The Prevalence of Untouchability in India

The Prevalence of Untouchability in India

Author: Satyarth Gurazada,
 3rd Year Law Student,
Christ University, Bangalore.


This paper deals with the question as to whether Article 17 of the Indian Constitution has truly ensured that the historical and cultural concept of untouchability has been eradicated in India. Untouchability as a concept arose during the Vedic period as part of the caste system in India and had a singular purpose which was to ensure that labour could be divided amongst the different groups in society. The caste system consisted of the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras. The untouchables were the fifth class and were given the name Harijans by Mahatma Gandhi. They used to historically do all the menial tasks in society, and it was thought that their very touch was polluted. However, when India gained Independence, they felt that they too deserve an equal place in society thus, many constitutional provisions were drafted in their favour such as Article 15, Article 17, Article 21 and many others. However, the question still remains as to whether untouchability has been abolished in our society because although numerous laws have been put in place to ensure that untouchability ceases to become a practice in the country, it is still being heavily practiced in the country especially in the rural areas of the country. This paper will address issues such as the lack of education amongst the rural population which enables them to continue pushing forward these backward ideologies that oppress the Dalit communities but will also show the other side of this discussion which is that many within the Dalit communities do benefit from the reservation system and also take advantage of their circumstance to enable them to get what seems like a head start in matters such as education and employment. Overall, how efficiently have the laws in favour of Dalits been implemented and should more be done to uplift these backward societies?


Untouchability has been a great problem ever since the dawn of mankind. It has led to great strife in the country and great division amongst the different classes of society. Untouchability was based on a very different concept as compared to the meaning that has come to becoming of it. The concept arose out of the ancient divisive Hindu system known as the caste system. It was written in the Rigveda, an ancient Hindu text that Brahma was the one who divided society into 4 main groups:
  • The priests and the ones involved in education came from the mouth
  • The warriors came from his arms
  • The traders came from his thighs
  • The workers and peasants came from his feet
The Indian society revolved around this concept and all their laws, bylaws and culture revolved around the caste system. When it came to the crimes committed by those within this society, it also revolved around the concepts of caste. Certain situations included those where if a lower caste man approached a higher caste woman, he was sentenced to death. If a lower caste man committed adultery with an upper caste woman, both the man and the woman were stripped naked and humiliated in public for their crime.

However, the whole concept of caste arose out of an idea where everyone could work at their capacity for example people who were good in business were Vaishyas and people who were well versed in the various scriptures and texts were the brahmins. However, with the passage of time the occupation became fixed and was not based on skill but on family lineage. This slowly led to division amongst the various classes in society and birthed the group known as the untouchables.

The untouchables were the most downtrodden section in the Indian social structure. They were given the most menial jobs and had to stay far away from the rest of the society where no amenities were provided to them and they also had no access to any facilities such as water pumps or land. During the British rule, a census commander known as J.H Hutton observed that the caste could not access certain wells, roads or schools. They caused pollution through touch as well as the distance they kept. They could not enter Hindu temples, nor could they get the services of certain barbers. All these examples really show how deeply rooted and ingrained the mentality of untouchability was within the heart of the Indian society.

When defining untouchability, it can be referred to as a set of practices where the majority of society engaged in the belief that they should be protected from the pollution caused by those who are deemed as inferior by the superior classes[1] The practice is still very prevalent within the Indian society especially in the rural areas due to lack of education, high levels of illiteracy and generally the backward thinking which is a part and parcel of the general societal mindset.
Hinduism has always been known as a religion associated with purity and pollution as there are so many reasons for which a person deemed to be pure must maintain his purity. Purificatory baths have always been one such method where people deemed to be pure must have a bath in the event that they get polluted by others in the society if any interaction occurs with them.[2]
Hinduism is also a religion with strong religious values thus throughout the era of purity and pollution, Brahmin priests were one of the purest members in society. This is because their job was to take care of the temples which were the abodes of the gods so in a country where the gods are held in such high esteem, the priest who maintained their place of worship were held to be pure and superior as well.

