Untouchability is the low status of certain social groups confined to menial and despised jobs. It is usually associated with the Hindu caste system, but similar groups exist outside Hinduism, for example the Burakumin in Japan and Hutu and Twa of Rwanda. At the beginning of the twenty-first century there were over 160 million untouchables on the Indian subcontinent.
The sacred books of the Hindus contain no uniform or consistent account of the origin of castes, but offer mystical, mythical, and rationalistic explanations of it, or fanciful conjecture concerning it.
The earliest of the Hindu Books, written by scholars (10.90.11-12), describes a society divided into four varnas ("colors" or castes): Brahmin (poet-priest), Kshatriya (warrior-chief), Vaishya (traders), and Shudras (menials, servants). The four basic divisions of society had their roots in the Vedic era (1500-800 BCE) and assumed definitive form by the sixth century BCE. The idea is further developed in the Laws of Manu (200 BCE-200 CE). The first three varnas are known as the twice-born, all of whom undergo a ceremony in their youth admitting them into high status.
The varna caste division excluded the Untouchables, who were and are below the Shudras in any ranking, despised because they engaged in occupations that were considered unclean and polluting. Untouchable castes became a category as avarnas, without varna, probably sometime after the fourth century CE. The untouchables (ćaṇḍālas) are mentioned in the Upanishads and early Buddhist literature, as a "fifth caste" resulting from the polluting contact of Shudra males and Brahmana females.
Parallel to the varnas and outside scripture were jatis, meaning "by birth" and also translated as castes. A jati is an endogamous group, sharing many customs and often an occupation, usually based in one language area. There were hundreds of jatis within each varna, and while untouchables were avarna, without varna, they were members of specific jatis. Jatis were a pre-Aryan social division of society which, by being grafted on to the Aryan concept of social order (varna), has acquired Brahmanical sanction.
The varna model of social ranking persisted throughout the Hindu subcontinent for over millennia. Beliefs about pollution generally regulated all relations between castes. Members were not allowed to marry outside their caste; there were strict rules about the kind of food and drink one could accept and from what castes; and there were restrictions on approaching and visiting members of another caste. Violations of these rules entailed purificatory rites and sometimes expulsion from the caste. This hierarchical society was justified with traditional Hindu religious beliefs about samsara (reincarnation) and karma (quality of actions). A person's position in this life was determined by his or her actions in previous lives. Persons who were born in a Brahman family must have performed good deeds in their earlier lives. Being born a Shudra or an Untouchable was punishment for the sinful acts committed in previous lives.
Untouchables were confined to menial, despised jobs, working as sweepers, gutter and latrine cleaners, scavengers, watchmen, farm laborers, rearers of unclean animals such as pigs, and curers of hides. They were denied access to Hindu temples, were not allowed to read religious Sanskrit books and remained illiterate, could not use village wells and tanks, were forced to live in settlements outside the village, and were forbidden to enter the residential areas of the upper castes. Burning ghat workers and executioners are two of the occupations still considered most polluting. The seventh century Chinese traveler Xuanzang listed butchers, fishermen, public performers, executioners, and scavengers as marked castes living outside the city. Anything to do with a dead cow or its hide is the work only of untouchables. A caste of drummers in the south known as the Parayan contributed the word pariah (outcaste) to English. In this case, the drumhead made of hide is polluting.
For most Indians, especially those who live in rural areas (73% of the Indian population is still rural), caste factors are an integral part of their daily lives. In many parts of the country Untouchables are not allowed inside temples and cannot use village water wells. Marriages are generally arranged between persons of the same caste. Deferential bodily movements and speech patterns in the presence of members of the upper castes have governed the appropriate conduct of untouchables in public, and have frequently forbidden them the use of various markers of honor and status, from modes of transport such as elephants, horses, and palanquins to apparel and accessories such as upper-body garments, turbans, and shoes.
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Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the British began recording and codifying caste, and more untouchable castes based usually on occupation emerged: Bhangis or removers of human waste in the north; Doms, the caretakers of the extensive burning grounds in the holy city of Benaras (Varanasi); Dhobis, laundrymen who handle polluted clothing; Mahar and Chamar. However, occupation is not always a reliable guide. Laundrymen (Dhobis) and barbers may be untouchables in certain areas of the north but not in the state of Maharashtra.
