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Social and political Values and Systems in India.

Untouchables before independence


 Who were Untochables before Independence?

 Untouchables had been described as “The oppressed of the oppressed and lowest of the low”, who had been treated as lesser human beings by the society. Usually people, who belonged to lower strata of Hindu community, were also known as Shudras, Outcastes or Panchamas.

Shudras – Existence of Shudras (at present referred as untouchables/Dalits) was recognized, as early as, Pre Mauryan Period (6th century BC to 3rd century BC). Though given a lower status, they were always an integral part of Hindu society. In the Northern and Eastern parts of India, they were very much belonged to fourth Varna “Shudra”, which was divided into two parts pure or non-excluded and excluded or untouchables.Shudras were divided into two categories – touchables and untouchables.

Outcastes – Breaking the caste rules meant loss of caste, meaning complete ostracism or having no place in the society. Permanent loss of caste – out-caste- was considered to be the greatest catastrophe for an individual, short of death penalty. By the beginning of Christian era, the out-castes themselves developed caste hierarchy and had their own out-castes.

Panchamas – In Western and Southern parts of India, they were known as Panchamas as they were kept outside the four Varnas.

However, after Independence, Constitution of India has abolished untouchability. It gave to all its citizens of India equal status.

Position of lower castes in ancient India

In ancient India, conquered groups/individuals, or groups engaged in menial/ unsavoury/unhygenic tasks/occupations, groups engaged in anti-social activiuties or persons born illegitimately were treated as Shudras.

Shudras performed essential social and economic tasks as well as worked in agricultural sector. Segregation of lower castes in Hindu society was not based on economic status or their incapability to do any intellectual work, but on cultural grounds like their unclean living, indisciplined life-style or speaking foul and abusive language etc.

All of the social groups living in a local area, whether high or low, were placed more or less as a series of vertical parallels. They were bound together by economic and social ties and had a strong bond of mutual dependence. They cared and supported each other in fulfilling different kind of their needs. Socially, Shudras were supposed to do all sorts of menial work and serving the upper castes of the three Varnas.

Respect to a person or group was never given on the basis of material success or control of power. There was hardly any room for any section of society to consider itself, as being placed in greater or lesser disadvantageous position with reference to another. Concept of forwards or backwards or feeling of exploitation of lower strata by upper castes was almost non-existent at that time. Many studies have shown that Hindu system always kept masses reconciled, if not contended in the past. Hindu Dharma taught the people that instead of holding others responsible, for all their sufferings, exploitation and miseries it was their own “Adharma” (immoral behavior), “Alasya” (laziness) and Agyan (ignorance) which were to be blamed.

The lower status never prevented Shudras or others to rise in the scale of society or to earn respect of the society. In many parts of the country, people belonging to lower strata held position of power/superior status or earned respect of Hindu society. Many warrior kings of Shudra and tribal origin sought Brahmins’ help to acquire Kshatriyas status for themselves. Many Shudras were accepted and revered as philosophers or spiritual teachers.

Untouchables during medivial period

All troubles of lower strata of society started after the downfall of Hindu Raj and old Hindus values. Continuous invasions by Turks, Afghans and Mughals who earlier drained out the wealth of the nation to foreign lands and afterwards made India their homeland and ruled the country for centuries. Feudalistic attitude, extravagance and luxurious life style of rulers and those at the helm of authority, increased the disparity between the rulers and the ruled. It was not so much out of malice, but the circumstances, which has pushed Shudras away from the mainstream.

The low status and sufferings of Shudras or their exclusion from the mainstream for centuries has gradually stopped growth of their personality and made them completely dependent on others for their livelihood. Centuries old enslavement, ignorance, suppression and ostracism shook their confidence, deteriorated severely their condition and made them to suffer inhuman treatment by other sections of the society.