With this being said, the questions arise as to how has this situation changes after independence and has their life changed for the better?


The entire aim of the powerful castes in the Hindu religion was to enslave the Dalits and other depressed classes and to prevent them from rising above the poverty that they faced. However, it was the Christian Missionaries from the US and UK who came to India, far away from their own homes to educate and to help the Depressed classes of society as much as they could.

Their most appreciated feat was educating the Panchamas[3] of Andhra Pradesh and this is one that should not be forgotten. Due the the fact that the Christian missionaries provided aid to many depressed classes on the coast of Andhra Pradesh, every Christian locality has some level of comfort and sophistication. It has to be noted that many Hindus who belonged to the lower castes converted to Christianity to free themselves of the oppressive yoke of Hinduism and due to that change, many Christians whose Hindu ancestors either Malas or Madigas suffered from many atrocities are now well educated and earning well.


The untouchable caste also known as Harijans as coined by Mahatma Gandhi are known in the legal framework as the scheduled caste which was given by the British when they listed the lowest Hindu castes. This term is mainly used in the legal context when it comes to policy making and other schemes which are done by the government.[4]
However, from a societal point of view, there are more than 64 million people who fall under the scheduled castes but have their own culture and way of life which differs from other sub groups of the same caste, thus referring to all of them as the scheduled caste is just to ensure that the ease of law is promoted. The scheduled caste where known formerly as the depressed class or ex- untouchables as the practice of untouchability is seen as a breach of fundamental rights under Article 17 of the Indian constitution and the term itself is seen as derogatory.

Since the constitution came into being within this country, various governments have always engaged in schemes and programmes to ensure that the life of the scheduled caste members is made a little bit easier as it is a well known fact that they are not seen as equal in society thus face various societal and financial constraints which prevents them from progressing in their life.

Seats are reserved for them in the offices of government as well in colleges to help them get a better education. Apart from this, there are also various government programmes which help them to get better skills enabling them to gain access to better job opportunities which would help to boost their standard of living.

It can be argued that this would be unfair to those who do not fall under the ambit of the scheduled caste but when dealing with this issue, one must realize that after centuries of oppression, temporary inequality to promotes those at the bottom end of the spectrum would help to ensure that a more equitable society develops in the future. This is because the practice of untouchability is still very prevalent in the Indian society and although it has declined drastically, the fact remains that the mistreatment of other human beings is still taking place in India even though it is seen as a democratic nation where constitutional provisions are guaranteed to every citizen in the country.

The reality is that untouchability is still rampant in the country and even after Mahatma Gandhi’s famous fast over the Communal Award, the fight against untouchability has once again become stagnant and has not had a strong foothold since then.[5] However, after independence through the Constitution and other acts, public places like wells, tanks and bathing areas were open to them which helped to curb caste based tension.

Till this day, untouchability has kept the lower castes segregated from the higher castes and due to this, they are still the most underprivileged group of people in the country which boasts of economics growth and digital growth. These underprivileged castes still engage in labour which is a violation of their human rights such as manual scavenging, cleaning pit latrines and many other forms of work which no one should be doing anymore.

Dalits consist of 14.6%[6] of the total population of India and their literacy levels are among the lowest in the country and the reason as to why this is happening once again comes back to the fact that they are segregated from the rest of the society the sole reason being that they belong to a separate caste which is seen as filthy and wretched. Even though most would argue that untouchability has reduced due to the implementation of legislations and regulations, the truth still remains that it is still a societal problem and until society’s way of thinking changes, only then will the problem of untouchability be resolved.

Thus, the important question arises as to how can the country be truly free of the practice of untouchability?

