Wednesday, 29 December 2010

diplomatic titbits: Shri Bhagwan Das - A Tribute

diplomatic titbits: Shri Bhagwan Das - A Tribute

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Mr. Bhagwan Das, our Guide and Mentor
By Arun Kumar

Hearing the news of the passing away of Mr. Bhagwan Das Ji, a wave of shock spread through out the Ambedkarite movement in the UK. He had a special relationship with the UK people. I feel privileged to see and meet Mr. Bhagwan Das. I had read most of his books especially his ‘Thus Spoke Ambedkar’ series. I was greatly impressed and influenced by his writings. I had an opportunity to meet Mr. Bhagwan Das in 1983 for the first time when he visited UK on the invitation of Dr. Ambedkar Mission society, Bedford. This Society had a long association with Mr. Das. Some of the NRIs in Bedford set up an organisation called Bheem Association in 1969. Due changing circumstances and to connect with the mainstream Ambedkarite movement, Mr. Bhagwan Das suggested to change the name. Hence Dr. Ambedkar Mission Society, Bedford came into existence.

Mr. Bhagwan Das was one of the few Ambedkarite scholars involved in highlighting the plight of Dalits at international level. He was one of the founder members of the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP). He attended many sessions of the (WCRP) held in Kenya, Japan, Malaysia, USA and many other countries. Dr. Ambedkar Mission Society, Bedford was a part of most of his ventures in one way or the other. He gave testimony in the 36th Session of the United Nations Commission on Prevention of Discrimination of Minorities held at Geneva in August 1983 on behalf of Dr. Ambedkar Mission Society, Bedford and many other organisations from India and abroad. Before going to Geneva, he stayed with us about one week. At that time he was staying with late Mr. Chanan Chahal. I used to spend every evening with him.

While preparing his testimony, Mr. Das said that it would be nice if a few copies of his testimony are made for distribution to the delegates. It would leave a long lasting impact. At that time there was no facility of modern computers and photocopying. We bought an old type cyclostyle copier. Mr. Dass typed his speech on stencils and we made copies. We all finished this work about 2 O’clock in the morning. Over hundred copies were made which Mr. Das took with him to Geneva.

After this testimony, the Indian Muslim, Sikh and Hindu delegates turned against him and conspired to omit his name from the next session of WCRP to be held in Nairobi, Kenya. Mr. Das asked us to write to the Secretary General of WCRP and explained the situation. A letter was written to the Secretary General, Dr. Homer A. Jack and request was made for inclusion of Mr. Das in the delegation list as he was the only voice of the voiceless people in India. Dr. Jack was a genuine person. He thanked the Ambedkar Mission Society, Bedford for letting him know the conspiracy and assured us that Mr. Das would attend the conference. Das Sahib was invited as an ‘expert on the Asian Affairs’. All Indian delegates kept a distance from him. Indian High Commissioner in Nairobi invited all Indian delegates for dinner but boycotted Mr. Das. Bhagwan Dass ji told me later on that boycott incident went in his favour as delegates from other countries came to know the
truth and Mr. Das became a regular invitee to the future conferences. Since then we were in regular contact with each other.

In 1988, Federation of Ambedkarite & Buddhist Organisations UK had a preliminary meeting to celebrate Ambedkar Birth Centenary in the UK. Mr. Bhagwan Das was also present in this meeting. The meeting was held under his Chairmanship. On his initiative, an organisation ‘International Ambedkar Institute, UK’ was set up to take Ambedkar thought in the premier institutes in the UK and do some research work. Renowned actor and film maker, late Kenneth Griffiths was elected as a Chairman who later on made a documentary film on Baba Sahib Ambedkar. During this visit, Das Sahib came to Bedford where he was interviewed by the BBC Radio, Bedfordshire and Chiltern Radio. I requested the BBC presenter for a copy of his interview. He was kind enough to send me the original recording of his interview.

During the Ambedkar Birth Centenary years, Mr. Das visited UK several times. Most of the time, he stayed with Mr. M.S. Bahal and Mr. C. Gautam as all Centenary Celebration activities were in and around London area. They took him around. He took part in many conferences and seminars. He addressed the gathering at the inaugural function of Ambedkar Birth Centenary at the commonwealth Hall, the Royal Commonwealth Society on 14th April 1990. Again he gave a talk at the Great Hall of Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn on 21st February 1991. As I was a part of the Centenary Celebration Committee, UK, I often met him in every function. During his visits, he always spared some time for us and came to Bedford.

As a President of Dalit Solidarity Programme (DSP), he was invited to give talk in Edinburgh University in Scotland. He gave a presentation by showing a short film narrating the history and present conditions of Dalits. Because of a long distance from Bedford and the paucity of time, he was unable to come to Bedford. Instead late Mr. Chanan Chahal, Mr. Dhanpat Rattu, Mr. Satpal Paul and I went to see him.

