The term untouchable is an English translation for the Indian terms antyaja and achhoot and refers to individuals and groups who inhabit the bottom rung of the hierarchical Indian social order known as the caste system. It is a social status forced upon those who either allegedly made serious transgressions against established orthodox Hindu rules of purity and conduct, or because of the defiling nature of their occupations are considered unclean. During the 20th century, several names have been coined in reference to them, including Harijan Scheduled Castes, and Dalit. The 1991 Indian census estimated the number of Harijans at 16%; however, many believe this number to be as high as 20% or higher.
The caste system has clouded origins in ancient India. Briefly mentioned in the Rig Veda, traditionally considered the most revered of ancient Hindu texts, it is a system of four varnas, or castes, that divide the society into priests and teachers, warriors and rulers, merchants and farmers, and laborers and servants. By the beginning of the Common Era, a fifth caste had been added, the anchama,or antyaja, the Untouchable. Members of this caste were placed outside the caste system (avarna), because their duties involved cleaning up after all the other castes or undertaking those tasks that were too impure and polluting for others to perform. Occupations in the category include leather workers, sweepers, scavengers, funeral workers, and so forth. The Manusmriti (third century BCE-third century CE) elaborates rules and restrictions for the various castes and firmly places Untouchables out of reach of most aspects of Hindu social and religious life that are available to the other castes. This text has continued to be used by the Hindu orthodoxy to justify the system and the inherent discrimination it perpetuates.
Treatment of Untouchables by orthodox and other caste Hindus has varied by time and region, with some avarna having had greater opportunities and rights than others. At its best, orthodox Hindu society has treated Untouchables like children, not yet capable of the rights of other adults to take part in the bulk of social and religious traditions. At its worst, Untouchables have been persecuted, tortured, and killed when attempting to step outside the narrow confines that orthodox Hinduism has placed on them. In many village regions, they have been relegated to living on the outskirts, forbidden to enter temples, not allowed in many schools, and prohibited from drawing water from wells used by caste Hindus. In some regions of the country where the percentages of avarna Hindus is high, they have been more able to create their own communities, build their own temples, dig their own wells, and, within reason, live like most other Hindus. Nevertheless, the majority of Untouchables are never far away from discrimination that has nothing to do with anything more than the reality of their birth. It is for this reason that attempts to overthrow the practice of untouchability are almost as old as the practice itself.
Terms of Identity
Harijan—In an attempt to remove some of the stigma associated with the commonly used terms for Untouchables at the time, avarna (without caste) and achhoot (Untouchable), Mahatma Gandhi began to refer to them with the term Harijan (God’s children or God’s people) instead. While in prison in 1933, he helped found the Harijan Sevak Sangh, an organization focused entirely on combating untouchability. He also started a new weekly publication, which he titled, The Harijan. In it, he regularly described and railed against the practice and the degraded status Harijans faced. As a result of Gandhi, many Untouchables adopted the term for self-identity, and it is arguably the most popular term in India in reference to them today.
Scheduled Caste—The term Scheduled Caste first came into use in The Government of India Act, passed by the British in 1935. Among its provisions were several designed to benefit those groups who, at the time, were being referred to as Depressed Classes. The Act changed the classification to Scheduled Castes. From that time, it became the official terminology for avarna Hindu groups, and it continues to be so, for the most part.
Dalit, a term literally meaning depressed or downtrodden, was first used in the 1800s by an Untouchable social reformer named Jyotirao Phule, in reference to the social and religious situation in which Untouchables were forced to live. He adopted the term as a badge of honor. However, it was when another Untouchable, Namdeo Dhasal, started the Dalit Panther Movement (named after the U.S. Black Panther Movement) in 1972, and thereby gave the name real currency and a wider use. Like its namesake, the organization had a strong militant overtone to its stated goals and rhetoric. By the mid-1980s, it split into a variety of factions.
