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Untouchability And the Caste System B.R. Ambedkar

A Brief Introduction to the Author

Born an untouchable in a caste ridden Hindu society, B.R. Ambedkar, popularly known as Baba Saheb, is revered for his ceaseless struggle for equality and justice for the untouchables. Returning to India after completing his studies in Columbia, he dedicated his life to the welfare of the poorest of the poor – the Dalits,. He played an important role in the framing of the constitution of Independent India. Ambedkar converted to Buddism just a month and a half before his death in his sleep on

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6 Dec. 1956 at the age of 65 years. He was posthumously awarded the Bharat Ratna – the country’s highest civilian award – in 1990.

Main Points

The moderate section among the Hindu social reformers believes that untouchability is separate from the caste system. They believe that it is possible to remove untouchability without attacking the caste system. But the religious minded Hindu is as much opposed to the removal of untouchability as he is to the removal of the caste system. Dr. Ambedkar, therefore, believes that caste and untouchability are not two different things. The two are one and inseparable.

Those who propose to deal with untouchability without damaging the caste system, rest their case on verse 4 of chapter X of the Manu Smriti. In this Manu says that there are only four varnas and that there is no fifth varna. This means that they are the part of the Shudras. And there is no objection to touching the untouchables. However pleasing this construction may be to the politically minded Hindu, it is not what Manu wanted to convey. In saying that there is no fifth varna what Manu means to suggest is that he did not want to include those outside the four varnas into the Hindu society. He wanted only the four varnas to be included in the Hindu society. He speaks of Bahyas or Varna Bahyas, that is, outside the four varnas. If he wanted to include all persons within the four varnas, there was no reason for him to place some people outside these varnas. According to Manu, there are two divisions within the persons who are outside the four varnas. These two divisions are Hinas and Antayevasins. Thus it is obvious that the orthodox Hindu who believes in Manu Smriti does not regard untouchability as contrary to Manu Smriti.

The ordinary uneducated Hindu doesn’t understand such complex argument. What he knows is that there are three barriers which he has to observe in his social life: 1) interdining, 2) inter-marriage, and 3) physically touching certain class of people. The first two barriers make up the caste. The third forms untouchability. When you ask a caste Hindu not to observe untouchability, he will ask why not? His argument will be: If I am free to observe the first two barriers, what is wrong if I observe the third? Psychologically, caste and untouchability are one integral system. If the caste Hindus observe untouchability, it is because they believe in caste.

Thus it would be futile to hope that untouchability can be removed without destroying the caste system. The writer says that the Hindu social order is based on the principle of graded social inequality. Many people do not understand this principle. In this system of graded inequality, there are the highest (the Brahmins). Below them are the higher (the Kshatriyas). Below the higher are those who are high (Vaishyas). Below the high are the low (Shudras) and below the low are those who are lower (the Untouchables). All of them have a grievance against the highest, but they will not combine with each other. The higher is anxious to get rid of the highest but does not wish to combine with the high, the low and the lower, lest they should reach his level and be his equal. The same is the case with other categories. Each class has privileges except the one at the base. So each class is interested in maintaining the social system.

The writer says that untouchability will disappear only when the whole of the Hindu social order, especially the caste system, will be dissolved. Every institution is sustained by some sort of sanction. There are three kinds of sanction which supply life force to an institution. They are legal, social and religious. The strength of the institution depends upon the nature of the sanction. What is the nature of the sanction behind the caste system? Unfortunately, the legal and social sanctions are not as strong as the religious sanction. Anything which has a religious sanction becomes sacred and eternal. To the Hindu, caste is sacred and eternal. If caste cannot end, there is no hope for the untouchability to disappear.

Model Questions and Answers

Q.1. Does the writer agree with the moderate Hindu social reformers that untouchability can be removed without attacking the caste system?

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Ans. There is a moderate section among the Hindu social reformers. This section believes that untouchability is different from the caste system. If one follows this principle, it means that it is possible to remove untouchability without attacking the caste system. But the writer thinks that caste and untouchability are not two different things. The two are one and are inseparable. Untouchability is only an extension of the caste system. The two stand together and will fall together. Thus the end of untouchability alone has no chance, according to the writer.

The writer says that every institution has some sort of sanction. According to him, there are three kinds of sanction – legal, social and religious. They supply the life force to an institution. The strength of the institution depends upon the nature of the sanction. Religious sanction is stronger than the legal and social and it becomes sacred and eternal. As caste is sacred and eternal to the Hindus, the idea of hoping to remove untouchability without destroying the caste, system is futile. Baba Saheb does not at all agree with the moderate Hindu social reformers that untouchability can be removed without attacking the caste system.

