Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Written Evidence

Written evidence submitted by Dr Hugo Gorringe, University of Edinburgh



  "Untouchables" are those at the foot of the caste hierarchy. Condemned to perform the most menial and degrading jobs they are considered to be carriers of pollution and, therefore, "untouchable". Untouchables have historically been denied the opportunity to identify themselves or mobilise for change. Dispersed, divided and dominated by higher castes they have been identified, organized and acted on by others. Even the socially revolutionary promises of the Indian Constitution in 1950 which rendered untouchability a punishable offence and instituted affirmative action programmes to offset inequalities have been unable to eradicate untouchability in practice. Since the 1970s, therefore, Scheduled Caste (SC—referring to the list of castes eligible for state benefits) groups have mobilized to challenge caste discrimination directly.

  From the 1970's, a significant aspect of this struggle has been the rejection of imposed labels and the adoption of the term "Dalit"—a Marathi word meaning "downtrodden"—in a spirit of pride and militancy (see Zelliot 1996: 267). Not all ex-Untouchables use the term but I do both for simplicity and because activists perceived other epithets to be demeaning. SCs constitute 16.48% of the Indian population, but they are not a homogeneous group. Dalits are splintered along lines of caste, class and region and some Dalit castes have achieved significant degrees of social mobility whereas others continue to be regarded as degraded and polluted.


  To suggest that nothing has changed since Independence would be ridiculous. The Constitution has undermined the legitimacy of caste and provided the oppressed with the institutional means to challenge their subordinate status. The capitalisation and liberalisation of the economy, in conjunction with the reservations system, has combined to reduce the association between occupations and caste status even though kinship and caste networks still influence the allocation of social goods such as housing, employment and education. Even where demeaning forms of labour persist, however, payment in cash has largely meant that contractual exchanges are divorced from the connotations of purity and impurity. Finally, political legislation has guaranteed parliamentary representation for the SCs although the effectiveness of this representation is subject to question. For purposes of this brief report I will focus on three key areas of interaction: political, social and economic.


  In formal, legal terms Dalits are equal citizens with the entitlement to affirmative action programmes which are designed to offset the legacies of caste inequality. Government jobs and places in educational institutions (as from late 2006 this applies to both public and private institutions) are "reserved" for Dalits in proportion to their percentage of the population. These measures have begun to erode the close correlation between caste and class status, but the structure of reservations is more impressive than the effects on the ground. Dalits are still disproportionately represented in the lowest rungs of government service (cleaners, sweepers, clerks etc) and relatively absent in more prestigious bureaucratic and administrative posts. There is also a perennial concern that the benefits of affirmative action are monopolised by a privileged minority within the Dalit castes. Introducing a financial component into the reservations, therefore, could help distribute the advantages to a wider pool of people.

  Caste has been increasingly politicised over the past two decades and caste concerns inform political debate and competition. One upshot of this is that new forms of caste discrimination have emerged in the political field: Dalits may be threatened, beaten or isolated if they vote for an autonomous Dalit candidate for example. Whilst there are laws prohibiting caste discrimination, these are not thoroughly enforced. Only a tiny percentage of cases registered under the Untouchability (Prevention Of) Offences Act actually result in convictions.

  Two of the most contentious issues in India today are reservations and representation. Thus, riots erupted in protest against the extension of reservations to Private Higher Educational Institutions. Upper caste youth argue that reservations penalise them for the sins of their ancestors. Since 1980 affirmative action has been expanded to include not only Scheduled Castes and tribes, but also those classified as Backward, Most Backwards and Other Backward Castes. The anti-reservation protests need to be understood in this context. The Government appointed Mandal Commission, however, concluded that caste continued to be a determinant of social mobility and argued for its retention as a basis for redistribution.

  The issue of representation highlights the partial nature of political reforms. Whilst 15% of constituencies are set aside for SC candidates, SCs do not constitute a majority in any constituency. Studies have repeatedly shown that "ordinary" Dalits regard Dalit political representatives as pawns. Since the 1970s this has prompted an upsurge in autonomous Dalit mobilisation which has increased the number of people prepared to vote in elections and taken Dalit parties to power in the key state of Uttar Pradesh. Dalit mobilisation, thus, is both a sign of democratisation and an indication of unfulfilled promises.


  Equality in the political realm, however, is only slowly filtering down to everyday practice. Caste relations are negotiated at the local level and it is in villages and towns across rural India that the residual practices of Untouchability are most keenly felt. The political assertion of Dalits has sparked a backlash from those above them in the caste hierarchy which has resulted in violent acts of repression and the imposition of social boycotts (when Dalits are denied work, access to shops and to common resources), intimidated, beaten and killed simply because they come from a Scheduled Caste. Whilst inequalities in access to resources means that the position of rural Dalits is particularly vulnerable, this does not mean that Dalits are able to escape caste discrimination within the urban environment.

