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What is "Untouchability"?

Untouchability is a direct product of the caste system.  It is not merely the inability to touch a human being of a certain caste or sub-caste. It is an attitude on the part of a whole group of people that relates to a deeper psychological process of thought and belief, invisible to the naked eye, translated into various physical acts and behaviours, norms and practices.

Untouchability is prompted by the spirit of social aggression and the belief in purity and pollution that characterises casteism. It is generally taken for granted that Dalits are considered polluted people at the lowest end of the caste order. The jobs considered polluting and impure are reserved for Dalits, and in many cases Dalits are prevented from engaging in any other work.  These jobs include removing human waste (known as “manual scavenging”), dragging away and skinning animal carcasses, tanning leather, making and fixing shoes, and washing clothes. They are supposed to reside outside the village so that their physical presence does not pollute the “real” village. Not only are they restricted in terms of space, but their houses are also supposed to be inferior in quality and devoid of any facilities like water and electricity.

Untouchability is present in nearly every sphere of life and practiced in an infinite number of forms. At the village level Dalits are barred from using wells used by non-Dalits, forbidden from going to the barber shop and entering temples, while at the level of job recruitment and employment Dalits are systematically paid less, ordered to do the most menial work, and rarely promoted. Even at school, Dalit children may be asked to clean toilets and to eat separately.

As an instrument of casteism, Untouchability also serves to instill caste status to Dalit children from the moment they are born. Kachro (filth), Melo (dirty), Dhudiyo (dusty), Gandy (mad), Ghelo (stupid), Punjo (waste) are just some of the names given to Dalit boys in Gujarat. Of course, names with similar meanings are given to Dalit girls too. This shows the debilitating effect of Untouchability, as it becomes a conscious act of cooperation between two individuals of distinct caste or sub-caste identity. The person treated as untouchable submits himself or herself to untouchability practices because of a generational integrated belief that it is right, justified, religious and natural. Untouchability is in this sense a corollary of the caste system, and the only way to get rid of it seems to be to get rid of the caste system itself.  Focusing on Untouchability ignores the root cause of the problem, all the more so as Article 17 of the Indian Constitution, which bans Untouchability, confines its definition to individual discrimination against certain classes of persons not easily identifiable.

The 1950 national constitution of India legally abolishes the practice of "untouchability," and there are constitutional reservations in both educational institutions and public services for Dalits. Unfortunately, these measures have not changed the reality of daily life for most Dalits, as the Indian government frequently tolerates oppression and open discrimination aimed at this group. As the former Indian President K.R. Narayanan, himself a Dalit, noted in his public address to the nation on the eve of Republic Day, January 25, 2000, "these [Constitutional] provisions remain unfulfilled through bureaucratic and administrative deformation or by narrow interpretations of these special provisions." Dalits usually live in separate areas away from the caste Hindu communities, and they are often forbidden to access public wells. In many areas, when Dalits eat in public restaurants or patronize street vendors, they must use a special glass for drinking tea or coffee to prevent sharing between Dalits and caste Hindus. Dalits in different parts of India cannot enter Hindu temples or Christian churches, and many religious and caste leaders forbid inter-caste marriages.

Should a Dalit break one of these rules, frequently the entire Dalit community will be punished for the perceived individual transgression. Punishment often takes the form of denial of access to land or employment, physical attacks on Dalit women, and the burning down of Dalit homes. Despite a clear record of violence against the Dalits, there are numerous reports that police officials have refused to register complaints about violations of the law or to prosecute those responsible for the abuses. With little knowledge of their rights, limited access to attorneys, and no money for hearings or bail, Dalits are easy targets for human rights violations.