Indian Government Bans Discrimination Against Untouchables

The Fundamental Rights section of the Indian constitution outlawed discrimination against untouchables (the lowest caste in traditional Hindu society), nominally guaranteeing them the right to equal treatment throughout Indian society. The enforcement of that guarantee, however, has proven difficult in practice, especially outside India’s urban centers.

Summary of Event

Two hierarchies inform the conduct of social life in India. The first is based on notions of purity and pollution. The second is founded on distinctions of wealth and power. The people called “untouchables” usually have the lowest ranks in both of these hierarchical systems. In the first, traditional occupations such as removing human waste, tending cremation grounds, or disposing of animal carcasses, especially those of cows, render them perpetually impure. In the hierarchy of wealth and power, they are also at a disadvantage. Untouchables seldom own land of their own. Others who do own land are able to exploit the labor of untouchables, which keeps them poor and gives them a marginal place in the agricultural economy. Caste system, Indian
Untouchables (India)
Civil rights;India
[kw]Indian Government Bans Discrimination Against Untouchables (Nov. 26, 1949)
[kw]Discrimination Against Untouchables, Indian Government Bans (Nov. 26, 1949)
[kw]Untouchables, Indian Government Bans Discrimination Against (Nov. 26, 1949)
Caste system, Indian
Untouchables (India)
Civil rights;India
[g]South Asia;Nov. 26, 1949: Indian Government Bans Discrimination Against Untouchables[03020]
[g]India;Nov. 26, 1949: Indian Government Bans Discrimination Against Untouchables[03020]
[c]Social issues and reform;Nov. 26, 1949: Indian Government Bans Discrimination Against Untouchables[03020]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Nov. 26, 1949: Indian Government Bans Discrimination Against Untouchables[03020]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Nov. 26, 1949: Indian Government Bans Discrimination Against Untouchables[03020]
Ambedkar, Bhimrao Ramji
Gandhi, Mahatma
Nehru, Jawaharlal

Europeans and Americans usually assume that all social categories in India, untouchability included, are “ancient and unchanging.” This is a considerable distortion of the facts. Ancient legal texts such as the Manu smirti
Laws of Manu, The (ancient text) (comp. fourth century c.e.; The Laws of Manu, 1886) provide a somewhat different account of how individuals might be excluded from the mainstream of society. The Laws of Manu uses insulting terms such as chandala (literally, a variety of skunk cabbage) to describe individuals who have no place in the social order because they were born of irregular unions that crossed the boundaries between the priestly, warrior, merchant, and service castes. If this system were enforced, then all foreigners would be untouchable, subject to total exclusion. In addition, were this doctrine strictly observed, then the late prime minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, would have been untouchable, since he was the product of a marriage between a Hindu and a Zoroastrian, a member of a foreign, casteless people.

The ancient legal theory, then, cannot explain the practices of modern society. Untouchability is a twentieth century concept used to describe the social and economic disabilities that tens of millions of Indians suffer as a result of their birth into one of many hundreds of low-ranked subcastes. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, British officials charged with administering the government’s census of India developed the category “Depressed Classes” to describe groups that seemed to be the most deprived and socially excluded. Eventually, census reports began to use the specific names of those depressed castes in a special schedule appended to the surveys. That practice gave rise to the concept that there were several hundred “scheduled castes and tribes.”

Mahatma Gandhi tried to improve the lot of the downtrodden and took to calling them Harijans (literally, children of God). In doing so, he inadvertently may have insulted them. In colloquial speech, “harijan” is a polite way of referring to someone who is illegitimate. (In later years, many untouchables would refer to themselves as “Dalits,” or oppressed people, emphasizing their social inequality.) In concrete terms, Gandhi founded a number of ideal communities in which all members took turns at doing jobs usually assigned only to untouchables. For example, everyone was supposed to take her or his turn at cleaning toilets. Such idealism had little influence outside the small circle of Gandhi’s immediate followers.

In practice, members of low-ranked groups will rarely refer to themselves as untouchables or as Harijans. When identifying themselves, if they do not use the term “Dalit,” they will say they belong to a “scheduled caste” or use the proper name of their kinship group or subcaste. The variety of terms used to describe low-status groups in India hints at the complexity of their place in society. Some are tribal groups, ethnic minorities not fully assimilated into Hindu life. Because they often live in relative isolation, tribal groups become aware of their degraded condition only when they have dealings with their Hindu neighbors.

