Untouchability and the Untouchables
Testimony given by Bhagwan Das, Chairman, All India Samata Sainik Dal, and Ambedkar Mission society
In the 36th Session of Commission on Human rights Sub-Commission on Prevention Of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, held at Geneva in August 1983
I am grateful to the chairman of the sub-committee for granting me an opportunity to present the case of the Untouchables living in India and the neighbouring countries that came under the influence of Hindu religion and culture. I am giving this testimony on behalf of Secretary General (Dr. Homer A. Jack), World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP). I also speak on behalf of various Untouchables and Buddhist organisations of India, namely All India Samata Sainik Dal (Volunteers for Equality) an organisation founded by Dr. Bheem Rao Ambedkar, Indian Buddhist Council, Ambedkar Mission Society, Ambedkar Mission Incorporated (Canada) and Dr. Ambedkar Mission Society, Bedford, UK.
I take this opportunity to mention here that WCRP in its first conference held at Kyoto, Japan in 1970 discussed the problem of discrimination, including the practice of untouchability. In its third conference held at Princeton, USA, the problem of the Untouchables in India and Burakumin of Japan was discussed and mentioned in the declaration. In the Asian Conference of Religion and Peace (II) held at New Delhi the problem of Untouchability and discrimination against the Buddhist converts was taken up and recommendations made in the declaration issued at the end of the conference. The Human Rights Commission of ACRP decided to set up an office at New Delhi and an office is now functioning at New Delhi with the help of the Japanese Committee of WCRP under the title Asian Centre for Human Rights.
Untouchability is a phenomenon peculiar to Hinduism and it is an integral part of the religion. It took birth in India and it’s from India that this abominable practice spread to other religions and countries. No religion in India is free from this contamination; not even among those who loudly preach from house tops the fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man.
Hindu society is divided vertically and horizontally on the basis of caste. Christianity and Islam have allowed caste to exist in their society. Lower caste Christians, especially in Southern states of India, are meted out discriminatory treatment in the matter of burial in the cemeteries, appointment of parishnors, priests etc., and matrimony. Upper caste Christians seldom marry a girl from lower caste Christians. Islamic society is also modelled on the pattern of Hindu society. It is divided into three or four groups namely ‘Ashraf’ upper caste, Moghuls, Turks Afghans etc., ‘Ajalaf’ converts from the upper castes of Hindus and at the lowest rung of the ladder sit the lowly ‘Arzal’, butchers, tanners, shoemakers, sweepers, scavengers etc.
The Sikhs claim to be more progressive and egalitarian, but unfortunately even they have not been able to keep their society free from caste system and untouchability. Even in a country like Britain, they rigidly follow the caste system and practise untouchability and discrimination against the Untouchables (Ramdaasia and Mazhbis) living in England. A ‘Jat’ Sikh shuns the company of the Untouchables and avoids going to the pubs patronised by the Balmikis and Ravidasis-two untouchable castes of Punjab. An upper caste Sikh (Jat, Khatri, Arora – trading communities of Punjab) never misses an opportunity to offend an Untouchable by referring to his caste.
Untouchables in Various Countries
Nepal is predominantly a Hindu state and 89% of the people either return to their religion, Hinduism, or are registered as Hindus in the census. Barely 7% of the Nepalese are Buddhists. Proselytization is prohibited. Hindu society is divided into as many as 59 castes and several artisan and other castes such as Paura (sweepers and scavengers), Damais (smiths), Sarakis (leather workers) and goldsmiths in hilly regions are treated as Untouchables. Even though there is free education, very few among these castes can take the benefit owing to the practice of untouchability. In the Nepalese Panjyat (Panchyat) not more than one or two members of this community can get elected owing to the deep rooted prejudices against these people whose only fault is that they perform useful duties. Their exact number is not known because, unlike India, Nepalese census reports do not register caste. Owing to the fear of dominating upper caste Hindus, even Buddhists avoid contact with the Untouchables in Nepal. These communities suffer from numerous disabilities arising from untouchability. So far as I have been able to ascertain, they have not been able to organise themselves for struggling against discrimination. Those who come in contact with these people are mulcted by the authorities and only after paying the fine and performing some ceremonies could they be readmitted in the society.