Once discussing about globalisation and privatisation, he clarified that our people are more adversely affected than others. He gave an example that our people were employed as sweepers in the municipalities. With this new mantra of privatisation the sweepers were being made redundant. Before this privatisation, they had permanent employment with all benefits of a government employee such as job security, health benefits, holidays, pensions etc. Their children had a scope for education. But now the contractor is a ‘sharma’, ‘verma’ or ‘gupta’ who employ the same people on daily wages with no security of work, no pension, and no health benefit. In this situation, children help their parents to earn their livelihood and drop out from schools. Similarly the people who were engaged in the leather work had also lost out. All benefits are taken by contractors but the work was still done by scheduled castes and tribes. . As contractors are from
higher castes good jobs go to higher castes and our people end up with old menial jobs.

Last time I saw him about three four years ago at his Munirka residence at Delhi. Dr. Gurcharn Singh from Delhi was with me. We spent about two hours with him. He enquired about all friends and the movement in the UK. He was as enthusiastic as he used to be about 20-30 years ago. But I could see his failing health.

With his demise, we have lost our guide and mentor. I will always treasure his memories in my heart. He will always be missed but never forgotten.

I am attaching his testimony given in the UN in 1983. His views and facts are as relevant today as they were 27 years ago.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Bhagwan Das:The historian of ‘his people’


The historian of ‘his people’

Bhagwan Das (1927-2010). His life was given over to the fight against caste and untouchability, and towards the promotion of Buddhism.

During the monsoon season of 1991, I began my dissertation research in Delhi. I always knew that the project was going to be hard: to write the history of the Balmiki community of North India. In graduate school at the University of Chicago I studied with Barney Cohn, who guided me deftly into the study of a “people without history”. Nothing about the Balmiki community was without history, but its absence in the archives made writing the history difficult. Unlike commercial communities whose archives resided in their transaction documents and unlike royal families whose archives slumbered in palaces and in war notes, the “untouchables” of India did not seem to have their own archives, and only rarely made an appearance in history books.

My work began in the National Archives of India, where my friend Prabhu Mohapatra led me into the Revenue papers. Here, in the margins, I found a lot of information on the Chuhra community of Punjab – the people whose hard labour made Punjab’s fields flower. I also went out to the various colonies where the Balmiki community lived: in the Bhangi colony on Mandir Marg and in the Old City, along its walls. One evening, near Kalan Masjid, a community elder handed me a slip of paper that had a name and a number written on it. He told me to call the number and go and see the man.

A few days later, I called the number and asked to speak to Bhagwan Das. In less than a minute a man came on the line. He spoke with what sounded vaguely like an American accent. Very courteously he asked me to see him a few days later. Bhagwan Das lived in a modest housing complex in Munirka. His unpretentious apartment was filled with books and magazines, all well read.

One of the first questions I asked him was about his accent. He laughed, a bit startled by my abruptness, and told me about his childhood near Shimla, in the Jutogh cantonment. English came to him not from the colonial overlords, but in the 1940s when he encountered U.S. airmen during his service on the Burma front during the Second World War. We chatted about the American troops, and he told me that he had befriended a few African-Americans among them. He was curious about racial discrimination and they were interested in his Dalit community (a U.S. air force report in the 1940s noted, “Native persons here are of a dark race and the Negro fails to respect their rights and privacy”; certainly the airmen that Bhagwan Das met did not respect his privacy, but they did honour his rights). These evenings in Bhagwan Das’ house were my apprenticeship.

Many scholars came through Bhagwan Das’ Munirka flat. He offered us his encyclopaedic knowledge and his kind wisdom. When I heard he had died on November 18, I was reminded of his calm intelligence and his kindness. Born in 1927 in the Jutogh cantonment, Bhagwan Das came of age in the shadow of B.R. Ambedkar, whom he met for the first time in 1943 in Shimla. Ambedkar drew him into the Scheduled Castes Federation and into working for him as a research assistant between 1955 and 1956. Finishing his law degree, Bhagwan Das went to work at the High Court. This was his job. His life was given over to the fight against untouchability and caste, and towards the promotion of Buddhism.

Bhagwan Das helped found the World Conference of Religions for Peace (Kyoto, 1970), along with the remarkable American Gandhian, Homer Jack. In 1983, he spoke before the United Nations on the vice of untouchability. He pointed out that India has an enlightened Constitution, what many in his circle called “Dr. Ambedkar’s Constitution. Nevertheless, Bhagwan Das told the U.N., “Anything which the untouchables consider good for them is vehemently resisted and opposed. Whatever goes to make them weak, dispirited, disunited and dependent is encouraged.” It was a powerful presentation.

