The Untouchables:
Subordination, Poverty and the State in Modern India

Oliver Mendelsohn + Marika Vicziany

Cambridge University Press 1998
A book review by Danny Yee © 1999
Untouchability has played an important role in Indian history and still affects many millions of Indians. The Untouchables focuses on its connections with poverty and state politics, with a primarily political and historical focus, but also looks at its social construction and effects on the lives of individuals. With a broad approach not burdened with too much theory, it will interest scholars, students, and lay readers of history, politics, religion, economics, sociology, and other disciplines.

Mendelsohn and Vicziany begin with the vexed question of the identity of "the Untouchables" and an explanation for their choice of that term for their title, over Harijan, Dalit, or Scheduled Caste. (They use all these terms and others in the text.) There has been a long-running debate over the nature of Untouchable identity and its relationship with Hindu culture. For Mendelsohn and Vicziany the key issue is

"whether the Untouchables share a social situation that is sufficiently common to be the basis or potential basis for their mobilisation as a distinct unit for some important purposes. ... There is indeed something of a `hard bar' separating Untouchables from the rest of Indian society, and Untouchables themselves have come to see that bar as the basis for a certain amount of common consciousness and action."
The category as it exists now may be a recent construction, a response to British actions and Muslim/Hindu rivalry, but it was constructed on long-standing foundations: evidence from the bhakti literary tradition shows that Untouchable ritual subordination existed in medieval times.

Recent violence against Untouchables — the so-called "Harijan atrocities" — has brought the issue of Untouchability to prominence. Mendelsohn and Vicziany argue "that the incidence of violence involving Untouchables has increased significantly over the post-Independence period". The violence can be divided into "traditional" forms and others that are responses to Untouchable resistance to ritual subordination, often taking the form of organised retaliatory violence by caste Hindus, sometimes abetted by the police and state apparatus. There are marked regional variations in such violence and it is often tied up with broader political violence, associated with mainstream electoral contests as well as with class conflict and Naxalite revolutionaries.

Early Untouchable politics involved Hindu reform movements, often motivated by the threat, however nugatory, of Untouchable conversion to Christianity or Islam. Early organisation by Untouchables themselves was on a caste and regional basis, and relationships between different Untouchable castes were often difficult. The 1930s saw key struggles between Gandhi and Ambedkar, most notably over whether Untouchables would have separate electorates or joint electorates with reserved seats. Congress was the only national organisation with a large Untouchable following, but Gandhi failed to gain their commitment. Ambedkar, an Untouchable himself, developed a deeper analysis of Untouchability, but lacked a workable political strategy: his conversion to Buddhism in 1956, along with millions of followers, highlighted the failure of his political endeavours.

In the years since 1956 Ambedkarite political organisations have been riven by internal conflicts, notably between young, modernist, and urban elements and older, rural, and often Buddhist ones. But Ambedkar's legacy remains fruitful. Maharashtra and Karnataka have produced a Dalit literary movement, while there have been political success in northern India. In Uttar Pradesh, the Bahujana Samaj party led by Kanshi Ram has, through alliances of convenience with other parties, attained minority government, installing Mayawati as Chief Minister. Though their achievements in power were limited, this illustrates how Dalits are now using their voting power directly rather than as simple vote banks at the service of mainstream parties.

Public policy on Untouchability has been "abstract and unrealistic" but not completely ineffective. One strand has been action against adverse discrimination. Discrimination against Untouchables is still widespread in rural areas in the private sphere, in ritual matters such as access to eating places and water sources. It has largely disappeared, however, in urban areas and in the public sphere, in rights of movement and access to schools. Mendelsohn and Vicziany argue, however, that this has been part of a broader movement towards a new civic culture rather than the result of legislative action: "court enforcement of the anti-disabilities legislation has not been a powerful force in bringing about an abatement of the practice of Untouchability".

Compensatory discrimination has been more controversial. One success of Ambedkar's was the creation of quotas within public service for Scheduled Castes, though targets set after Independence are only being attained now. Complaints about this system are that it benefits an elite group of well-off Untouchables, that particular castes or regions benefit more, and that those in office do little to help their fellows. Compensatory discrimination in education, through scholarships and reserved places, has had some effects but has generally been poorly implemented. Despite this, basic literacy amongst Untouchables is gradually catching up to that of the broader population.

Brief biographies of some Scheduled Caste politicians, national and state, show that they have indeed come from the better off among their communities. But their advantages have often been very slight: family ownership of a cow, for example, or a small plot of land — just enough to alleviate the desperation of poverty and allow an opportunity for education. Along with public service reservations, scholarships (however small and corruptly administered) and the "Harijan hostels" associated with colleges have helped them overcome the barriers of poverty and Untouchability. While Scheduled Caste politicians have not been effective in representing Untouchables generally, Mendelsohn and Vicziany find little evidence of a "Harijan elite".

Other public policy initiatives of key importance to the Untouchables have been the anti-poverty programs: famine prevention, land reform, food-for-work schemes, and the Integrated Rural Development Program, among others. Apart from the first, these have had limited success. There has been considerable regional variation in alleviation of Untouchable poverty. Along with the population generally, Untouchables in Kerala score extremely well on social indicators such as literacy, education, health, and fertility, but they face high unemployment and lack of opportunity. For contrast Mendelsohn and Vicziany look in detail at the village of Behror, located in a relatively affluent "Green Revolution" area mid-way between Delhi and Jaipur. Different Untouchable communities here exhibit great variation in their employment patterns and economic success.

The Faisalabad stone quarries, just outside Delhi, provide an example of the new Untouchable proletariat being created through urbanisation and migration: eight out of ten workers there are Untouchable and most of the rest are tribals. A case to have welfare legislation enforced and end bonded labor was taken to the Supreme Court by activist Swami Agnivesh, but ostensible success was vitiated by the failure of governments and employers to implement court directives and by an excessive focus on bonded labour. And union organisation amongst Untouchables faces many obstacles.

The negotiations between Gandhi, Ambedkar, and the British in the late 20s and early 30s had a key role in shaping subsequent Untouchable history. But the greatest changes have been gradual, brought about by improvements in education and possession of the franchise. Mendelsohn and Vicziany foresee no end to Untouchable poverty: with the decline of ritual discrimination, "Untouchables will become decreasingly differentiated from other Indians" in their poverty.

April 1999

External links:
- buy from or
- details at Cambridge University Press
Related reviews:
- Susan Bayly - Caste, Society and Politics in India: From the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age
- books about India + Indian history
- books about politics
- more social history
- books published by Cambridge University Press
%T The Untouchables
%S Subordination, Poverty and the State in Modern India
%A Mendelsohn, Oliver
%A Vicziany, Marika
%I Cambridge University Press
%D 1998
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0521556716
%P xviii,289pp