Pakistan with 97% of its population owning Islam as their religion is divided into numerous castes, tribes etc., Hindus constitute about 2% of the population and are listed as caste Hindus (296,837) and Scheduled Castes (603,369). Scheduled Castes is the statutory title given under the Government of India Act, 1935 to the Untouchables. Most of them earn their livelihood as sweepers, scavengers, cobblers, weavers, etc. Muslims also treat them as Untouchables like Hindus throughout the World. Pakistan also has a Christian population numbering about 908,000. Christians are divided into three groups, Europeans and Anglo-Pakistanis, Eurasians like Goanese, converts from upper castes of Hindus and Muslims and people belonging to upper stratum of society. At the bottom sit the most despised sweepers and scavengers who are known as ‘Christian Punjabi Sweepers’ (CPS). They are the descendents of the members of the Chuhra community, traditional sweepers, who embraced Christianity to escape the tyranny of Hinduism and the stigma of untouchability. But the partitioning of the country compelled them to revert to the traditional occupation of sweeping and scavenging. Although they are economically better off than the rural workers so far as the wages are concerned, they are compelled to live in segregated localities and are treated as untouchables. Like their counterparts in India, the CPSs are the most despised people in Pakistan. They suffer from numerous disabilities arising from untouchability.
Sri Lanka is predominantly Buddhist (population 8,537,000, 67.3%) with Hindu constituting the second largest religious group (2,239,000) divided into clean and unclean castes. Among the Sinhalese, Goyigama is the highest caste and those engaged in occupations like butchers, drum-beaters, toddy tappers, sweepers, etc. are considered ‘hina jati hina sippi’ people. Discrimination in the matter of marriage is practised among the Sinhalese. Siame Nikaya, a Buddhist sect, does not admit the members of the lower castes as Bhikkhus, but the other two Nikayas admit men belonging to the lower castes if they desire to join the order. But among the Tamilians, caste system is rigidly followed and untouchability practised in the Jaffna area which is predominantly Hindu (Tamilian). Society is divided into two major groups, namely clean castes and unclean castes. Among the unclean castes are included Palla (potter), Seneer (weaver), Parriyar, Kadaiyan (lime burner), Chikkalyan (leather worker and sweeper), Vunnan (washer man) and Thurumba etc. Upper castes (Vellala, Brahmin, Chetty etc.) treat them as Untouchables. The present conflict has temporarily obliterated the differences, but after the trouble has subsided, the caste feelings are revived.
Bangla Desh is predominantly Muslim (80%) with 4,926,448 (20% Hindus divided into two groups namely caste Hindus (Brahmin, Kayasthas, Baidyas, etc.) and Namoshudras, Kaibartas, Hadis, Moschis, etc.). Many of the Muslims are converts from among the Untouchables and Buddhists. Yet discriminatory treatment is meted out to the untouchables in Bangla Desh. Our informants have stated that the Hindus of upper castes are treated as equals but the lower castes are discriminated in the matter of housing, employment etc.
All these countries were part of greater India until 1947 and were influenced by Hindu religion in the matter of rituals and customs.
Untouchability in India
Untouchability has not been defined by the sociologist or the legislators. At the time of discussion on ‘Untouchability Offences Act’ in Parliament when a question was raised about definition, the law minister said, ‘There is no need to define untouchability. Everybody knows it’. He was trying to avoid stating the definition but he was telling the truth that everybody knows whom to avoid, whom to persecute. Untouchability is deeply embedded in the minds of Hindus and regulates their behaviour with other people. Stratification of society and restrictions on inter-marriage between different classes or groups are not unknown in other societies or cultures but to use the words of Dr. G.S. Ghurye, a renowned sociologist, “Hindu system is unique only in this that it alone classified some groups as untouchable and unapproachable.” Other religious groups only copied them. Since Hindus treated the scavengers, sweepers, cobblers, basket makers, weavers etc. as untouchables, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs also treated them as lowly, despised, degraded people. Since untouchability had religious sanction behind it, all efforts made by social reformers failed. Hindus avoided the discussion and foreigners did not want to take up the cause of the untouchables for fear of antagonising the Hindus. They were also taken in by the propaganda carried out by the followers of Gandhiji. Dr. Ambedkar had rightly observed, “The old orthodox Hindu doesn’t think that there is anything wrong in the observance of untouchability. To him it is normal, natural thing. As such it neither calls for expiation nor explanation. The new modern Hindu realises the wrong but he is ashamed to discuss it in public for fear of letting the foreigner know that Hindu civilisation can be guilty of such a vicious and infamous system or social code as evidenced by untouchability.”