Bhagwan Das was also a leading figure in making sure that the Dalit issue was not seen only in its domestic context, but taken in an Asian and global framework. In 1998, he was central to the creation of the International Dalit Convention (Kuala Lumpur) and had a role in the Dalit presence at the World Conference Against Racism (Durban, 2001). I had presented a paper at the U.N. conference on Dalit oppression in the global context, a talk that greatly pleased him (it was later published in a volume in honour of Eleanor Zelliot, titled Claiming Power from Below, by Oxford University Press). At the time of his death, Bhagwan Das was working on a book on untouchability in Asia.

I went to see Bhagwan Das several times during the early 1990s. He had a remarkable memory: one day, in 1993 (as my notes tell me), he fired off a series of names of people I should meet: Kanhayya Lal, Bhagwan Din, Narain Din, Kalyan Chand, Shiv Charan, and so on. Each name came with a story. Bhagwan Das did not have to consult any paper or notes; he had their names and their biographies at his fingertips. It was exhilarating. What kind of idea was this that a “people have no history”!

Bhagwan Das was a living historian and his autobiography, Mein Bhangi Hoon (I am a Bhangi, 1976), provided a window into the life and lineage of one person who fought against the idea that he had no history. A part of his story is available from Navayana as In Pursuit of Ambedkar, 2010. I read his works eagerly. He also taught me how to create my archive. The state might have only put the Chuhra and the Balmiki into marginal notes; but the people were less dismissive of their own histories. In plastic bags, and wrapped in rope, under beds and in steel trunks, he said, there were documents galore; and indeed this was the case. The most precious papers that tell the history of the Balmiki community were not found in the National Archives but in the humble homes from northern Punjab to western Uttar Pradesh.

One day Bhagwan Das said to me, get out of Delhi. Go to Punjab. That is where the trick will be uncovered. He sent me to meet Lahori Ram Balley, the remarkable leader of Buddhist Publishing House at Phagwara Gate in Jalandhar. Lahori Ram told me the story of the Scheduled Caste Federation of Punjab and handed me an invaluable pamphlet by Fazul Hussain ( Achutuddhar aur Hindu asksariyat ke mansube, Lahore, 1930).

Lahori Ram had encouraged Bhagwan Das’ intellectual and political work. Both were followers of Ambedkar. In the 1960s, the two friends would publish a series of books of Ambedkar’s speeches, Thus Spoke Ambedkar (edited with superb introductions by Bhagwan Das; the first in 1964). The second volume opened with a poem by Khalil Gibran, demonstrating the open-mindedness of these men. They were not bilious like those dominant caste intellectuals; nor were they prone to compromise. The first volume was strongly criticised by the press, Bhagwan Das recollected. “We expected it and in fact welcomed the criticism,” he wrote in the second volume, “because we believe nobody kicks a dead dog. All great ideas have to pass through three stages namely ridicule, discussion and finally acceptance.” They were at the first stage. The next was before them.

The generosity of Bhagwan Das and his friends never ceased to astonish me. Lahori Ram and Bhagwan Das also sent me off to meet the leaders of the Balmiki community in Jalandhar and Ludhiana, and later, in Shimla. The trick was here. I had not noticed it. They knew where they were leading me. It was the classic matter of the novice historian being led by the intellectual engagé.

Just outside Jalandhar, in a Balmiki-dominated village, I spent several nights. One went poorly. It was cold, and I was not keen on the bed. I went for a walk just before dawn. In the field I saw a light flickering, and went toward it. There I saw an old man lighting a set of lamps and placing them in a set of pigeon-holes. He was in what might have been a trance. I watched him, and then retreated. The next morning I asked him what he was doing. He told me about Bala Shah Nuri and Lal Beg, the preceptors of the Chuhras, the great faith of his people that had been obliterated in the 1930s. It was in this decade that the Chuhras had been force-marched into Hinduism and encouraged to forget their own religion and customs. This was the trick.

I went back to Delhi. Bhagwan Das knew I had found it out when I walked into his door (it must have been in March 1993). He handed me his book, Valmiki Jayanti aur Bhangi Jati, which laid out part of the story. Later, I found Amichand Pandit’s Valmiki Prakash (1936), which was a catechism for the Chuhras; and I found Youngson’s collection of Lalbeg songs in The Indian Antiquary (1906).

Bhagwan Das appreciated how we had together uncovered a forgotten story: how his community’s deep cultural traditions had been vanquished by the Hindu Mahasabha and conservative sections of the Congress – eager as they were to increase the numbers of “Hindus” against “Muslims”. It was a tragedy for the Chuhras, the Lalbegs, the Bala Shahis: they now became second-class Hindus. It is from this kind of reduction that human dignity shudders. It was also out of this history that Bhagwan Das followed Ambedkar to Buddhism; better a new religion that one loved than an enforced one that treated you as beneath contempt.

