Confronting Untouchability

gopal guru

n the contemporary social and scholarly imagination in India, there are a range of responses that are offered in respect of the question of caste and untouchability. Thus, there are scholars who obliquely suggest that caste is a rumour and untouchability has become irrelevant in India. While the other kind of reaction is rather moderate inasmuch as it suggests that caste and untouchability have not disappeared but have changed their nature. It could be argued that those who tend to refuse the very existence of caste suffer from the guilty feeling or the sense of embarrassment that this social malaise causes to such people. On the other hand, there are those who take an objective view of these social phenomena and hence argue that caste and untouchability could not be wished away; it is there and exists but in a milder form. However, the volume under review takes a different and perhaps right view that untouchability as a totality of social reality still exists in its pernicious form. It takes a more obnoxious form both in terms of time and space. The volume records at several places that the untouchables exist only in fragmented time while the upper caste exist in “prime time”. Dalits in some villages have to offer prio­ r ity to upper castes in terms of occupying public space. This observation of the volume is further confirmed by the more recent examples from the southern and the western parts of India. The example of a Tamil village where the upper castes raised the real wall of separation between the “touchables” and the “untouchables” proves the central concern of the volume. A similar wall of separation is reported to have been built in a village in Satara district of Maharashtra. Ironically both these regions have experienced radical anti-caste mobilisation by the non-brahmin castes, which are in the forefront in practising untouchability. It is for this reason, the volume acquires importance.
Economic & Political Weekly  EPW   july 12, 2008


book review
Untouchability in Rural India edited by Ghanshyam Shah et al; Sage Publication, 2006; pp 216, Rs 295 (Paperback).

The subsequent reports that keep appearing in various kinds of media unfortunately confirms that the volume is not looking for the caste and untouchability practices; in fact it is confronting them. Hence, the volume surely succeeds in shaking the “castes of mind” from their convenient understanding that there is no untouch­ ability and that caste is a rumour in India. The volume acquires significance for other reasons in that it tries successfully to lay out the enormity of the problem both in terms of intensity and magnitude. It shows that Indian society (at least the rural component) continues to permeate the caste system and untouchability. This looks methodologically more convincing than the ethnographic perspective on the problem. In an ethnographic study the reality gets localised with specificity and does not lead us to know the patterns that are inherent in the social problem under consideration. Thus, the volume to my mind shifts the focus from authenticity to universality, assigning the height to the inquiry into untouchability. The volume under review also acquires importance for another reason. It calls into question the efficacy of public institutions like the social justice ministry and more pertinently the commissioner for scheduled castes (p 15) that are supposed to update our thinking about social problems both for social auditing as well as improving, tightening and revitalising the policy regime to address the question of untouchability much more meaningfully and effectively. These institutions are supposed to provide background material both for public appreciation of the social and institutional segments of society that have stopped practising untouchability and put those segments to

severe public scrutiny if they have failed in this regard. However, the volume shows that it is not only the large part of rural society that practises the most heinous forms of untouchability but also public institutions which harbour such practises. The study of 565 villages from 11 states is an attempt to prepare the register of the practice of untouchability in rural India. The volume suggests that the team of researchers have collected data based on different methods that consisted of structured questionnaires, case studies and available secondary literature. The chapter on dalit women makes a much desired reference to triple discrimination that the former are forced to undergo at the instance of the “social patriarchy”. Taking a cue from the volume one could define social patriarchy as an ideology which suggests upper caste women in collaboration with upper caste men in the practice of untouchability against dalit women. Dalit women are forced to perform the jobs that are considered polluting. They have to face multiple forms of discrimination that express their marginalisation to the level where they virtually become part of the dirt associated with their occupation. The volume covers this ontological link between dirt and the human being in the chapter on “unclean occupation”. The volume also talks about the relationship between violence, caste and the practise of untouchability. There is a chapter on dalit women, ‘Denial and Discrimination: How Does Untouchability Play a Role in Foregrounding Denial’.

