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The Supreme Indignity of being an Untouchable in India

The Supreme Indignity of being an Untouchable in India



Anshul Kumar

anshul“It is usual to hear all those who feel moved by the deplorable condition of the Untouchables unburden themselves by uttering the cry “We must do something for the Untouchables”. One seldom hears any of the persons interested in the problem saying ‘Let us do something to change the Touchable Hindu’. It is invariably assumed that the object to be reclaimed is the Untouchables. If there is to be a Mission, it must be to the Untouchables and if the Untouchables can be cured, untouchability will vanish. Nothing requires to be done to the Touchable. He is sound in mind, manners and morals. He is whole, there is nothing wrong with him. Is this assumption correct? Whether correct or not, the Hindus like to cling to it. The assumption has the supreme merit of satisfying themselves that they are not responsible for the problem of the Untouchables. “

– Dr BR Ambedkar in Untouchables or The Children of India’s Ghetto

Recently, the Supreme Court of India observed that criminal proceedings arising out of Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act), 1989 can be quashed invoking powers under Article 142 of Constitution or Section 482 of Criminal Procedure Code.

The mere fact that the offence is covered under a ‘special statute’ would not refrain this Court or the High Court from exercising their respective powers under Article 142 of the Constitution or Section 482 CrPC, a three judges bench headed by CJI NV Ramana observed.

Such quashing powers, according to the court, can be invoked in these two situations:

1. Where it appears to the Court that the offence in question, although covered under the SC/ST Act, is primarily private or civil in nature, or where the alleged offence has not been committed on account of the caste of the victim, or where the continuation of the legal proceedings would be an abuse of the process of law, the Court can exercise its powers to quash the proceedings.

2. When considering a prayer for quashing on the basis of a compromise/settlement, if the Court is satisfied that the underlying objective of the Act would not be contravened or diminished even if the felony in question goes unpunished.

The Supreme Court bench has made a grave error in the above judgement by opining that if the crime under SC & ST PoA Act is Civil or Private in nature, it has the constitutional right to quash the proceedings.

Such a judgement points to the limited understanding of the judges of the Supreme Court in reference to crimes committed against SCs, STs (read Untouchables). In the Hindu society, Untouchables have been subjected to the ignominy of various kinds and such treatment continues unabashedly even today.

It should be noted here that casteist slang and abuses are used in a derogatory sense against members of the SC-ST communities, violating their human dignity and erase their recognition as human beings, sublimating them to a category of lesser human or subhuman, who are even worse than animals.

In any just society such a mistreatment of one group of persons is undoubtedly a criminal act and thus it can not be a civil or a private matter. It need not be necessarily sanctioned by Law of the Land as criminal to be considered criminal in nature.

The Universal Declaration of Human rights of the United Nations categorically states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. Anything that violates human dignity by any means, be it mere words or action, is a criminal act on humanity.

In Indian society, Untouchables have been devoid of self-respect any individual human should deserve by virtue of them being human.

“It is an offence for a member of the Untouchable community to give high sounding names to their children. Their names be such as to indicate contempt.” ~ Dr BR Ambedkar in Untouchables or the Children of India’s Ghetto

In traditional Hindu society, untouchables irrespective of their age, are referred to by the Upper Castes by their Caste names with much disgust and contempt.

Post Independence, as the Untouchables have benefited from the Affirmative Action policies of the State and broken the shackles of Caste by occupying public offices, land, education and employment the nature of atrocities have changed. The contempt and disgust in the minds of the Upper Castes has now turned into jealousy and hatred as the untouchables traditionally were denied access to all these things and the Upper Castes enjoyed their exploitation in full spirit. It should be noted here that any Caste which is not untouchable is Upper Caste to the Untouchables.

In the same judgement, the bench also observes that the alleged abuses were uttered solely on account of frustration and anger over the pending property dispute.

It should be noted here that traditionally as per the Hindu customary law, Manusmriti, the untouchables have not been allowed to hold property and even a property dispute between an untouchable and an Upper Caste might not be just a matter of civil dispute but may have casteist undertones.

How just it is for the untouchables to keep listening to humiliating comments from Upper Castes and it is later justified as something that was not intentional but said in frustration?

Another observation of the Bench points to the fact that the judges in the Bench have a very poor understanding of Hindu society. The Bench observed that the accused is of relatively the same socio-economic position as the complainant.

The socio-economic backwardness of any caste which is not untouchable has no bearing on its contempt and animosity towards the untouchables. Even a destitute upper-caste individual may disrespect and violate the dignity of a well established, rich and educated untouchable with much impunity and no regrets.

According to Christain Neuhäuser, The humiliation of some members of a group is humiliating for the whole group, if:

1. The humiliation is directed against a collectively shared part of identity;

2. This shared part of identity is constitutive for the self-respect of the members of this group;

3. The humiliation is sanctioned on a social level and/or no appropriate measures against it are taken.

The Supreme Court has focused more on quashing the case citing promoting harmony and peace but there has been no attempt to sensitise the Upper Castes. The Indian state has no policy in place to teach young students about such issues and there is a complete silence on these issues, dubbing them more often than not as contentious and pernicious to the larger society.

The Supreme Court has not pondered upon rehabilitation of the people who are accused of humiliating SC ST. Why are there no mechanisms like correctional facilities which seeks to change the state of mind of the Upper Castes ? Why are there no reforms of the Upper Caste psyche? Why is there no sensitisation curriculum in the Indian education system that makes young students question what they are taught in their Upper Caste households? The absence of any such mechanisms makes me doubt whether the Supreme Court really wishes to promote harmony among the untouchables and the Upper Castes or just wants to preserve the interest of the Upper Castes.



Anshul Kumar is currently pursuing MA in Sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, JNU.