The generations before us loved poetry. It is something that we have lost to our own discredit. To make a point, and to do so in an unexpected way, they would often offer up a couplet or a line of poetry. It was very graceful. Bhagwan Das loved poetry. He particularly liked to talk with me about the verse of the Punjabi branch of the Balmiki community. It is from him that I grew to love the writings of Bhagmal ‘Pagal’, whom I would later meet in Jalandhar, and Gurudas ‘Alam’, whose poem from 1947 stays with me.

After one trip to Jalandhar, I brought back Alam’s Jo Mai Mar Gia (1975) for Bhagwan Das. We sat in the main room in his house, me drinking tea, and him reading out the poems. Here is Azaadi,

My friend, have you seen Freedom?

I’ve neither seen her nor eaten her.

I heard from Jaggu:

She has come as far as Ambala,

And there was a large crowd around her.

She was facing Birla with her back towards the common people.

In Jalandhar, I also met R.C. Sangal, the editor of Jago, Jagte Raho, from whom I got a stack of the papers. Bhagwan Das enjoyed the fact that the paper carried the verse of Baudh Sharan Hans and Alam (I also found Bodhdharam Patrika, another Ambedkarite newspaper that regularly carried poetry, including, from 1978, Alam’s great Chunav). The last time I met Bhagwan Das, we talked about poetry. I had thought to bring together some of these poets into a small volume. I was such a poor translator that I doubted my abilities. He was as encouraging as ever.

He called Ambedkar “an iconoclast and a revolutionary”. These words apply to Bhagwan Das himself, whose flat in Munirka was a stone’s throw from Jawaharlal Nehru University, but for me it was an intellectual haven like no other.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Testimony given by Bhagwan Das before U.N.O. on Untouchability in Asian countries and Japan

( Testimony given by Bhagwan Das, Chairman, All India Samata Sainik Dal, and
Ambedkar Mission society In the 36th Session of Commission on Human rights Sub-Commission on Prevention Of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, held at Geneva in August 1983)

I am grateful to the chairman of the sub-committee for granting me an opportunity to present the case of the Untouchables living in India and the neighbouring countries that came under the influence of Hindu religion and culture. I am giving this testimony on behalf of Secretary General (Dr. Homer A. Jack) World Conference on religion and Peace (WCRP). I also speak on behalf of various Untouchables and Buddhist organisations of India namely All India Samata Sainik Dal (Volunteers for equality) an organisation founded by Dr. Bheem Rao Ambedkar, Indian Buddhist council, Ambedkar Mission Society. Ambedkar Mission Incorporated (Canada) and Dr. Ambedkar Mission Society, Bedford, UK.

I take this opportunity to mention here that WCRP in its first conference held at Kyoto, Japan in 1970 discussed the problem of discrimination including the practice of untouchability. In its third conference held at Princeton (USA) the problem of the Untouchables in India and Burakumin of Japan was discussed and mentioned in the declaration. In the Asian Conference of Religion and Peace (II) held at New Delhi the problem of Untouchability and discrimination against the Buddhist converts was taken up and recommendations made in the declaration issued at the end of conference. Human rights Commission of ACRP decided to set up an office at New Delhi and an office is now functioning at New Delhi with the help of the Japanese Committee of WCRP under the title Asian Centre for Human Rights.

Untouchability is a phenomenon peculiar to Hinduism and it is an integral part of their religion. It took birth in India and it’s from India that this abominable practice spread to other religions and countries. No religion in India is free from this contamination; not even those who loudly preach from house tops the fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man.

Hindu society is divided vertically and horizontally on the basis of caste. Christianity and Islam have allowed caste to exist in their society. Lower caste Christians especially in Southern states of India are meted out discriminatory treatment in the matter of burial in the cemeteries, appointment of parishnors, priests etc., and matrimony. Upper caste Christians seldom marry a girl from the lower caste Christians. Islamic society is also modelled on the pattern of Hindu society. It is divide into three or four groups namely ‘Ashraf’ upper caste, Moghuls, Turks Afghans etc., ‘Ajalaf’ converts from upper castes of Hindus and at the lowest rung of ladders sit the lowly ‘Arzal’, butchers, tanners, shoemakers, sweepers scavengers etc.
Sikhs who claim to be more progressive and egalitarian but unfortunately even they have not been able to keep their society free from caste system and untouchability. Even in a country like Britain they rigidly follow caste system and practise untouchability and discrimination against the Untouchables (Ramdaasia and Mazhbis) living in England. A ‘jat’ Sikh shuns the company of the Untouchables and avoids going to the pubs patronised by the Balmikis and Ravidasis-two untouchable castes of Punjab. An upper caste Sikh (Jat, Khatri, Arora,-trading communities of Punjab never misses an opportunity if he can offend an Untouchable by referring to his caste.

