Untouchability is the practice of ostracising a group by segregating them from the mainstream by social custom or legal mandate. The excluded group could be one that did not accept the norms of the excluding group and historically included foreigners, nomadic tribes, law-breakers and criminals and those suffering from a contagious disease. It could also be a group that did not accept the change of customs enforced by a certain group. This exclusion was a method of punishing law-breakers and also protecting traditional societies against contagion from strangers and the infected. A member of the excluded group is known as an Untouchable.
The term is commonly associated with treatment of the Dalit communities, who are considered "polluting" among the people of the Indian subcontinent, but the term has been used for other groups as well, such as the Burakumin of Japan, Cagots in Europe, or the Al-Akhdam in Yemen.
Diverse ethnicities population in the Indian subcontinent
According to Sarah Pinto, an anthropologist, untouchability in India applies to people whose work relates to "death, bodies, meat, and bodily fluids". In the name of untouchability, Dalits have faced work and descent-based discrimination at the hands of the dominant castes. Instances of caste discrimination at different places and times included:
- Prohibition from eating with other members
- Provision of separate cups in village tea stalls
- Separate seating arrangements and utensils in restaurants
- Segregation in seating and food arrangements in village functions and festivals
- Prohibition from entering into village temples
- Prohibition from wearing sandals or holding umbrellas in front of higher caste members
- Prohibition from entering other caste homes
- Prohibition from using common village path
- Separate burial grounds
- No access to village's common/public properties and resources (wells, ponds, temples, etc.)
- Segregation (separate seating area) of children in schools
- Bonded labour
- Social boycotts by other castes for refusing to perform their "duties"
Exact origins of Untouchability are unknown. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, untouchability was born about 400 AD, due to the struggle for supremacy between Buddhism and Brahmanism (an ancient term for Brahmanical Hinduism). But this view of Ambedkar has been successfully refuted by Vivekanand Jha on cognet grounds.
Government action in India
During the time of Indian independence, Dalit activists began calling for separate electorates for untouchables in India to allow for fair representation. Officially labeled the Minorities Act, it would guarantee representation for Sikhs, Muslims, Christian, and Untouchables in the newly formed Indian government. The Act was supported by British representatives such as Ramsay MacDonald. A separation within Hindu society was opposed by national leaders at the time such as Mahatma Gandhi, although he took no exception with the demands of the other minorities. He began a hunger strike to protest this type of affirmative action, citing that it would create an unhealthy divide within the religion. At the Round Table Conferences, he provided this explanation for his reasoning:
I don't mind untouchables if they so desire, being converted to Islam or Christianity. I should tolerate that, but I cannot possibly tolerate what is in store for Hinduism if there are two divisions set forth in the villages. Those who speak of the political rights of the untouchables don't know their India, don't know how Indian society is today constituted and therefore I want to say with all the emphasis that I can command that if I was the only person to resist this thing that I would resist it with my life.
Mahatma Gandhi achieved some success through his hunger strike. Dalit activists faced pressure from the Hindu population at large to end his protest at the risk of his ailing health. The two sides eventually came to a compromise where the number of guaranteed seats for Untouchables would be reduced, but not totally eliminated.
The 1950 national constitution of India legally abolished the practice of untouchability and provided measures for positive discrimination in both educational institutions and public services for Dalits and other social groups who lie within the caste system. These are supplemented by official bodies such as the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
Despite this, instances of prejudice against Dalits still occur in some rural areas, as evidenced by events such as the Kherlanji massacre.
Cagot are historically untouchable groups of France.
Burakumin jobs were those designated as "unclean" by Buddhist and Shinto standards. They worked as butchers, tanners, and executioners. The Buraku people were forced to live in segregated neighborhoods, and could not mingle with any of the higher classes of people. The buraku was universally looked down upon, and their children were denied an education.
Baekjeong in Korea are an "untouchable” group of Korea who traditionally performed jobs of executioner and butcher.
- Al-Akhdam in Yemen
- Ragyabpa in Tibet (see Social classes of Tibet)
- Tanka (danhu) ("boat people") in Guangdong, Fuzhou Tanka in Fujian, Si-min (small people) and Mianhu in Jiangsu, Gaibu and Duomin (To min) 惰民 duò mín ("idle/lazy/fallen/indolent people") in Shijiazhuang, jinxing yum-in 九姓魚民 jiǔxìng yúmín ("nine name fishermen") in the Yangtze River region, yon-hoe ("music people") in Shani in China
- Osus in Nigeria and Cameroon
- Peter Berger, Frank Heidemann. The Modern Anthropology of India: Ethnography, Themes and Theory. Routledge. p. 302.
- Pinto, Sarah (2013). Where There Is No Midwife: Birth and Loss in Rural India. Berghahn Books. p. 47. ISBN 978-0-85745-448-5.
- Who are Dalits? & What is Untouchability? — Portal
- However, these claims have never been verified by any historical evidence."Top RSS leader misquotes Ambedkar on untouchability".
- Some Recent Theories Of The Origin Of Untouchability https://www.jstor.org/stable/44139355?read-now=1&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
- The Indian Historical Review, Vol. II, No. i (July 1975), pp. 21-22, 31.
- Kumar, Ravinder. "Gandhi, Ambedkar and the Poona pact, 1932." South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 8.1-2 (1985): 87-101.