Since that time, the term Dalit is used primarily by social and political activists, most of whom are either Marxist, secular, or converts to a non-Hindu religion, especially Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism. While many Dalit activists claim the movement speaks for all Harijans, this is not the case, especially regarding Harijans who still consider themselves Hindu. In reality, very few rural Harijans have much of an awareness of the Dalit movement, which is primarily a phenomenon of urban and western India. Nevertheless, Dalit writers and activists have done an immense job of shedding light on the oppressed situation of Harijans, and this has led to an increase of pressure on the Indian Government, both from within India as well as internationally, to address more forcefully the problem and work to eradicate the discrimination. The influence of the movement is such that even the Indian Government has recently begun to adopt the term in reference to Harijans.
The Struggle Against Untouchability
Throughout much of recorded Indian history, orthodox rules of behavior have justified discrimination against those at the bottom, the avarna. At the same time, criticism of the practice also dates back to ancient times as well. In some of the earliest Buddhists writings, the Buddha rejects a system that bases one’s worth on birth rather than actions. Since then, most religious reform movements that have arisen in India, especially devotional movements, have rejected birth-based social and religious status determination. Moreover, this has been one of the central themes in many of the movements. Yet, these attempts at reform had only limited, regional, or temporary success, and the practice continued. Finally, thanks primarily to the efforts of two 20th-century figures in India, Mahatma Gandhi and Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Indian attitudes toward Untouchables gradually began to change.
Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)
Mahatma Gandhi was an important figure in attempting to rid the Indian social system of untouchability. Some say he was as concerned with its removal as he was with the removal of British control over India, and he frequently spoke and wrote against the practice. However, Gandhi did not reject the caste system per se. This is because he had seen poverty and oppression of the poor in England as well, so he did not believe the British social system to be as superior to India’s. His love of India’s cultural and religious traditions led him to feel that the caste system should remain but be cleansed of untouchability. As a consequence many Untouchables and anti-caste activists disliked him and refused to work with him in his efforts toward the eradication of untouchability. Among the more notable of these figures was Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar.
Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956)
Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was the most powerful and well-known Untouchable activist and leader in the first half of the 20th century, and he was among the principal authors of the Indian Constitution. He came from an educated and relatively well-to-do family in India and did much of his higher education in the West, including in America, England, and Germany, earning both a doctorate and a law degree. The primary focus of his life’s work and activism was the eradication of untouchability. In the process, he inspired the wrath and ire of both the British government and many caste Hindus. While his goal for the eradication of untouchability was similar to that of Gandhi, the two remained distant in their approaches. Not only did they not work together, often they worked at odds with each other. The main point of contention was between Gandhi’s belief that the caste system could be cleansed of untouchability and Amdedkar’s reject of the system in its entirety.
Several years after Indian Independence and his drafting of the Constitution, Ambedkar removed himself from politics. He had increasingly come to believe that Untouchables would never be treated equally as Hindus, so he turned his focus to Buddhism. In 1935, Ambedkar had sworn that he would not die a Hindu, and true to his word, in 1956, he formally converted to Buddhism. Immediately thereafter, he led the conversion of nearly 400,000 Harijans who were present as well. Seven weeks later he died, and in his honor nearly 750,000 more Harijans converted to Buddhism. Since that time, his inspiration has led to several million more Buddhist converts. Consequently, Ambedkar Buddhists are the most populace denomination of Buddhists in India today.
Fighting Untouchability in Contemporary India
Pro-Hindu Activists. While orthodox religious organizations and institutions continue, for the most part, to adhere to traditional attitudes toward avarna Hindus, forbidding or sharply restricting their participation in religious activities, other Hindu organizations are increasingly opening their doors to membership for all Hindus, and some have made concerted efforts to include Harjians. This is especially true of those organizations that have an international following and tend to be influenced by Western values. Even the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an international but largely conservative Hindu organization, has come out against untouchability and has vowed to work toward its demise. Additionally, there are various religious organizations and movements started by Harijans themselves in an effort to work toward social equality, and also to create an environment in which they can freely express their own forms of religious and spiritual beliefs and practices.
