WHEN the Constitution of India outlawed untouchability in 1950, many national leaders believed that an obnoxious, “centuries-old” practice had been brought to an end. But now, nearly 60 years later, no honest politician can vouchsafe for the total success of the statutory measure.
Millions of Dalits across the country, who account for roughly one-fifth of the population, continue to suffer birth-based discrimination and humiliation. Ironically, Tamil Nadu, which boasts a long history of reformist movements, is no exception. In fact, untouchability has not only survived the constitutional ban but taken new avatars in many parts of the State. Caste-based discrimination has often led to violence, leaving hundreds of the disadvantaged people in distress, particularly in the 1990s.
Study groups have identified over 80 forms of untouchability, many of which are apparently free India’s additions to the list. From time immemorial, Dalits have been deprived of their right to education and the right to possess land and other forms of property. Left with nothing but their physical labour to earn their livelihood, they have all along been forced to do the toughest and most menial jobs for survival.
Apart from the denial of access to public roads, tanks, temples and burial/cremation grounds, there are other forms of untouchability. Segregation of Dalits is seen almost everywhere in Tamil Nadu’s villages. But nothing can perhaps beat the high wall, 500 metres long, that has been built at Uthapuram in Madurai district as a barrier between Dalits and caste Hindus.
While untouchability is still rampant and is taking new forms, particularly in villages, the constitutional ban and the compulsions of modernity and development have to some extent blunted its rigour.
Rail transport, for instance, has been a unifying force in society. Yet, the Railways have been among the worst offenders in respect of the law against manual scavenging. Dalits constitute a significant portion of its workforce of manual scavengers along railway lines. Although all State governments claim that they have abolished manual scavenging, study reports reveal that the obnoxious practice is very much alive in many places.
Postmen have also been found to practise untouchability. A study conducted in Tamil Nadu noted that in two villages in Madurai district postmen did not deliver postal articles to Dalit addressees; Dalits were required to collect the articles at the post office.
The study, conducted by the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Elimination Front (TNUEF), also identified certain road transport-related violations of the law against untouchability. Among them is the unwritten rule that gives caste Hindus priority over Dalits in boarding buses in many areas, buses not stopping in Dalit areas, transport employees picking quarrels with Dalit passengers without provocation, and Dalits not being allowed to use bus shelters. And how many of us know that the State government still follows a traditional procedure of making announcements in villages by beating a drum, and for that they deploy Dalits?
Worse still are the roles of schools and teachers in perpetuating untouchability and sowing the seeds of caste-related discrimination in young minds.
The study found that Dalit children were often discouraged by teachers and fellow-students belonging to caste Hindu social groups. In many schools Dalit pupils were not allowed to share water with caste Hindus. To punish an erring or naughty Dalit boy, teachers were known to scold him calling him by his caste name. If the teacher decided that the boy needed a beating as punishment, the task was assigned to another Dalit boy. Above all, the study found a systematic refusal of admission to Dalits in certain schools, particularly at the Plus Two level.
One of the findings was that in some areas untouchability was practised even in the outlets of the Public Distribution System (PDS). Dalits were reportedly asked to collect their rations only on particular days of the week. Even in respect of the quantum of the supplies, Dalits were discriminated against, the study found.
These apart, the study found some quirky restrictions on Dalits. They were, for instance, forbidden from keeping male dogs. In some villages, during the temple festival Dalits were supposed to stay hidden from caste Hindus. The two-tumbler system, under which Dalits and non-Dalits were served tea in different vessels, was still prevalent in teashops in many places and in some village eateries Dalits were compelled to sit on the floor.
The president of the TNUEF, P. Sampath, told Frontline that none of the 47 villages the study team visited in Madurai district was free from untouchability. He hoped that the government would initiate remedial measures to end the practise in respect of government departments, public utilities and State sector undertakings to start with.