Untouchability was not so much a sin as a calculated crime. But it is easier for everyone, even some victims, to treat it as a sin, for acceptance of moral culpability costs nothing.

The recent walkabout (padayatre) of Basavananda Maadara Channaiah Swamiji, head of a Dalit matha (gurupeetha) in Chitradurga, in a predominantly Brahmin-inhabited agrahara in Mysore, and the cordial, indeed reverential, welcome he received highlight the changing formal perceptions about the substance and practice of untouchability in Karnataka.

The Swamiji, by birth a Madiga, was received, according to media reports, with all the traditional honours given to heads of well-known Brahmin mathas. Photographs showed him having his feet washed (pada pooje) by women and men of the Brahmin community. During his walkabout, he was accompanied by large crowds of local residents.

This Brahmin-Dalit interaction has been initiated by Swami Vishvesha Theertha of Pejawar Matha, Udupi. Once a leading light of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, he has also been campaigning on the dangers that Hinduism, the Sanatana Dharma, is facing through conversions. Though proselytisation is not unique to the so-called monotheistic faiths, and Hinduism too has engaged in conversions (See, “A natural process of transformation,” The Hindu, November 7, 2008), the belief is widespread that Hinduism is peculiarly vulnerable because it is a non-proselytising faith, unlike Christianity and Islam, seen as engaged in a systematic campaign to draw people away from the Hindu fold. To counter conversions of Dalits into Christianity or Islam, Swami Vishvesha Theertha has undertaken such walkabouts in Dalit villages, more accurately described by their residents as ‘holegeri,' meaning localities inhabited by the holeya, the word itself meaning something that is dirty, besmirched, telling more about the reality of everyday life and experience of Dalits than these symbolic walkabouts.

Clearly, among traditional Hindu religious leaders there is awareness that the practice of untouchability is damaging the faith, driving Dalits away, and some alarm over its implications. Dalits who may (or may not) have at one time passively accepted the practice as part of the natural ordering of caste hierarchies of the varnashrama dharma, have been restive for generations. Along with several non-Brahmin castes, Dalits too are now establishing the so-called jathi mathas, headed by persons of their kind, bearing all the outward symbols and accoutrements of the heads of traditional Brahmin maths. Superficially, perhaps even in a fundamental sense, these mathas have appropriated all the visible symbols and the essential evils of Brahminism in practice. According to one scholar, there are at least a hundred such non-Brahmin mathas in Karnataka, most of which came up in the post-Emergency political churning of the State.

However, the correctives being applied, like demonstrative walkabouts by Brahmin leaders in areas one shunned as literally dirty and polluting , and by Dalit leaders in areas formally barred to Dalits, or the washing of the feet of a Dalit guru by Brahmins, are driven by a fundamentally flawed perspective that sees untouchability as a ‘sin.' Thus the symbolic atoning by those who provided the ideology, the ‘upper' caste Hindus like Brahmins — for it was the Brahmins who wrote the texts. These attempts to weld a common Dalit-Brahmin platform, united in symbolic acts of unity and togetherness, also make those Dalits who are going along with such a compact complicit in their historic diminishment and exclusion.

The problem with such gestures is that the practice of untouchability was not so much a sin as a calculated crime, part of a social structure constructed by those who controlled the resources to facilitate the accumulation of surplus and profits in the process of material production. However, it is easier and more comfortable to everyone, even some of the victims of that crime, to give untouchability the spin of being a ‘sin,' for acceptance of moral culpability costs nothing. If, on the other hand, one were to see the practice as a calculated crime for which one has to eventually pay, those who have perpetrated such crimes could, under a proper system of justice, be sent to prison.

Comparison with apartheid

A comparison with the practice of apartheid in South Africa which, despite historic and cultural differences, had remarkable similarities with the practice of untouchability in India will amplify the point made above. It should be noted that although formally apartheid — an elaborate system of separation of races on the basis of colour covering every aspect of life in South Africa, from the womb to the tomb and even beyond — was legislated by the Nationalist Party government in 1948, the ideology itself went back to the very beginnings of colonial occupation; and the policy of racial discrimination was introduced by the English settler regime, long before the Afrikaner settler regime perfected it and implemented it in toto.

In apartheid South Africa, apartheid was the norm for the minority of whites, barring honourable exceptions who went to the trenches and paid with their lives fighting against it. However, when democratic South Africa was faced with the task of tackling its tormented past, it created through legislation a structure and an instrument called Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was tasked to establish, to the extent possible, the ‘truth' about South Africa's apartheid past and enable the ‘reconciliation' between the victims and perpetrators of the apartheid system. According to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Chair of the TRC and the principal driver of the process, all South Africans were victims of the system, even those who were part of successive apartheid regimes. “We are a deeply wounded people, we all need to be healed,” was one of his frequent observations.

The overwhelming majority of the victims did not buy into this approach. For them, apartheid was an instrument devised and contrived to make the majority of South Africans un-persons in the country of their birth, a necessary tool to keep the production process on, but with no rights to have a share in the fruits of their labour. However, when the time for reckoning came with the advent of a democratic government in April 1994, the instrument devised to take stock of the past, the TRC, chose to see apartheid as a ‘sin'; and when the criminality of the regime could not be ignored, this crime was enlarged to become “a crime against humanity,” for humanity's shoulders are broad enough to carry any crime, instead of a specific crime against the majority of South Africans punishable under the law.

This perspective is similar to the one that views untouchability as a ‘sin' for which those responsible for evolving its theory and implementing it must ‘atone' by “washing the feet” of the victims of the practice. Interestingly, one of the most feared flunkeys of the apartheid regime, Adrian Vlok, minister for law and order under P.W. Botha, who had tried to get Frank Chikane — a leading churchman opposed to apartheid from a Christian perspective — murdered by getting his underwear laced with poison, three years ago publicly apologised to Chikane and, as an expression of remorse, “washed the feet” of his once-intended victim in his office in the Presidency, where Chikane was Director-General.

To say that apartheid and untouchability by their policy of exclusion and diminishment deny equal rights to the majority of the people is to state the obvious. The question is: Why? Why did they do it? To explain the practice as a moral sin against god and man is to take the easy way out. On the contrary, if one were to see these practices as crimes, one has to seek a more rational explanation. These practices deny their victims equal rights and practise exclusion because only thus can those who practice untouchability and apartheid ensure a permanent, cheap, virtually free supply of labour, which the minority can exploit to enrich itself.

Put simply, the ideological foundation of apartheid and untouchability was economic, not any perversely conceived and articulated “divinely ordained moral law.” If one were to view these practices as a ‘sin,' the road leads directly to feet washing, public embrace, eating together and all that. In the era of the allegedly free and globalised markets, the most casteist and racist of persons will gladly shake hands, embrace, and share food with those who deep down they despise if this huge reserve of virtually free labour were to be available on tap. Only this explains the eagerness with which the Hindutva forces are embracing, actually initiating, these meaningless gestures.

If, on the other hand, one were to see untouchability as a crime, not merely in a legal sense which it is, but as part of an arrangement to ensure the continued enrichment of a minority, one can see such gestures as feet-washing for what they are — a theatre of high moralism and low, calculated cunning.

More In: Lead | Opinion