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Untouchability

The Contemporary Period

Five phenomena mark the contemporary period: the reservation policy's results and disputes; the increased violence against untouchables; the growth of Dalit literature; the presence of a new and effective political party; and the image of Ambedkar all over India as a symbol of achievement and a claimant to all human rights. The reservation policy that provided a quota system for scheduled castes in all governmental political bodies and services and in educational institutions aided by the state was extended to "backward castes" in 1991 and produced a backlash from Brahman students who feared they would not be employed. Since that time higher castes have also claimed the right for reservation on economic grounds, but with the privatization of much government enterprise, the possibility of government positions for any caste is greatly lessened. Meanwhile, the years of reservation have created a large middle class among untouchables.

Increased violence, usually in the rural areas, when untouchables claim economic, religious, or social rights disputed by higher castes, is reported from all parts of India. The practice of untouchability was prohibited by law in the constitution, and there are many court cases, but much injustice is still handed out by police and higher castes, as detailed in the Human Rights Watch's publication Broken People.

A flowering of Dalit literature, "the literature of the oppressed," began in Marathi in the early 1970s with the poetry of the Dalit Panthers in Bombay and has now spread to almost every language area in India. Dalit means "ground down, broken up," as in the title Broken People. But like the African-American use of the word black, it is not a term indicative of victimization but a proud term indicating that an untouchable is not polluting but oppressed by others and that even a middle-class untouchable should identify with those still oppressed. The organization of young men who called themselves Dalit Panthers in imitation of the Black Panthers in the United States is no longer active, but Dalit has replaced the words untouchable and harijan in most public pronouncements and the press.

The name of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) means the party of the majority, and in its founding by Kanshi Ram, an untouchable Sikh, in 1984 it was intended to include all nonelite groups, the majority in India. It has been very successful in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where Mayawati, a Chamar woman, served three terms as chief minister. Mayawati stressed the importance of Ambedkar and his liberal political philosophy but joined with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a conservative party led by Brahmins, in order to secure power to make changes in the state.

It is impossible to ignore the role of B. R. Ambedkar in any discussion of untouchables or Dalits in the early twenty-first century. His image is in every town and many villages, often represented by a statue of a man in suit and tie, the dress of most of the educated, holding a book that represents the constitution. He is a symbol of pride and revolt, an inspiration for continuing progress.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Two-envelope paradox to VenusUntouchability - The Origin Of Untouchability, The Voices Of Untouchables, The Beginnings Of "affirmative Action", The Contemporary Period