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The Social Practice Of Untouchability Sociology Essay

4288 words (17 pages) Essay in Sociology

5/12/16 Sociology Reference this

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Untouchability is the social practice of casting out a minority group by regarding them as “ritually polluted” and segregating them from the mainstream. 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. This exclusion was a method of punishing law-breakers and also protected against contagion from strangers. A member of the excluded group is known as an untouchable. The people who are said untouchable are from that section of society which is not only held in the lowest esteem, but which is behaved by the other castes as unclean. Who are found to be the sweepers, cleaner, and leather tanners are considered as unfit for human society or co-mingling. They are not permitted to take their water from the public wells.

The word caste was loosely used by the Portuguese to denote the Indian social classification as they thought that the system was intended to preserver purity of blood. The system is such a peculiar and complex thing that no satisfactory definition is possible. Hence we find no unanimity among scholars on the subject. Senart states that ‘a caste is a close corporation, exclusive and in theory at any rate rigorously hereditary. It is equipped with ascertain traditional and independent organization, including a chief and a council, meeting on occasion in assemblies endowed with less full authority.

According to sir H. Risley, ‘a caste may be defined as a collection of families or groups of families bearing a common name, claiming common descent from a mythical ancestor, human or divine, professing to follow the same hereditary calling, and regarded by those who are competent to give opinion as forming a single homogeneous community .the name generally denotes or is associated with a specific occupation. A caste is almost invariably endogamous in the sense that a member of the large circle denoted by the common name may not marry outside that circle, but within the circle there are usually a number of smaller circles each which is also endogamous.’ The ‘untouchables’ have been referred to as Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes. Local names for the ‘untouchables’ are in different parts of India and known by different names: Bhangi, Pakhi, Chandal, etc. Mahatma Gandhi called them Harijans, which means children of God. It is still in wide use especially in Gandhi’s home state of Gujarat. Harijans are now Dalits, which means broken people.

Historical background:

Hindu culture was made of four castes according to work of people. There are the brahmins, the highest or scholarly people, kshatriya, the caste of the ancient kings or warriors; the vaisya, the farmers and traders; and the sudras, laborers. The people, who come under the sudras caste, are treated with disdain, but not as outcasts. Today, the caste system is become more complicated and having many subdivisions, each forming a social organization whose function is to protect caste members. In Manu Smriti there is written that the first part of a Brahmin’s name should denote something auspicious, a Kshatriya’s name should be connected with power, and that a Vaishya’s name should reminds wealth. The first part of a Sudra’s name should express something contemptible and the second part should describe the service, because of the Sudra’s low origin. According to Hindu practice, only the upper castes are given right to study the Vedas. ‘If the Sudra intentionally listens for committing to memory the Veda, then his ears should be filled with molten lead and lac; if he utters the Veda, then his tongue should be cut off, if he has mastered the Veda his body should be cut to pieces’ says the Manu Smriti. In the epic Ramayana, after Lord Rama’s return from exile, a Brahmin accuses him of causing the death of his son by his toleration of Shambuka, a Sudra who recited the Vedas. In order to control the situation, Rama finds Shambuka and killed him. The Brahmin boy got life again. In Manu Smriti different punishments are given for the same ‘crime’, depending on the culprit’s caste. If this much punishments were for the Sudras, what was the treatment reserved for the ‘untouchables’ who were outside the caste system, and placed even lower than the Sudras in society. In the 1500s, during the rule of the Marathas and the Peshwas ‘untouchables’ were not allowed within the gates of the Poona between 3.00 pm and 9.00 am. The reason was that during this time their bodies were casting long shadows, with the reason that the shadow of an ‘untouchable’ might fall on a Brahmin and pollute him. An ‘untouchable’ used to carry an earthen pot around his neck so his spittle might not pollute the earth by the shadow. In Maharashtra an ‘untouchable’ wore a black thread either in his neck or on his wrist for ready identification of upper caste people, while in Gujarat a horn was being worn for identification. It must be remembered that Dalit does not mean Caste or low-Caste or poor; it refers to the deplorable state or condition to which a large group of people has been reduced by social convention and in which they are now living.

