You say-you drink, but you lick the boots of those who drink. You hate those who eat meat, but you bow down to those  (English) who eat beef. Is it not because they are more powerful than you ? If we become kings today you will stand before us with folded hands. In you religion the one who is powerful is high, the powerless are low. This is your religion.

The old Untouchable to Pandit Liladhar in Premchand's Mantar.

No aspect of the caste system is as fascinating as the study of untouchability problem. This problem is not unique to India, other cultures such as Japanese, Burmese, Nigerian and some of the South American Indian cultures have also displayed similar phenomena. But the Indian system seems to be historically very highly developed and complex. At first glance there does not seem to be any 'rational' reason for the practice of untouchability. However, a closer examination reveals that there are sound underlying 'reasons' for this obnoxious practice. The root cause of all the three above mentioned cultures practicing untouchability is the same as we shall see later on. But it is not well known that the way untouchability is practiced it shows that the system is neither logical nor consistent.

In Japan, we know that the outcaste professions included such trades as executioners, butchers, leather workers, saddlers, cobblers, actors, jugglers, grave diggers, midwives, umbrella and lantern makers, (because they handled oiled (!) paper), basket makers and potters1[Hutton,1981,14]. The Japanese outcastes were known as eta (meaning much filth), were considered sub human and numbered with the termination -biki used for quadrupeds [ibid]. But we also know that dirty and polluting occupations was not the original reason for untouchability in Japan.

Ambedkar in his book The Untouchables is of the opinion that untouchability came into existence around the Gupta period, at the time when cow killing was declared an offence. But it a well known fact that the chandals as a despised and untouchable groups are mentioned in Buddhist Jataka stories, referring to the period before the time of Christ. Hence what is more probable is that the penance connected with the Untouchability practice became more numerous and more complex around the Gupta period during the period when Brahminism made a comeback and this weakened Buddhism.  Gupta period was known as the Indian Golden Age, but the post Gupta era resulted in the Kali Yuga upheavals leading to a very harsh life for the Sudras and ati-Sudra untouchables. 

Perhaps the best detailed explanation for the origins of untouchability is provided by Prabhati Mukerjee who has analysed the reasons why different non-Aryan Adivasis were treated differently by the Aryans. Referring to the chandals, who became such a despised grouping in the Indian society that even other Dalits when cursing others call them chandals; equivalent of an African American using the 'N' word to their own race person.

We have noted earlier that whoever cooperated with the Aryas initially were accepted within their fold. But the atavikas definitely and the candalas  probably did not.

Probably the situation would have been different if they were left to themselves. But they could not live in isolation for long. To the growing influence of the ruling group they had to surrender. With the scope of arboreal economy becoming restricted and encroachment on their land taking place,the candalas (and others too) had to come out of the seclusion, a parallel case was noted recently about the Santals. Deprived of their habitat and livelihood, some of them accepted the 'munificence' of their 'masters'; but others did not. Even very recent history shows the candalas as a proud group of people, who zealously guarded their separate identity and freedom as long as possible.

And probably, it was not easy to bring them under control. It was the 'rebels' who suffered most, because of the erstwhile enmity with insubordination of the atavikas in particular and candalas in general neither forgotten nor forgiven. When they were brought under subjugation eventually, they were neither incorporated into the main economic activity prevailing at that time, that is agriculture. Only unskilled, unproductive, lowly and menial jobs were assigned to them. Thus, when they were forced to surrender it was not clemency they received. Instead they were treated with utter contempt and were segregated as a residual category of people to be employed as and when necessary.

The reason for their treatment resulted from their very way of living which was non-caste based. This model represented a major challenge potentially a threat and an alternative to the Brahminical caste based society.

Scholars who have studied untouchability in India know that  the pollution taboo has some peculiar laws which do not seem to follow any logical reasoning at all. Hypocrisy of convenience abounds in all these taboos. Take the example of kacha (food cooked with water) and pakka food (that which is cooked with clarified butter and also includes articles such as parched rice, fruit, pan supari etc). We have mentioned fruit and pan because apparently ghi or clarified butter is supposed to be so pure that it if something is cooked using ghi then that article can not be contaminated. The rationale seem to be, life would be impossible if this distinction was not made. Travelling would then be very difficult. Certain castes will not accept even pakka food from just about anybody as a way of showing how superior they really are. So each rule and exception to that rule has a reason behind it. There is of course a saying Apah pavan shudhanti i.e. water is purified by air which is explained as meaning that water poured out by unclean hands is made pure by aeration. This used to be quoted to justify the practice by which some Hindu families in Delhi had water poured into their household vessels from the leather water bags of Muslim water carriers. This must be the one of the most balatant kind of rule bending as nothing is more polluting than leather [O'Malley,1976,110] 2.  One of the reason frequently given for the chamars to be an untouchable caste is that they handle leather.   