Untouchables of modern India before Independence 

The attention of Indian society towards the miseries of untouchables was drawn way back during second half of the nineteenth century with the introduction of modern education. It opened up the doors of knowledge and widened the mental horizons of Indian intelligentsia and gave Indians the understanding of liberal and humanitarian ideas thought of Western World. It had also highlighted the weaknesses, rigidity and harshness of society towards the weaker sections of the society. It had attracted the attention of the people towards social evils, that had developed in the system.

Reformers, humanitarians and intellectuals took upon themselves the responsibility to build a modern, open, plural, culturally rich, prosperous and powerful India out of a fragmented, poverty stricken, superstitious, weak, indifferent, backward and inward looking society. Many reformatory efforts were done to uplift the backward groups of Indian society, especially ‘untouchables’. Later on, it turned into seeking state intervention and generating the idea of paying special attention to untouchables.

During this period, the attention of humanitarians and reformers was also drawn towards the pathetic condition of untouchables. They took the path of Sankritisation to elevate them. In order to prevent alienation of untouchables from Hindu community, they drew the attention of forward communities towards inhuman condition of lower strata of society and tried to create compassion in their hearts for downtrodden. Gandhiji tried to create compassion in the hearts of forward communities for Harijans and on the other he appealed to Harijans to observe cleaner habits, so that they could mix up freely with other sections of society.

Gandhiji and his followers called them Harijans meaning the “people belonging to god”. However, Dalit leaders did not like the word Harijan as it symbolized a meek and helpless person, at the mercy and benevolence of others, and not the proud and independent human being that they were.

Political color to untouchability

By the end of the 19th century, it turned into a political movement. During the nineteenth Century, in official circles lower castes were addressed as ‘Depressed class’ or ‘Exterior class’. British government in India regarded these people as ‘Oppressed of the oppressed and lowest of the low’. Missionaries were trying to convert this section of society into Christianity. British rulers passed many Legislative regulations and administrative orders and declared denial of access to untouchables to schools, well, roads and public places as illegal.

Earlier non-Brahmins of South India initiated a movement, which had economic and social thrusts. It demanded education and land for backwards and freedom from caste rigidities. For a very long time, untouchable activities were combined with the intermediate castes’ non- Brahmin movement.

Some economically strong but educationally backward non-Brahmins groups resisted the hold of Brahmins on land, wealth, education and jobs in government. Access of modern education to all and spree of Reform Movements of early 19th century led anti-Brahmin currents to gain momentum.

 Non-Brahmin leaders, supported by other backward communities – Muslims, Indian Christians, untouchables and tribals, desired to secure a place for themselves in modern callings, to obtain legal rights and position of power through government’s intervention. They succeeded in fixing up quotas for them in the state Government jobs. From Government jobs, it spread to educational field too, in order to prepare non-Brahmins for Government jobs.

Census of 1911 and untouchables

Around 1909, for the first time, the lowest strata of non-Brahmin Community or the service class, earlier known as Shudras, was conceptualized politically under the name of untouchables, when the Census Commissioner suggested to exclude untouchables (comprising of about 24% of the Hindu Population and 16% of the total population at that time) from Hindu fold for forthcoming 1911 Census.

The proposal had divided non-Brahmin Community into two Backwards and untouchables. Also, it had immediately increased the importance of untouchables in political circle, in social circle, and in their own eyes too. It had also made numbers important in taking political decisions.

The suggestion to exclude untouchables from Hindu population was not acceptable to prominent National Hindu leaders at any cost, for whom continuous decline of the number of Hindu population had already been a matter of concern. Granting special electorate to Muslims had already weakened the National movement of Independence. They were concerned that such a proposal was made intentionally to divide Indians.

Independent movement of untouchables

By 1909, the lowest strata of Indian society came to be known as untouchabes. That was a crucial point. From now onwards, all these developments inspired untouchables to enter into the political arena under the name of “depressed class” and desired to a share in political power separately in India. The whole of 20th century, especially the first and last two decades have been especially important for political empowerment of Untouchables.

