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Power of touch


Gopal Guru

(First published in December 2006)

The concept of untouchability travels from rural locations to the cities.

gopal_guru_copy_copy_copy_copyCAN categories of understanding be divided on the basis of spatiality? The answer to this question could be given in the affirmative. By and large, it is true that the scholars working on Indian society and politics have treated caste and untouchability as rural issues and communalism as an urban one. The attempts to treat untouchability primarily as a rural social reality may look valid because it is the rural social context that provides conditions both for its definition and neat articulation. Let us examine why the rural, and not the urban, becomes a ‘privileged’ site for the understanding and expression of untouchability.

First, in India, the discourse on untouchability is built up around the idea of touch. Unlike other societies, socially dominant groups within India have developed a distinct understanding of touch. The idea is embedded in their minds with enormous power to fragment, discipline, segregate and quarantine large chunks of humanity. What is so distinct about touch is its moral ‘economy’, which achieves this fragmentation with no investment of power; that is to say, it is withdrawal from, rather than engagement with, bodies that creates the other – the untouchable. Thus, touch is powerful because it privileges some bodies through insulation rather than assimilation.

The cream of the twice-born deployed this ideological mediation primarily to seek spiritual elevation of the corporal body of the upper caste individual to a sacred level. The ‘sacred’ or ‘pure’ body becomes the ideal, primarily because it insulates itself from the touch of the ‘other’, which it conceptually constructs as repulsive at the first instance. It is interesting to note that it is the deep sense of repulsion, outwardly directed by the upper castes, rather than rage, that defines untouchability. To put it differently, untouchability as a negative value gets ontologically linked to the corporal body, which remains the same in all the spheres of life. That is to say, the body as the recipient of repulsion is denied a generic advantage.

The reverse of this mediating ideology reproduces a logical counterpart, that is, the profane or the ritually defiling body. Ideological mediation assigns a repulsive meaning even to the corporal body, reducing the latter to the level of the “walking Carrion”, as Barrington Moor Jr. would describe it.

Simultaneously, it assigns negative power to the untouchable, for whom ‘untouchability’ can become a ‘poison weapon’ capable of creating anxiety for the ‘sacred’ and ‘pure’ bodies. Untouchability, thus, functions on the tension between the sacred and the profane. It is an ideology that functions to prevent the profane, a walking carcass, from approaching the ideal that would like to enjoy uninterrupted freedom in several domains of life – spiritual, material, patriarchal, political and cultural. In order to closely monitor the physical movement of the profane as a ‘sociological danger’, both in time and space, it therefore becomes necessary on the part of the socially dominant to provide a relatively compact socio-spatial context to detect the danger. The physically closed socio-spatial situation that exists basically in the village provides an excellent background condition to prevent this sociological danger, that is, the concrete from approaching the abstract or the ideal.

Secondly, as a corollary to the first, in order to define untouchability, a corporal body needs to remain visible. In other words, rendering bodies anonymous positively destroys the condition of the definition of untouchability. Thirdly, untouchability, as an idea upholding the social order, must get reproduced at all levels of social stratification. Untouchability finds its salience more in the context of a stagnant economic system, which seeks to relegate some castes to occupations considered defiling/polluting. Most villages in India represent this kind of economic order that radically undermines competition. All this makes the rural the privileged site for the definition and articulation of untouchability. This particular understanding might lead one to conclude that rural locations represent a uniform practice of untouchability. Is this the case?

Democratisation of touch

The cartography of untouchability, as mapped out by several studies by sociologists and social anthropologists, would show that this is not the case. For example, as compared to the South, the practice of untouchability has been relatively less rigid in the North. The reasons are three-fold. First, the upper castes in the North, unlike their counterparts in the South, participate with the ‘untouchables’ in agricultural operations. This forces them to interact more closely. They share beedis, pan and tobacco with one another. Secondly, the demographic character of the top of the ‘twice-born’ helps them to overcome the anxiety that they are numerically less significant. On the contrary, new political ambitions and aspirations, the achievement of which looks feasible due to their numerical strength, motivate them to democratise corporal touch. The Brahmin-Dalit pragmatist politics sufficiently indicates this democratisation of upper caste touch.

In the South, however, the top of the ‘twice-born’ lack this demographic strength and hence need ideology to protect them from the ‘sociological danger’. The ideology of purity-pollution and its salience among the Other Backward Classes provide them the required shield. However, it is necessary to note that in the South, the ontology of touch is undergoing a noticeable change. The cream of the upper castes seems to be migrating from rural to urban/transnational locations, leaving the ideology of repulsion with the non-Brahmins, who use it more efficiently against Dalits.

Third, the arrival of ‘kaliyug’ in the form democratic advance and assertion of Dalits/non-Brahmins has made the top of the ‘twice-born’ of the South more anxious to defend their boundaries, thus ultimately forcing them to use protocols of untouchability for tightening the boundaries around them. Any attempt to render these boundaries flexible meet with stiff opposition.