In 1935, the new term "scheduled castes", those on a list or schedule, was applied to 429 castes. By 1993 the number had grown to 4,635, including subcastes and small castes. Harijan ("children of God", a term coined by Gandhi) became the most popular word for the general public, replacing the terms "depressed classes", "exterior castes", "outcastes", and "untouchables".
The British granted special political representation to the Untouchables, who had become politically mobilized under the leadership of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. Ambedkar, a convert from Hinduism to Buddhism, held that the Untouchables had been Buddhists isolated and despised when Brahmanism became dominant about the fourth century. While Ambedkar pursued legal and political means of securing Untouchable's rights, Gandhi opposed those measures as too divisive, condemning untouchability without renouncing the varna concept of caste.
After India became independent from British rule in 1947, a new Constitution was adopted, which abolished untouchability and prohibited discrimination in public places. In addition, special places were reserved for Untouchables in higher educational institutions, government services, and in the lower houses of the central and state legislatures. A small proportion of Untouchables have managed to gain entry into the middle class as school teachers, clerks, bank tellers, typists, and government officials. However, most politicians belonging to the Untouchable community have little say in party matters and government policymaking. The majority of Untouchables remain landless agricultural laborers, powerless, desperately poor, and illiterate.
Since the 1970s, the name Dalit ("ground down", "broken up", as in the title "Broken People") has replaced the words "untouchable" and "harijan" in most public pronouncements and the press. Young men who called themselves Dalit Panthers in imitation of the Black Panthers in the United States are no longer active.
Other oppressed castes, who belong mainly to the Shudra caste and form about 50% of the country's population, have demanded from the government benefits similar to those available to Dalits in government service and educational institutions, leading to discontent among the upper castes.
A Dalit political party, the Bahujan Samaj Party ("party of the majority"), founded in 1984 by Kanshi Ram, an untouchable Sikh, is particularly strong in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh where they received 20.61% of the votes in the 1996 general elections. Mayawati, a Chamar woman, served three terms as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. However, at the national level, the party has captured only 11 seats (3.64% of the votes) in the 1996 general elections.
In the 1990s there were numerous instances of violence between the middle peasant castes and Dalits in rural areas.
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The worship and festivals of the lower castes, including untouchables, emphasize the use of blood sacrifice, liquor, possession, and various forms of bodily chastisements and self-inflicted tortures. The untouchables who became Sikh have created specific faiths that combine Sikhism with popular practices of Hinduism and Islam. Indian Islam refers not so much to the varna distinctions of caste Hinduism, as to the social separation between ashraf (well-born) and adjlaf (low-born) Muslims. High and low Muslims might worship together in the mosque, but in relations of marriage, commensality, and occupation they remain separate. The Roman Catholic Church, with an extensive membership in southern India, has historically tolerated caste divisions, and has traditionally provided entirely separate or spatially segregated services for their higher and lower caste constituents. Protestant churches in South Asia have opposed caste, but the taint of impurity and its attendant discrimination have clung to their untouchable members.
- Cagots in France and Spain
- Dalit in South Asia
- Burakumin in Japan
- Baekjeong in Korea
- Romani in Europe
- 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 Zhejiang, jiuxing yumin 九姓魚民 jiǔxìng yúmín ("nine name fishermen") in the Yangzi River region, yoh-hu ("music people") in Shanxi in China
- Osus in Nigeria and Cameroon
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- Eleanor Zelliot (2005), "UNTOUCHABILITY", in Maryanne Cline Horowitz, New Dictionary of the History of Ideas, 6, Thomson Gale, pp. 2394–2397, ISBN 0-684-31383-9
- Saurabh Dube (2005), "UNTOUCHABLES, RELIGIONS OF", in Lindsay Jones, Encyclopedia of Religion, 14 (2nd ed.), Thomson Gale, pp. 9474–9478, ISBN 0-02-865983-X
- Alf Hiltebeitel (2005), "HINDUISM", in Lindsay Jones, Encyclopedia of Religion, 6 (2nd ed.), Thomson Gale, pp. 3988–4009, ISBN 0-02-865739-X
- John McClintock; James Strong, eds. (1891), "Indian Caste", Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, 4, Harper & Brothers, pp. 556–558
- J. Burton-Page (1986), "HINDŪ", The Encyclopaedia of Islam, 3 (2nd ed.), Brill, pp. 458b–459b, ISBN 90-04-08118-6