The Untouchables of India
K. Raja Kumar
One day I visited a typical village in South India with a friend who was brought up in a village where untouchability is severely practiced. Both of us witnessed different forms of untouchability in that village. When we left that village, my friend, inspite of his familiarity with the problem of untouchability, was excited and surprised because in his native place, which falls under the same region, untouchability has been practiced in different forms; different from the forms witnessed in the village we have visited. Even for many Indians reading any material on untouchability or the caste system in Indian village would be full of surprise because the system is so complex and varied. In fact, exclamation mark (!) must be very often used in an article, which deals about the practice of untouchability and caste system even if the article is addressed to Indians!
Untouchability and caste system
The system untouchability and its victims the untouchables of India cannot be understood in isolation from the Hindu caste system, for untouchability is a product of the Hindu caste system. The centuries old Hindu caste system of India, still remains as one of the major component of Indian social structure. Even though the caste system of India has undergone many changes due to historical factors like Muslim rule and British rules and its economic effects like the destruction of the self-sufficient village economy, industrialization etc, its influence over the Indian society and its role as an agency of social control in Indian villages are very strong and the dynamism of Indian society cannot be properly understood in isolation from its Hindu caste system.
There are hundreds of castes and sub-castes throughout India. But, broadly speaking, in a typical Indian village there would be three categories of castes namely: upper, middle and lower castes in the caste hierarchy. The members of the upper castes are considered superior in the caste hierarchy and a superior status is assigned to them under the Caste
Value System even at the time of their birth. The members of the upper castes in traditional Indian society, by virtue of their caste, accumulated special privileges. For example the Brahmins, who become the top of the caste hierarchy had a lot of privileges. The priests of the Caste Hindus' Temples were exclusively Brahmins. They were not given with hard manual labor in the process of production. The Brahmins had been playing the role of intellectual agents for the dominant classes until the entrance of British colonialism into India. Furthermore, the Brahmins were a part of the dominant class in ancient India. In some parts of India complete immunity from death sentence was given to the members of the Brahmin caste for any offense including murder, if it is committed by a Brahmin. On the contrary a member of the untouchable caste, even if he commits an "ordinary offense" like walking in the streets where Brahmins live, he would be subjected to severe forms of punishment. Thus, the Brahmins had even legal privileges. Learning the Hindu Religious language, Sanskrit, was considered as the monopoly of Brahmins. Such privileges do not exist in today's India. But by and large a typical Brahmin even today has superiority-complex over his fellow-Indians!
Next comes, the middle castes in the caste hierarchy. The members of the middle castes are superior in relation to the lower castes but inferior in relation to the upper castes, under the caste hierarchy.
Finally, for the members of the lower castes a lower status is ascribed under the caste hierarchy. If we analyze the untouchables in the light of the ancient caste system, they would fall under the category of outcastes. But in today's India the untouchables fall under the category of lower castes for all practical reasons. After the British rule, many lower and middle castes have increased their status under the caste hierarchy through accumulation of economic and political power. After independence, the Government of India has been giving many concessions to the members of the scheduled caste, the constitutional term for the
untouchable caste. But given the socio-economic and political situation in India, such concessions benefited only microscopic minority of the Untouchable Caste. Today, villages, where 80% of the people live, the majority of the landowners comprise the upper and middle caste members and majority of the landless peasants comprise the lower castes, specially the untouchable castes.
Under the untouchability system certain religious and social disabilities are imposed on the members of the untouchable caste cannot enter the temple of the upper and middle castes. In some parts of India, the members of the untouchable castes cannot enter the temples of the lower untouchable castes can not enter the temples of the lower castes. As a result, most of the untouchable castes have their own temples. Many untouchable castes have their own god and goddesses also!
A member of the untouchable caste cannot be allowed to take water from a well being used by the members of the upper and middle castes. The members of untouchable castes must not live or even walk in the streets where the upper and middle castes live. The members of the untouchable castes are not allowed to sit equally with the members of the upper and middle caste in the village restaurants. Inter-caste marriages are strictly prohibited by caste norms.
The paradigms above do not exist uniformally all over India. The nature, pattern, number and intensity of the disabilities on the members of the untouchable castes differs from region to region due to the uneven development of different historical forces. But even today in Indian villages, the essential core aspect of this system still remains and its expression varies in different regions, although untouchability has been abolished theoretically by the Constitution.