Finally, crop patterns also have a bearing on untouchability practices. For example, the perishable nature of crops forces upper caste farmers to set aside, at least temporarily, any feelings of repulsion aside and approach the Dalit colony and invite labourers for harvesting. The nature of the crop forces transgression of both mental and physical boundaries.

Earlier, an upper caste landlord used to shout for the Dalit labourers from the top of his house. Now, he has to come down and almost request the labourer to oblige him.

With the introduction of the panchayati raj system and with electoral democracy becoming more and more competitive, the upper castes are forced to approach Dalits right in their Dalit neighbourhoods – Tola, Wada and Chari. The possibility of a close finish in the elections lead the upper castes to put up digital posters of Dalit individuals on the walls of upper caste houses. Today, one could easily find the upper castes in eastern Uttar Pradesh not only allowing non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to put up such posters on their houses but even allowing Dalits in their homes. OBC cooks do not mind cooking food for Dalit marriage feasts. This is not to suggest that the political process is completely ‘detoxified’ of the element of untouchability.

The upper castes do not mind transgressing the boundaries and approaching Dalit quarters, which still exist outside the village. One, therefore, is not suggesting that they have completely overcome the feeling of repulsion. On the contrary, they have combined the sense of repulsion with a ferocious rage within themselves. Ironically, rage looks more dangerous as it seeks the physical mutilation of the corporal body. The killing of the four Dalits of Khairlanji in Maharashtra or the chaffing of the limbs of Bant Singh from a village in Mansa district of Punjab indicates this dangerous shift in feeling. The rural landscape makes it difficult for a woman or a Dalit to remain unnoticeable. It makes him/her completely vulnerable to both rage and repulsion. Does the urban context provide any respite to a Dalit?

The urban context

Babasaheb Ambedkar gave an affirmative answer to this question. He thought that cities produce a context within which a person can remain anonymous and thus save himself/herself from the wrath arising out of repulsion and, hence, untouchability. This was contrary to what Mahatma Gandhi had suggested. Gandhi saw a great promise in rural India, even for the ‘untouchables’. Although Dalits have migrated to cities like Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Ahmedabad, they have not rid themselves of the curse of untouchability, even in the cities. This is because the upper castes and also the lower castes for contrary reasons, seem to have reproduced the hierarchical social structure of villages in the cities.

Different social groups migrating from the villages to towns and cities brought with them the concept of ‘untouchability’. The overall anxiety produced by the expanding nature of society forced the migrants to the cities to create ethnic ‘caste enclaves’, with untouchability guarding their existence and distinct identity. In order to sustain untouchability, they needed to create the social, spatial and institutional base for untouchability.

The upper castes have also devised subtle ways to avoid touch. Knowing fully well that they do not have control over the chaotic public sphere, they make a last attempt to protect at least the domestic sphere from the ‘sociological danger’. Once the upper caste individual withdraws from the larger public sphere into the relatively closed context of habitat colonies, he/she is guaranteed social protection from this danger. This need for protection forces the upper castes to pay more to builders who ensure that the neighbours are ‘appropriate’. His sense of habitat is predominantly built around the need for soft landing into a ‘cozy ethnic enclave’. Ultimately, the political economy of the builders help in reproducing the modern ‘agrahara’ in cities.

Thus, in the early part of the last century, in Bombay these people produced ghettos in chawls and they practised untouchability in the textile mills so as to restrict competition and produce chaturvarna in the factories. Town planners and industrialists went along with this reproduction of villages in cities. It helped them to achieve a fragmentary impact on working class solidarity in the textile mills. Globalisation has destroyed these social structures in both the textile mills and the Bombay Development Department (BDD) chawls that sustained the practices of untouchability.

The growing middle class now has provided a new site on which the chaturvarna seems to be resting. Domestics in metropolitan cities reflects the four-fold division of ‘chaturvarna’, relegating Dalit women to clean the toilet or do zhadu pochha (house cleaning). Thus, even within metropolitan cities, untouchability travels from the public sphere to the domestic.

One awakens to an uneasy realisation that one is still in the extended village that is the city when one confronts either the auto rickshaw or the taxi drivers refusing to take you to a Dalit colony on the fringes of the city. The sense of repulsion that the taxi driver has carefully cultivated persists in an age when cities are aspiring to become ‘global villages’. What is needed is the exhaustion of the upper castes’ capacity to reproduce feelings of repulsion.

Can this be done through the Constitution? The Indian Constitution has made provisions to uphold the Dalits’ right to touch and to enter temples and hotels. But it has not guaranteed the right to be touched. Here the question shifts from the legal and political to the moral. It rests the moral initiative with civil society which, in order to create a decent society, must purge itself of its ‘twice-born character’.


 [Courtesy: Frontline, December 16-29, 2006]

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