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Untouchability in Rural India

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The Constitution forbids it. The media glosses over it. Politicians pay lip service to it. The majority of the urban middle class would rather pretend that it doesn't exist. But as a result of it, Dalits, in one out of ten Indian villages, are not allowed to wear new clothes, sunglasses or chappals, or to use umbrellas and ride bicycles. According to the authors of Untouchability in Rural India, the practice of untouchability - the distinctly Indian social institution that legitimizes discrimination on caste lines - continues to thrive and be re-invented in new forms. Even as the sixtieth anniversary of Indian Independence is celebrated, Dalits or ex-untouchables, who constitute 16.2 per cent of the population (2001 Census of India), continue to be oppressed, exploited and deprived of fundamental freedoms in old and new ways. Contrary to social theories of Marxist, liberal and conservative capitalist persuasions, the advent of the market and modernisation have not ‘rationalised' Indian society and there is no correlation between economic growth and eradication of untouchability. These may appear to be loaded assertions but they are not unfounded.

Untouchability in Rural India is based on an exhaustive survey of 565 villages in 11 major Indian states. The survey findings reflect the lives and circumstances of nearly 150 million people. These findings were obtained through direct, first-hand investigations conducted by a team of over 200 fieldworkers and five key researchers, Dalit and non-Dalit. Sponsored by ActionAid, the survey was meticulously executed over a period of about 18 months between 2001 and 2002. The book is unique in its scope. It is, in fact, the first large, comprehensive quantitative survey of its kind. Previous studies on caste and untouchability including those by I.P. Desai, Michael Moffat, Louis Dumont, Barbara R. Joshi, Robert Deliege, and Dipankar Gupta, though significant, have been mostly qualitative and/or state-specific empirical studies.

The book presents the findings and related analysis in the form of five core chapters along with an introduction and conclusion. It begins with a brief discussion on the causes of untouchability: some argue that untouchability is a racial issue, others use religious theories to explain it while still others consider it is an economic issue. An overview of state provisions for the removal of untouchability and of anti-untouchability movements is also given along with the socio-economic profile of Dalits as a community.

A full chapter is devoted to the various forms and sites of untouchability in rural India today. It highlights how untouchability exists in some form or the other in more than 80 per cent of the villages under study, most extensively in personal and religious-cultural spheres and less visibly in public and political spheres. Food and water touched by Dalits is considered polluting by upper castes: Dalits are denied access to water sources in 48.2 per cent of the villages surveyed; in over 70 per cent of the villages surveyed Dalits are prohibited from inter-dining and entry into non-Dalit houses. In 64 per cent of the villages, Dalits are denied entry into common temples. Despite repeated promises from several governments since Independence, Dalits continue to carry night-soil on their head in over 25,000 Indian towns and villages. As many as 40 per cent of schools practise untouchability while serving mid-day meals, making Dalit children sit in a separate row. Even NGOs are not immune to such practices. In a country that prides in its democratic traditions, Dalits are either denied access to polling booths, or are forced to form separate lines to enter them in 12 per cent of the villages. They are prevented from entering the police stations and ration shops in more than 25 per cent of the villages surveyed.

Another core chapter, that deserves mention, focuses on Dalit women and the practice of untouchability. In this short but remarkably succinct chapter, the authors illustrate how, weighed down by the oppressive structures of caste, class and gender, rural Dalit women experience untouchability in multiple spheres and how this affects their everyday life. Women are regarded as male property and as bearers of the honour of their community. Attack on Dalits, therefore, often takes the form of physical and verbal abuse of Dalit women. Dalit women's bodies become the site on which caste violence is played out. By highlighting Dalit women's struggle to overcome such discrimination and abuse, through a series of short narratives, the authors encourage the reader to regard Dalit women not just as passive victims but also as agents of positive change.

The book under review is replete with figures. Yet figures, by themselves, do not tell the whole story. Considering that some of the best names in the field have been involved in the writing of this book, one expects to find insightful analysis of the figures thrown up by the survey. The figures suggest that, though a pan-Indian phenomenon, untouchability, its practice and magnitude, vary regionally. The authors could have delved deeper into the explanations they give for these variations. Further, they do not sufficiently explain reasons for social change. For instance, the reader learns that in 81 per cent of the villages, Dalits no longer need to seek permission to hold a marriage in their community. How and when did this change come about? What relation does it have to Dalits' seeking education and increasingly fighting for their rights? Does it have to do with growing migration of Dalits from rural to urban areas? The authors could have recorded the number of villages in which there is some sort of organised Dalit mobilisation. The study, however, makes few conclusive observations in this regard. To be fair, the authors do not claim to answer these questions through the survey. Exploring answers to these questions is, nonetheless, necessary and the findings presented in the book accentuate this need. Lastly, the study could have been considerably enriched had the authors presented the figures in a comparative time frame; figures without a historical anchor tend to remain unilluminative of change.

Untouchability in Rural India is, nevertheless, a timely contribution to writing on caste and untouchability in contemporary India given that caste has increasingly become the determining force in contemporary electoral politics (especially at the regional level) and the Bahujan Samaj Party-led Dalit movement is making rapid advances in northern India. Students and scholars of subaltern studies, political science, sociology and development in the Indian subcontinent will find this volume useful. The book's narrative-rich and accessible style would help even any layperson interested in the topic understand what life at the bottom of the caste system is about. Most importantly, analysing the phenomenon of untouchability from a Dalit perspective, the book urges the reader to question why more than half a century after the Indian state having publicly committed to the abolition of untouchability, Dalits continue to be treated like untouchables and why the Indian state never committed to the abolition of untouchability's parent institution, that is, the caste system, itself!

Radhika Govinda, PhD Candidate, University of Cambridge, email

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