Authentic and shocking

Untouchability in Rural India
Ghanshyam Shah,
Harsh Mander, Sukhadeo Thorat, Satish Deshpande and Amita Baviskar
Pages 216. Rs 295.

Article 17 of the Constitution abolishes untouchability in any form in the Republic. The practice of it is a cognizable offence and the offender may get punishment as well as a fine, yet it is practiced unabashedly in many parts of this "Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democrat Republic". Right from the struggle of Dr B. R. Ambedkar, chairman of the committee that framed the Constitution, efforts have been made to eliminate this evil.

Though the progress is slow, efforts are continuing by not only the government but also some individuals and non-government organisations dedicated to the cause. One such endeavour is by the authors of this book that traces the practice in the rural areas. The writers, Ghanshyam Shah, Harsh Mander, Sukhadeo Thorat, Satish Deshpande and Amita Baviskar have worked on the research and data collected by over 200 volunteers across 11 states.

The research carried out on a vast scale is probably the first of its kind. The staff of ActionAid worked simultaneously to collect this data so that it could help social scientists, intellectuals and the government identify the magnitude of the problem in modern India. ActionAid aims for "full citizenship for all" and this is one step towards it. They have decided to work for six social groups (the Dalits, indigenous people, minorities, most backward communities, workers in the informal sector and the urban poor) from 2005 to 2010.

We often read news reports of friction among the upper castes and the Dalits over drinking water or the Dalits denied land rights. The fieldwork highlights many other areas where untouchability is practiced. Besides other rights, the right to lead a life of dignity is being denied to many citizens. There are areas where the Dalits have to adhere to a certain dress code that segregates them from the upper castes; there are temples where the offerings of the Dalits are spurned and the Dalit women are molested to teach a lesson to their men. Even a cursory glance through the book draws your attention to the tragic incidents.

The social scientists have touched upon the practice in the social and economic spheres. "The Dalits are poor because they lack the resources to accumulate wealth and because they tend to be concentrated in low-wage, low-mobility occupations that perpetuate their status. Social segregation gets translated into a sort of occupational segregation." They have discussed the various steps and schemes taken up by the various governments and why these have not helped the Dalits. Even money is unable to dissolve untouchability.

This caste system is a tool to divide the working class. "In 1936, Ambedkar had argued that the division of occupations by caste is not just a division of labour, but also a division of labourers. The potential for proletarian solidarity and fraternity between the Dalit and non-Dalit workers is severely undermined by the preferential treatment accorded to upper-caste workers in terms of priority in hiring, better wages, working conditions and humane treatment by the upper-caste employer.

In the rural areas, the caste system divides even children in school. The children of the upper caste expect subservience from those of the lower caste. It is the duty of the school and teachers to eradicate such evils and spread knowledge, but in the rural areas, these educational institutes are, at times, mute spectators to such injustice.

This is an insightful book on untouchability practiced on a large scale in the rural areas, recommend for all who are interested in social and political rights, particularly students of sociology and social anthropology. This book is based on authentic research and the figures speak of the extent of the problem that should be tackled at the earliest.