Brahmins can not eat flour grounded by an untouchable woman who works in her own house and sells or gives away that flour. But if she grinds the flour for a Brahmin in his house then that flour is acceptable. Casual trespass by an untouchable on a higher caste person's property is polluting. But if he or she enters the same house for the purpose of doing some service on the owner's command then the same act is counted as purifying rather than polluting [Ed Singer,1968,145] 3.

Classical Hindu texts cite confiscation of the property of sudras and this includes the property of the untouchables as a punishment for certain 'crimes'. Even to this day looting Dalit property does not pollute caste Hindus. Raping dalit women does not pollute them. To the law givers sudra woman was acceptable, as a concubine for pleasure, but not as a wife as this would definitely upset the status quo. Certain Hindu law givers went  as far as prohibiting union of higher castes and a sudra woman under any circumstances although most of them would allow hypergamous marriages.  

The English mleccha (barbarian) was every bit unclean as an untouchable. The Englishman ate beef, drank liquor. These very two habits are so anti Brahminical that anyone indulging in these in the post Vedic times was automatically beyond the pale of Hinduism. However, swarna Hindus are allowed these in USA and other foreign places where the Indian immigrants are mostly professionals. Laughingly they will justify it on the grounds that these are American or English cows and not Indian cows. Certain persons having extreme conservative notions may have, under the colonial days, purified themselves after shaking hands with the English. Most did not feel any pollution at all. The English were after all the master race. 

In the neighbouring district of Tinnevelli, I saw the marks of blow on the back of an untouchable, blows which he had received for having crossed the village of a martial caste (the Maravar) wearing sandals. The inhabitants themselves wear leather sandals, blows have never removed any impurity and it is clear that the village itself was not polluted but that the villagers had simply wanted to uphold the symbol of subjection. The same is probably true of most of the rules concerning clothing and of the sumptuary rules reviewed by Hutton [Dumont,1970,82] 4

Louis Dumont is one of the few scholars of the caste system, who has used modern statistical methods, to illustrate graphically the status ranking on the basis of exchange of food in an Indian village in Malwa. The conclusion he reaches are summarised in his own words.

Without exhausting the significance of the fact, which will become somewhat clearer when we have dealt with dominance and power in general, it may be said simply that the overwhelming religious inferiority of these castes in effect expresses and encompasses their strict secular dependance on the dominant castes: the lowliest suffer the greatest subjection. Or again: the hierarchical solidarity between the two highest varnas is reflected in the fact that those who are most oppressed materially are at the same time seen as supremely impure [ibid 137].5

Dumont in conclusion, however only deals with pure and polluted, as ideas, as polar opposites, as a fundamental structure in vacuum so to speak, without linking these dialectically, socially and practically to the economic base. The concept of ritually pure and polluted after all did not drop from the sky but evolved in a concrete class society.   

It does not follow that once the economic condition improves this will automatically lead to the lessening of the untouchability or that the individual untouchable who makes it economically will somehow be treated as befits his  or her financial status. Our analysis is related to groups, not individuals although the status of the individuals can also be subjected to analysis. In a clannish society such as India, the individual and the group can not be separated. The group status is reflected in the individual just as an individual's progress sometimes brings credit to the group. Contradictory phenomena can result from this. Jagjivan Ram, who nearly became the prime minister of India finds that some orthodox zealots would purify the statue that he inaugurated. On the other hand a lowly caste of liquor distiller within a few generations are able to carve out for themselves an honourable social and political position [Bailey,1957]. 6

The system thus has in itself enough flexibility to allow limited upwards mobility as long as this mobility is slow enough not to present any danger to the existing structure. What is not widely known is that there can also be downwards mobility when people loose their caste, for example  falling in love with a person of 'lower' caste and thus losing their own caste or when they have eaten beef during the time of famine.

The practice of untouchability is a reflection of class power on social plane. Two  more examples one ancient and one modern will be used to illustrate it. 

Astamba Dharam Sutra declares that food given by a physician is too filthy to be accepted by members of higher caste (i.6.19.14.) Gautama's law-codes assert that a Brahmin may accept food from a trade who is not an artisan, but he must not accept food from an artisan or a surgeon who belongs to the group of intrinsically impure persons (xvii. 7 and 17). The law code of Vasista fully concur: food offered by a physician is as impure as that offered by the harlot etc. (xiv. 1-10 and 19)  But why is the physician considered impure ? The Yajurveda gives us a startling answer to this. As translated by Bloomfield, the answer is : The practice entails promiscuous, unaristocratic mingling with men [Ed Chattopadhayaya,1981,252-257]. 

