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The Untouchables of India

30 November 1975

The disabilities suffered by India’s ‘Untouchables’ have rested on a curious mixture of ritualistic and near-ethnic discrimination which is probably more akin to such cases as the Burakumin of Japan or the ‘boat-people’ of China than to cases of racial or ethnic discrimination known in the West. Colour or appearance is hardly the problem but much more the fact that an inferior status was assigned to these communities in traditional Indian society. Arising out of that there are a number of prohibitions and disabilities which exclude ‘Untouchables’, better known in India as Harijans (‘Children of God’ as Gandhi chose to call them) or Scheduled Castes, from social and religious activities and which above all tend to perpetuate their poor or nil economic status.

The origin of the practice of ‘untouchability’ is amply explained in the main section of this report and it may well be, as can be gathered from it, that the racial exclusiveness of the Indo-Aryans had a great deal to do with the origin of this practice or indeed the caste system itself; or it may be that some of these communities were hunter-gatherers of historical times who eventually became ‘hangers-on’ at the periphery of the Indo-Aryan Hindu settlements. It is difficult to make any definitive pronouncements on these questions. At any rate, it is widely believed that Brahmanical Hinduism supplied the hierarchical values of purity and pollution that made it possible to justify ‘untouchability’.

Before we look at the legal and constitutional measures that obtain in India to combat this practice it is necessary to bear in mind the following account. Concrete forms of discrimination that a Harijan often encounterPd in traditional India were, that he could not enter the precincts of a Hindu temple in order to offer worship; that he could not use the communal wells, tanks, or at times even the rivers, nor could he get the services of such professionals as the village barber, carpenter or laundryman. A Harijan invariably engaged in menial jobs. Indian rural society, which, like most others, was rigid in its ways, made it difficult for the Harijans to secure better employment and thus break out of their predicament. In more modern times a Harijan could not enter village cafes or other eating places open to the rest of the community and at times his children were segregated from other children in schools. Broadly put, it was these disabilities that Hindu social reformers and authorities at the official level were seeking to fight against, and this they did by not only making it unlawful to prohibit a Harijan in the ways described, but by giving him a favoured treatment in areas of education, employment and even political say at the various legislative bodies of the nation from India’s Parliament down to the village Panchayat (local council). Though much of this was achieved after India gained self-rule, the Harijan’s plight and the need to correct it was understood by the whole nation only against the background of British rule and Indians’ demand to be treated fairly. Gandhi, for example, challenged Hindus to learn something of’equality’ themselves before they demanded it from the British or anyone else. Choosing to set a personal example he often lived in Harijan suburbs during his tours up and down the country. To the Hindu it was deeply evocative when Gandhi asked “Are you to deny that these are not children of my God?” He changed many hearts, and the accusation that he did not ‘destroy’ the caste-system is uncharitable and unrealistic since no one man’s life-time, not even Gandhi’s, would have been enough to achieve that miracle.

Many ideological assumptions of Indian society suffered with the advent of British rule. The non-Hindu aliens who mattered did not remotely share the Hindu sense of religious or social purity or the caste system even though it cannot be said that there was not a parallel in English society of higher and lower orders. But in India there arose, for the first time, a real possibility of social mobility based roughly on the principle of equality, devoid of emphasis on one’s caste or creed. British reaction to, and handling of, India’s caste differences worked to the advantage of the ‘backward classes’. The originators of the Mutiny of 1857 and those who fought in it against British authority, it was realised, were mostly Brahmins and other high-born Hindus. Peace could be maintained, as the British soon found out, by keeping the castes in tension with each other. Competition was not slow to come when modernisation and progress towards self-rule gave rise to many opportunities in political, economic and other spheres of life in India.

Partly due to British policy and partly due to the demands made by the Harijan communities themselves as by other minorities in India, a system of communal representation through quotas and preferences began to take shape in the 1920s. The Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms of 1919, for example, divided the people of Bombay Presidency into Brahmins and others constituting the first group, the intermediate castes like Marathas forming the second group, and the ‘backward classes’ including the Untouchables making up the third group. It seems as early as 1923 a circular issued by the Bombay government prohibited the recruitment of Brahmins to the lower clerical and administrative services till a certain proportion of the vacancies had been filled by members of the ‘backward classes’.

This set the scene as well as the precedent for the things that were done in India from the time of Independence. Reservations were kept, and if anything, were improved upon and extended to cover many more areas. So much for the origin of the notion of reservation. More about this will follow after we look at the outlawing of ‘untouchability’. Article 17 of India’s Constitution (1950) declares:

“Untouchability” is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of “Untouchability” shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law.

Such a law punishing this practice was enacted by Parliament in 1955, The Untouchability {Offences) Act. Bearing in mind some of the disabilities suffered by Harijans but wishing to cover other cases as well, the Constitution provided an enforceable guarantee in Article 15(2):

“No citizen shall on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them, be subject to any disability, liability, restriction or condition with regard to-(a) Access to shops, public restaurants, hotels and places of public entertainment; or(b) the use of wells, tanks, bathing ghats, roads and places of public resort maintained wholly or partly out of State funds or dedicated to the use of the general public.”