Untouchables in various countries


Nepal is predominantly Hindu state and 89% people either return their religion as Hinduism or are registered as Hindus in the census. Barely 7% of the Nepalese are Buddhists. Proselytization is prohibited. Hindu society is divided into as many as 59 castes and several artisan and other castes such as Paura (sweepers and scavengers), Damais (smiths), Sarakis (leather workers) goldsmiths in hilly regions are treated as Untouchables. Even though there is free education, very few among those castes can take the benefit owing to the practice of untouchability. In the Nepalese Panjyat (Panchyat) not more than one or two members of this community can get elected owing to the deep rooted prejudices against these people whose only fault is that perform useful duties. Their exact number is not known because unlike India Nepal census reports don not register caste. Owing to the fear of dominating upper castes Hindus, even Buddhists avoid contact with the Untouchables in Nepal. These communities suffer from numerous disabilities arising from untouchability. So far as I have been able to ascertain they have not been able to organise themselves for struggling against discrimination. Those who can in contact with these people were mulcted by the authorities and only paying the fine and performing some ceremonies they could be readmitted in the society.


Pakistan with 97% of its population owning Islam as their religion is divided into numerous castes, tribes etc., Hindus constitute about 2% of the population and are listed as caste Hindus (296,837) and Scheduled Castes (603,369). Scheduled Castes is the statutory title given under the government of India Act 1935 to the Untouchables. Most of them earn their livelihood as sweepers, scavengers, cobblers, weavers, etc.. Muslims also treat them as Untouchables like Hindus throughout the World. Pakistan also has a Christian population numbering about 908,000. Christians are divided into three groups, Europeans and Anglo-Pakistanis, Eurasians like Goanese, converts from upper castes of Hindus and Muslims and people belonging to upper stratum of society. At the bottom sit the most despised sweepers and scavengers who are known as ‘Christian Punjabis Sweepers’ (CPS). They are the descendents of the members of Chuhra community, traditional sweepers, who embraced Christianity to escape the tyranny of Hinduism and the stigma of untouchability but the partitioning of the country compelled them to revert to the traditional occupation of sweeping and scavenging. Although they are economically better than the rural workers so far as the wages are concerned but they are compelled to live in segregated localities and are treated as untouchables. Like their counterparts in India, CPS are the most despised people in Pakistan. They suffer from numerous disabilities arising from untouchability.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is predominantly Buddhist (population 8,537,000, 67.3%) with Hindu constituting the second largest religious group (2,239,000) divided into clean and unclean castes. Among the Sinhalese, Goyigama is the highest caste and those engaged in occupations like butchers, drum-beaters. Toddy tappers, sweeping, etc. are considered ‘hina jati hina sippi’ people. Discrimination in the matter of marriage is practised among the Sinhalese. Siame Nikaya, a Buddhist sect does not admit the members of the lower castes as Bhikkhus but the other two Nikayas admit men belonging to the lower castes if they desire to join the order. But among the Tamilians, caste system is rigidly followed and untouchability practised in the Jaffana area which is predominantly Hindu (Tamalian). Society is divided into two major groups, namely clean castes and unclean castes. Among the unclean castes are included Palla (potter), Seneer (weaver), Parriyar, Kadaiyan (lime burner), Chikkalyan (leather worker and sweeper), Vunnan (washer man) and Thurumba etc. Upper castes (Vellala, Brahmin, Chetty etc.) treat them as Untouchables. Present conflict has temporarily obliterated the differences but after the trouble has subsided caste feelings revive.

Bangla Desh

Bangla Desh is predominantly Muslim (80%) with 4,926,448 (20%0 Hindus divided into two groups namely caste Hindus (Brahmin, Kayasthas, Baidyas etc.) and Namoshudras, Kaibartas, Hadis, Moschis, etc.). Many of the Muslims are converts from among the Untouchables and Buddhists. Yet discriminatory treatment is meted out to the untouchables in Bangla Desh. Our informants have stated that the Hindus of upper castes are treated as equals but the lower castes are discriminated in the matter of housing, employment etc.

All these countries were part of greater India until 1947 and were influenced by Hindu religion in the matter of rituals and customs.