Legal and Moral Fights Against Untouchability System
The Indian Constitution enumerates a list of fundamental Rights in Part III of the Constitution. Article 17 states:
"Untouchability has been abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden ...." To give practical value to this Article, Parliament has enacted the Untouchability (offenses) Act in 1955. This act prescribes punishment for the practice of Untouchability. This Act has been amended by the Untouchability (offenses) Amendment Act, 1976, in order to make the laws more stringent "to remove Untouchability from the society." Under the amended act, any discrimination on the ground of Untouchability will be considered an offense. Furthermore, it also imposes a duty on public servants to investigate such offenses. It provides that if a public servant willfully neglect the investigation of any offense punishable under this Act he shall be deemed to have abetted an offense punishable under this Act. But what is the practical value of these enforceable legal documents? Once a police officer in Tamil Nadu said "If we (the police) take this law seriously, half the population of Tamil Nadu will have to be arrested." Perhaps we may get the same answer from the police officers in most parts of India in the year 1980. Many social scientists in India believe that no amount of superimposed laws can change a practice, which has its roots over thousand years back. Further, the Untouchability and caste system perfectly serve the interests of the rural elite; the caste system has inalienable links with the rural class structure.
Many reformists, including Mathama Gandhiji, tried their level best to eradicate the Untouchability evil through moral persuasion. Gandhiji coined the term "Harijans" to denote the members of the untouchable caste. He integrated with harijans very much during his travel throughout India. He gave beautiful sermons addressed to the upper castes and pleaded with the members of the upper caste to treat the "harijans" as equals as he treats them. But all his attempts on this issue ended in utter fiasco. Twenty years after his death, the report of the Elayaperumal Committee, a Government supported committee, which studied the conditions of untouchables in 1969 says "in Samakha, a
village near Delhi, the national capital, the untouchables were not allowed to enter the Community Centre inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhiji."
Innumerable historical facts can be quoted to highlight the lesson that neither legal solution nor moral persuasion can destroy the Untouchability system in India. Clearly worded codified enacted laws without any loophole, are there to safeguard the interests of the untouchables of India. Unparalleled sermons on the evils of Untouchability are spread out to the nooks and corners of the Indian subcontinent. But Untouchability still remains omnipresent throughout India. The paradox is all the political leaders strongly condemn Untouchability and caste system to project a radical image among the oppressed castes in India, But the very same leaders are forced to manipulate the caste sentiments during the parliamentary elections to influence the voters because caste system still remains as a social reality.
The Inter-Action of class and Caste system in India
One of the unique features of the Indian society has been the caste system and its inalienable practice of Untouchability is inter-linked and overlapped with the class system. Historically, the class system in India has been perpetuated through the caste system and vice versa. In traditional caste-based Indian society every caste had been assigned a defined role in the system of economic production. A particular caste could only be involved in agricultural occupations; another caste carpentry work... The remnants of this division of labor on caste basis can be observed in the villages even today. Even in the Industrial cities, the remnants of the caste-based division of labor can be observed; The scavengers are all from the untouchable castes in the big cities and towns. In rural India, the bulk of the landless agricultural laborers constitutes the members of the untouchable and lower castes. It would be a miracle if we are able to see a landless laborer from an upper caste
like Brahmin. A poor man marrying a rich girl is just an ordinary news. But a young man from an untouchable caste marrying a girl from an upper caste is perceived as an extra ordinary news. In fact, the Tamil Nadu State government, advocating caste reforms strongly, rewards gold-medal with cash to encourage Inter caste marriages. In Tamil Nadu, all the political parties are advocating caste reforms. But ironically during the 60s and 70s, in Tamil Nadu some of the worst cases of atrocities committed by the upper and middle castes over the untouchable castes have taken place. One such nationally highlighted case happened in Tamil Nadu went deep into the recent Indian history.
In Keela Venmani, a village in Tamil Nadu, in December 1969, 42 landless agricultural laborers from an untouchable caste including women and innocent children were burnt alive in a single hut, by the upper caste landlords due to a conflict during the process in which the victims under the leadership of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) demanded higher wages. After this incident, the local police arrested twenty-three landlords. The District court Judges acquitted fifteen of the accused and sentenced the rest to various terms of liberal imprisonment ranging from one to ten years. But in the appeal, the High Court (at the State Level) released all the accused and in its Judgment it says: "the rich landlords could not be expected to commit such violent crimes themselves and would normally hire others to do while keeping themselves in the background." This highlighted two important lessons, namely, how the state machinery safeguards or fails to safeguards the interests of the untouchable castes and the interests of the Caste Bourgeoisie and this case also highlighted the overlapping of the caste and class systems.