Protection under constitution:

India’s government and legal system when dealing with dalits or ‘untouchables’ is fraught with contradiction. This is evident in the disparities between upper and lower castes, in terms of economic and political power, and is a consequence of the States differential treatment of these sections. The Indian Constitution – the writing of which was chaired by the most powerful dalit advocate for dalit rights, Dr. Ambedkar embodies civil and legal rights providing for non-discrimination. However, secular legal and constitutional structures are contradictory to the prevalent ancient Hindu law: religious, social and economic practices that involve a discriminative hierarchy based on hereditary social status, occupation and ritual duties. Stratification of society benefits the upper classes as it secures positions of economic and social power, and allows the exploitation of the lower castes; Hindu beliefs and law sanction this. It is therefore not in their interest to remove discrimination by the implementation of the constitutional principles and laws in favors of the dalits. The Indian state hasn’t, to date, taken a serious approach to the betterment of the dalit situation because it is essentially aligned with the upper castes. The provision of reservations for government seats, employment and higher education has improved the living standard of some dalits, yet most remain in poverty. Reservations provide positive discrimination; ironically this also stereotypes dalits, resulting in their continual segregation in society. The state has not successfully provided due access to education, equitable employment, ownership of land and legal protection to break the cycle of caste based oppression. Dalit political parties and movements for the assertion of rights and self determination have been numerous and varied, but have been successfully quelled by the state and upper castes through the use of political power, violence, and police intimidation, all contrary to the constitution.

Hindus maintain the caste system because their religion requires them to do so, and caste is a characteristic of Brahmanism, the Brahmans being at the top of the system.1 Dalits, as they will be referred to here, are a sub caste of people at the bottom of the Hindu social and religious hierarchy called Varna Dharma; due to polluting nature of their occupations which include

handling dead animals, cleaning, and jobs to do with human excrement. They are forced to behave in de-humanizing ways such the eating of excrement. The interaction of the castes and

1 L.G. Havanur, Backward Classes, Judicial Meaning, Socio-legal Services and Research Centre, Bangalore, 1991, p.55

jatis, or endogamous sub divisions relating to occupation, is known as the jajmani system. Hindus have relied on this system to divide labour, social and commensally relations and ensure economic and social co-operation.2 On every level the dalits have been discriminated against, and subordinated into servitude.3 Ambedkar in his leadership role in the Indian constituent assembly sought to erase the oppressive caste system by raising dalit awareness and empowerment through provisions in the constitution. Article 15 and 17 prohibits the practice of untouchability and discrimination based on caste.4 In hindsight, these basic aims seem too lofty to be realized, given that dalits still remain disenfranchised in relation to the implementation of these articles. Forty years later, writing in 1994, Dr. B.D Sharma describes the Indian micro-universe as separated into the ‘first world,’ where people exercise their rights and have access to courts and police for protection under the law and ‘the other world’ where people do not.5 The first world comprises of only 15-20% of the population and the other world makes up the majority of ‘disinherited’ and exploited people.6 In addition, The Civil Rights Protection Act, 1955, intended to abolish disabilities associated with backward classes including dalits. While creating an atmosphere where the inequalities suffered by the dalits have been publicly condemned, the constitutional measures have been rendered ineffective as they are mostly ignored in practice.7 Dalits make up 77% of agricultural labour which is classified as unskilled and unorganised. In the urban setting, they are labourers in construction, scavengers and sanitation workers, also falling into the unorganized category. Wages in the organized sector are regulated by the State so that they rise with increased prices, and are adequate enough for one wage earner to sustain a family. Labourers bear the brunt of the disparity between organized and unorganized sections. Violations of minimum wage, set very low in the first place, and payment in kind are common, and go unchecked.8 Consequently, one wage cannot support a family and children and the elderly are forced to work, children don’t go to school and are trapped by poverty.9 The State allows illegal labour practices because exploitation results in economic benefits for landowners and employers who are mostly upper caste, if it should interfere, more