The attempt of British rulers in 1911 to exclude untouchables from Hindu population and continuous decline of number of Hindus cautioned the national leaders. They gave top most priority to the abolition of untouchability. They tried to clarify that Untouchability was neither an integral part of Hinduism nor an outcome of Varna/caste system, nor have any religious sanctity, but an external impurity and sinful blot on Hinduism. They laid emphasis on education, moral regeneration and philanthropic uplift. They also appealed to untouchables to observe cleaner habits, so that they could mix up with other sections freely, retain their Hindu identity and become proud and independent human beings, that they were.

Under Ambedkar’s leadership

Emergence of Dr. Ambedkar on the political scene provided the leadership and stimulus to untouchable movement. He insisted to address untouchables just as untouchables. He regarded the terms ‘Depressed classes’, ‘Dalits’, ‘Harijans’ either confusing or degrading and contemptuous. Dr. Ambedkar made it abundantly clear, ‘It was through political power that untouchables were to find their solution, not through acceptance by Hindus’. He gave untouchable movement a national character and a distinct identity during late twenties and early thirties.

Other prominent leaders of untouchables like Mahatma Phule, Ambedkar or Gopal Ganesh vehemently criticized Hindu hierarchical structure and regarded untouchability as an inevitable concomitant of Varna/caste system. They taught the lower castes to get united and make eradication of caste system their major plank as it engaged them to forced labor or unsavory jobs, imposed many restrictions on them and prevented them from joining the mainstream of the society. According to them, Hindus treated lower castes as lesser human beings, meek and helpless persons, who should always remain at the mercy and benevolence of upper castes. They tried to find the solution of their problems through political power, not through acceptance by Hindus.

By 1920’s, numerous caste organizations, specially in the South and West, organized themselves into larger collectiveness by keeping contacts and alliances with their counterparts at other places; formed associations and federations at local and regional levels and emerged as a powerful political force. Together, they demanded special legal protection and share in politics and administration on the basis of caste.

In 1928, Simon Commission established their separate identity at national level, independent of intermediate castes as untouchables. It readily accepted their demands through Communal Award of 1932. Gandhiji along with other National leaders regarded it as the Unkindest cut of all”, which would create a permanent split in Hindu Society, perpetuate casteism and make impossible the assimilation of untouchables in mainstream. Dr. Rajendra Prasad said, The principle of dividing population into communal groups, which had been adopted in the Minto Morely Reforms, had been considerably extended, even beyond what had been done by Montagu Chelmsford Reforms….The electorate in 1919 was broken up into ten parts, now it is fragmented into seventeen unequal bits… Giving separate representations to Schedule Castes further weakened Hindu community… The British introduced every possible cross-division.

Use of the term ‘Scheduled Castes’ for untouchables

In accordance with the provisions of the Communal Award of 1932, instructions were issued, in July 1934, to schedule a list of the people entitled for preferential treatment in matter of special electoral representation and appointment in the Central Government jobs. This gave birth to the term Scheduled Caste in 1935. Scheduling was a legal activity having sanction of legal authorities. Therefore, no one had any objection to this term.

The term “scheduled castes’ continued after the independence for the purpose of Reservation. It is being used for the lower strata of society, who could not benefit from the newer opportunities in matter of education, occupations and economic development.


All the reformatory, social and political efforts done before independence bore fruits only after India got Independence. Preamble of the Indian Constitution promises to secure to all its citizens: JUSTICE, social, economic and political; LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; EQUALITY of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation. Article 15 of the Constitution prohibits any kind of discrimination on grounds of caste, race, religion, gender or place of birth; Article 16 gives equality of opportunity in matter of public employment, Article 338 creates National commission for scheduled castes to lookafter their interests and give them full protection under law.

Some time  and somewhere the movement to uplift the submerged section of scheduled castes seems to have got derailed. Only the well-intended provisions of the constitution needs to be implemented judiciously for the benefit of not only the really submerged sections, but of the Indian society as a whole. 


September 28, 2010 - Posted by | Reservation/Affirmative action program |


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