A History of Manhandling Trauma: Reading Ambedkar's "Untouchables or The Children of India's Ghetto"

Kallol Biswas

"Untouchables or The Children of India's Ghetto" was written by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in 1935. It was first published on the 8th of August, 1935. The text is about the most controversial subject in the history of politics called 'Untouchability'. There are four parts in this book, with as many as fourteen chapters in total, over the course of which, Ambedkar talks about the cast system and Untouchables and their lives in a ghetto.

As the world ages, mankind takes civilization to its peak with the same prejudiced mentality that used to prevail in ancient times. With an arrogance-infested population, the Indian society has been unable to overcome the curse of superstition and irrationality till date. It is the oppression plaguing the Untouchables alongside several other marginalised communities even after over seven decades years of political independence that debars the country from making any true progress, where every individual’s right to live as a socially-abled human being can be realised.

(In pic: Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and Savita Ambedkar among the activists of Scheduled Caste Federation. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons) However, it must be noted that untouchability is not only prevalent in Hindu society, but has existed even in Judaism and like the Hindus, the Jews do not acknowledge it. In fact, the Jews and the Gentiles were called to several conventions in the past to address the issue of Untouchability, where the latter attempted to point out the reasons for their beliefs. The Hindus, on the other hand, never understood this responsibility of justifying their dealings with the Untouchables, explaining why they are treated so poorly or are so neglected, abused, oppressed in the society.

Before one begins talking about the untouchable, one should know the number of people who are considered untouchable in the country. Untouchables were categorized in the census of 1888 and 9, reported by Hindus belong to the upper castes. This census had many drawbacks because the upper-caste Hindus had made census on a religious, social, economic basis and consequently had vested interests in doing so.

On the other hand, the 1911 census was based on ten principles. Under these tests, the Census Superintendents made a separate enumeration of castes and tribes who “(1) denied the supremacy of the Brahmins; (2) did not receive the Mantra from Brahmana or other recognized Hindu Guru; (3) denied the authority of the Vedas; (4) did not worship the great Hindu Gods; (5) were not served by good Brahmanas; (6) had no Brahmin; priests at all; (7) were not allowed entry to the ordinary Hindu temples; (8) cause pollution; (9) bury their dead and (10) eat beef and do not reverence the cow” (Ambedkar 4). The census was conducted several times between 1921 and 1931, including the Census of 1931 which the Simon Commission had made its reports on. Thus, it was found that there was a mention of a total of 44.5 million Untouchables in British India. According to the census report of 1951, the total population of Scheduled Castes in India had then been 513 lakhs.

The world has a history of oppressive regimes and enslavement of people of certain races and religions, be it in the ancient Roman society, or the American. In the Roman Empire, the term slavery referred to a particular profession, a specific social status. In America, there have been two types of slavery – first, the White slave, and second, the Negro slave, who worked under the White slaves as intelligent craftsmen. Thus, it would not be entirely wrong to compare the condition of the Untouchables of India with the slaves of the Roman Empire. Neither slavery nor untouchability can be a part of a healthy social order. However, the slaves in question had been slightly better off than the Untouchables in religious and social terms. The slaves had the right to enter into the higher artistic, social and religious spheres, but the Untouchables could not even ask for freedom, having to bear the brunt of all the disadvantages of the Indian society.

To understand the true position of the Untouchable communities in the country, it is necessary to go to the villages or neighbourhoods inhabited by at least a handful of untouchables. Since time immemorial, it has been observed that during every revolution that took place in such villages, the Hindus, the Pathans, the Marathas, and the Sikhs had fought unitedly, yet returned to their original professions once the revolution succeeded. But often, the subject of their violence turned out to be the Untouchables. In addition to this, since the Hindu society had never been a single social unit, it was was divided into two broad groups of castes – the Touchable, and the Untouchable.

The Touchables belonged to the main, hardly-discriminated-against community and lived within the territory of the village because they were economically affluent. On the other hand, Untouchables were not to live inside the village because they belonged to one of the lowest rungs within the caste system. In every society, there were certain rules that the untouchables were forced to observe. Untouchability was practised almost everywhere in the country, with extreme severity specifically in southern India, where people would follow the rules of purity and pollution, with utmost caution: theses communities were not allowed to wear clean clothes and shoes, or sit on a chair in front of the upper-caste Hindus, deeming it to be a heinous crime. Even wearing pieces of jewellery made of gold and silver were not allowed for them and special types of clothing were required so that members of other castes could recognize them. Neither were they allowed to celebrate any festival. One of the most terrible rules was that untouchable women should be submitted to members of the rural community so that they could be subjected to indecent jokes.

Despite all such tortures that they had to face, it was only the Untouchables who were blamed for most of the crimes committed, in addition to which they were not allowed any fair trial. During the Raj, the British government also carried out various atrocities against them. For instance, the village untouchables had no land rights and could live only as poor peasants because the legal systems had not given them the right to own land. They earned their wages by cultivating the land of other villagers.

