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Defi ning Untouchability in Relation to the Body

forgotten pillar of holding up caste/ism (and rac/ism, the other two pillars being power and prejudice).
One comes across the claim from many caste Hindus that they are not prejudiced (i e, they consciously and publicly disavow caste-based thinking, feeling, doing), and that they consciously abjure from (re)producing power relations of caste in their interpersonal transactions in everyday life. Apart from the fact of mistaking systemic power for interpersonal power, the key issue of privilege as


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Defining Untouchability in Relation to the Body

K V Cybil

undar Sarukkai’s article on untouchability is an innovative approach to understand the philosophy that works behind a social practice. It locates such practice within an ideology of brahminism that uses two sources mainly of alienation (he calls it outsourcing) and supplementation. It is in marking the un“ ” touchables as the objective bearers of this sign, i e, of untouchabilty that the brahmin raises his own social position to the tallest. So what follows is that when untouch--ability is a positive virtue for a brahmin, for an untouchable it is a negative fact.

This, in short, is what his phenomenological understanding tries to convey in the process also informing us that the practice of untouchability by itself does not give the religious definition of excluding the impure. It works beyond the objects of impurity and into a state of being not particularly religious. He therefore leaves the ground open to a discursive realm more encompassing than Hinduism.


For example, according to Dumont, the


rituals of pollution were all situated within the extremes of purity and impurity. Sarukkai in the meanwhile extracts the notion out of a philosophical domain. It is further interesting to note that in establishing untouchability as the relation that binds the brahmin and the untouchable (not the non-brahmin) he circumvents the role of the two other varnas

– kshatriya and vaisya – who while equally sharing with the brahmins the monopoly of the knowledge of the scriptures contribute in no less a manner for the continuance of the practice of untouchability. To conclude, Sarukkai in a vein of constructive criticism of the Indian philosophical tradition on the aspect of touch his phenomenological inquiry gives insights on the perspectives on the Ambedkarite call to a nnihilate caste.

Gopal Guru in a response to this article writes that the philosophical exposition of matter in the Indian tradition like air, w ater, fire, etc, has been always to the exclusion of the lower castes and so it has continued to this day. He stresses the need for understanding the role of latent structures in consciousness by means of what he calls an archaeological method to unravel the truth of caste concealed by the practice of untouchability.

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Economic & Political Weekly


I find it interesting to note that both their ideas converge on the metaphysics of body as a useful bulwark to raise new questions about the “discourse of disability”.

A Few Questions

This is where I intend to raise a few questions which I deem of contemporary relevance in that the practice of untouchability that we seek to study being that of an egalitarian and democratic society, in what way do we rephrase the parameters? For a society that practised a norm of cruelty and cultured a system of terror especially in imparting punishment to transgressions to the taboo of untouchability it has been the challenge of adjusting itself to the more egalitarian and democratic ways of justice that has offered a perennial problem. We never tire of hearing about the number of atrocities against untouchables to this very day from various sources. It cannot be left to surmise that a m odern sensitivity built around a fragile notion of humanity helps foster this idea of the untouchables as a vulnerable and helpless agglomerate of the country’s population.

That questions of justice related to instances of crime against the untouchables have been settled outside the court room as we know is the main reason it has a lways revolted our consciousness. The example of the number of khap panchayats and the train of honour killings in north India may be observed in this light.

So the issue on which I rejoin the debate of Sarukkai and Gopal Guru is that of d efining untouchability in relation to the body. Sarukkai maintains that untouchability is a matter of heredity and not one of impurity, whereas Gopal Guru sees a kind of ontological equality in an inversion of the same by saying that human body b eing a source of impurities can be con sidered the critical starting point for e valuating all social practices related to untouchability.

If this conception of the body is concrete and wholesome in particular reference to the hierarchy of social relations that the caste system propagates then my question is where is that body of the outcaste, e xcommunicated by the modern, multiculturalist and sovereign state which through a multiple accumulation of impurities outweighed the symbolic unity of the body held together in practices related

Economic & Political Weekly

december 19, 2009

to touch and avoidance of it. Is it not from this parody of cruelty that the untouchables sought to secure for themselves under the rubric of the dalit?

Needless to say that there have been i nstances of subversion that have always encountered strict codes of punishment in the form of justice that have fragmented a composite notion of the body with the use of diverse methods of torture and pain. Since historic times such acts were also in the line of challenges raised to the caste hierarchy. One look at Buchanan’s travel writings in Kerala will show the many practices of torture used in killing individual threats to caste hierarchy usually couched as theft, lying, promiscuity or murder in accusing the victim.1 So this space also has not perhaps vanished with more egalitarian and democratic ways. At the level of practice, it always comes down to rest on the shoulders of the outcaste where it flourishes as a glorifying culture though of terror.

Today once detached from the notion of justice this is the area that untouchability wanders into, that of the outlaw. Once its practice has been declared a crime (because the Indian Constitution explicitly says so) we have to agree in principle that the practice of untouchability we all talk about is that which is situated in the realm of transgressions. An attempt to configure the body in such a state will also be unrewarding because it is a movement of negation and continous dissembling into a multitude. Most untouchable deities in particular evince this characteristic. Chathan a most popular avarna deity is not counted in ones or twos but in hundreds.

This is to indicate the disseminated form of the untouchable body, a derivation of which concept therefore has to be exhumed from a pile of corpses that have been dispensed with as faceless millions in the march of egalitarianism and demo cracy. There is waiting a million or perhaps more new texts to be written on these or, in other words, there is a dire need to justify crossing the boundaries of the touch and avoidance of it. Anna Bhau Sathe, acclaimed dalit writer and dramatist, put it better in perspective than anyone else as observed in the preface to his novel Chitra “I am not bound to the knots of tradition, nor do I seek to tie or untie them. I am not a priest…I am born a mang. I have within

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me the lived experiences of the untiring struggles of the poor and their fight to keep life pushing at its frontiers. I exist in telling their stories which I make into strong and sturdy ropes.”2

In south India at least the coupling of the avoidance of touch with sight had led to the most shocking results that led to someone like Swami Vivekananda to observe that this form of society is akin to madness (of Travancore). The transformations of the body within this crude form of symbolism originally pointed to the weight of realisation about notions of cruelty and exigency of reform with which the 20th century dawned in Kerala. These were in fact organised protests towards the brahmanical orthodoxy that later came to be interpreted as reform, for example, like in the case of the Sree Narayana Guru movement. Even at the height of the Communist movement the making of a new identity remained rooted in glorious themes of a golden past (Balakrishnan op cit). In other words with all the “underground” movements and life among the lower castes the majority of the upper caste Communist leadership never felt the dire need to justify this crossing of the boundaries and instead took them for granted.

If Kerala be just one example, I can say it is valid for most other parts of India. In the continuing trail of social processes of the new nation of which every single individual is being integrated as different parts it is the daunting task of fulfilling the deviance, of embracing the taboo e very moment of which has to be justified by making it speakable, discursive. This is also where I see the social impact of the discursivity of a term such as dalit meets the broken bodies of the untouchables.

K V Cybil ( is at the Department of Sociology, University of Delhi.


1 Cited in Balakrishnan, P K (1984): Jati Vyavastithiyum Kerala Caritravum.

2 Cited in Jhatav, Kishore (2000): Nilya Akashtil Lal Tara (Pune: Dignag Prakashan).


Guru, Gopal (2009): “Archaeology of Untouchability”, Economic & Political Weekly, 12 September, pp 49-56.

Sarukkai, Sundar (2009): “Phenomenology of Untouchability”, Economic & Political Weekly, 12 September, pp 39-48.

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