Mass conversion of Untouchables to Christianity and Islam and the growing importance of numbers in the politics of India coupled with criticism of Hindu society by Western writers, sociologists, travellers etc., has led Hindus to introduce certain changes in their social system. While they wanted to remove untouchability, they did not want Hinduism and caste system to suffer in any way because Hinduism is sustained by the caste system. If the caste system goes, Hinduism cannot survive for long. On the other hand Hindus have developed a vested interest in Untouchability and caste system. More than 75% population of India is illiterate and people sincerely believe that caste is god-made and there is no hope or scope for change. Any laws made by man are seen as interference in God’s work. Hindu law makers had made elaborate laws and rules to keep Untouchables in degraded condition perpetually. Economic measures were adopted to perpetuate degradation, segregation and poverty. Laws were framed and strictly enforced to keep them divided, dispirited, poor, ignorant, illiterate and physically weak. They were not allowed to acquire wealth; higher interest was charged on loans; good, wholesome, nutritious food proscribed so that they may not grow strong. Right to bear arms was denied so they may never revolt. Low wages and excessive work was prescribed so they may have no leisure. Identity marks and symbols were prescribed so that even by mistake pure Hindus may not eat or drink with them. This system was rigidly followed by the Hindus for centuries. Even the Muslims did not disturb it. The British, especially after the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, for fear of antagonising the Hindus tried to maintain those laws and enforce them through the courts of law.
Progressive Western educated Hindus however felt uneasy and promised to bring about changes after attaining independence. Accordingly provisions were incorporated in the constitution abolishing untouchability and certain ameliorative provisions such as reservation in legislature, services of Union Government and states, educational institutions etc. Untouchables were subjected to some inhuman laws like forced labour in rural area. A provision to abolish slavery of this kind was made in the constitution but the law was enacted in 1976. Millions of Rupees were provided for the economic upliftment of the Untouchables in the Five Year Plans.
In spite of these laws, the Untouchables suffer from numerous disabilities especially in smaller towns and villages of India. Untouchables do not have wells in thousands of villages and upper caste people do not allow them to dig wells. Untouchables have to beg for water from a distance lest their shadow should pollute the upper caste Hindus. Sometime the water pipes are laid and stopped a few yards short of the Untouchable locality. The present writer struggled for seven years to get a public hydrant installed in a village of Himachal Pradesh while every Minister, even the Chief Minister, announced that water had been provided.
If the Untouchables demand higher wages in villages, the caste Hindus pour filth or kerosene in the wells so as to starve them of water. Untouchability is widely practised. A mild and harmless law which was neither educative nor awarded deterrent punishment was enacted in 1955 under the title ‘Untouchable Offences Act, 1955’. This proved to be ineffective. This law was amended and passed as Protection of Civil Liberties Act 1976 containing a provision of minimum punishment. Owing to illiteracy of Untouchables, majority of whom live in the rural areas, very few cases are reported and a very small number reaches the courts of law. Untouchability in its worst form is practised in the Hindi region but the largest number of cases is registered in the state where the Scheduled Castes people are awakened and better organised.
Of all the countries where untouchability is practised, India has the best of laws and the most generous provisions in her constitution. British had introduced quota system with a view to giving a share in administration to all religious groups and other minorities. Untouchables were however denied a share on the plea that there were no educated men available. Through the efforts of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, undisputed leader of the Untouchables, ‘reservation in services’ was introduced with respect to the Untouchables in 1943 during the viceroyalty of Lord Linlithgow. Later on, a provision was made with respect to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes but reservation in favour of other minorities was abolished. During the early years there was little resistance because very few qualified people were available to fill up the reserved seats. Resistance was offered by non-implementation of government orders, or by declaring that a suitable candidate was not available or if available ‘not found suitable’ and also through courts of law by filing writ petition. Since 1974 organised resistance is being offered by the upper caste employees who have enjoyed a monopoly of all government jobs. Private sector does not employ the Scheduled Caste people, excepting in the lowly, low paid and degrading situations. Table below gives some idea of the success in the part of the opponents of the reservation:
Quota Reserved 15%
Reservation given in
Class I = 4.95% Class II = 8.54%
Class III = 13.44% Class IV = 19.46%
Discriminatory treatment is being meted out to the Scheduled Caste people in the matter of recognition of their unions on the plea that it is the policy of the government that ‘communal’ organisations of employees will not be recognised. On the other hand organisations of the Hindu employees who are opposed to the reservation have the support and blessing of the administration as well as the political parties, especially of those who have their base among the middle classes of Hindus.