The reality is that it has been a slow process and although there has been change in the current age, the problem is still a part of society and is within both the rich and the poor which goes to show, that education is not the main problem in this issue as even educated people are accused of practicing untouchability. To curb the problem of untouchability, what need to happen is that the upliftment of the Dalit community should be on the agenda of the government. If they are uplifted through proper education and job opportunites, only then will their social status also rise which would thus ensure that their standard of living also rises. Overall this will reduce the power which the oppressor holds over them as they have the education and skill which would enable them to achieve their dreams and ambition and not depend on others for their basic needs.

The concept of Untouchabilty is still far from being extinguished however, it is important to understand that to reduce the plight of the Dalits, they should be educated wellenough to understand their rights as there are laws that are in place for their benefit. They should just be able to access and use them to their benefit and this will only occur through education.

Laws and Case Laws

To curb the problem of untouchability, various laws have been enacted both internationally as well as nationally however, the implementation of these various legislations is still not as efficient as it should be. They include:

  • International Convention on The Elimination of all forms of racial Discrimination 1955– Article 6 of this convention states that everyone must be protected by the state from all forms of racial discrimination which violate their human rights.
  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights– It states that relevant programmes must be put in place which can be used as a tool to educate people and try to help them understand that they should not discriminate against any person based on caste or race.
  • The Protection of Civil Rights Act 1955– This act seeks to prescribe a punishment for the preaching and practice of Untouchability which can include a prison sentence as well as a fine.
  • Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Act 1989– Due to the ineffective implementation of other laws such as the IPC to prevent the practice of untouchability, this act came into place. However, even this act turned out to be inefficient.
  • The Constitution of India– The constitution of India has a specific article just for untouchability which is Article 17 of the Indian Constitution. This article states that untouchability in all its forms should not be practiced by people in any form.
  • Article 46 also states that the state shall promote the educational and economic interests of the weaker section of the people and in particular, of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled tribes.
An important case law which can explain the legal stance on Untouchability is the case of ‘State of Madras v Champakam Dorairajan’ where it was held that reservations in educational institutions were in violation of Article 29(2) which prohibited educational institutions from denying admission to applicants based on religion, race, caste, or language. This was all violative of the prohibition against caste discrimination.

These various legislations and case laws show the problem of caste discrimination is legally being resolved however, the societal mindset is still the same in the sense that they still believe that a person’s caste defines him so how exactly can one hope to curb caste discrimination in a society which has it ingrained in them since time immemorial?.

It is necessary for the children to be educated at every level of education that division based on caste is destructive and should not be followed. The children should be taught the actual history of the caste system and why exactly it is relevant. They should be made t understand that the purpose of the caste system was to ensure that an individual did what he was good at. 


The social scenario has drastically changed an many beliefs in relation to pollution and purity are not practiced in the current era as they are seen as unimportant such s the belief that women should not cook during their period and should be isolated, women who just gave birth should be isolated, the person in the kitchen should be the purest, a person who received the news of a death should have a purification bath. All these examples of untouchability are not practiced today as society seems to have outgrown these philosophies. This shows that untouchability was not just practiced amongst the different castes but also amongst families within the same caste and although the latter is changing, untouchability practiced amongst the different castes still exists and today the lower castes are fighting to achieve their democratic rights after centuries of oppression. Overall, it is still very difficult to change the mindset of people however, if the oppressed are given education, then it can be used as a tool to uplift them out of poverty and societal abuse as they will be educated enough on how to deal with any form of abuse.

[1] Scheduled Caste Policy in India: History, Problems, Prospects Author(s): Lelah Dushkin

[2] Purity, Impurity, Untouchability: Then and Now Author(s): A.M. Shah


[4] Scheduled Caste Policy in India: History, Problems, Prospects Author(s): Lelah Dushkin

[5] Law as an Instrument for Abolition of Untouchability: Case of Rajasthan Author(s): Girdhar Behari Sharma

[6]  Law as an Instrument for Abolition of Untouchability: Case of Rajasthan Author(s)

 Girdhar Behari Sharma

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