Narratives of Resistance
The most important aspect of the volume is that it offers to us narratives of resistance put up by those who are forced to endure different kinds of indignities and situations leading to humiliation. The volume has used boxes that are normally useful in inviting focused attention, on the dalit struggle against untouchability. The heroic struggle led by the dalit youth from Dhediya Vabsajda village from Gujarat, for example, bears this out (p 156). The dalit used reverse social boycotts against the upper castes and forced the latter to accept a dalit woman Senama as their


Moreover. But this gain for pragmatic reasons results in losing sight of those villages not covered in the sample simply because of the absence of a NGO. the volume admits that the selection of the sample villages is influenced by the presence of the NGO Action Aid in those villages (p 49). dalits do not constitute a part of the village. Finally. Even the state offers an administrative definition of village which luckily includes segregated localities of dalits. does the volume suggest that the perspective becomes available at the intuitional level? These are some of the problems. what connects untouchability to discrimination is not only wages but the 32 july 12. the volume claims that it has followed a dalit perspective in addressing the question of untouchability. exclusion and exploitation and humiliation into what Charles Taylor calls “hermeneutic circle” of which untouchability serves as the anchor concept. In this perception. The volume proves beyond doubt that the dalits have learnt the use of radical language in order to establish their right to dignity and equal concern. In such an understanding. As a matter of convenience. But that is the definition from above. However. But the contrary could also be true that enlightened and progressive rich farmers pay more wages to dalit women than the upper caste women. Discrimination according to the volume takes place in the differential and arbitrary (based on caste) distribution of wages. which to my mind are substantive in nature. there is nothing wrong in selecting such villages as it can save time and Review sarpanch. such an exercise has been completely ruled out from the inte­ llectual ambit. Third. reside. the volume intends to draw other concepts like discrimination. the volume seems to be warranting our attention to points out of which one is substantial and the other one is relatively minor. There are fixed boundaries within “the castes of mind”. Since the volume is based on the study of multi-caste villages. The study understandably uses market as a context for establishing relationship of the concept of untouchability with other concepts such as discrimination and exclusion. the volume nowhere spells out the perspective. in certain cases or even in most of the cases. For example. it is not always necessary to have socially hierarchised villages. such as the single caste villages in Kumaon region in Uttarakhand where mostly upper caste villagers. 2008  EPW   Economic & Political Weekly . First. However. Does one have to believe that the perspective is integral to those social groups which are ontologically linked to the problem of untouchability? In other words. In anthropological and sociological literature different scholars have defined “the village” for us. dalit villages (satnamis) in Chhattisgarh and Bori village in Tulzapur taluka in Osmanabad district of Maharashtra. in fact untouchability gets perceived both in terms of time and space. the volume does not seem to define what is a village. There is also a definition of village that exists in the understanding of the dominant castes. could be true. it would have been absolutely fascinating to study those villages. This claim. These villages would have elevated the problem from mere descriptive empiricism to the phenomenological level of understanding. Secondly.