Scheduled Castes (statutory title of the Untouchables) is an artificially created minority under the constitution. Names of castes can be deleted or added by the President. Pressure is mounting now through the press to delete the names of more awakened and better organised castes. Majority of the Untouchables (about 76%) live in 568,000 villages of India. In some places they are allotted land by the government. Dr. Ambedkar demanded nationalisation of land with collectivisation of allotment on cooperative basis. The government favoured the creation of small holdings and peasant proprietors. Fragmentation of land is non-productive but the untouchable farmers who never owned land because of the laws prohibiting possession of land in some states desire to own land. The landholding dominating upper castes do everything possible in their means to obstruct distribution of land. Even if land is allotted, the upper caste landlords do not allow the Untouchables to take the fruit of their labour. If Untouchables demand higher wages or even the minimum wages prescribed by the Government, the upper caste landlords indulge in murders, torture, arson, rape etc. to terrorise the poor ignorant untouchables. Thousands of men are employed as bonded labourers and kept away from the cities, police etc. Hundreds of women are forced into superstition by exploiting their ignorance, poverty and superstitious beliefs and sold into the brothels of Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Kanpur and Delhi.
Untouchables are becoming increasingly convinced that the Hindus hate them not because they perform unpleasant duties but because their religion teaches them to hate certain castes. Many embraced Christianity and Islam. Dr. Ambedkar who saw no hope of Hinduism reforming itself exhorted his people to renounce Hinduism and embrace Buddhism which he had revived in 1956. Millions of people responded to his call and embraced Buddhism. The Government of India immediately issued an order that if an Untouchable renounced Hinduism and embraced any religion other than Sikhism he will become disentitled to concessions and grants allowed to the Scheduled Castes. When a few hundred Untouchables in Madras embraced Islam because the Hindus harassed and humiliated them and did not allow them even to wear shoes or loin cloth which went below the knee cap, Hindu militant organisations turned riotous and burnt the huts of Untouchables and molested their women. Even Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi, forgetting that she was the head of a secular government showed concern and delivered speeches discouraging the conversion of Untouchables. Some states have enacted laws making conversion difficult. Those renouncing Hinduism have to obtain a certificate from the Magistrate that the person desiring conversion to Islam or Christianity is doing it voluntarily. Police is dominated by the upper landholding castes of Hindus and is generally hostile towards the Untouchables. Indian Penal Code contains certain provisions under which the police have power to arrest and detain a person if he has no ostentatious means of livelihood. This is a country where the majority of people have no employment, house or shelter of any kind. The police abuses its powers especially against the Untouchables and many people are killed or incapacitated through torture in police custody.
Hinduism has closed the doors of the armed forces to the Untouchables for ever. Untouchables were admitted to the armed forces of Islam after embracing Islam, which many did. During the early decades of their rule, British recruited Untouchables in their armies, but after sometime they began to close the doors, especially in central India and Bengal, under pressure from the higher castes of Hindus. They introduced the pernicious theory of ‘martial races and non-martial races’. Later on they disbanded the Untouchable armies and raised class regiments recruiting men belonging to upper castes. Indian government has not completely abolished the class regiments and has officially removed the ban on recruitment. But the government has not taken any measure to change the mode of recruitment. Recruiting officers mostly belong to peasant castes owing to deep rooted prejudices based on caste and their medical; officers invariably ask a man’s caste and reject him on medical grounds. Untouchables have little share in the army (0.44% in officers cadre and 10.62% in other ranks), 7.63% in other ranks of navy and 0.156% in officers cadre and 2.568% in other ranks.
Untouchables have equal right to vote and contest elections. 79 seats are reserved in the House of the People (Lok Sabha) out of the total number of 542. Out of a total strength of 3997 members in the state legislatures and Union Territories, 540 belong to the Scheduled Castes. On paper the number appears to be very impressive but owing to the election system of the country, it is the majority community which elects the representatives of the candidates. In the rural areas the Untouchables can not exercise their right to vote freely and independently. Very often police protection has to be provided. After the election, a heavy price has to be paid by the Untouchables if the members of higher castes owning land feel that they did not get the support of the Untouchables.
