Untouchability is another major problem of Rural India. It is basically a rural problem. Its seeds are only found in rural soils. Untouchability is an ancient concept traditionally. Indian society was broadly divided into four groups such as Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra. In the caste hierarchy the lowest place was given to the Sudras and they were regarded as untouchables by the rest members of Hindu Caste.
Mahatma Gandhi, the father of nation, says “Untouchability is the hate fullest expression of Caste System and it is a crime against God and man”. Further he lovingly called the untouchables as Harijan means the people of God.
Since untouchability is a very old concept, therefore, the untouchables were identified by the different names in different periods. In Vedic period, they were known as ‘Chandala’. In Medieval age, they were addressed as ‘Achhuta’. In the British period, they were known as ‘Exterior Caste’. In the present time, they were generally known as the ‘Scheduled Caste’ by the Indian Constitution.
Though the untouchables are theoretically considered as a part of Varna organisation, they are closely linked with the Hindu Social Life. The presence of untouchables is very indispensable for the smooth functioning of Hindu Society because they perform certain polluting occupations like scavenging, removal of the dead cattle and so on.
It is extremely difficult to define untouchability. Therefore, it is usually defined in terms of disabilities suffered by those who are considered to be the untouchables. Thus it may be said that suffering from all kinds of disabilities is the sign of untouchability. Vradharita Smiriti says that persons belonging to different Non-Vedic religions or semi-religions sects are to be treated as untouchables.
According to Manu Smritis, the people who follow the lowest kind of occupations include scavenging, leather work, removal of the carrion etc, are to be regarded as untouchables.
G.S.Ghurye defines Untouchability as “ideas of purity whether occupational of ceremonial or ceremonial, which are found to have been a practice of untouchability.
According to Dr.D.N.Majumdar “Untouchables castes are those who suffer from various social and political disabilities many of which are traditionally prescribed and socially enforced by higher castes.”
Thus, untouchables are those castes which are subject to all kinds of disabilities in every walk of life such as social, economic, religious and political in other words, the persons who have no right to enjoy any privilege, who do not touch the shadow of higher caste, who follow the lowest kind of occupations, who have occupied the lowest place in the caste hierarchy and deprived from all sorts of things are called to be the untouchables.
Disabilities of Untouchables:
1) Social Disabilities:
From the social point of view, the untouchables suffered following disabilities.
i) Lower Social Status:
Since social status was fixed for different castes, therefore, the untouchability was placed at the lowest place in the caste hierarchy and enjoys lowest status in the society. Their social status was just like a golden zero. Moreover, they were considered as the symbol of pollution by the higher caste people. Consequently, the untouchables are deprived of all kind of commercial contacts.
ii) Educational disabilities:
Traditionally, the untouchables were forbidden from receiving any education. They were not entitled to acquire the knowledge of Vedas. Even if they were not permitted to touch the religious books. The untouchables were not allowed to get education from the public institution. Only recently they have given educational facilities.
iii) Disabilities relating to Social habits:
Till recently, the untouchables are faced many problems in various social habits like food, drink and social intercourse. They are not permitted to take food or drink from the house of high caste people. They are eating only ‘Kachha’ foods which are prepared by the ordinary things. In the social intercourse, they are also faced the same problem.
iv) Prohibition in the use of public places:
In fact, the untouchables were not allowed to use village wells, ponds, public hospitals, roads and so on. They were not permitted to live in those places where the higher caste people reside. The untouchables were forced to live in the worst type of village slums. Moreover, they were leading a life just like the domestic animals.
2) Economic disabilities:
Economically, to the position of untouchable’s castes was very pitiable. They were deprived from all kinds of economic privileges in the society following are the main economic disabilities of untouchables.
i) No right to property:
Traditionally, the untouchables were not allowed to have any land or property of their own. They were prevented from entering in various types of enterprises. They were not permitted to acquire wealth or to buy land in village. Even if, the untouchables have no right to sell their landed property to any one. Moreover, they were deprived from all sorts of right to property.
ii) No right to choose occupation:
In the past, the untouchables were not allowed to engage themselves in occupations which were reserved fro the members of higher castes. They were compelled to struck to their traditional occupations. They were largely engaged in agricultural and other associated works as wage-earners. The untouchables were traditionally associated with such lower occupations like scavenging, leather works, basket making and so on.
Though generation to generation, they lived with half-belly with no hope of getting some tasty foods. Even now their position is not very much different from what it had been. Most of them are still far below the poverty line.
iii) Landless laborer:
The untouchables were traditionally known as landless laborers because they have no land in the village. They were leading a landless laborer life. Before the abolition of zamidari system, their primary duty was to work for a landlord without any remuneration. Thus their position was just like a slave and in certain circumstances worst than a slave. In this context, Gandhiji has said that, “the untouchables performed the most essential service of society yet at the same time they were the lowest paid ones. Only such amount of wages is given to them that are necessary to unite, their cursed soul and their physical frames.
3) Religious disabilities:
Though, the untouchables are known as the Hindus by religion, yet they were not permitted to enter into the Hindu temple and pilgrimages nor were they allowed to use public bathing Ghats. The untouchables were not allowed to study religious books. They were also deprived from the Jajman of Brahmin priests. For example, a Brahmin never accepts to perform the religious ceremony of an untouchable. Only recently, efforts have been made by the Government for removing these religious disabilities by legislators.
4) Political disabilities:
In the past, the untouchables were also deprived from all kinds of political privileges. They were not allowed to participate in political administration and general election of the traditional India. They were also not permitted to hold any public post. Only during the British rule, they for the first time got the right to vote.
But, now-a-days, they have enjoy maximum political rights on the ground that some seats in Parliament and State Assemblies are reserved constitutionally for them, but it is doubtful, weather they can properly utilise this political rights without their economic development. It means without their economic improvement, they cannot utilise the political rights which they have got.