Is There Still Untouchability in India?

  • Robert Deliège (Author)

Identifiers (Article)


Untouchability has always been a key problem of Indian anthropology; but like many other issues, it has been treated as an abstract concept that existed outside time. The first theoreticians of caste had no first-hand knowledge of Untouchables, and tended to base their theories on sacred Hindu texts that had little to do with contemporary life. They stressed the integration of Untouchables into Indian society. Later on, the first village studies concentrated on multi-caste settlements and approached the Untouchables’ reality in the presence of high-caste villagers. They were again biased towards a harmonious view of the problem. Srinivas himself was honest enough to recognize that his knowledge of the Untouchables was on the whole unsatisfactory: “Though I knew several Muslims and Harijans well, I did not know these two sections of village society as intimately as I wanted to. I would have obtained a new angle on the village if I had spent more time in their areas”. Those first ethnographers largely confirmed the views of the theoreticians of castes and Sanskritists, who emphasized the rather harmonious character of village society and the perfect integration of Untouchables into the social organization. Then came a new generation of scholars, who studied the Untouchables for themselves. In a famous study, Moffatt made an important – though largely unnoticed – point: he notices that these scholars were on the whole quite sympathetic to the Untouchables and wished to emphasize the distance between the latter and the rest of society. Psychologically, this is quite understandable. Researchers wish to show that their study has contributed something new, and, in this particular case, they set up what Moffatt calls “models of separation,” in other words models that implied a great distance between Untouchables and the rest of society. There was thus a tendency to foreground the persistence of discrimination. This was particularly true of studies led by Westerners, since Indian anthropologists were much more preoccupied with social change and the way untouchability was – slowly but surely – disappearing. Unfortunately, the numerous studies entitled Social Change in India did not always match what one could expect from modern anthropological research, and they tended to be neglected in a debate that, in the West, remained largely dominated by structuralist considerations, caring little about social change. Yet, those studies made some important points: they assumed firstly that Indian society was changing, and secondly, in a very post-Independence fashion, that untouchability had to disappear sooner or later. As I said, the problem of those studies was that they often relied upon inadequate evidence, very often tables compiled from a simple, even a simplistic, questionnaire. That is perhaps one of the reasons that explain their lack of impact. Yet, their assumptions were right, as they were concerned with a changing reality. Having devoted a great deal of my time to the study of Untouchables, I now think it is time to stop considering things as if caste and untouchability were unchanging institutions. For instance, it seems pretty obvious to me that social realities are no longer what they were (or what they were supposed to have been): high castes have changed, Untouchables have changed, the society at large has changed and castes, in particular, have also changed. I would go further, and claim that, fifty years after Independence, Indian Untouchables have come a long way and made remarkable progress. True enough, the vast majority of them remain poor; but poverty is an economic, not a caste, condition. The problem of poverty in India cannot be reduced to caste and one finds poor people basically in all caste groups: according to the various estimates, between 30 and 60 per cent of the Indian population live under the so-called “poverty line,” whereas Untouchables are only 15 per cent. In any case, the question of ritual pollution no longer plays a major role in maintaining them at the bottom of society. Finally they form less than ever a homogeneous social category: owing to the state’s protective measures, but also to their own dynamism and courage, many among them have climbed the social ladder. The fact remains that caste tends to play a growing role in contemporary India. However, this situation is perhaps less the continuity of tradition than a recent outcome linked to the post-Independence situation. In modern India, it is not relative purity that lies at the basis of caste struggles. Castes now fight because they have to compete for limited economic and political resources. This is also true of Untouchables, who may become a major force within Indian politics.


India; Political Science; Untouchability; Caste System; Dalits