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In the article Untouchable, Tom O’Neil tells us what being an untouchable is all about. By interviewing those labeled as untouchable, O’Neil finds a way to truly express to us what it’s like to be an untouchable and the true underlying complications that the seeming unbreakable caste system has projected on its cultural members. What are untouchables? Untouchables, or achutta, are the lowest ranking members in the caste system – or pecking order. O’Neil states that “untouchables are outcasts – people considered too impure, too polluted, to rank as worthy beings,” (O’Neil, p. ).
Interestingly, untouchables are not deformed or distinctively different from other Indians in any way. “Their skin is the same color. They don’t wear rags; they are not covered with sores. They walk the same streets and attend the same schools. ” (O’Neil, p. 2). Yet, O’Neil goes on to tell us that “[they] are shunned, insulted, banned from temples and higher caste homes, made to eat and drink from separate utensils in public places, and, in extreme but not uncommon cases, are raped, burned, lynched, and gunned down. ” (O’Neil, p. 1).
Untouchables cannot hide from their status if they were born an untouchable – they will forever be an untouchable. “Untouchables may as well wear a scarlet tattoo on their foreheads to advertise their status. ” (O’Neil, p. 2). O’Neil goes on to quote Sukhadeo Thorat, a faculty member at Jawaharlal Nehru University and among the few Untouchables in India with a Ph. D. “You cannot hide your caste,” he says. “You can try to disguise it, but there are so many ways to slip up. A Hindu will not feel confident developing a relationship without knowing your background.
Within a couple of months, your caste will be revealed. ” (O’Neil, p. 2). O’Neil tells us that Family name, village address, body language all deliver clues, but none so much as occupation. Untouchables perform society’s unclean work – work that involves physical contact with blood, excrement, and other bodily defilements as defined by Hindu law. Untouchables cremate the dead, clean latrines, cut umbilical cords, remove dead animals from the roads, tan hides, sweep gutters. These jobs, and the status of Untouchability, are passed down for generations.
Untouchables are trapped at the bottom of a system that can’t function without discrimination. ” (O’Neil, p. 2). Stuck in a never-ending world of reject, untouchables are mistreated, disregarded, and held at an unremovable status throughout their life. What’s stopping this? Well, untouchability was abolished in India’s constitution in 1950 however, it is still a factor today. “Many people would point out that the crudest, most overt forms of discrimination have largely disappeared, the result of sporadic reform movements before and after India’s independence in 1947.
It’s true that at least in the public sphere, Untouchables have made progress since the days – within living memory – when they were beaten if their shadow touched a higher caste person, wore bells to warn of their approach, and carried buckets so their spit wouldn’t contaminate the ground. Untouchables couldn’t enter schools or sit on a bench near a higher caste person. ” (O’Neil, p. 2). Yes, things have changed however, it isn’t quite changing drastically enough. Why? Because Hinduism, a religion held by many of these Indians, supports the idea of untouchability and provokes more societal authority than that of their constitution.
O’Neil puts it best when he states The ancient belief system that created the Untouchables overpowers modern law. While India’s constitution forbids caste discrimination and specifically abolishes Untouchability, Hinduism, the religion of 80 percent of India’s population, governs daily life with its hierarchies and rigid social codes. Under its strictures, and Untouchable parent gives birth to an Untouchable child, condemned as unclean from the first breath. (O’Neil, p. 1). With such a large percentage of India dedicated to these Hindu beliefs, it’s easy to see why breaking down this caste system is such a struggle.
Although, the 1950 constitution has made some progress. “The 1950 constitution mandates a quota system that reserves seats in the federal legislature equal to the Untouchable share of the population: 15 percent. Reserved spots extend to positions in state legislatures, village councils, civil service, and university classrooms. ” (O’Neil, p. 2). Still, after 60 years since the constitution, only a small amount of progress has been made. Unfortunately, much of India’s caste system is still undoubtedly present. “…for all the laws and regulations on the books, the hard heart of caste remains unmoved.
