Untouchables

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March 22, 2012
Anthropology

Untouchables

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. 1). 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....
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