At the end of the agricultural season, the Untouchables were not given any employment rights and were not even allowed to cut grass and collect wood from public forests. India under the British rule still harboured thoughts like nothing could be any shameful act other than providing them with any sort of employment. The only kind they were believed to be fit for was begging. No matter how educated they were, they were always considered illiterate before the upper-class. As everyone’s caste identity has always been birth-based, people born to the Untouchables remained so throughout their lives, forever deprived of their rights. This gives a picture of the inner workings of a colonial Indian village which rarely had place for equality, brotherhood, tolerance of people holding different views, and for those who were deprived of their right to liberty simply because of their caste identity.

According to one of the many Hindu mythologies, God created life on earth to show his Lila. The story reveals that He created the Brahmin from His mouth for the prosperity of the universe, the Kshatriya from His arms, Vaishya from His thighs and finally Shudra from His legs. God It was believed that the Brahmins were made to study and establish authority over the other three castes, to protect everyone from the wars waged by the Kshatriyas, and The Vaishyas to care for the cattle, to trade, and to give gifts. The only profession that God left for the Shudras was to serve the patients of the other three castes. Because of such narratives, the upper part of the human body (until the navel) was considered more sacred than the lower part, and thus, the Brahmins, given where they were created from were supposed to hold the greatest power among all others. And since the Shudras came from the legs, they were regarded as the lowest caste. The former claimed that the Brahmins were born as the lords of the earth and that whatever was on earth had to be their property and that a Brahmin should not live in a country where they would be surrounded by the Shudras and the Untouchables. The Brahmins yielded power to appoint a Kshatriya a king, a Vaishya to trade and a Shudra serve the other three caste castes. This shows that the Brahmins were supposed to assume a status of pure paramountcy where they were even above the king. The narrative of the Hindu caste system had always been a product of the Brahmin’s thoughts and narratives. They decided the laws of the caste system and thereby regulated the workings of the society, prohibited inter-caste marriage and prevented every kind of upward mobility of the members via marriage or merit.

Later on, the Brahmo Samaj established the Brahmins’ authority and sovereignty over the other castes that allowed them to dominate further in the name of God, and thus cast a dark shadow over the Untouchables by the Brahmo Samaj made various laws not only to establish their sovereignty.

In the past, many have wanted to come forward to address this caste system. They propounded that since the Untouchables were outside the caste system, it might be possible to eliminate the practice without having to touch the caste system. However, Manu Smriti mentions only four castes and not the five. The Untouchables were essentially meant to be a part of the Shudras. Since there was no objection to touching the Shudras, there was no objection to touching the untouchables either. But there were three barriers to social intercourse: 1) Barriers on eating at banquets 2) Barrier on inter-caste marriage 3) Restrictions on physical touch. The first two constraints created the castes but the third paved way for Untouchability.

In British India, the Untouchables were forbidden from taking civil services examination. In court cases, they were supported by neither the upper-caste Hindu witnesses nor their own villagers. If one brought an untouchable as a witness, the magistrate would not accept his testimony. In many cases, there would rarely be a proper investigation of their allegations. The Untouchable communities had no right to defend themselves against the wrongdoings informed by caste-prejudice, with no scope of achieving justice. Even the laws in question were proposed and executed mostly by the members of upper castes, who decided if they would take into account the welfare of the Untouchables.

The problem of discrimination against the Untouchables was even worse than what ordinary people could imagine. Various restrictions had been imposed on their forms of dance, bathing habits, eating and drinking habits, and rituals for worship. For instance, the Untouchables were not allowed to eat ghee, and were not permitted to enter temples. They were not supposed to expect any help from the courts, the government, banks of cooperative societies, or even the police. Their communities were severely tortured in terms of land, credit, and employment. The upper-caste Hindus claimed that rights couldn’t be equal for everyone. As a result, the lives of the untouchables had become saturated with unemployment and oppression, while any scope for flexibility and mobility within the caste system was eliminated. For example, a doctor from an Untouchable community could only treat other Untouchables; a leader from same could not lead people from other castes or communities. The point had always been that if an Untouchable rose to the peak of success, he would always be considered inferior to the upper-caste Hindus. The discrimination against these oppressed groups of people had also been reinforced by certain loopholes in law and administration.

It is not possible for one to know if apartheid can be abolished apartheid, but one can always attempt to understand the fact that that the caste system and untouchability are two separate things based on false grounds. Here, the Brahmin is always placed at the highest level, followed by the Kshatriya, the Vaishya and finally the Shudra, which the Untouchable is merely a part of. The Brahmins would never want to remove this hierarchy because they do not upend the structure which might cause them to lose their hegemonic position, or allow the Shudras and the Untouchables to rise upward which would enable them to change their fate. However, the evil of untouchability can only be eliminated when the entire Hindu social order and thus the caste system is dissolved.

Work Cited

Ambedkar, B.R. "Untouchables or The Children of India's Ghetto." Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, vol.5, edited by Dr. P. T. Borale, Dr, B. D. Bhadke, Shri S. S. Rege, and Shri Daya Pawar, compiled by Vasant Moon, Dr. Ambedkar Foundation, 2014. pp.3-112.

Author Information

Kallol Biswas studies English literature at Presidency University, Kolkata. His interests include Dalit studies and Aerospace studies.

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