Untouchability in India

Untouchability has not been defined by the sociologist or the legislators. At the time of discussion on ‘Untouchability Offences Act’ in Parliament when a question was raised about definition, the law minister said, ‘There is no need to define untouchability. Everybody knows it’. He was trying to avoid definition but he was telling the truth that everybody knows whom to avoid, whom to persecute. Untouchability is deeply embedded in the minds of Hindus and regulates their behaviour with other people. Stratification of society and restrictions on inter-marriage between different classes or groups are not unknown in other societies or cultures but to use the words of Dr. G.S. Ghurye, a renowned sociologist, “Hindu system is unique only in this that it alone classified some groups as untouchable and unapproachable.” Other religious groups only copied them. Since Hindus treated the scavengers, sweepers, cobblers, basket makers, weavers etc. as untouchables, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs also treated them as lowly, despised, degraded people. Since untouchability had religious sanction behind it, all efforts made by social reformers failed. Hindus avoided the discussion and foreigners did not want to take up the cause of the untouchables for fear of antagonising the Hindus. They were also taken in by the propaganda carried out by the followers of Gandhiji. Dr. Ambedkar had rightly observed, “The old orthodox Hindu doesn’t think that there is anything wrong in the observance of untouchability. To him it is normal, natural thing. As such it neither calls for expiation nor explanation. The new modern Hindu realises the wrong but he is ashamed to discuss it in public for fear of letting the foreigner know that Hindu civilisation can be guilty of such a vicious and infamous system or social code as evidenced by untouchability.”

Mass conversion of Untouchables to Christianity and Islam and growing importance of number in the politics of India coupled with criticism of Hindu society by Western writers, sociologists, travellers etc., led Hindus to introduce certain changes in their social system. While they wanted to remove untouchability, they did not want Hinduism and caste system to suffer in any way because Hinduism is sustained by caste system. If caste system goes, Hinduism cannot survive for long. On the other hand Hindus have developed a vested interest in Untouchability and caste system. More than 75% population of India is illiterate and people sincerely believe that caste is god-made and there is no hope or scope for change. Any laws made by man are interference in the God’s work. Hindu law makers had made elaborate laws and rules to keep Untouchables in degraded condition perpetually. Economic measures were adopted to perpetuate degradation, segregation and poverty. Laws were framed and strictly enforced to keep them divided, dispirited, poor, ignorant, illiterate and physically weak. They were not allowed to acquire wealth; higher interest was charged on loans; good, wholesome, nutritious food proscribed so that they may not grow strong. Right to bear arms was denied so they may never revolt. Low wages and excessive work was prescribed so they may have no leisure. Identity marks and symbols were prescribed so that even by mistake pure Hindus may not eat ot drink with them. This system was rigidly followed by the Hindus for centuries. Even Muslims did not disturb it. British especially after the sepoy mutiny of 1857 for fear of antagonising the Hindus tried to maintain those laws and enforce them through courts of law.

Progressive Western educated Hindus however felt uneasy and promised to bring about changes after attaining independence. Accordingly provisions were incorporated in the constitution abolishing untouchability and certain ameliorative provisions such as reservation in legislature, services of Union Government and states, educational institutions etc. Untouchables were subjected to some inhuman laws like forced labour in rural area. A provision to abolish slavery of this kind was made in the constitution but the law was enacted in 1976. Millions of Rupees were provided for the economic upliftment of the Untouchables in the Five Year Plans.

In spite of these laws the Untouchables suffer from numerous disabilities especially in smaller towns and villages of India. Untouchables don not have well in thousands of villages and upper caste people do not allow them to dig wells. Untouchables have to beg for water from a distance lest their shadow should pollute the upper caste Hindus. Sometime the water pipes are laid and stopped a few yards short of the Untouchable locality. The present writer struggled for seven years to get a public hydrant installed in a village of Himachal Pradesh while every Minister or even the Chief Minister announced that water had been provided.

If the Untouchables demand higher wages in villages, the caste Hindus pour filth or kerosene in the wells so as to starve them of water. Untouchability is widely practised. A mild and harmless law which was neither educative nor awarded deterrent punishment was enacted in 1955 under the title ‘Untouchable Offences Act, 1955’. This proved to be ineffective. This law was amended and passed as Protection of Civil Liberties Act 1976 containing a provision of minimum punishment. Owing to illiteracy of Untouchables majority who live in the rural areas, very few cases are reported and a very small number reaches the courts of law. Untouchability in worst form is practised in the Hindi region but the largest number of cases is registered in the state where the Scheduled castes people are awakened and better organised.

