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Untouchability ; Origin of Untouchability in India, History of the Dalits and Untouchability

" Untouchability "

Origin of Untouchability | Dalits and the Origin of Untouchability in India

Who are the Dalits?

  • Dalit means "broken people."
  • Dalits were formerly known as "untouchables."
  • Dalits live at the bottom of India's rigid social order known as the caste system.

What is the caste system?

  • The caste system originated around 7 A.D.
  • Caste is determined by birth, not race.
  • Caste is based upon the Hindu belief that a person's position in life is based upon the good deeds and sins of their past life.
  • Caste determines Indians' spouses, friends, occupations and residence.

How many castes are there?

  • There are four major castes, and hundreds of minor castes. Each caste has specific duties and privileges.
  • Brahmins-originally the priests and intellectuals.
  • Kshatriyas-soldiers.
  • Vaishyas-traders.
  • Sudras-performed menial tasks.

Are Dalits in a caste?

  • No. A fifth group was created to perform tasks considered too menial or degrading to be performed by caste members.
  • Dalits are so low in the social hierarchy that they are outside of the caste system and considered "outcastes."

What is Untouchability?

  • Dalits are the manual scavengers, the removers of human waste and dead animals, leather workers, street sweepers and cobblers.
  • The mere touch of a Dalit was considered "polluting" to a caste member. Thus, the concept of "untouchability" was born.
  • Isn't Untouchability illegal?
  • The preamble to the Indian Constitution proclaims the goals of social justice and equality.
  • Article 14 sets forth the principal of equality and prohibits discrimination in employment and education.
  • The Constitution does not set forth a casteless society as a national goal.
  • No law has been passed abolishing untouchability.
  • The practice of untouchability is a punishable offense, but the law is rarely enforced.

Are there affirmative action programs for Dalits?

  • Yes. The Civil Rights Act of 1955, and the Scheduled Castes and Tribes Act of 1989.
  • The National commission of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes was formed to protect Dalit interests and integrate them into society.
  • All programs have failed to produce substantive change.

Who called untouchability India's "Hidden Apartheid?"

  • In December, 2006, Indian Prime Minister Mannohan Singh became the first Indian leader to acknowledge the parallel between untouchability and the crime of apartheid.
  • PM Singh described untouchability as a "blot on humanity" and acknowledged that despite constitutional and legal protections, caste discrimination still exists throughout much of India.

What does it mean to be a Dalit in India today?

  • Dalits endure segregation in housing, schools and access to public services.
  • Dalits are denied access to land, forced to work in degrading conditions and are routinely abused by the police and upper-caste members.
  • Dalits suffer discrimination in education, health care, housing, property, freedom of religion, free choice of employment, and equal treatment before the law
  • Dalits suffer routine violations of their right to life and security of person through state-sponsored or sanctioned acts of violence, including torture.
  • Dalits suffer caste-motivated killings, rapes and other abuses on a daily basis.
  • Between 2001-2002 there were 58,000 registered egregious abuses against Dalits and Tribals.
  • 2005 government report stated there is a crime committed against a Dalit every 20 minutes.
  • Dalits comprise most of the agricultural, bonded and child laborers in the country.
  • 2007 government report found 77% of all Indians live on less than $.50 a day and most of them were Dalits.
  • Dalit women face additional discrimination and abuse, including sexual abuse by the police and upper caste men, forced prostitution, and discrimination in employment and wages.
  • Dalit children face continuous hurdles in education. They are made to sit in the back of classrooms and endure verbal and physical harassment from teachers and other students. The effect of such abuses is confirmed by the low literacy and high drop-out rates for Dalits


Dalits and the Origin of Untouchability in India: Origin of Untouchability!

The term “Dalit” in Sanskrit is derived from the root “dal” which means to split, break, crack, and so on. It means split, broken, burst, etc. as an adjective. Jyotiba Phule, the founder of the Satya Shodak Samaj, a non-Brahmin movement in Maharashtra, is believed to have coined the term “Dalit”. He used the term to refer to the outcastes and untouchables as the victims of the caste-based social division of the Indian society.