  Caste violence is particularly prominent amongst the most vulnerable and impoverished groups. There is a pressing need, therefore, for initiatives that challenge the means by which caste dominance is institutionalised and act to reduce Dalit dependency. Institutional reform on its own, however, cannot eradicate deep-rooted social stratification. Rather, there is a need for arenas in which people from differing communities can intermingle so as to confront the stereotypes that facilitate the resort to force.

  A recent case from Tamilnadu (southernmost state in India) illustrates this point.[5] Although several panchayats were reserved for Dalit candidates by the Legislative assembly, social pressures and threats against Dalits meant that the seats remained unfilled for over a decade. It was only when there was active political intervention and dialogue that the impasse was overcome. It is clear that the discourse of caste can alienate non-Dalit groups. Where efforts are taken to engage members of the entire village, however, then advances are possible (but see section on economics).

  Such interaction is particularly urgent in those states (Bihar and Tamilnadu for example) where the epistemic violence of caste practices has created an atmosphere in which violence is privileged as the pre-eminent solution to social issues. The Melavalavu massacre provides ample evidence of the insecurity of legislative intervention in the local, face-to-face communities where issues of caste pride and honour are most at stake.[6] Rather than railing against the senselessness of caste violence, however, this approach suggests that small steps at an early stage might diffuse the tension: ensuring, for example, that the police force does not reflect the local caste composition would allow for a neutral arbiter, and training police personnel in peaceful crowd control could minimise violence at demonstrations. Land reforms (if enacted), and the provision of non-agricultural rural industries, could also undermine the material basis of caste pride and exclusivity.


  Whilst a significant minority of Dalits have benefited from reservations and alterations to the employment structure, the vast majority of Dalits still work as unskilled manual labourers, mostly in the agricultural sector. Landless agricultural labourers are subject to the vagaries of the weather, crop prices and increasing industrialisation of agriculture. The marginalisation of Dalits in the Indian economy leads Mendelsohn and Vicziany (1998) to speak of a new class of proletarian labourers existing on the peripheries of society. Caste continues to inform the processes by which recruitment and appointments are made. These informal networks have been referred to as "the hidden reservations" of higher caste groups.

  Access to caste neutral jobs and free schooling has begun to erode the basis of caste dominance, but rural Dalits can still be denied access to basic resources and amenities because of inequalities on control over resources in rural areas.


  Given the current focus on religious conversions (especially to Buddhism)—as 2006 is the 50th anniversary of Ambedkar's (the foremost Dalit leader of the 20th Century, the first Law Minister of India and Chairman of the panel that drafted the Constitution) conversion—a brief word is in order. Whilst significant numbers of Dalits have opted to convert to more egalitarian religions (especially Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam) it is clear that conversion alone does not alter the material conditions of Untouchability. Dalits continue to face discrimination from upper castes within and without their new religious communities. It is in recognition of this fact that Christian and Muslim Dalits have agitated for reservations to be extended to them. Buddhist Dalits are entitled to reservations.

  The main virtues of conversion, thus, are not material but psychological. Converts speak of a sense of release and freedom from the stigma and degradation attached to Untouchability. Conversion has emboldened Dalits to renounce the caste practices traditionally associated with Untouchability or to revalue them and demand equal pay for equal work. Eschewing Hinduism is also a key means of voicing opposition to the caste system.


  Huge strides have been made since Independence, but much remains to be done. Political and legal structures remain meaningless until they are implemented and inform interactions at the ground level. Dalits continue to face repression and violence. This oppression is not the "traditional" ostracism of a supposedly impure group. Caste violence now is bound up with political competition and struggles over resources.

  Hugo Gorringe is a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh. He researches and writes on Dalit politics and the reproduction caste inequalities in India. Publications include: Untouchable Citizens: The Dalit Panthers and Democratisation in Tamilnadu, New Delhi, Sage (2005); "Banal Violence? The everyday Underpinnings of Collective Violence" in Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power 13(2): pp 237-60 (2006); "You Build Your House, we'll build ours": The Attractions and Pitfalls of Identity Politics', in Social Identities, 11(6): pp 653-672 (2005); "Which is Violence? Reflections on Violence and Social Movement Activity", in Social Movement Studies 5(2): pp 117-136 (2006).

Dr Hugo Gorringe

October 2006

5   See: Back

6   See Gorringe (2005) for details. Back

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