2 Sumit Ganguly & Neil DeVotta eds, Understanding Contemporary India, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder, London, 2003, p.233 -234

3 Robert.W.Stern, Changing India, 2nd edit, Cambridge university press, Cambridge, 2003. p.60-61

4 Sumit Ganguly & Neil DeVotta eds, Understanding Contemporary India, p.243

5 Dr. B.D. Sharma, Dalits Betrayed, Har-Anand Publications, New Delhi, 1994, p.13

6 Ibid. 7Robert.W.Stern, Changing India, 2nd edit, p. 242

8 Prem.K.Shinde ed, Dalits and Human Rights, volume 1, (Dalits and Racial Justice) Isha Books, Delhi, p.84

9 Dr. B.D. Sharma, Dalits Betrayed, p.47

dalits may be able to enter the organised sector, and thus this exploitable labour resource would be drained. Although this massive failure of participation in the organised economy could be corrected by affirmative action policies, these have also been insufficient.

Article 330 and 332 of the constitution call for affirmative action in the form of special reservations in government representation, government employment and higher education,

intended to raise the dalit position in society. Reserved seats are allocated in the Lok Sabha, and the legislative assemblies of the states, effectively giving dalits representation.

The scheduled castes and scheduled tribes (The Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 was designed to better punish offences such as injury or harassment directed at dalits. In addition, Article 14 of the constitution states that no citizen be denied equality before the law. Ghandi believed that the superior/inferior relations between dalits and upper castes could not be remedied by the state, but needed to be addressed by the upper castes themselves who were responsible for the system.10

10 Lelah Dushkin, Scheduled Caste Policy in India, p.632

Untoucability, A social Evil:

Untouchability is basically not from India. It was practiced in parts of Europe until a few centuries ago, and Japan still has a large number of “Untouchables”, called the ‘Burakumin’. But it is in the Indian Sub-continent that this system survives, closely bound with culture, religion, history and politics. Today over 170 million people in India are considered Untouchable, and their development has been slow despite the Legal safeguards and the Government programs. According to the ‘Manu Smriti’ there are four castes in Hindu society and each caste has assigned duties, responsibilities and privileges. The Brahmins are the learned, the Kshatriyas are the warriors, the Vaishyas are the traders, and the Sudras perform menial tasks and physical labour, and are considered as the lowest. And only uppers castes have the right to study the Vedas. The upper castes alone have the right to the thread ceremony which is performed as a rite of passage, allowing them to be termed twice-born.

What is a Dharma?

A study reveals that “he who has the knowledge of Brahmagnan is called the Brahmana”, and not by caste or not by the birth. Each one of us is an untouchable, because who among us is free from disobedience to Nature’s laws, from impurity of heart and mind, from fears of a thousand kinds, from selfishness and greed. Let us remove the untouchability in us. Anyone is not perfect, but through right dharma, by eliminating our differences and by strengthening our virtues, we move towards perfection. Let us develop the virtue of efficiency and skill to become Shudras; the virtue of charity and become Vaishyas; the courage and become Kshatriyas; the sacrifice and become Brahman, and make ourselves in the copy of the Great Purusha, the Radiant.

According to the “Bhagwadgeetha” or “The Bible” or any other, written, or said, is the same, that all humans are equal. The Air we breathe, the Water we drink, the Fire, the Sky, the Earth are same. These days Indian students and citizens are being attacked in some countries, and we are discussing and talking about the “RACISM” and craving for justice. We should condemn these at any cost, but it would be fair if we stop those things in here.

What is Untouchability?

Untouchability in India is a practice where a particular community considers even touching another community person as polluting one.  A person who touches the untouchables is usually made to undergo cleansing process, like bathing, or spraying of water, depending on the regional practice.

Who practices untouchability?

There is an intense propaganda that untouchability is practiced by higher caste people over lower caste people.  But that is no right.  Untouchability is practiced by almost all castes, right from brahmin caste to the dalit caste. Even the dalit castes practice untouchability over others. One dalit caste will not even drink water from another dalit caste.

Does Untouchability mean segregation?

