To completely understand what untouchability is, how and why it is practiced, we must first understand that there ‘four-fold system’ in India which divides the population into four Varnas or groups namely Brahmins, Kshatriya, Vaisya, and Shudra. They are placed in a hierarchy and observe rules of purity and pollution (higher castes being the purest and the lower castes being impure)
Thus untouchability is a form of social exclusion that is practiced against the lower, impure castes- that of Shudras-and other outcasts, known as the panchamas. This group of people is supposed to do various ‘disrespectful’ jobs such as scavenging, picking up dead bodies, cleaning toilets, etc.
These untouchables came to be known as ‘Dalits’, a term which was coined by B.R Ambedkar after the rejection of the terms ‘Harijans’- people of god (coined by Mahatma Gandhi) and ‘depressed classes’. Many others like Jotiba Phule have contributed to the upliftment of the Dalits.
We find there have been two theories, that are believed to be the origin of untouchability, first is the capture of the Dravidians by the Aryans and subsequently spreading the Aryan influence and hence the Varna system in the south. Second is a ‘mixed caste’ theory, which implies that the Varna system is divinely ordained and all those falling outside the caste system or the Varna system are because of the unlawful sexual alliances between men and women.
Untouchability is characterized by certain avoidance of physical contact, social sanction, social disabilities and the maintenance of social distance in the attempt to maintain the purity of an individual. There are to ensure that this social distance among the higher and the lower castes are maintained. The lower castes are considered so impure that their mere touch is considered to be polluting. There is a notion of distant pollution that has existed in many regions of south India, such that the shadow of the untouchable is considered to be polluting. Further, in the case of pollution, the upper castes are expected to go through a purification ritual.
There are strict rules about food sharing and marriage in the caste system which also ensure the maintenance of social distance among classes. Untouchability is relative to one’s caste position, for e.g. the Shudras treat the Dalits as untouchables, however at the same time, they themselves are treated as untouchables by the other higher castes. There are three dimensions of untouchability, which are exclusion, subordination, and humiliation. Here it is important to note that while other lower castes also face subordination and exclusion, humiliation, however, is specific to the Dalits
We find that Dalit is discriminated on various grounds, they are not allowed into the same temples like those of the higher castes, they are also not allowed in the same schools like that of the higher castes, further separate wells, etc.
There have been various changes that have come about in the position of Dalits today and they can be traced back to the various movements like Dalit Panther movement in the 1970s in Maharashtra which played the major role in popularizing the term ‘Dalit’.
There has also been an increasing representation of the Dalits as has been seen in the case of Uttar Pradesh, where the Bahujan Samaj Party has come forth for the representation of the Dalits and their upliftment.
We see that today untouchability is observed more prominently at the rural level as opposed to the urban areas and even though many Dalits have left the traditional occupations there are many who are still carry out these occupations.
ncert- Indian society– patterns of inequality and exclusion- chapter 5