There are 160 million Untouchables in India – a country that trumpets itself as a model for developing nations. During the winter I spend in India, hardly a day passed that I didn’t hear or read of acid thrown in a boy’s face, or a wife raped in front of her husband, or some other act whose provocation was simply that an Untouchable didn’t know his or her place. (O’Neil, p. 2). With such little urge to break apart Hinduism and the foundation many Indians built their daily lives on, it’s difficult to imagine any drastic changes when considering the rights of Untouchables, not just legally, but also socially.
The acceptance of all castes and the abolishment of the caste system as a whole seems quite sadly far from the future horizon. Those with kinder hearts have tried to speak up and voiced their concern for Untouchables. One many of us are familiar with was Mahatma Gandhi. Even though Gandhi urged Indians to cease discriminating against untouchables, many feel that he failed. Historians say that Gandhi deserves great credit for pushing the issue of Untouchability onto the national stage and for lending his moral stature to the campaign to abolish it.
Yet he never actually renounced the Hindu caste system, and the concrete results of his actions were few. Many Untouchables, particularly the educated ones, would love to knock him off his pedestal. Even the Harijan label (given to those in place of Untouchable) invokes pity rather than respect. (O’Neil, p. 5). Not only did Gandhi’s lack of abandoning the Hindu caste system all together lead to few, if any, results his actions also lead many Untouchables to believe his efforts failed even farther.
India’s “one true Untouchable hero” is a man name Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar and he came into play during Gandhi’s “greatest perceived sin”. (O’Neil, p. 5). Gandhi’s greatest perceived sin, however, was to undermine a man named Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. Ambedkar pushed for a separate electorate. He feared that an assertive Untouchable could never win an election open to voters of all castes. He wanted Untouchable office-holders elected exclusively by Untouchables. Gandhi resisted Ambedkar’s position on religious principles, fearing that secular solutions to caste problems would destroy Hinduism.
And in September 1932, when it appeared that the British would side with Ambedkar, Gandhi protested by entering a fast unto death. Ambedkar had little choice but to surrender after a few days as Gandhi weakened. Ambedkar won a guarantee of seats for Untoughables in the legislation, but Gandhi’s actions broke the momentum for radical change. (O’Neil, p. 5). Since Ambedkar’s death there has been no Untouchable leader of the same comparison. There is only a small group of grassroots organizers spread throughout India.
These organizers are helping the cause with every effort, however small it may be. Not only is this helping, medical training is also changing the lives of some Untouchables. Having health care for all members of the society is a huge help but what’s really shattering the grounds of the caste system are those health workers who are Untouchables themselves and are being accepted, opportunely or not, by those in a higher caste who need medical attention from whoever may be offering it. Salve and Sathe, two health workers, were members of the Untouchable caste.
Building not only their confidence but also changing perceptions of those their helping is causing changes one step at a time. “[There was] much prejudice against Untouchable women like her. Discrimination was the hardest for me, and the hardest to fight,” states Salve. “I gave people love and affection. Slowly casteism goes away. ” (Necessary Angels, p. 86). In her later year Sathe has also experience change. She had become the sarpanch, or leader of Jawalke – the city she had spent years caring for.
There has also been changes in villages that Sathe, Salve, and their group does not reach. “More women are postponing marriage until 18, the use of contraception has reduced family size, and more girls are attending school. ” (Necessary Angels, p. 77). Every change, however relatively minor or moderately large, is a change in the right direction. The suppression of those labeled Untouchable O’Neil compares to as slaves. A societal horror one familiar with our U. S. class systems can better fathom.
With our racism and prejudices are we any better at all? Babulal Bairwa, an Untouchable landowner in the village of Chakwara says “I am clean. I don’t smoke or drink or eat meat. I work hard. I do everything right. Why am I Untouchable? ” (O’Neil, p. 7). O’Neil responds “Because he was born one. One hundred sixty million Indians serve this life sentence. ” (O’Neil, p. 7). Yes, we have grown much since the abolishment of slavery but is racism not still here? Will the discrimination ever be lifted of those people scared with the label of Untouchable?