Dalits were earlier known as “untouchables” and “outcastes” for centuries. The degrading terms were replaced by the British administration by “Depressed Classes” in 1919. Gandhiji called them Harijans (People of God). Ambedkar did not accept Gandhi s term.

He demanded a separate electorate for the “Depressed Classes”, and pro­posed the term “Protestant Hindus”. In 1935, the British government defined them as the “Scheduled Castes.” It was during the 1970s that the Dalit Panther Movement of Maharashtra popularized the term Dalit. Today, the term is used for the Dalit people of various religions and protest movements.

Dalits occupy the lowest position in the caste hierarchy based on ritual purity and occupation, and outside the Varna system, which gives them the traditional name Panchumas. They have been oppressed throughout the recorded history of India, relegated to doing agricultural tasks, and polluting occupations like disposing dead bodies, working with leather, cleaning toilets and sewage, etc.

They have been stripped of their dignity and denied basic human rights. They were considered “untouchables” implying that anybody touching them would be polluted. They were denied access to roads, temples, schools, etc. to avoid “pollution” of other castes.

To this day, thousands of villages have a separate area for Dalit houses, separate wells for Dalits, class rooms where Dalit children sit separately, and tea shops with separate glasses for Dalits. Such discrimination occurs despite laws against such practices. Centuries of oppression and dis­crimination has resulted in poverty and its associated problems amongst Dalits.

A large number of Dalits converted to religions including Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Sikhism for equality and human dignity. Dr Ambedkar believed that neither Marxism nor bourgeois nationalism nor republicanism provided any solution to the problem of caste.

So, he turned to religion. He rejected Christianity and Islam, because they did not originate to fight the caste system. He chose Buddhism and converted to it along with millions of Mahars. Ambedkar noted that the Buddha created his Sangha as a model of casteless society and the laity was to emulate the bhikkus in order to bring about such a society into existence.

Origin of Untouchability:

The origins of untouchability can be traced back to the times when the Aryans invaded India around 1500 BC. They looked down upon the indigenous people as culturally and racially inferior. While some of the indigenous people escaped into the jungles, the rest of them were subdued and incorporated into the Aryan society as inferior castes.

In the Later-Vedic period, the people who escaped into the jungles began to be called Chandalas. There was a lot of stigma against the Chandalas in the Later-Vedic period, but untouchability on a large scale appeared only between 600 BC and 200 AD.

Manu holds that the four Varnas originated from different parts of Purusha: the Brahmans from his mouth, the Kshyatriyas from his arms, the Vaishyas from his thighs, and the Shudras from his feet. Rest of the Castes came into being as a result of alliances among the four Varnas.

The two important theories pertaining to the origin of untouchability are as follows:


The first theory says that the discovery that the Indus valley people spoke a proto- Dravidian language suggests that the people conquered by the Aryans were Dravidians. They subsequently moved down south and subjugated the indigenous people there. When Aryan influence spread to the South, the Varna system and the “untouchability” came into existence.

Thus, the Dalits were among the original tribes of South India, who became isolated from the rest of the world and so were looked down upon by others. They belonged to the first wave of Dravidians who emigrated to the South and were subse­quently won over by a more civilized wave who forced them to live as manual laborers.

Why the Aryans developed a social organization wherein the Chandalas occupied the lowest position is answered by the “mixed caste” theory offered by Manu. This theory explains the existence of the four Varnas as divinely-ordained and the other castes outside the Varna scheme as a result of unlawful sexual alliances between men and women of dif­ferent Varnas.

The Chandala resulted as the offspring of a Brahman woman and a Shudra man. Four other groups were also included among the “untouchables”. In the years after 200 AD, “untouchability” came to include more groups.

The label Chandala came to be used to refer to all those at the bottom of society. This oversimplifies what over a period of time a far more complex process. The number of “untouchable” castes always exceeded the number of mixed origin castes, so obviously other considerations influenced the clas­sification system. This theory accords priority to Varna rather than Jati.

To explain the origin of untouchability, recent theories have used components such as race and the concern for racial purity when races interact; the subjugation of diverse groups by the technologically superior Aryans; the division of labor as migrant Aryans settled down adopting agricultural and then urban ways of life; incorporation of new tribes, new guilds, and new religious sect into the Aryan society.


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