Editorial Note: One of the powerful arguments wielded against any resurgent narrative using India’s civilization basis , is the bugbear of “Untouchability“. A very powerful “stick” with which to beat down any discussion of Bhaaratiya social structures , social values , societal resurgence based on native practices and principles. Powerful and influential narratives from the academic Social Sciences wield this “stick” in myriad ways to amplify and empower the #BreakingIndia and Hinduphobic rhetoric. Acknowledged as a civilizational fault line (see book Breaking India) ,the narratives that Untouchability power have not been responded to, by scholars or public intellectuals , in any fair and unbiased fashion. The convenience the “appeasement mechanics” provides,for political machinations in the rough and tumble of the nation’s politics does not allow for a grounded, empirical or analytical analysis. The divisive appeasement structures, baked into policy and into the “pillars” of “democracy” have been designed with vicious intent and continue to be a major cause of disunity, and the nation suffers because of this – 70+ years of a deep culture, worshiping mediocrity,incompetence and amplified with flawed reward mechanisms – has been baked into the psyche of the nation. Primacy is given to who one is and not to what, how one is doing things. Mediocrity is worshiped and rewarded, endlessly.
The authors discuss the return of this bugbear in the context of post-Covid social behaviors. Much more manthan and honest analysis is required , before both the Rajya and Rashtra can move on from the clutches of these debilitating narratives.
Authors: Girish Balasubramanian, Kavitha R K, Praneeth Nerimetla.
The world including India has been combating the dreaded CoVid-19 pandemic and no certain end seems to be in sight. Based on the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the response of some of the developed countries – the norms of social distancing as one of the methods to combat this pandemic has been adopted with the honourable PM of India Shri. Narendra Modi giving the slogan – “दो गज दूरी, बहुत है जरूरी”. The whole world including the influential leaders across the left and right spectrum ditched the handshake and appropriated the ‘Namaste’.
While the Namaste was appropriated without any credit to the Hindu civilization, a group of Hindu traditionalists have unwittingly drawn parallels between the infamous practice of untouchability and social distancing. The opportunistic Hinduphobic media outlets who leave no stone unturned to malign Hindus and Hindu practices – sometimes even drawing absurd inferences and blaming the persecution of Hindus in Pakistan on the caste system, have hijacked this discussion.
Caste (the false definition and subsequent distortion of Varna/ Jati system or Varnashrama) has unfortunately become a defining feature of Hinduism in modern day India – but one needs to note that casteism is equally prevalent in Islam and Christian faiths as well. While discussing caste there is broad agreement that it is an imported term to describe the Indian social systems from the word “casta” meaning lineage or race. Casta further comes from the Latin root word – Castus meaning pure and the current spelling of the word Caste is based on the French word. ‘Casta’ was used to refer to the mixed population between Europeans, American Indians and the Africans.
Further,as far as India is concerned Varna and Jati have been conflated with caste and various absurd comparisons have been indulged in to point out the divine origins of caste systems in India based on the Indian sastra-s. While tracing the origins of the caste system of India is not within the scope of this article it can be summarized that the discussion on caste both at policy levels and in academia in contemporary times is like that story of six blind men each describing the elephant; though each of them is partly correct, none describe the elephant comprehensively or truthfully.
The theory that discrimination and untouchability are the unfortunate outcomes of the varna or jati systems that were followed by Hindus is a propaganda and is questionable. It has been argued that the ghosts of untouchability are haunting us during these trying times of the CoVid-19 pandemic. Critics have also advocated refraining the usage of ‘social distancing’, preferring to use the term ‘physical distancing’.
While ‘untouchability’ or its native epithet ‘asprushyata’ are terms which invoke guilt feeling amongst Indians, especially Hindus, ‘social distancing’ as a term seems to be more palatable and politically correct since it has come from the West. It is to be noted that the operationalization aspect, giving importance to hygiene in both systems, seem to remain the same.
Is Untouchability a Practice Unique to India?
Untouchability is not a practice unique to India. The issue of caste and untouchability was the European/Western experience of India. They scarcely understood the evolved Indian culture and its unique practices. The blind men and elephant analogy illustrates the application of a Judeo-Christian framework to (mis)understand and (mis)represent India’s jati system.