While discussing intercaste adulterous relationship L.S.S. O'Malley has this to say:

When the women's caste is the higher, she is degraded to the level of her lover, when the man's caste is the higher, he is similarly degraded if he takes cooked rice or dal (pulses) from his mistress: of however he merely keeps her, and does not eat food cooked or served by her, he can retain his caste 2. [O'Malley,1976,64]

By accepting the food from his mistress the high caste man ritually  and therefore explicitly accepts her as his wife which results in an anomaly according to the Hindu Dharmsastras. According to these texts a Sudra wife was a vessel of pleasure only. By not accepting food from her he asserts his superior status to her inferior status. But there have been many instances where men have lost caste and were degraded to an inferior status caste for the sake of love.    

The idea of pollution is a cost effective collective violent mechanism which reinforces the inherited inequality. Hence whenever the Dalits have tried to obtain social equality and to improve their conditions this has been very often violently opposed by the high castes. In this the high castes do not exhibit an irrational mind. They oppose the Dalits because they stand to gain from the Dalit people's social and economic inferiority.   

The practice of untouchability goes beyond the use of superstition to control the population. If Dalits believe in the Karma theory at all, then it is not in the Brahminical sense, of being re-born into a better caste, for the for the good deeds committed in the previous life. Their belief is more akin to the Buddhist or Christian belief of reaping what one has sown in this life. Most Dalits do not believe in the concept of untouchability. They may be forced to participate in some of the practices of it due to circumstances. The untouchability practices allow the higher castes to control society at the village level. Historically this is, at micro level, the equivalent of having a local Brahmin priest, controlling the local population, using varnasharama dharma, rather than a standing army which is more expensive. Local overt violence or threat of violence kept the people in check without having to resort to open naked military force but the king was always the ultimate defender  of the caste system. God king Rama killing Shambuk is an example of this concept. This is the secret of the so called Indian people's pessimism, of the lack of widespread historical rebellions.

Untouchability theretofore is not about the concept of pure and impure as such, it is not a superstition. It is a very cost effective way of implementing local control. This is the reason why Gandhian methods of eradicating this practice were doomed to failure from the first day. The higher castes can not be expected to have a sense of shame on this issue because they materially benefit from this practice.    

Hence any organisation or group in India that does not addresses the issue of untouchability and the subsequent violence that is met,whilst fighting it will probably not be taken seriously by the Dalits.

That the question of pure/impure arises in only certain cultures and at certain times and the degree of hostility shown to the oppressed varies is no accident of history. If we take the concept of untouchability in its widest sense, then the common factor seems to be the insecurity the ruling class (elite or non-elite) feels for itself. Whether it was the Blacks of South Africa or the Burakumin of Japan or the Untouchables of India today, certain common factors make their appearance. It is not only the potential threat posed by these groups to the ruling class but also the benefits obtained by the ruling class by its divide and rule policies, that decide the amount of hostility shown by the rulers. Whilst in South Africa, the first factor was prominent, in India the second factor is fundamental. But these factors can change their places, judging by the rising atrocities figures on Dalits; circumstances have changed rapidly in India.

the ritual hierarchy itself in part grows out of, expresses and tend to remain positively co-relatd with, and therfore indirectly influenced by economic, political, and other non-ritual hierarchies of interaction. Most castes appear ultimately to achieve positions in the ritual hierarchy which are in harmony with their relative possession of wealth and power8.

In conclusion, the question of untouchability is a class question though not in the crude economic sense. It is also not simply a question of ritual purity per se but is intimately connected with socio-economic class factors with a thick religious veneer at the top.  These layers have acted upon each other for a long period of time producing a very complex system. As such any attempt at fighting the practice of untouchability in India has to consider the backlash violence resulting from those who are so contaminated by caste ideology that they see every progress made by Dalits as a challenge to them.  Such groups include not only those at the top but those who are just above the Dalits. But the last group is also a victim of caste ideology but it is yet not aware of this.


1. Hutton, Caste in India, 1981 page 14.

2. O'Malley, Indian Caste Customs, 1976, page 110 and 64..

3. Ed. Singer, 1968, page 145.

4. Dumont, Loise, Homo Hierarchicus, 1970, page 82.

5. ibid 137.

6. Bailey, Caste and the Economic Frontier, 1957, Manchester University Press, England.

7. Ed. Chattopadhaya

8. McKim Marriot, Caste Ramking and Community Structure in Five Regions of India and Pakistan (=Deccan College Monograph Series 23, Poona 1960.

To be edited.....

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