Of all the countries where untouchability is practised India has the best of laws and the most generous provisions in her constitution. British had introduced quota system with a view to giving share in administration to all religious groups and other minorities. Untouchables were however denied a share on the plea that there were no educated men available. Through the efforts of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar undisputed leader of the Untouchables ‘reservation in services’ was introduced in respect of the Untouchables also in 1943 during the vicerolty of Lord Linlithgow. Later o provision was made in respect of the Scheduled castes and Scheduled Tribes but reservation in favour of other minorities was abolished. During the early years there was little resistance because very few qualified people were available to fill up the reserved seats. Resistance was offered by non-implementation of government orders, or by declaring that suitable candidate was not available or if available ‘not found suitable’ and also through courts of law by filing writ petition. Since 1974 organise resistance is being offered by the upper caste employees who have enjoying monopoly of all government jobs. Private sector does not employ the Scheduled Caste people, excepting in the lowly, low paid and degrading situations. Table below gives some idea of the success in the part of the opponents of the reservation:

Quota Reserved


Reservation given in

Class 1 = 4.95% Class 11 = 8.54%
Class 111=13.44% Class 1V = 19.46%

Discriminatory treatment is being meted out to the Scheduled Caste people in the matter of recognition of their unions on the plea that it is the policy of the government that ‘communal’ organisations of employees will not be recognised. On the other hand organisations of the Hindu employees who are opposed to the reservation have the support and blessing of administration as well as the political parties, especially of those who have their base among the middle classes of Hindus.

Scheduled Castes (statutory title of the Untouchables) is an artificially created minority under the constitution. Names of castes can be deleted or added by the president. Pressure is mounting now through press to delete the names of more awakened and better organised castes. Majority of the Untouchables (about 76%) live in 568,000 villages of India. In some places they are allotted land by the government. Dr. Ambedkar demanded nationalisation of land with collectivisation of allotment on cooperative basis. The government favoured the creation of small holdings and peasant proprietors. Fragmentation of land is non-productive but the untouchable farmers who never owned land because of the laws prohibiting possession of land in some states desire to own land. The landholding dominating upper castes do everything possible in their means to obstruct distribution of land. Even if land is allotted, the upper caste landlords do not allow the Untouchables to take the fruit of their labour. If Untouchables demand higher wages or even the minimum wages prescribed by the Government, the upper caste landlords indulge in murders, torture, arson. Rape etc. to terrorise the poor ignorant untouchables. Thousands of men are employed as bonded labourers and kept away from the cities, police etc. Hundreds of women are forced into superstition by exploiting their ignorance, poverty and superstitious beliefs and sold into the brothels of Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Kanpur and Delhi.

Untouchables are becoming increasingly convinced that the Hindus hate them not because they perform unpleasant duties but because their religion teaches them to hate certain castes. Many embraced Christianity and Islam. Dr. Ambedkar who saw no hope of Hinduism reforming itself exhorted his people to renounce Hinduism and embrace Buddhism which he had revived in 1956. Millions of people responded to his call and embraced Buddhism. Government of India immediately issued order that if an Untouchable renounce Hinduism and embrace any religion other than Sikhism he will become disentitled to concessions and grants allowed to the Scheduled Castes. When a few hundred Untouchables in Madras embraced Islam because the Hindus harassed and humiliated them and did not allow them even to wear shoes or loin cloth which went below the knee cap, Hindu militant organisations turned riotous and burnt the huts of Untouchables and molested their women. Even Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi forgetting that she was the head of a secular government showed concern and delivered speeches discouraging the conversion of Untouchables. Some states have enacted laws making conversion difficult. Those renouncing Hinduism have to obtain a certificate from the Magistrate that the person desiring conversion to Islam or Christianity is doing it voluntarily. Police is dominated by the upper landholding castes of Hindus and is generally hostile towards the Untouchables. Indian Penal code contains certain provisions under which police have power to arrest and detain a person if he has no ostentatious means of livelihood. This in a country where majority of the people have no employment, house or shelter of any kind. Police abuses its powers especially against the Untouchables and many people are killed or incapacitated through torture in police custody.

Hinduism have closed the doors of armed forces to the Untouchables for ever. Untouchables were admitted to the armed forces of Islam after embracing Islam which many did. During early decades of their rule, British recruited Untouchables in their armies but after sometime they began to close the doors especially in central India and Bengal under pressure from the high castes of Hindus. They introduced the pernicious theory of ‘martial races and non-martial races’. Later on they disbanded the Untouchable armies and raise class regiments recruiting men belonging to upper castes. Indian government has not completely abolished the class regiments and has officially removed the ban on recruitment. But Government have not taken any measure to change the mode of recruitment. Recruiting officers, mostly belonging to peasant castes owing to to deep rooted prejudices based on caste and their medical; officers invariably ask a man’s caste and reject him on medical grounds. Untouchables have little share in army (0.44% in officers cadre and 10.62% in other ranks), 7.63% in other ranks of navy and 0.156% in officers cadre and 2.568% in other ranks.

Untouchables have the equal right to vote and contest elections. 79 seats are reserved in the House of the People (Lok Sabha) out of the total number of 542. Out of a total strength of 3997 members in the state legislatures and Union Territories 540 belong to the Scheduled Castes. On paper the number appears to be very impressive but owing to the election system of the country it is the majority community which elects the representatives of the candidates. In the rural areas the Untouchables can not exercise their right to vote freely and independently. Very often police protection has to be provided. After the election heavy price has to be paid tb the Untouchables if the members of higher castes owning land feel that they did not get the support of the support of the Untouchables.