Segregation in western sense, means, classification and isolating a certain groups of people, for varied reasons.  Segregation is mostly associated with authority based society like the western one.  Normally, the criminals, rebels, and other anti-social elements only are segregated from the mainstream society, and deported to far off lands or put in jail.  This is what happened in the western societies.

In general, segregation means, separation of different groups of people from one another, and no relationship exists among these groups.  For example, in Europe, the protestants and the catholics are segregated, and there is no healthy relationship b/w them, except for that both worship jesus.  Similarly, shias and sunnis are segregated people, without any interdependence. But, untouchability does not mean segregating. Because, untouchability was mutually practiced by all groups. In caste system, even though people practiced untouchability, the different castes are interdependent on one another, thus always having some kind of interaction and relationship.

Does Untouchability mean isolation?

Definitely not, there may be segregation of houses of castes in some villages.  But there is never isolation in any villages.  Almost all castes interact with each other, because, all castes depend on one another for some needs. The level of interaction differs from caste to caste.  For example, the dalits will strictly not mingle with other dalit caste, eg. Sakkiliars will never drink water from parayars.  But, they will get food and water from the dominant caste of that region.  Similarly, the dominant castes like chettiyars, devars, nayakkars, etc may have interactions on equal footing.  But still, they do not mingle with one another.

There are few communities, who have to closely interact with one another.  Particularly in kongu region, the naavithars, vannan community, kosavar community, etc have close interaction with the dominant gounder community.  The naavithars (barbers) usually conduct most of the rituals, right from birth to death in the gounder’s family.  It is they who used to sing mangazha vaazhthu during gounder’s marriage.

Why does a caste practice untouchability?

There is no definite answer to this, as the reason may vary from place to place.  But based on my understanding, untouchability is practices because of extreme cultural contradictions.  Let me list out the possible reasons for untouchability, as i perceive.

Life style: We all know India is a land of cultural diversity, and that the life style of one community largely differs from others.  For eg, a brahmin community follows strict hygiene, and are strict vegetarians.  On the other hand, the farmers and farm laborer castes usually work in fields; do not have hygienic life practices.  The dalit community works on cow skins, which is a sin to brahmin community. So it’s natural that the brahmins could not mingle with other castes.

Commune Living: Most of the castes live a strong commune life, with a common profession.  So, the life styles of all the community members are aligned towards that lifestyle.  And there are strong inter dependencies among the community member.  In such commune living, people used to live as large families, with common interest.  In such cases, when a member of the family or community, elopes with the other community girl or boy, it creates a confusion in the large family.  The incoming girl/boy may not adapt to the family life style, and may not adapt to the community profession.  For example, a brahmin girl will not be able to work in fields if she marries a farmer.  Or a farming girl may not be able to work in leather products if she marries a dalit.  So, the society has evolved itself to an inbuilt arrangement, not to mingle with each other.

Prisoners of war: On those days (before Muslim invasion), when a king was defeated in a war, he captures the prisoners of war, and deports to his kingdom to work as laborers  or current empire may be ruled by the enemy for few years, and recaptured by the original king. In such case, the people settled there by the former temporary ruler, may lose their status, and become laborers.  In such cases, the victorious king may take steps to suppress the settled external people, so that they don’t again attempt to overthrow him. 

Religious Differences: I need not mention about Hindu Muslim differences.  That is entirely a different subject.  However, there are many sub sects within Hinduism, which had opposed each other.  Particularly the influence of Buddhism had profound impact on suppressing those people who work on leather products, as Buddhist believed in ahimsa.  The vegetarian character of India is believed to have acquired during Buddhist rule.   Also, since anyone who left the caste is usually abandoned by the community, those who had converted to Buddhism might have been left out after Buddhism waned way. Today, for many of the dalit people, their kula deivam is Vishnu.

Cultural Differences: Apart from life style, the cultural values of the castes also an important reason for untouchability.  For example, the ruling castes had stricter cultural values, which they have followed for generations.  For example, widow remarriage is not allowed in dominant castes.  But it’s normal in dalit castes.  The widow in dominant caste often follows sati, whereas it is not required in the dalit castes.