Q.2. Why does Manu speak of the Varna Bahyas, according to the writer? What are the two sub-divisions within the class of Varna Bahyas?

Ans. The writer refers to verse 4 of Chapter X of the Manu Smriti. In this verse, Manu says that there are only four varnas and there is no fifth varna. On the basis of this verse, some people interpret it like this: the untouchables are included in the fourth varna. They are part of the Shudras. And as there is no objection to touching the Shudras, there could be no objection to touching the untouchables. But the writer says that Manu speaks of Bahyas or Varna Bahyas, that is, outside the four varnas. If Manu wanted to include all persons within the four varnas, there was no reason for him to place some people outside these varnas. Manu himself puts these people in two subdivisions. He calls them Hinas and Antayevasins. According to this statement of Manu, the orthodox Hindus do not accept that the maintenance of untouchability is contrary to Manu Smriti and that its abolition is therefore, contrary to the tenets of Hindu religion.

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Q.3 Explain the three barriers in the matter of social intercourse which the ordinary uneducated Hindu must observe.

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Ans. According to the writer, the ordinary uneducated Hindu has to observe three barriers in the matter of social intercourse. They are 1) prohibition against inter-dining, 2) prohibition against inter-marriage and 3) prohibition against physically touching certain class of people. The first two barriers make up the caste. The third barrier forms untouchability. The caste Hindu does not bother about the number of barriers. He is particular about the observance of the barrier. When he is asked not to be observe untouchability, he asks why not? He argues that if he is free to observe the first two barriers, what is wrong if he observes the third barrier also. The writer thinks that caste and untouchability are based on one and the same principle and are integral in the Hindu psyche. In other words, there can be no hope of ending untouchability without ending the caste system.

Q.4 What is the principle of graded inequality on which the Hindu social order is based?

Ans. The writer says that the Hindu social order is based on the principle of graded social inequality. Many people do not understand this principle. In the system of graded inequality, there is the highest (the Brahmins), the higher (the Kshatriyas), the high (the Vaishyas), the low (the Shudras) and the lower (the Untouchables). All of them have a grievance against the highest, but they will not combine with each other. All other classes have privileges. Only the grades of privileges are different. Even the low is a privileged class as compared with the lower. Therefore, each class is interested in maintaining the existing social system.

That is why the writer thinks that the caste system will never disappear from the Hindu society. And if caste cannot disappear, there cannot be any hope for untouchability to disappear.

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Q.5 How is inequality different from graded inequality? What are its implications for the survival or otherwise of the social system?

Ans. The social system based on social inequality is different from the system based on graded inequality. In the first one, there are only two classes – the high and the low.

But in the latter, there are different grades of inequality. The social system based on inequality is a weak system. It cannot preserve itself. The low orders can combine to overthrow the system. None of them has any interest to preserve it. But in a social system based on graded inequality, there is no possibility of a combined attack. All have a grievance against the highest. No class wants to combine with the lower one. Each class has privileges with the exception of the one at the bottom, except the class that is at the bottom. Since each class is privileged, they are all interested in maintaining the social system. That is why the writer thinks that the caste system will never disappear from the Hindu society.

Q.6. When, according to the writer, will untouchability vanish?

Ans. The writer thinks that untouchability is only an extension of the caste system. It is not different from caste. The two are one and inseparable. It is impossible to separate one from the other. The two stand together and will fall together. It is useless to hope that we can end untouchability without ending the caste system. Untouchability will vanish only when the caste system disappears. However, the writer has no hope of this. He says that the Hindu social system is based on graded inequality. In other words, there are different levels of inequality. All have a grievance against the highest, but they will not combine with each other. The class that is at the bottom has no privilege at all. All other classes have privileges, only the level of privileges is different. They are all interested in maintaining the social system. The caste system has behind it religious sanctions which becomes sacred and eternal. As caste has also become sacred and eternal in the Hindu society, Dr. Ambedkar sees no chance of its end. As caste and untouchability are inseparable, there is no hope for untouchability to vanish if caste system cannot end.

Q.7. What are the three kinds of sanction which supply life force to an institution? Which of these is behind the caste system?

Ans. Every institution is sustained by some sort of sanction. This sanction is the life force of an institution. There are three kinds of sanctions. They are legal, social and religious. The vitality of an institution depends upon the nature of the sanction behind it. The legal and social sanctions are not as strong as the religious sanction. Anything that has religious sanction becomes sacred and eternal. Thus to the Hindu, caste is sacred and eternal. Untouchability is sustained by the caste system. There is no possibility that it will ever disappear. And with caste, untouchability will also stay. The two are inseparable. They stand together and will fall together. If caste system can not end, there is no hope for the untouchability to disappear.

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