the untouchables

1424827740000 » Tagged as: untouchables , Tagged as: Dalits , Tagged as: Caste , Tagged as: Gondane



In India the term Untouchable is used to identify a class of people, who are considered to belong to very low castes. In Sanskrit they were called 'Antyaja', the seven 'inferior' castes of the 'last born'. Now they call them Dalits, and officially as Scheduled Castes. Mahatma Gandhi called them Harijans, or the 'Children of God'. However changing the name did not change the position of the social outcaste, guilty by birth and not by deed. The Mahatma failed. Ambedkar failed, through his conversion to Buddhism and the Indian Constitution. Those who are fighting today to eliminate this inequality among mankind have not succeeded so far.


Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, embraced Buddhism, on October 14th, 1956, with 1.5 million other 'untouchables', but in Indian society, all of them still remained as 'untouchables', and so are their descendants today. The Indian constitution states, "no person who professes a religion different from the Hindu [the Sikh or the Buddhist] religion shall be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste". Unfortunately this was nullified by the acceptance in the constitution of the Scheduled castes among the Hindus.


Perhaps Ambedkar, with all his intelligence and education had not realized, that unless he was able to convert the so-called 'higher' castes to Buddhism, the plight of the untouchables would never change. Dalit writers are continuing the struggle begun by Ambedkar and Jiyotirao.


Raja Sekhar Vrundu, in the Times of India (Oct 14, 2006) reminded the people of India that Buddha himself had been an 'untouchable' in previous births, quoting Matanga Jataka and Chitta Sambhuta Jataka. Even though the term Dalit Literature could be traced back only up to 1958 we could say these two Jataka stories could be the earliest recorded Dalit literature in South Asia.


The first ever Dalit conference was held in Mumbai in 1958, and came into greater prominence in 1972 when a group of young Marathi writer-activists founded Dalit Panthers, explaining that Dalit is not a caste but a realization and is related to the experiences, joys and sorrows and struggles of those in the lowest strata of society."


Dalit from Sanskrit, means downtrodden, suppressed, crushed, which has been traced back to Mahatma Jyotirao Phule, the first Hindu to have started an orphanage for outcaste children. He established a school for girls, and in 1873 formed the Satya Shodhak Samaj (Society of seekers of Truth).


We could, in this sense, use Dalit for the literature of all suppressed and oppressed people in the world, the Afro-Americans in the United States, the women around the world, and the gay community.


'The Arrival' is the title of A. M. Gondane's saga of four generations of a Dalit family in India, "its social and cultural metamorphosis..... acceptance....restrained defiance......academic and social ascent....neo-Buddhism......neo-Ambedkarism..."


The story is about a 'Maang' or 'Matang', one of the most suppressed 'untouchable' castes in India. Yet they also play a very vital role in society. Though they are untouchable, though a 'high caste' person should never touch them, they can touch the high caste women at childbirth, for they play the role of a midwife. Probably the 'high' caste man's logic is that his woman is an 'untouchable' too whenever she is bleeding, at childbirth or menses. Thus he allows the 'untouchable' to touch his woman, and his son at childbirth, in the same way that he himself had been 'touched' by an untouchable at his birth. He probably does not realize that he has already been 'defiled' by the Maang, from birth, as all his ancestors and his progeny.


This contradiction continues in every aspect of social interaction. The potter is an 'untouchable', but man eats the food cooked in a clay pot, and his woman washes it every day. He wears his clothes washed and cleaned by his washerman who is an untouchable.


In some countries the royal family is also 'untouchable'. It is taboo to touch any member of the royal family, just like it is taboo to touch a 'low caste' person.


There have been instances in history, where the 'untouchability' of royalty led to tragedy. On May 31, 1880, a royal barge capsized on the Chao Phraya river in Thailand. The king's 19 year old wife, Sunanda and her 2 year old daughter Kannabhorn Bejraratana drowned in the river, because no one dared to rescue them. Touching Thai royalty at the time was punishable by death, of the entire family of the person.


The protocol concerning British sovereign has been set in stone for generations. 'Whatever you do, don't touch the queen' courtiers warn. In 1992, the Australian prime minister Paul Keating had put his arm around the queen's waist at Canberra parliament house "and found himself lampooned as 'the Lizard of Oz' for his faux-pass" (Daily Mail, 03-05-2012).


When any other human being touches a royal person, who gets defiled, has not been clearly explained by anyone. In 2009, Michelle Obama created headlines by hugging the queen. Who was defiled here, the Queen of England or the First Lady of USA?


In Sri Lanka though we do not have a category of writings of the 'untouchables'. In the recent past new writing has been emerging, highlighting the plight of the downtrodden, not only by writers belonging to these castes but writers from other castes too, defying the anti-social elements who would try to identify the writer as belonging to such a caste. We could also look at our literature in a positive way, that the reason we do not have a 'Dalit Movement' is because we are progressing towards a caste-free society and the people are no longer suppressed or oppressed, based on their birth.



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