Untouchables experience rigorous exclusion in some areas, but in other areas they are not in the strictest sense untouchable. As late as the early twentieth century, most notably in southern India, untouchables were forced to humiliate themselves by doing such things as announcing their presence before entering a street so as to allow the “touchables” to let them pass without contact. Untouchable women, as a sign of their inferiority, were not allowed to cover their breasts. They could not enter most temples or public buildings. Some of these more obvious forms of discrimination were eliminated during the twentieth century, at least in cities. In other regions of India, depressed castes were more integrated into the life of village communities.

Rural landholders had a patriarchal attitude toward their untouchable dependents. Powerful landlords referred to their degraded followers as “our children” and protected them from exploitation by outsiders. When working with Harijans in the fields, physical contact did not cause pollution. Superior castes, however, would never take food or water from their inferiors. They never allowed the depressed groups to approach them when they were eating.

Even in its mildest form, untouchability imposes a number of handicaps. The Chamars, for example, a scheduled caste of northern India numbering in the millions, have as their traditional task the removal of dead cattle. Making the best of a bad situation, Chamars often ate the cow’s flesh, skinned the carcass, and prepared leather from it. Chamars were trapped in a circular dilemma. Because they were Chamars, society forced them to scavenge dead cattle. Eating the meat and selling the leather from the cows made them even more impure.

Private efforts to ameliorate the conditions of the depressed classes began in the nineteenth century. Christian missionaries began allowing untouchables into their schools. Many priests and ministers tacitly accepted the distinction between touchables and untouchables, but a few brave individuals insisted on having both clean and unclean drink from the same communion cup. Nevertheless, missionary academies were one of the few avenues to an education open to untouchables. During the period between 1757 and 1947, the British controlled the Indian military. The army recruited untouchables, usually for menial tasks, but it gave some of them the opportunity to attend army schools.

Indian philanthropists, inspired by their own ideals, also provided the disadvantaged with the means to self-improvement. In Poona, Jyotirao Phule Phule, Jyotirao established a school for untouchables in 1851. The maharajah of Baroda Baroda, maharajah of set up a school in his state in 1883 and offered scholarships for postgraduate study abroad. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the most important untouchable leader of the twentieth century, took advantage of several of those opportunities. His grandfather served in the army and his father also entered the military, eventually serving as a teacher in an army school for untouchables. In that way, Ambedkar had his primary schooling provided by the military. In 1913, he received a grant from the maharajah of Baroda that financed his medical studies at Columbia University in New York City.

In 1938, the Madras legislature passed a law making it a punishable offense to discriminate against untouchables. Most of the provinces of British India, and a number of the princely states, quickly followed suit. By 1947, many statutes banning untouchability were in force. When the matter was raised in the Constitutional Assembly, the inclusion of a section in the 1949 Indian constitution forbidding discrimination received nearly unanimous support. Postcolonialism;India

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru used all of his influence and invoked Mahatma Gandhi’s exemplary lead in providing assistance to Harijans to ensure the inclusion of an article abolishing untouchability. Nehru appointed the Harijan Ambedkar to his cabinet, making him India’s first minister of law in 1947, and giving him a strong voice in the discussions shaping the new country’s constitution. Part 3 of that constitution, comprising Articles 12 to 35, was devoted to the enumeration of six fundamental rights of all Indian citizens. These rights were: the rights to equality and freedom, the right against exploitation, the right to freedom of religion, the right of each cultural group to preserve its culture and educational practices, and the right to constitutional remedies to preserve the other five rights. Article 17, part of the section delineating the right to equality, explicitly banned untouchability. The constitution, including Article 17, was passed on November 26, 1949. It went into effect January 26, 1950.


Following the constitution’s example, many official measures were taken that were supposed to prevent further discrimination. Steps were also taken to redress previous wrongs done to the scheduled castes—indeed, the constitution included a schedule of such castes for just that purpose. These measures to aid scheduled tribes and castes reserved places for them in state legislatures, government employment, and schools. In 1955, the Indian parliament enacted the Untouchability Offenses Act Untouchability Offenses Act (1955) , which made more types of discrimination illegal and provided for stiff fines and jail terms for anyone convicted of violating its provisions.

Despite those legal measures and the constant use of eloquent political rhetoric against untouchability, discriminatory behavior proved hard to eliminate. Although thousands of individuals took advantage of the protections and opportunities offered them, most of the tens of millions of untouchables remained in poverty with little hope of improving their status. Those who succeeded became an untouchable elite unwilling or unable to help the mass of their fellows. Untouchables who acquired an education and comparative wealth continued to find it difficult to assimilate into the higher ranks of society.

