Untouchability: A Discussion Beyond the Purity–Pollution Dichotomy

The Discussion Map charts important debates from the pages of EPW.

In the study of untouchability, the concepts of purity, impurity and pollution are crucial for understanding the practice of untouchability and its presence in the caste system. This discussion map looks at two unique and different methodologies to study untouchability: first, the method of phenomenology, and second, the method of archaeology. Sundar Sarukkai uses Western and Indian ideas of phenomenology of touch, and discusses the embodied experience of being “un-touch-able.” Whereas, Gopal Guru’s method of archaeology aims to discover an essence or truth about caste that gets uncovered through the situation of untouchability.  

In his notable paper entitled “Phenomenology of Untouchability” published in  EPW in 2009,  Sarrukai embarks on a philosophical exploration of the practice and experience of untouchability. Using some Indian and some Western philosophical traditions, Sarrukai examines the sensation of touch to demonstrate how “untouchability is not merely about physical touching but includes the other spheres inherent in touch.” The article is embedded with several insights as Sarrukai shapes an innovative approach to study untouchability situated in the notion of supplementation, a concept that has been effectively used by Derrida in a different context.


Joining this novel study of untouchability,  Guru writes in his article “​​Archaeology of Untouchability” that in order to capture the full essence of the experience of untouchability, new frameworks to study untouchability must be located to open to us a much richer and nuanced meaning of the experience of untouchability. He coins the philosophical and the archeological frameworks in his article. In the first part of his article, he engages with select issues marked by Sarrukai in his article like the metaphysics of the body, where Guru writes that at a metaphysical level the organic body is the source of all impurities and negative properties of the body. This suggests a kind of ontological equality—that universally everybody is dirty, both in a moral  as well as material sense. The distinctive relationship between contact and touch, the concept of supplementation, and finally, the structural logic that unites both the Brahmins as “deferential” or ideal untouchables and the Dalit as “despicable” or real untouchables are among the other issues that Guru engages with. In the second part of the article, he expands on the “archaeology of untouchability” and notes that “Untouchability in modern times is forced to hide itself behind certain modern meanings and identities. Hence, a mere sociological or anthropological description does not seem to be effective enough to access untouchability thus located.” He exemplifies his archaeological insight by citing an interesting conversation between an upper-caste landlord and a prospective untouchable tenant. Both Sarukkai and Guru offer novel methods to look at the problem of untouchability in Indian culture. In response to both these papers, Balmurli Natrajan studies the limitations of both of the authors’ approaches and suggests an alternative in politics of displacement from the caste social order in addition to the ethics of touch. 

Natarajan focuses on the pathology of touch and place in his article “Place and Pathology in Caste”. Taking a cue from Guru’s article, Natarajan writes that place encompasses touch as the ultimate objective of caste as caste and untouchability are fundamentally about maintaining an imagined natural order and habitual social ordering ensuring that untouchable individuals are kept in their “place” through technologies of touch which is illustrated by the case of rape in Natrajan’s article.

A few other articles related to this discussion:

  1. Untouchability, S D Kapoor, 2009
  2. Defining Untouchability in Relation to the Body, K V CYBIL, 2009
  3. Touch, Untouch, and the Depositions of "Ucchishta", Sukanya Sarbadhikary, 2019


To contribute to a more comprehensive discussion map, please share links to other relevant articles in the comments section or write to us at edit@epw.in with the subject line—“Untouchability and Alternative Frameworks”


Curated by akankshya [akankshya@epw.in]


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