Hence. New Delhi. behind these facts and figures. and after weighing the human and environmental consequences of that reality. Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh by experts. De Beers. cultural and environmental consequences make this book a significant piece of work. A compa­ rison of mineral production and per capita domestic product figures demonstrates that there exists an inverse relation bet­ ween mining and economic growth. Kalinganagar. Dalit women are excluded from these units because they touch cashew nuts. These regions are in Orissa. Panos. of the 50 mineral producing districts in India almost half are dominated by tribal or adivasi populations with about 28 per cent of their area under Mine Now. In this period 73 FDI mining project proposals have been cleared. it has a pedagogical role to play not in terms of bringing out the guilt from within the tormentor but force the social dialogue on those who are still interested in the eradication of untouchability practises. Mine Forever? Manshi Asher A ccording to Rich Lands. Joining them gives us a picture about the mining scenario in India. Jharkhand. Jharsuguda. Secondly. activists and journalists engaged with the issue of mining and its socio-political. terming it a “transparent oxymoron”. Narratives from the tribal hinterlands of mineral-rich Orissa. But the Maharashtra segment of the study fails to capture this move and treats Mangs and Matangs as if they are two different social entities (p 86). Between 1951 and 1991 more than 26 lakh people were displaced by mining in India. Therefore untouchability seems to appear as mere assertion and fails to empower the argument that is so necessary for developing a dalit perspective. somewhere one gets the feeling that these concepts escape this circle as they often stand in isolation of each other rather than together. Kashipur are unique in their perspective. Brazil. But the subtext is that the upper caste women do not want competition in such sector and that they want to monopolise it. pp 207. deceit and destruction. Burma and now India. These critical facts and figures are like dots on the board. Chhattisgarh. its arms. effortlessly reverse roles as abettors and perpetrators of what could be termed as “ethnic genocide combined with ecological devastation” in the mineral-rich states of this democratic country. making the picture clearer and horrific. The stories of mining and mine-based industries in Jharia. BHP Billiton. Caterpillar and the Mahua Flower: Tremors in India’s Mining Fields edited by Caterpillar and the Mahua Flower: Tremors in India’s Mining Fields edited by Rakesh Kalshian. economic. Rs 150. its context and intensity of labour. of pride and prejudice. Finally. the volume seeks to unsettle the stabilised understanding of those for whom untouchability has become a settled question. Moody challenges the possi­ bility of “sustainable mining” that the industry harps about. The mining industry in India has grown at more than 10 per cent in the post-reforms period (between 1993 and 2003) as the mining sector was opened up for private and foreign investments. For example. But India has begun opening the sector to private players only in the last decade Economic & Political Weekly  EPW   july 12. on the one hand and the corporation. Bailadila. as mentioned in the beginning. It is evident that the current growth rates are driven by the global demand for products like aluminium and steel and the investment rush by the greed for access to cheap mineral and other resources. there are minor problems that could be avoided while the volume goes into subsequent print. 2007. it can also orient the policymakers to rethink the already available packages that address the issue of untouchability. The field workers should have more accurate knowledge of the complicated settings in changing locations of the caste system. “At the end of the day. repeat and virtually drill a single point home – that the state. Mainpat. Some of the major companies include POSCO. he concludes. Mongolia. Keonjhar. Minor Problems Apart from these. Lanjigarh. The study does not show us as to how untouchability as a concept gets implicated into other concepts. Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. The boxes in the volume would achieve this pedagogical target to begin with. Maha­ rashtra and Madhya Pradesh. This logic is similar to the one that was used by upper caste textile workers against the untouchables in the textile industries in Bombay during the 1930s and 1940s. Mittal and Rio Tinto. how and by whom of extracting irreplaceable mineral resources must no longer be entrusted to ‘the industry’”. This trend is amply evident in the three mine­ ral-rich states of Orissa. of whom more than half were adivasis. Forty per cent of the mineral-rich regions are also affected by the Naxalite Review nature of crop. Email: gopalguru2001@yahoo. I would like to argue that it is growing certain crops like cashew nuts or cocoon processing that produces discrimination based on untouchability. Caste and sub-caste groups deploy different techno­ logies to seek social elevation within the overall hierarchy. the Mangs (sub-caste of dalits from Maharashtra) have adopted a new identity Matang which is a sanskritised version of the original Mang identity. when. However. where. Rakesh Kalshian brings us tales of death. on the other. Jadu­ goda. yet they reiterate. 2008 33 . Poor People: Is ‘Sustainable’ Mining Possible? (State of India’s Environment: 6th Citizens’ Report) published recently by the Centre for Science and Environment. The book aptly takes off with Roger Moody’s ‘ Iron in the Soul’ which analyses the adverse role played by global mining giants like Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton with their unethical mining practices in countries like Papua New Guinea. we may be driven to one overwhelming conclusion: that decisions over the what. Dantewada.

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