't know their India, don't know how Indian society is today constituted and therefore I want to say with all the emphasis that I can command that if I was the only person to resist this thing that I would resist it with my life.
Mahatma Gandhi achieved some success through his hunger strike. Dalit activists faced pressure from the Hindu population at large to end his protest at the risk of his ailing health. The two sides eventually came to a compromise where the number of guaranteed seats for Untouchables would be reduced, but not totally eliminated.
The 1950 national constitution of India legally abolished the practice of untouchability and provided measures for positive discrimination in both educational institutions and public services for Dalits and other social groups who lie within the caste system. These are supplemented by official bodies such as the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
Despite this, instances of prejudice against Dalits still occur in some rural areas, as evidenced by events such as the Kherlanji massacre.
Untouchable, also called Dalit, officially Scheduled Caste, formerly Harijan, in traditional Indian society, the former name for any member of a wide range of low-caste Hindu groups and any person outside the caste system. The use of the term and the social disabilities associated with it were declared illegal in the constitutions adopted by the Constituent Assembly of India in 1949 and of Pakistan in 1953. Mahatma Gandhi called untouchables Harijans (“Children of the God Hari Vishnu,” or simply “Children of God”) and long worked for their emancipation. However, this name is now considered condescending and offensive. The term Dalit later came to be used, though that too occasionally has negative connotations. The official designation Scheduled Caste is the most common term now used in India. Kocheril Raman Narayanan, who served as president of India from 1997 to 2002, was the first member of a Scheduled Caste to occupy a high office in the country.
Many different hereditary castes have been traditionally subsumed under the title untouchable, each of which subscribes to the social rule of endogamy (marriage exclusively within the caste community) that governs the caste system in general.
Traditionally, the groups characterized as untouchable were those whose occupations and habits of life involved ritually polluting activities, of which the most important were (1) taking life for a living, a category that included, for example, fishermen, (2) killing or disposing of dead cattle or working with their hides for a living, (3) pursuing activities that brought the participant into contact with emissions of the human body, such as feces, urine, sweat, and spittle, a category that included such occupational groups as sweepers and washermen, and (4) eating the flesh of cattle or of domestic pigs and chickens, a category into which most of the indigenous tribes of India fell.
Orthodox Hindus regarded the hill tribes of India as untouchables not because they were primitive or pagan but because they were eaters of beef and of the scavenging village pigs and chickens. Much confusion arose on this issue because the unassimilated hill tribes never accepted their relegation to the ranks of the untouchables, nor did they seem to realize that their status was decided on a purely behavioral basis.
Until the adoption of the new constitutions in independent India and Pakistan, the untouchables were subjected to many social restrictions, which increased in severity from north to south in India. In many cases, they were segregated in hamlets outside the town or village boundary. They were forbidden entry to many temples, to most schools, and to wells from which higher castes drew water. Their touch was seen as seriously polluting to people of higher caste, involving much remedial ritual. In southern India, even the sight of some untouchable groups was once held to be polluting, and they were forced to live a nocturnal existence. These restrictions led many untouchables to seek some degree of emancipation through conversion to Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism.
The modern constitution of India formally recognized the plight of the untouchables by legally establishing their ethnic subgroups as Scheduled Castes (a population of some 170 million in the early 21st century). In addition, the designation Scheduled Tribes (about 85 million) was given to the indigenous peoples of the country who fall outside of the Indian social hierarchy. Besides banning untouchability, the constitution provides these groups with specific educational and vocational privileges and grants them special representation in the Indian parliament. In support of these efforts, the Untouchability (Offenses) Act (1955) provides penalties for preventing anyone from enjoying a wide variety of religious, occupational, and social rights on the grounds that he or she is from a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe. Despite such measures, the traditional divisions between pure and polluted caste groups persist in some levels of Indian society, making full emancipation of these groups slow to come about.