Moreover, because of their poverty, untouchables found it difficult to use the courts to enforce their right to constitutional remedies under Articles 32 to 35 of the constitution. Judges proved unwilling to apply rigorously either those articles or statutory laws such as the Untouchability Offenses Act. Higher courts tended to reverse convictions obtained under such laws or to give those convicted only token fines. The number of antidiscrimination suits lodged in the courts by untouchables actually declined over the two decades following passage of the act.

The untouchable elite living in the cities did experience some improvement in their lives, but the majority of the depressed classes continued to live in the countryside, where it was more difficult to escape the burdens of their inferior status. As landless laborers, untouchables were still exploited. Landlords, even petty peasants owning only a few acres, were still able to force them to work in the fields at starvation wages. They found it possible to employ untouchables during the peak work periods and then let them go during slack seasons. In the comparatively restricted society of India’s villages, everyone knew who the untouchables were. The untouchables therefore found few ways to make good a claim to higher status. Some groups of untouchables tried to refuse doing the tasks, such as disposing of dead cattle or cleaning latrines, which rendered them impure. They rarely succeeded, however, because the majority often used violence to keep them in their place at the bottom of society.

The constitutional ban on discrimination against untouchables was one of many lofty goals which India set for itself at independence. Modern legislative measures and governmental affirmative action schemes have built on both official and private efforts to bring equality to the depressed classes. These actions have had little practical impact on the mass of untouchables, although a comparative few have been able to improve their condition dramatically. Even so, the aims of India’s democracy do inspire those who seek to extend equal rights to all who experience deprivation because of untouchability. Caste system, Indian
Untouchables (India)
Civil rights;India

Further Reading

  • Bailey, Frederick G. Caste and the Economic Frontier: A Village in Highland Orissa. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1957. This study documents the way in which a tribal group in the state of Orissa managed to use the wealth they acquired by making and selling moonshine to elevate their status from that of untouchable to that of “clean caste Hindu.” It shows how mobility is possible, if rare, for scheduled tribes and castes.
  • Beteille, André. Caste, Class, and Power: Changing Patterns of Stratification in a Tanjore Village. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965. This is a detailed study of the relations between castes in a village in south India. It is a complement to the essays by Bernard Cohn noted below, which focus on a village in North India. Beteille provides a very detailed description of the ways caste relations have changed since 1947.
  • Bühler, Georg. The Laws of Manu. 1886. Reprint. New York: Dover, 1969. Although the language of Bühler’s translation is somewhat archaic, Manu is a concise statement of the Brahmanical (priestly) theory of social organization. By comparing Manu with anthropological accounts of the life of untouchables, the reader will gain a sense of the complex interplay between ancient traditions and the necessities of life in Indian society.
  • Cohn, Bernard S. An Anthropologist Among the Historians and Other Essays. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987. This volume by one of the most influential contemporary scholars of India contains several essays that describe the internal organization of untouchable communities and their interactions with higher-ranked castes in a North Indian village. The writing style is lively and provides more than a series of commonplace assertions about untouchables and their lot.
  • Duncan, Ian. “Scheduled Caste, Dalit, and the Bahujan: Political Mobilization and Electoral Politics Among the Former Untouchables and the Case of Uttar Pradesh.” In Postcolonial India: History, Politics, and Culture, edited by Vinita Damodaran and Maya Unnithan-Kumar. New Delhi: Manohar, 2000. Case study of political struggle by Dalits to achieve their constitutionally promised equality through the Indian political system. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Galanter, Marc. Law and Society in Modern India. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989. Galanter is a perceptive critic of the differences between law and practice in contemporary India. Several of the essays in this volume focus on untouchables as well as on the problems of reverse discrimination and judicial redress of inequalities.
  • Isaacs, Harold R. India’s Ex-Untouchables. New York: John Day, 1965. Isaacs’s book is sometimes too impressionistic and has a tendency to generalize based on only a few cases. Nevertheless, it remains one of the most riveting journalistic accounts of the successes and failures of India’s attempt to end untouchability.
  • Prashad, Vijay. Untouchable Freedom: A Social History of a Dalit Community. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Follows a particular community of untouchable sanitation workers to determine the extent of freedom made possible by the community’s isolation and the extent to which that isolation is debilitating.
  • Sen, D. K. A Comparative Study of the Indian Constitution. 2 vols. New York: David McKay, 1966. Sen’s legalese is a bit dry, but the book has the merit of explicating the principles of India’s constitution in comparison with those of a number of Western and non-Western countries. Sen also refers to a great deal of case law relating to the implementation of the constitution.

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