Equally relevant was the Constitution’s declaration that notwithstanding the guaranteed right to freedom of religion the State can make laws throwing open Hindu temples to all classes of Hindus. Many Provinces of the Indian Union had already, before the Constitution, enacted laws enforcing temple-entry for Harijans. The declaration merely made sure of the continued validity of such laws. These are probably the most successful examples amongst all the laws aimed against ‘untouchability’. The change has been so thorough that in some parts of!ndia like Kerala and Tamil Nadu there are even Harijan priests in some temples.But success was less immediate for the national law passed in 1955. The Untouchability (Offences) Act illustrates the difficulties encountered by a legislator in providing for measures to combat a social practice. It is not an easy thing to prove the motives of humans in a court of law. Unable to provide a better piece of law the Act of 1955 left Parliament with members expressing their doubts and frustrations. lt was not easy for the police or the courts to administer the law. Without going into legal niceties suffice it to say that there are two main weaknesses in the law. Firstly, difficulties are encountered in adequately proving within this law that a person is excluded (say) from a temple solely in furtherance of the practice of untouchability. Secondly, the law enables parties to compound cases with the permission of the court. Such cases are so many that the law appears almost ineffective. Taking into account these matters a Joint Committee of the Indian Parliament has drawn up a new bill, the Untouchability (Offences) Amendment and Miscellaneous Provision Bill 1972. This is very soon likely to supersede the Act of 1955 and is a lot tougher than the earlier measure.The type of cases that figure more frequently in the higher courts of India arise out of the favoured treatment meted out to ‘backward classes’ in matters of admission to educational institutions (when standards are relaxed in their favour) and in reserving a proportion of the total number of places for students from those communities. Cases arise because this ‘protective discrimination’ could clash with the constitutional guarantee of equality for all manner of citizens. Equal treatment is the rule and the reservations an exception to that rule.

The Courts watch out to see that the exception does not swallow the rule. Where in Mysore and Punjab the State Governments which have discretion in the matter, sought to reserve more than 60% of the available places in favour of ‘backward classes’ the Courts struck down those orders as being ‘unreasonable’ and in violation of the equality guarantee.As a matter of practice up to 30% of posts in all the general cadres of State and national services are reserved for ‘backward classes’. Reservations made in the legislative bodies of the nation can be illustrated through the following figures: in India’s first Parliament (1951) out of a total strength of 481 seats 74 were reserved for Harijan and other ‘backward classes’. In her third Parliament (1961) out of a total strength of 490 seats 75 were secured for the Harijans. For the same year out of 234 seats in the Madras legislature 42 seats were occupied by Harijan and other Scheduled Caste members. It is open to every political party to sponsor candidates from these castes to contest the reserved constituencies. However, this does not mean that members of these castes could not contest the general constituencies. The idea is that in addition to enjoying the general rights these castes should have rights exclusive to themselves free from competition. It is hoped by the authors of these arrangements that the Harijan will have a political influence he did not have in traditional India.All this, however laudable it may be, could give the impression that India’s caste system is now being stood on its head and nothing more. The truth is probably that these measures only benefit a tiny fraction of India’s ex-untouchables and the rest continue to live as they have done before but in a much more conscious society – conscious at least to know that it is impolite to call someone Untouchable and to know that it is inviting trouble to practice ‘untouchability’ in the old open, unashamed ways. Is it not wise to believe, if believe one must in change, that people change but slowly?

One vital question posed by India’s attempts to ‘rehabilitate’ a minority that had had a raw deal in the past is that may not these measures consolidate caste even further and not eradicate it? There has been somewhat of a demeaning scramble to get castes that were not previously regarded as either ‘untouchable’ or ‘backward’ included in the list of ‘Scheduled Castes’. Since the provincial Governments enjoy a discretion in the matter, political pressures in this direction could produce all the reservations and other opportunities that exist for Harijans. “‘Backwardness”, comments a writer, “has become a symbol, and an ideal to cherish to reach a bargaining position for privileges”. Indian Courts have hinted often enough that caste need not be the criterion of ‘backwardness’ but some other general test based on socio-economic factors may be formulated which would remove some of the constitutional and legal dilemmas felt now.

Some of these special arrangements are programmed to expire in 1985 but it is very likely that they would be continued for a further period.ln the ultimate analysis Harijans, as indeed the downtrodden everywhere, must help themselves. After Dr B.R. Ambedkar, one of the architects of India’s Constitution, no other leader of comparable stature has yet emerged from amongst the Harijan ranks. The few iconoclasts and demagogues that claimed to lead the Harijans to a better life gave them nothing but excuses.

Please note that the terminology in the fields of minority rights and indigenous peoples’ rights has changed over time. MRG strives to reflect these changes as well as respect the right to self-identification on the part of minorities and indigenous peoples. At the same time, after over 50 years’ work, we know that our archive is of considerable interest to activists and researchers. Therefore, we make available as much of our back catalogue as possible, while being aware that the language used may not reflect current thinking on these issues.

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Dilip Hiro