Non-believers in Europe were treated as untouchables and the same yardstick was applied to India as well. Christians in Europe treated the Jews and pagans as untouchables. England had a community of individuals referred to as Nightmen or the ‘gong farmers’– who were manual scavengers. They were not permitted to live inside the city/village limits. They were also not allowed to move freely in the city during the daytime. They had to visit the houses during the night and hence the term nightmen. The nightmen often suffered grave ailments on account of the manual scavenging work that they carried out
Additionally, the field of ‘body language’ is still the norm in the Western world. According to this field – there is a concept of personal space and individuals need to be mindful not to invade the personal space of others – in other words maintain adequate distance. For instance, the aspect of ‘manspreading‘ first described by journalist Barbara Ellen which subsequently found place in the Oxford dictionary in 2015, has been conceptualized as a form of microaggression, of invading the ‘personal space’ specifically of women.
The critics of untouchability in the West would also agree that they do not go about hugging any random individual on the street. Yet, Hindus are falsely indicted as being casteist, misquoting non-contextual references.
Untouchability – the Legal Angle
While we debate on untouchability and its origins – the following question definitely arises as to how to define as to who is untouchable. Article 17 of the Constitution of India abolishes the practice of Untouchability – “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”.
Untouchability is another word in addition to minority which has not been clearly defined by the Constitution of India. The draft of the Constitution was debated and Article 17 was no exception. Article 17 was Article 11 in the draft Constitution. During the debates, Mr. Naziruddin Ahmed moved for an amendment to be made and his reasoning was, “I submit that the original article 11 is a little vague. The word “untouchability” has no legal meaning, although politically we are all well aware of it; but it may lead to a considerable amount of misunderstanding as in a legal expression. The word ‘untouchable’ can be applied to so many variety of things that we cannot leave it at that. It may be that a man suffering from an epidemic or contagious disease is an untouchable; then certain kinds of food are untouchable to Hindus and Muslims”. Similarly, Shri. K T Shah also had a similar opinion and wanted the drafting committee to delve deeper into the definition – the point being that untouchability as a practice could be because of epidemics – like what is currently being faced, or because of some customs such as rites and rituals performed post-death that are widely prevalent in households across the nation and even in certain East Asian regions, or because of the ritualistic value passed from one generation to the next. The architect of our Constitution, Dr. B R Ambedkar refused to accept any of these suggestions – thus leaving it open for interpretation – consequently making untouchability , a uni-dimensional and obscure term, which actually is a practice consisting of both social and personal realms.
Evidence of Untouchability in the Sastra-s
Brahmins often have borne the brunt for practicing untouchability because they have been known to adhere to the rules of shaucham. It needs to be mentioned here that Shri PV Kane in his History of Dharmasastra-s has stated – “These restrictions were not inspired by any hardness of heart of any racial or caste pride as is often said but they gained notoriety due to psychological or religious views and requirements of hygiene”. The way untouchability has been falsely attributed to notoriety, makes it seems as though it is entirely an Indian practice, that too promoted by the Brahmins. Hindu sastra-s and kavya have often faced the flak for practising ‘shaucham’ and are always misquoted by the unlearned , the mischievous and people not well versed with Dharmasastra-s.
However, it is conveniently forgotten that Adi Kavi Valmiki was not a Brahmin by birth , similarly Veda Vyasa (Krishna Dwaipayana , the compiler of the veda-s) who has narrated the Mahabharata was son of a fisher-woman. These so called ‘low caste’ (dalit) authors are recognised as rishis and still revered in all parts of India.
In fact,if one is honest to the definitions peddled by the Social Scientists, all of India’s sacred repository of knowledge (shruti , smrti, itihasa , purana … ) should be characterized as “DALIT LITERATURE“.. and be part of every Dalit Studies course program .. but what we see, is exactly the opposite.
A supposedly “brahminical” veda-pathashaala is one of the few places where true DALIT literature is taught and studied.
False attributions of caste and untouchability can easily be called out as there are enough examples in many sastra-s that the practice of social and spiritual hygiene was not an oppressive practice, but rather quite flexible and for purely practical and spiritual purposes. The sacred epic Ramayana has a description of Shabari awaiting the arrival of Shri Rama and Lakshmana. Shabari hosts them at her humble abode and she is so engrossed in her devotion for the Lord that she first tastes the fruit to ensure the fruit is not bitter, and only then offers it to the Lord. Shri Rama consumes the fruit as it was offered with true devotion and without any hesitation.
Social/Physical distancing in the practice of Hindu Dharma is a part of the Achara-Anushthana to be followed in any Yagna or Puja. It has divine connotation while untouchability conveys ill-will. Achara/Anushthana is a Sanskrit Non-translatable. However, it also needs to be clarified that Achara/Shaucha is only one part/dimension to this misquoted practice of untouchability.
