Posts Tagged ‘untouchability’


   Upon completing his education abroad, Ambedkar returned to Bombay as a barrister, established a successful legal practice and, in 1924, founded the Bahishkrit Hitkarini Sabha (Association for the Depressed Classes) to promote the spread of education among the socially and politically downtrodden, to improve their economic status, and to provide a voice for their grievances.  Between 1927 and 1932, Ambedkar led a series of nonviolent campaigns to assert the right of “Untouchables” to draw water from public tanks & wells and to enter Hindu places of worship.Ambedkar (painting)  Especially important was the satyagraha (nonviolent civil disobedience) he led in Mahad where tens of thousands of “Untouchables” protested successfully for their right to use water from the public Chowdar Tank, which had been traditionally prohibited to them (though animals were allowed to use the water!).  
   In a conference in late 1927, Ambedkar public condemned the classic Hindu text, the Manusmrti (Laws of Manu), for ideologically justifying the system of caste discrimination and “untouchability,” ceremonially burning copies of the ancient text.  Increasingly unpopular with dominant caste Hindus, Ambedkar became even more so due to his insistence on the need for separate electorates for the depressed classes.  When the British granted this demand, Gandhi, who felt strongly that this would divide society in future generations and prevent the political and social unity of Hindus, went on a fast until death in protest of the decision.  Under massive pressure, in 1932 Ambedkar joined with Gandhi in signing the Pune Pact, in which the demand for separate elections was dropped and replaced with special concessions like reserved seats for “Untouchables” in legislative assemblies.


   Over time, Ambedkar became increasingly critical of orthodox Hinduism, which he saw as inextricably linked to caste discrimination, and at the Yeola Conversion Conference in 1935, he stated famously, “I was born as a Hindu but will not die as a Hindu;” and exhorted his followers to leave Hinduism and join another religion.  Ambedkar was also fiercely critical of certain aspects and practices of Islam, especially child marriage, the mistreatment of women, and narrow literalist interpretations of Islamic doctrine which prevented positive social reform within Muslim society.
   In 1936, Ambedkar founded the Independent Labour Party and in 1942 he founded the Scheduled Caste Federation for the independent political assertion of Dalits.  Between 1941 and 1945 Ambedkar published a large number of controversial books and pamphlets which included criticisms of Hindu civilization, Gandhi and the Congress Party, and the Muslim League’s demand for a separate state of Pakistan.
   In 1947 India achieved independence and Prime Minister Nehru appointed Ambedkar the Minister of Law.  Despite his unpopularity and criticisms, Ambedkar was also appointed Chairman of the Drafting Committee for the Constitution of India and played the central role in its crafting.  In February 1948 he presented the Draft Constitution and it was adopted in November 1949 with all its 356 articles, including Article 11 which explicitly abolishes “untouchability” in all forms.
After resigning from the Cabinet in 1951, Ambedkar increasingly turned his attention towards Buddhism. He began writing a book, The Buddha and His Dhamma—published a year after his death and today often considered his magnum opus—which articulated his understanding of the Buddha’s message and its contemporary relevance.  On 14 October 1956, in a formal public ceremony (which explicitly rejected and condemned Hinduism), Ambedkar converted to Buddhism along with over 300,000 followers.  This action sparked an ongoing Buddhist revival in India and a number mass conversions of Dalits to Buddhism have occurred since then.

   Bhim Raj Ambedkar died on 6 December 1956.  In 1990, he was posthumously honored with India’s highest national award, “Bharat Ratna” and his portrait was adorned in the Central Hall of Parliament.  His birth date is now a public holiday in India known as Ambedkar Jayanti.


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Fight against untouchability

What is Untouchability?

  • Dalits are the manual scavengers, the removers of human waste and dead animals, leather workers, street sweepers and cobblers.
  • The mere touch of a Dalit was considered “polluting” to a caste member. Thus, the concept of “untouchability” was born.

Isn’t Untouchability illegal?

  • The preamble to the Indian Constitution proclaims the goals of social justice and equality.
  • Article 14 sets forth the principal of equality and prohibits discrimination in employment and education.
  • The Constitution does not set forth a casteless society as a national goal.
  • No law has been passed abolishing untouchability.
  • The practice of untouchability is a punishable offense, but the law is rarely enforced.

Are there affirmative action programs for Dalits?

  • Yes. The Civil Rights Act of 1955, and the Scheduled Castes and Tribes Act of 1989.
  • The National commission of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes was formed to protect Dalit interests and integrate them into society.
  • All programs have failed to produce substantive change.

Who called untouchability India’s “Hidden Apartheid?”

  • In December, 2006, Indian Prime Minister Mannohan Singh became the first Indian leader to acknowledge the parallel between untouchability and the crime of apartheid.
  • PM Singh described untouchability as a “blot on humanity” and acknowledged that despite constitutional and legal protections, caste discrimination still exists throughout much of India.

What does it mean
to be a Dalit
in India today?

  • Dalits endure segregation in housing, schools and access to public services.
  • Dalits are denied access to land, forced to work in degrading conditions and are routinely abused by the police and upper-caste members.
  • Dalits suffer discrimination in education, health care, housing, property, freedom of religion, free choice of employment, and equal treatment before the law
  • Dalits suffer routine violations of their right to life and security of person through state-sponsored or sanctioned acts of violence, including torture.
  • Dalits suffer caste-motivated killings, rapes and other abuses on a daily basis.
  • Between 2001-2002 there were 58,000 registered egregious abuses against Dalits and Tribals.
  • 2005 government report stated there is a crime committed against a Dalit every 20 minutes.
  • Dalits comprise most of the agricultural, bonded and child laborers in the country.
  • 2007 government report found 77% of all Indians live on less than $.50 a day and most of them were Dalits.
  • Dalit women face additional discrimination and abuse, including sexual abuse by the police and upper caste men, forced prostitution, and discrimination in employment and wages.
  • Dalit children face continuous hurdles in education. They are made to sit in the back of classrooms and endure verbal and physical harassment from teachers and other students. The effect of such abuses is confirmed by the low literacy and high drop-out rates for Dalits.

What is the international community doing to end caste discrimination anduntouchability?

  • 2/1/07, European Union passed a resolution that found India’s enforcement of laws to protect Dalits “grossly inadequate. Also found that “atrocities, untouchability, illiteracy and inequality of opportunity, continue to blight the lives of India’s Dalits.” The resolution called on the Indian government to end caste-based discrimination.
  • 2/13/07, Hidden Apartheid Caste Discrimination Against India’s Untouchables-113 page joint report was published Human Rights Watch and The Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at Hew York University School of Law. Report found that India systematically failed to uphold its international legal obligations to ensure the fundamental human rights of Dalits, despite laws and policies against caste discrimination.
  • 3/9/07, United Nations Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) found that “de facto segregation of Dalits persists” and highlighted systematic abuse against Dalits including torture and extrajudicial killings, an “alarming” extent of sexual violence against Dalit women and caste discrimination in post-tsunami relief.
  • 7/24/07, US House of Representatives passed a concurrentresolution condemning the caste system and untouchabilityin India.              

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