DalitActivists. As mentioned earlier, those who identify themselves as Dalit have, for the most part, rejected participation in the Hindu tradition, choosing either to convert to another religion or to follow a Marxist ideological approach rejecting religion altogether. Their influence is primarily urban, where untouchability is lessening for a variety of other reasons as well. However, Dalits are having relatively little effect in most of rural India. Nevertheless, they have been successful in influencing elements of the Indian Government, and Dalit activism may have inspired some of the more recent government policies to help Harijans.
Those Dalits who have converted to Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism, however, face an additional dilemma. After conversion, they often continued to be viewed as Untouchable by members of their new religious communities as well, and thus continue to face the same discrimination as when they were Hindu. Yet, now they are no longer qualified to participate in the benefits of the multiple government programs, which provide assistance in education, housing, vocational training, government employment, and even in securing elected positions. This is because on conversion, they are no longer officially members of the Scheduled Castes, which is a Hindu category. While the government is clearly being pressured to continue looking upon the converts as Schedule Caste members, this would be a de facto acknowledgment of the existence of untouchability in these religious traditions as well, and because many of their leaders officially deny its existence in their religions, several have been firmly against the move.
Nonreligious International Organization. A variety of international organizations have turned their focus on untouchability in India as a human rights issue. They have sought to confront the Indian government and its representatives on the issue in various forums. As an example, at the World Congress Against Racism and Xenophobia, held in South Africa in 2001, Indian government supporters fought hard to keep out any discussion of caste discrimination and untouchability, which they depicted as an internal issue for India. Nevertheless, a large number of Dalit activists attended the conference, and the issue was hotly debated with the objective of having untouchability officially recognized by the United Nations as a form of racial discrimination.
Indian Government. Ever since Indian Independence in 1947, the Indian Government has been attempting to address the problem. The Indian Constitution of 1949 outlawed the practice of untouchability and any discrimination based on race, caste, sex, or place of birth. It also contains 14 separate Articles that deal with the issues of discrimination and create special provisions for members of castes considered backward. The Indian Government continues to work on the issue. It has shown that it understands the negative effect the persistent discrimination has on the economic progress of the country as well as how it is viewed on the international stage. Almost every year, new laws or amendments to existing laws are enacted to address the problems.
Along with this, various organizations and activists continue to exert tremendous efforts to facilitate Harijans’ equal participation in caste Hindu social and religious life. Nevertheless, the prejudice and discrimination continues, and change has been slow to come, especially in rural areas. The persistence is primarily out of both indoctrination by, and fear of, the religious orthodoxy. Anyone who crosses the caste line in eating and close physical relations runs the risk of being ostracized by his or her community. This situation is maintained by the orthodoxy’s continuous depiction and treatment of Harijans as polluted individuals, and its refusal to allow them into the mainstream of religious life. As a consequence, untouchability continues to affect where people can live and work, what they can and cannot do , and with whom they can interact socially, including eating, playing, and marrying. Thus, while government and activists work for changes, the reluctance of the orthodox hierarchy to address the issue more forcibly continues to benefit anti-Hindu activists in gaining international support and a reason for rural Harijans to convert to other religious traditions.
Lack of education, economic power, and political representation remain the major factors that keep Harijans at the bottom of the social, economic, and political ladders. This is especially true in the rural areas of the country, and it is in these areas where discrimination remains the most prevalent. However, as more and more schools are being built, and an increasing number of Harijan children are becoming educated, changes are occurring, albeit slowly. In urban India, however, life moves at a more rapid pace. Less and less is caste an issue. In some states, it is illegal to ask caste affiliation, and one can rarely know by looking at an individual. Economic class is replacing caste as the primary determinant of one’s status. Because education and job training in the cities is more available to them, an increasing number of urban Harijans are availing themselves of these opportunities, resulting in better paying jobs, an increased awareness of their legal rights, and the knowledge of how to demand them. In the process, many urban Harijans are learning to navigate their lives away from the constant shadow of discrimination. Their rural counterparts still have a long way to go.
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