The Tribune - Spectrum

, June 23, 2002

Chronicling the course of the caste system
Jai Narain Sharma

Beyond The Four Varanas: The Untouchables in India
by Prabhati Mukherjee, I.I.A.S. Shimla, Pages 116, Price Rs 200

‘IT may be your interest to be our masters, but how can it be ours to be your slaves’ — Thucydides

It is a self-evident fact that untouchability has dehumanised a sizeable section of humanity in India. The victims suffered a lot due to this stigma and had to face oppressive servitude, acute illiteracy, grinding poverty, degraded status and sinister contempt. Untouchability has obstructed the progress of the nation to a great extent and this is the central theme of the book under review.

Untouchables occupied the lowest position in the hierarchy of the Hindu society. Though people were not unaware of the injustice done to the untouchables, it is true that dissent seldom assumed the character of direct protest against the varna system. It was probably because it was too strong an institution to go against. Moreover, the varna division was sacrosanct and was validated by the Vedas, which imparted sanctity to its mythical origin.

This trend, according the author of the present volume, continued up to the Bhakti Movement. The leaders of the Bhakti Movement openly criticised the caste system. But their views found expression mainly through a humanitarian standpoint. Significantly, some of the main proponents of the Bhakti Movement like Kabir, Ravidas, etc themselves were untouchables. But even they did not openly violate caste rules. Ultimately, the followers of these religious leaders ended up forming new castes of their own.


The practice of untouchability could have continued for many more centuries had stalwarts like Mahatma Gandhi and Dr Ambedkar not arrived on the scene. They, and many others like them, raised their voice against the unjust and oppressive caste system. Gandhi declared that for him the fight against untouchability was a matter of personal conviction and dharma for which no sacrifice or price could be held too high.

The Mahatma expressed the anguish of his soul when he said, "I do not want to be reborn but have I to be reborn, I should be born an untouchable, so that I may share their sorrows, sufferings and the affronts levelled against them, in order that I may endeavor to free myself and them from that miserable condition. I, therefore, pray that if I should be born again, I should not so as a Brahmin, Kashatriya, Vaishya or Shudra but as a Atishudra."

The Constituent Assembly enacted a provision legally abolishing untouchability on November 29, 1949. As the measure was proposed, the House resounded with the slogans of ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki jai’, a tribute to Gandhi’s 30 years of efforts to remove the practice of untouchability from the Indian scene. Present at the session of the Constituent Assembly as the Chairman of the Drafting Committee was Dr B.R. Ambedkar. Three years before, he had ended his book, What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchable, with the bitter words, "The untouchables have ground to say, ‘Good God, Is this man Gandhi our saviour?’"

The present study deals with this phenomenon in history and traces its roots to the Rig Veda and attempts to describe its emergence and crystallisation. The author believes that the uplift of the untouchables or the measures to induct them in the main stream of Indian life will not be effective unless the reasons for the emergence of this disease in society are not ascertained. Though some elements of truth cannot be denied in this logic, but always remembering the tragic past adversely affects the healing process and keeps the wounds intact.

The study also undertakes the arduous task of finding out hitherto unexplored bibliographical sources from both Hindu and non-Hindu sacred and technical sources. Archaeological remains of the Indus Valley validating the bibliographical material have also been used. The volume also discusses several questions like who were the most powerful people, when, why and how they could bring others under their control etc. A comparison has also been made with similar phenomena in other countries to show that untouchability in India was not unusual.

This is the second revised and enlarged edition of the book Beyond Four Varnas, published in 1988. It is an useful addition to the subject.