Lineages: The common culture and profession resulted in a common lineage over centuries, which evolved the respective castes in to distinctive identities, which had made them not to mingle with others.

Exceptions from Untouchability:

The saints and rishis are mostly exempted from untouchability.  It means, almost all communities welcomed rishis and saints, and the saints also embraced all communities. Also, the saints are placed outside the caste system, as they have raised one level above in their life, towards the god. Most of the kings never practiced untouchability, and they were mostly secular.  Moreover, they did not have the situation or the time to do that. Good and Bad in this world are highly relative term rather than a universally defined one. In the society of barbarians, murderers and rapists, a thief could be the best person among others. However, in a society of saints and nobles, the same thief would be the worst person.  Thus when we are judging anything as good/bad, we need to consider the environment and prevailing situation.

There was heavy propaganda of dalit oppression and suppression by the Marxists, for around a century here.  But even assuming their propaganda to be true, let’s see how the dalit people were treated here. The dalits lived in a separate colony in the same village. The dalits are not slaves.  They were mere laborers to the land owners.  They have the right to move to other village, if they feel, the current village is discriminatory or not able to live in. A typical dalit community is allowed to have their own commune life, simply because, untouchability prevented the dominant caste from abusing or exploiting them. The dalits had their own temple, their own festivals.

The dalits had similar type of caste structure, with gothrams and kula deivams.  A dalit married from a different gothram of his caste from another village.  These ensured that the dalit people also had relations among multiple villages and have their own social structure to follow with. Since the dalit people were allowed to live as a community, their women had the inherent protection from exploitation.  In the case of American slave system each African women is an individual slave, which the owner can do whatever he want.  Other slaves cannot come to rescue if the owner rapes the slave women.  However, in our caste system, the women were part of the dalit community, and they could not be exploited.  Also, since the dominant caste practiced untouchability over the dalits, their youths refrained from mingling with dalit girls; as such an act would excommunication from his caste.  It is same for the dalit people too.

The dalit people had their own panchayat for issue resolution.  This is the highest point of freedom that any community might have.   The elders in the dalit caste usually try to solve the problem.  If that fails, they take the case to the village panchayat head.

To quote a recent history of India, the entire Kashmir valley had been ethnically cleansed of Hindus, just because the Muslims could not tolerate the presence of Hindus.  So when they became majority they persecuted the Hindus. However, it has to be noted that the Hindus, even though invaded by Muslims were able to tolerate them for thousands of years, by simply practicing untouchability. There are many other instances in the history where I find that untouchability would have prevented genocides, persecution and other horrors of the history. Comparing those incidents with our caste system, we find that untouchability is a practical system evolved as a solution to peaceful existence of conflicting communities.

We all know that the urban people are classified as higher class, middle class and lower class.  But it’s a fact that these class peoples mostly lived isolated from others. For example, the higher class people live in posh areas, with neat roads, electricity water facility and spacious homes, public parks etc.  The middle class usually lives in comfortable homes, but in congested areas. The lower class people often were the slum dwellers who live in unhygienic and horrific conditions.

Let me ask the following questions:

How many upper class people live along with slum dwellers? Suppose a slum dweller roams in front of a posh bungalow, what will the security of the bungalow will do?  We often find that the rich people drive away the slum people through their securities. How many of the higher class people allow their children to play with middle class people? How many of the middle class people allow their children to play with the slum boys & girls?

In villages, even though castes follow untouchability, each caste knows the members of the other caste.  When the dalit caste had any needs, they always approach the dominant caste.  The dominant caste provides food to the dalit people, when they come to the home.  The dalit women often share their problems with the dominant caste women and seek solution.  Thus there is a mutually supporting life in villages, inspire of untouchability.  Let me ask, how many people in rich posh areas, know the people of the nearby slum.  Or how many rich people help the slum people in needy times? Let’s take the case of gang wars in colleges.  Students belonging to one group won’t interact with the other.  It’s the norm in many colleges.  It’s natural because, when there are differences, people chose to live away.

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