The evil of untouchability has penetrated even the westernized Christian churches. In some village churches separate space is reserved for the untouchable castes. Caste has been playing an influential role during church elections in some parts of South India. Even the Muslims are
influenced by the system in their inter actions with the untouchable castes, psychologically at least.
Theories about the origin of the Caste System
The origin of this more than thousand years old caste and untouchability systems has been very difficult to trace mainly due to lack of recorded history and partly due to the uneven development of historical forces in different parts of the Indian sub-continent. But many theoraticians in India and abroad have formulated many theories about the origin of the caste system. Some argue, that the caste system, was introduced by the Aryans, who invaded India, thousand years back. Some other argue that caste system was in existence even before the invasion of Aryans. Most of them consider the "Rigveda", the Hindu religious holy book as the main material source for their research. Now it is accepted by most that the Varna system and caste system are not the same.
Left movement and untouchables
Historically left movement overlooked the caste contradictions or failed to take the caste contradiction seriously in their analysis and formulation of strategy partly because the leadership of the Indian left movement had been dominated by urbanized upper and middle caste intellectuals. But after the Indian independence (1947), it remains as a fact that wherever the members of the untouchable caste are organized under the left movement, they are able to take an offensive position against caste oppression. In some parts of the Tanjore District in Tamil Nadu, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is known as "Harijans Party". A landlord in the Tanjore District said in an interview, "Things to be very peaceful here some years ago. The (untouchable) laborers were hardworking and respectful. But now... the fellow who used to stand in the backyard of my house to talk to me comes straight to the veranda wearing slippers and all. At 5:30 p.m. sharp he says:
Our leader is speaking today at a public meeting. I have to go. His leader holds a meeting right next door to me and parades the street with red flag. They have no fear anymore." In Bojbur district in Bihar State the untouchables are well organized under the leadership of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), which still remains as an under ground party advocating armed struggle as the means to social change. There, the untouchable landless and poor peasants are able to take an offensive position not only against the landlords but even against the police. A section of the educated youth in Maharashtra state formed the Dalit (oppressed) Panthers Party in 1972 and it has been actively involved in militant forms of struggles to defend the interests of the untouchables. According to their manifesto, their enumerated list of enemies includes "landlords, capitalist, money lenders and their stooges, all parties indulging in communal and caste politics and the government which protects and supports all these interests" and its list of friends includes "the left parties and all those who are committed to changing the present system". Many other leftist oriented groups are coming up throughout India to organize the untouchables. Their principle has been, according to one such grass root level group, "organize, agitate and educate the untouchables."
Broadly, there are two trends in the Indian left Movement on the question of caste oppression. Although both the trends in the Indian left movement unanimously recognize caste oppression as a vital issue one trend holds the view that the intensification of class struggles on class lines would resolve the caste contradictions in its process and so the thrust should be mobilization and organization of the exploited on class lines. Another trend in the Indian left movement believes that for the Indian revolution, caste contradictions must be handled during the process of intensification of the class struggle since class and caste cut across each other. They believe that the untouchable castes must be organized on the issue of caste oppression, which
they consider as an essential component of the strategy for Indian revolution. There are several trends in between these two trends in the Indian left movement. In the recent years, due to the increasing atrocities committed over the untouchables, the polemic between the major two trends has assumed importance.
Since untouchability remains as part of the caste system, it can not be eliminated unless caste system is destroyed. Dr. Ambedkar, an outstanding leader of the untouchables and who himself experienced the untouchability by the upper caste Hindus during his life time, once said "There will be outcastes (untouchables) as long as there are castes and nothing can emancipate the outcastes except the destruction of the caste system.
The caste system can not be destroyed in isolation because it has roots in the system of economic production. It forms as an integral aspect of the Indian production system in the predominantly rural India. So, an approach which embrace and absorb both the dimensions of class and caste of the Indian society must be evolved. And only a movement which takes into consideration both class and caste aspects of the Indian socio-economic structure and which can mobilize the oppressed classes including the oppressed castes could have the potential to smash the inhuman practice of Untouchability in today's India!*
Taken from Praxis Jan-Apr., 1980.