Home » The contested origins of untouchability: Why and how

The contested origins of untouchability: Why and how

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Ground Report | New Delhi: Untouchability, a caste-system-based social evil long criminalised in India but still persisting in several pockets of the country, is a practice that segregates and ostracizes people belonging to the “lower” castes from the “higher” castes. The occupation and life habits of the castes classified as untouchable are thought to be ritually polluting.

It is believed that coming in physical contact with an untouchable, or even their shadow, will pollute those who are ritually “pure” by virtue of their higher place in the caste hierarchy. Untouchability has relegated groups to the margins of society, impoverishing and socially disabling them. Despite having a huge impact, research into the origin of untouchability is limited and current theories are contested.

Who are untouchables?

People belonging to Hindu groups placed in the lowest strata of the caste-hierarchy, as well as those outside of the caste-system, were referred to as untouchables. Traditionally, these have been groups involved in taking life for a living, working with dead cattle or their hides, doing jobs that put them in contact with human emissions such as feces and urine or eating cattle, pigs, chickens etc. Such people have been and continue to be forced into manual scavenging and living outside villages. They have historically been denied access to temples and common wells.

These discriminatory practices, as well as referring to people as untouchables, is illegal in India. The official term for such groups is “Scheduled Castes”, although the word “Dalit” is used often in socio-political contexts. Tribal groups falling outside of the caste system are officially classified as “Scheduled Tribes”. As per the 2011 census, they together account for 24.2% of India’s population. The history of their oppression is intertwined with the origin of untouchability.

Thorough research into the origin of untouchability still hasn’t happened. Academicians such as R.S. Sharma blame this on the “dominant-class outlook” of Indian historians. Nevertheless, some theories about how and why the practice originated are in place. Contrary to common belief, these theories don’t see untouchability as arising simultaneously with the development of the varna system.

Brahmanical and Dravidian origin theories

One of the most widespread theories of origin is Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s. He opined that the roots of untouchability lie in the Brahmanas’ hatred towards beef-eating people and people who distanced themselves from the Brahmanical tradition by converting to Buddhism. Suvira Jaiswal points out that this analysis has been successfully refuted by Vivekanand Jha. In fact, Jha also refuted N.K. Dutt’s theory that the Aryans borrowed the spirit of contempt (that led to the practice of untouchability) from the Dravidians. Jha states that there’s no evidence for this claim to stand on.

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Urban or cooking-based origins?

Jaiswal highlights how Furer-Haimendorf presented a hypothesis in favour of urban origin of untouchability. He based this analysis on towns having a higher contempt for “unclean” manual labour compared to rural areas. However, since towns and urban areas often dictate what the standard is, this contempt filtered into the rural society as well, leading to a mass belief in untouchability throughout. But, he himself agrees that the hypothesis is extremely speculative, and lacks evidence. Moreover, we know from historical texts that untouchability was extremely pronounced in rural areas. It is highly unlikely that a practice that doesn’t have its roots in rural regions would become so deep-seated and rigid there.

Then there is Hutton who believed that the taboo around accepting food cooked by a member of another caste is the “keystone” to origin of untouchability. Consumption of food was sacred and had to be free from impurity. The prejudice surrounding acceptance of food also led to the taboo around marrying outside. However, this analysis doesn’t answer how the Brahmana became the reference point of how “pure” each caste was. Moreover, early vedic writings show that the prejudice against accepting food from certain people was not present in the early Vedic era. Satapatha Brahmana passage and Apastamba Dharma Sutra are prominent examples of this. It is, therefore, highly likely that the solidification of regulations surrounding food and untouchability, that refer to Brahmanas as the central standard, developed after their dominance became established.

Untouchability as a product of class differences

Suvira Jaiswal, R.S Sharma and Vivekanand Jha all emphasise the emergence of the caste system preceding the practice of untouchability. Jha in fact shows how the Rigveda doesn’t mention anything at all about untouchables. The later Vedic texts follow suit, although some tribal groups are mentioned with much spite. By A.D. (now C.E.) 200, some groups are clearly classified as untouchables. Later on, the number of groups under this category grew. This increase in the number of untouchable groups is seen as the consequence of integration of more and more people into Brahmanical society. With this, several groups lost their traditional means of sustenance (and land) as it was passed on to the Brahmanas through grants. These people became dependent on the brahmanical society, and therefore more susceptible to economic exploitation.

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At the same time, the priestly class of Brahmanas who were gaining power, had become preoccupied with rituals etc. Through their influence, almost every human activity was given religious significance. This gradually evolved into a culture where preservation of “purity” of Brahmanas became a primary concern. The purity/impurity of other groups thus came to be measured in reference to their distance from the priestly class.

The strongest socio-economic class, the Brahmanas, became the de facto ruling class. The ideology of the ruling class inevitably became the ideology of the society. Therefore, those that the Brahamanas treated as untouchables to protect their purity, became untouchables for the entire society. And so, the practice of untouchability developed as class relations (influenced by the varna system) solidified further down the line.

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Picture used in the story: Madhya Pradesh Guna Dalit family farmer “No Option But To Kill Self”: Land Seized, Farmer Couple Drinks Pesticide

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