Violation in Villages

Scheduled castes in the rural areas demand land, better wages, right to wear dress according to their liking, assert the rights granted under the constitution. Hindus on the hand want to maintain status quo in all fields. Tensions arise and often result in confrontation. Landlords have raised armies of trained men released from army and police to terrorise the Untouchables landless labourers. Police protects the strong against the poor. Government through its machinery and religious policies strengthens casteism and superstition because it helps the ruling classes. Leaders of struggle are picked up and either involved in false criminal cases or murdered by the police in encounters. Men, women and children have been massacred and burnt alive whenever they put up resistance against oppression. Men have been killed for offering Ganges water in a shrine. A man was killed in Aligarh (UP) for affixing the word Chauhan to his name. Women’s toes were crushed for wearing rings. Man was killed for twirling moustaches. In Meenakshipuram where mass conversion to Islam took place, men were not allowed to sit beside the upper caste men in the state buses, nor allowed to walk through the streets; women were punished for wearing sandals. In Kafalta 11 persons were done to death for crime of riding a horse in marriage procession and for using palanquin. The incidents of violence in the villages have been showing an upward trend for the last five years:

Year No. of incidents of atrocities
1976 6197
1977 10,879
1978 15,055
1979 15,070
1980 13,341

Recent figures are not available but the Home Minister Mr. N.R. Laskar during the last session stated that the number was showing an increase but during the Monsoon session of last week, he said that number of incidents has fallen considerably. Figures furnished by the Government do not represent the fact. These represent only a tip of the iceberg because many of the cases remain unreported. Untouchables feel very insecure owing to the growing resentment against the declared policies and programmes of the government which are very rarely accompanied by implementation. Bureaucracy is being blamed for non-implementation but is the government which lacks the political will to take action against those who flout the government authority.

This weakness is evident from the fact that even a simple and harmless demand by the Scheduled caste legislators in the Parliament to have a portrait installed in the Central Hall of Parliament where Dr. Ambedkar played a very important and historical role both as a member of the Executive Councillor in the Viceroys Executive Council (1942-46) and as first Law Minister and Chairman of the Constitution Drafting committee (1947-51). Government have been resisting this demand on some pretext or the other. Similarly in recognition of the great services rendered by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in the field of education a unanimous decision was taken in the Maharashtra Assembly to change the name of Marathawada University to Ambedkar University. This university came into existence chiefly owing to the establishment of three colleges by Dr. Ambedkar in the most backward region of Marathawada of Maharashtra. Orthodox Hindus in the region felt offended and instigated the illiterate and ignorant villagers that now ‘Ambedkar’ an Untouchable will enter your houses in the form of degrees and diploma certificates and you will have to repeat his name. As a result many houses of Buddhist converts were looted. Women molested, old men insulted, buildings demolished or set on fire and some people killed. Hundreds of men were forced to leave their villages and seek shelter in the towns, railway platforms, footpaths etc. Government could not implement its decision and the oppressor won the field. Untouchables and Buddhists continue the agitation with unshaken determination.

In spite of the fact Indian Constitution has the most liberal provision, Government have failed to implement its own declared programmes and policies for the removal of untouchability and upliftment of the deprived and disadvantaged section of society. Prejudices can not be removed merely through legislation. Religious policy of the government is discriminatory and is based in favour of Hinduism and Sikhism and prejudicial to the religions like Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. Government in accord with the wishes of the orthodox Hindus has used coercive measures to check the conversion of Untouchables to Buddhism lest they should unite and organise themselves for struggle. Present policy of the government appears to be based on the tenets of Hinduism. Methods may have changed but the aim of the Hindu law makers and religious leaders have not changed. Anything which the untouchables consider good for then is vehemently resisted and opposed. Whatever goes to make them week, dispirited, disunited and dependent is encouraged.


1. A commission should be set up to investigate and submit a report on the practice of Untouchability in the countries wherever it is practised.
2. Action should be taken against countries and institutions who encourage this practice an the name of religion and custom.
3. Government should be asked to eliminate discrimination against the despised and segregated groups in the matter of freedom of religion.
4. To set up a commission to monitor the activities of government and religious groups in the countries where untouchability is practiced.
5. Governments of the countries where the Hindus and Sikhs have migrated and practice untouchability and discrimination against the Untouchables should be approached to enact laws to discourage this practice.
6. A separate office should be set up to receive cases of untouchability and disability and the states concerned should be asked to report what measures they have taken to eliminate discrimination in their respective countries.