Origin of Untouchability:
There are different opinions regarding the origin of untouchability. According to Manu, the Hindu law giver, practice of pratiloma marriage was the cause for the origin of untouchability. Children born of such marriages were called ‘chandalas’. The chandalas were the progeny of the union of Brahmin female with a shudra male.
Hutton states, ‘the origin of the position of the exterior castes’ (untouchable) is partly racial, partly religious and partly matter of social customs. Dr. Majumdar, Sir Herbert Risley and Dr. Ghurye are in favour of the racial explanation of untouchability.
According to Prof. Ghurye, “Ideas of purity, whether occupational or ceremonial, which are found to have been a factor in the genesis of caste are the very soul of the idea and practice of untouchability”.
According to Dr. Majumdar, the disabilities of the so called “depressed castes” are not ceremonial, but are founded on racial and cultural differences. According to Nesfield, association with dirty profession such as scavenging, sweeping public roads, curing the hides, tanning, leather works, carrying the dead animals, etc., gave rise to the feeling of untouchability.
Article 17 of the Constitution of India states that “untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of untouchability shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law”.
In pursuance of this provision, the Parliament passed the Untouchability (Offences) Act, 1955 (which was later substituted by the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1978). According to this Act the offences of untouchability include the following:
(i) Committing any kind of social injustice, such as denying access to any shop, restaurant, public hospital, educational institution or any place of public entertainment,
(ii) Preventing a person, on the grounds of untouchability, from entering a place of worship and offering prayers or from drinking water from a public well or spring,
(iii) Refusal to sell goods or render services to a person on the grounds of untouchability is an offence punishable with imprisonment for six months or a fine upto Rs. 500 or both,
(iv) Enforcing occupational, professional, trade disabilities in the matter of enjoyment of any benefit under a charitable trust, etc.
Eradication of Untouchability:
Ever since the time of the Buddha and Mahavira attempts have been made to remove the social disabilities of the degraded castes including untouchability. The Buddha and Mahavira said that caste is no bar to communion with God. In fact, the Buddhism and Jainism rose as a challenge to the rigid caste system with all its evils.
Thinkers and reformers like Basavanna, Kabirdas, Santa Tukaram, Guru Nanak, Tulsidas, Ramdas, Namadeva, Santa Jnaneshwar and a host of others have advocated the removal of caste distinctions, including untouchability for the good of humanity. The Bhakti Cult popularised by Purandara Das, Kanka Das, Vadiraj and others, and the Veershaivism established and propagated by Basavanna contributed a great deal to the removal of untouchability.
During the British rule in the 19th and 20th centuries, a number of social reformers tried to eradicate untouchability. They launched movements against untouchability and built organisations to reform the Hindu society.
Swami Vivekananda’s ‘Sri Ramakrishna Mission’, Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s ‘Brahma Samaj’, Swami Dayananda Saraswati’s ‘Arya Samaj’, Atmaram Panduranga’s ‘Prarthana Samaj’, Dr. Anie Besant’s ‘ Theosophical Society’, Thakkar Bapa’s ‘Harijan Sevak Sangha’, Dr. Keshva Baliran Hedgewar’s ‘Rashtreeya Swayam Sevak Sangha, the Indian National Congress under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhiji, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s All-India Scheduled Caste Federation, Sri. Naryana Guru and S.N.D.P. Yogam in Kerala, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other organisations have played an important role in the removal of untouchability. Intellectuals like Keshabchandra Sen, Iswara Chandra Vidya Sagar, Justice Ranade, Jyoti Rao Phule, Sri Narayana Guru, Gandhiji, Sri Guruji Golwalkar, and others also tried to rouse the conscience of the people against the practice of untouchability.
The Harijan Sevak Sangha, Depressed Class Union, the Social Service League, Depressed Class League, the Scheduled Classes Federation etc. also tried to remove the caste disabilities.