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Untouchability in India

When the constitution of India outlawed untouchability in 1950 many national leaders believed that a centuries old practice had been brought to an end. But now nearly 60 years later there is no total success of the statutory measure. Millions of Dalits across the country who account for roughly 1/5th of the population continue to suffer birth-based discrimination and humiliation. In states like Tamil Nadu which boasts a long history of reformist movements is no exception.Infact 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.

Over 80 forms of untouchability have been identified, 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 labor 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 meters 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 compulsions of modernity and development have to some extent blunted its rigor. Rail transport has been unifying forces 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 reports reveal that this practice is very much alive in many places. Postmen have also been found to practice 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. There are also 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. 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 Dalit children are 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 scold him by calling him by his caste name. If the teacher decides that the boy needed a beating as punishment the task was assigned to another Dalit boy. There is also systematic refusal of admission to Dalits in certain schools particularly at the plus two levels.

In some villages during the temple festivals Dalits are supposed to stay hidden from caste Hindus. The two-tumbler system under which Dalits and non-Dalits are served tea in different vessels is still prevalent in some teashops. In some eateries they are compelled to sit on the floor.

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