Evidence of “Reverse” Untouchability
The way untouchability/asprushyata has been discussed often gives the impression that a so called high caste person has discriminated/excluded the so-called low caste person due to profession, or conversion or objectionable (beef) eating practices. It is a rather misguided belief that the practice of untouchability as an evil practice in Hindu society was highlighted and attempted to be “reformed” by missionaries and evangelists. It was a tool in the hands of missionaries to demonize the knowledgeable (those who could easily destroy the gospel and the repositories of biblical spin …) and gain in-roads into the lives of “lower-caste people” (who were till then an integral fabric of Bhaaratheya society) so as to ultimately gain an authoritarian and economic advantage for their colonial allies. Evidence of the same has been recorded but often brushed under the carpet.
For instance, Dr. Ambedkar in his book “The Untouchables – Who were they and why they became Untouchables” has quoted a prominent French missionary – Abbe Duboi as saying saying, “Even to this day a Pariah is not allowed to pass a Brahmin Street in a village, though nobody can prevent, or prevents, his approaching or passing by a Brahmin’s house in towns. The Pariahs, on their part will under no circumstances, allow a Brahmin to pass through their paracherries (collection of Pariah huts) as they firmly believe it will lead to their ruin“. Dr. Ambedkar further quotes the Editor of Gazetteer of Tanjore district as saying, “These castes (Parayan and Pallan or Chakkiliyan castes of Tanjore District) strongly object to the entrance of a Brahmin into their quarters believing that harm will result to them therefrom”. Further quoting about Holiars of Hasan Mysuru, Karnataka, he says “…and yet the Brahmins consider great luck will wait upon them if they can manage to pass through the Holigiri without being molested. To this Holiars have a strong objection, and, should a Brahmin attempt to enter their quarters, they turn out in a body and slipper him, in former times, it is said, to death.”. These instances show that untouchability was not a one-way street as far as it being a social practice is concerned. Dr. Ambedkar himself has agreed in his book that he sees vast differences between the practices of one village vis-à-vis another. Unfortunately, in independent India no in-depth study has been carried out to understand this practice from a Bhaarathiya perspective. We still rely on obscure colonial-evangelical narratives which were peddled with the sole object of distorting the native culture and painting it as evil, to justify colonization and proselytization.
Untouchability, as it is known today, is multi-dimensional and spills over into the social, personal and spiritual realms. Also, practices touted as untouchability were not a unique phenomenon to Hinduism alone, and other civilizations have had practiced it in one form or another..
It is important to understand and analyse the rational basis of the practices of Achara- Anushthana and Shaucha from a Bhaarathiya perspective.
Current mainstream discourse thrives on distortion and incomplete knowledge of the cultural and social practices of Bharat.
It is unacceptable to draw a false equivalence between “untouchability as a Hindu practice” and social distancing. Such attempts are driven at unnecessary and deliberate Hindu bashing.
While oppression or violence against any community which has baseless theological hatred (ex: christian conversion by missionaries) at its roots should be condemned unequivocally, distortion of social practices which may have a rational basis should be analysed and understood.
About Authors: –
Girish Balasubramanian is an budding academic associated with the Xavier University Bhubaneswar. He is an Electrical Engineer an holds a PhD in Management. He is an avid traveller and likes to experience varied cultures. He also likes Carnatic music, Ghazals and Kabir’s dohas. Read More…
Kavitha R K is a Practicing Company Secretary by profession. She identifies herself as a जिज्ञासु (Jignasu) and is keenly interested in understanding Sanatana Dharma. She also loves to read and debate on history and politics. (View More)
Praneeth Nerimetla works in the Product Management space. Praneeth loves deep study, analysis, theorizing, keeping the thought simple yet diving deep into Sanatana Dharma concepts and explores amicable-realtime solutions/explanations/counters for historical/ ethical (View More)
 See SV Ketkar’s History of Caste in India – Chapter II – pg12
 See https://intellectualkshatriya.com/china-coronavirus-panic-a-western-universalism-case-study/ for the Western Universalism perspective
 P V Kane – History of Dharmasashtras, Volume 2-1-pg. 170
 Untouchables Dr. B R Ambedkar
 Untouchables – Who were they and why they became untouchables – pg. 65
 Untouchables – Who were they and why they became untouchables – pg 65
 Untouchables – who were they and why they became untouchables – pg 66-66