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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 change of customs enforced by a certain group. This exclusion was a method of punishing law-breakers and also protected traditional societies against contagion from strangers and the infected. A member of the excluded group is known as an Untouchable.
According to 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). The term is commonly associated with treatment of the Dalit communities, who are considered "polluting" among the people of South Asia, 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. However Hinduism has no clear position on untouchability. The Bhagavad Gita, a central text in Hinduism, often challenged the caste system, stating for example that ‘The wise looks with an equal eye upon a noble brahmin, a cow, an elephant, a dog and an outcast (chandala)’.
Untouchability has been made illegal in post-independence India, and Dalits substantially empowered, although some prejudice against them continues.
Diverse ethnicities population in South Asia
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 (This is diminishing these days)
- 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"
Government action in India
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.
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- Cagots in France and Spain
- Dalit in South Asia
- Burakumin in Japan
- Baekjeong in Korea
- Gypsies 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
- "Top RSS leader misquotes Ambedkar on untouchability".
- Peter Berger, Frank Heidemann. The Modern Anthropology of India: Ethnography, Themes and Theory. Routledge. p. 164.
- 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
- "Lord Vithoba temple makes history by having women and lower-caste priests". IANS. news.biharprabha.com. Retrieved 9 May 2014.