Violation in Villages
Scheduled Castes in the rural areas demand land, better wages, right to wear dress according to their liking, assert the rights granted under the Constitution. Hindus on the other hand want to maintain the status quo in all fields. Tensions arise and often result in confrontation. Landlords have raised armies of trained men released from army and police to terrorise the Untouchable landless labourers. Police protects the strong against the poor. Government through its machinery and religious policies strengthens casteism and superstition because it helps the ruling classes. Leaders of the struggle are picked up and either involved in false criminal cases or murdered by the police in encounters. Men, women and children have been massacred and burnt alive whenever they put up resistance against oppression. Men have been killed for offering Ganges water in a shrine. A man was killed in Aligarh (UP) for affixing the word Chauhan to his name. Women’s toes were crushed for wearing rings. Man was killed for twirling moustaches. In Meenakshipuram, where a mass conversion to Islam took place, men were not allowed to sit beside the upper caste men in the state buses, nor allowed to walk through the streets; women were punished for wearing sandals. In Kafalta, 11 persons were done to death for the crime of riding a horse in a marriage procession and for using a palanquin. The incidents of violence in the villages have been showing an upward trend in the last five years:
Year No. of incidents of atrocities
Recent figures are not available but the Home Minister Mr. N.R. Laskar during the last session stated that the number was showing an increase but during the Monsoon session of last week, he said that number of incidents has fallen considerably. Figures furnished by the Government do not represent the fact. These represent only a tip of the iceberg because many of the cases remain unreported. Untouchables feel very insecure owing to the growing resentment against the declared policies and programmes of the government which are very rarely accompanied by implementation. Bureaucracy is being blamed for non-implementation but it is the government which lacks the political will to take action against those who flout the government authority.
This weakness is evident from the fact that even a simple and harmless demand by the Scheduled caste legislators in the Parliament to have a portrait installed in the Central Hall of Parliament where Dr. Ambedkar played a very important and historical role both as a member of the Executive Councillor in the Viceroys Executive Council (1942-46) and as first Law Minister and Chairman of the Constitution Drafting committee (1947-51). The Government has been resisting this demand on some pretext or the other. Similarly in recognition of the great services rendered by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in the field of education, a unanimous decision was taken in the Maharashtra Assembly to change the name of Marathawada University to Ambedkar University. This university came into existence chiefly owing to the establishment of three colleges by Dr. Ambedkar in the most backward region of Marathawada of Maharashtra. Orthodox Hindus in the region felt offended and instigated the illiterate and ignorant villagers that now ‘Ambedkar’, an Untouchable, will enter your houses in the form of degrees and diploma certificates and you will have to repeat his name. As a result many houses of Buddhist converts were looted. Women molested, old men insulted, buildings demolished or set on fire and some people killed. Hundreds of men were forced to leave their villages and seek shelter in the towns, railway platforms, footpaths etc. The government could not implement its decision and the oppressor won the field. Untouchables and Buddhists continue the agitation with unshaken determination.
In spite of the Indian Constitution having the most liberal provisions, the government has failed to implement its own declared programmes and policies for the removal of untouchability and upliftment of the deprived and disadvantaged section of society. Prejudices can not be removed merely through legislation. Religious policy of the government is discriminatory and is based in favour of Hinduism and Sikhism and prejudicial to religions like Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. The government, in accordance with the wishes of the orthodox Hindus, has used coercive measures to check the conversion of Untouchables to Buddhism lest they should unite and organise themselves for struggle. Present policy of the government appears to be based on the tenets of Hinduism. Methods may have changed but the aim of the Hindu law makers and religious leaders has not changed. Anything which the untouchables consider good for then is vehemently resisted and opposed. Whatever goes to make them weak, dispirited, disunited and dependent is encouraged.
- A commission should be set up to investigate and submit a report on the practice of Untouchability in the countries wherever it is practised.
- Action should be taken against countries and institutions that encourage this practice in the name of religion and custom.
- Government should be asked to eliminate discrimination against the despised and segregated groups in the matter of freedom of religion.
- To set up a commission to monitor the activities of government and religious groups in the countries where untouchability is practised.
- Governments of the countries where the Hindus and Sikhs have migrated and practise untouchability and discrimination against the Untouchables should be approached to enact laws to discourage this practice.
- A separate office should be set up to receive cases of untouchability and disability and the states concerned should be asked to report what measures they have taken to eliminate discrimination in their respective countries.
Featured image courtesy We Curate.
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