In the study of Indian History, there are contested interpretations over the genealogy of ‘Untouchability’, even among scholars. Well recognized scholar B R Ambedkar too tried to delve into this question and observed that Untouchable section must have emerged in the middle of Indian history. In his view, those who refused to give up beef-eating should have become untouchables. As per the Hindutva section arguments/scholarship/propagation Untouchable category emerged after Muslim rulers’ invasion of India!! ‘Saints’ like Gandhi gave ‘Harijan’ as a better referral name to the Untouchables. Revolutionary Social Reformer Jyotibha Phule coined the word ‘Atishudra’. Thus, all this indicates that various sections, persons, organizations have their own set of ideas and visions towards ‘Untouchables’.
There are a few scholars who still feel that the birth of Untouchability in the Indian Context is not yet properly established. This section of academics appreciates Ambedkar’s attempts to trace the birth of Untouchability. But they feel, yet further attempts can and should be made to trace out the birth of Untouchability. While all this is at scholarly level, at ‘dalit movement’ level, the Dalits also seems to be not well satisfied with their construction of identity. The search for better construction and understanding of Untouchable’s identity has been undergoing various modes of changes; such changes are based on social imaginary, evolving nature of culture, politics, etc. Untouchable’s are highly heterogeneous in nature. The features and background to their heterogeneity depend on various factors like region, history, social imaginary, etc.
The practice of Untouchability is abolished in India by the Indian Constitution. This is a Constitutional and legal provision. Even then, there were instances of proven proofs and evidences of practice. As practice of Untouchability became Constitutionally and legally difficult; this practice started to reinvent other shadow forms of discrimination. The Constitutional and legal abolition of ‘Untouchability’, made to refer this practice and section as ‘Ex-Untouchables’.
For legal and administrative purposes the Untouchables were regarded as ‘Depressed Classes’ during the British India regime. A much better word ‘Scheduled Castes’ (SC) was coined by the 1935 Government of India Act. Since then the word ‘SC’ was widely regarded and was well accepted. When compared to the word ‘Untouchables’, the next two chosen phrases ‘Depressed Classes’ and ‘SC’ were slightly better. But, mainstream people’s stigma towards these two phrases as synonymous to Ex-Untouchables continued.
Without bothering about the mainstream society, the Untouchables too had their ideas and visions about their identity. Some section of untouchables started and continued to construct their identity as a synonym for the name of ‘Ambedkar’. This process began when Ambedkar was alive. The Mahar’s and Mala’s of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh (including present day Telangana) come under this category. Another section started to coin and popular the word ‘Dalit’. The word ‘Dalit’ gained popular societal acceptance. The popularity of the word ‘dalit’, made even the Constitutional and legal word ‘SC’ usage limited. Anyhow, all is up to certain level.
There is extreme another level of assertion among Ex-Untouchables. This assertion was from the Madiga’s of erstwhile united Andhra Pradesh, before bifurcation in 2014 as Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Madiga’s started to argue that only a Caste’s identity can better represent that caste group. By putting forward this argument, the Madiga’s attempted to downgrade the Constitutional and legal word ‘SC’ and popular word ‘Dalit’. This resulted in extreme level of recognising ‘caste identities’.
Madiga’s firmly believed and thought that the shadow of SC/Dalit, etc words has become a well-protected umbrella for the protection and perpetuation of ‘predominant castes within Untouchables’, like the Mala’s. The primary conflict of Madiga’s with Mala’s lied at: Mala’s cornering lion’s share of 15% of SC reservation. As a result, the Madiga’s started to demand sub-categorisation of 15% SC reservation, brining equal parity among all the castes of SC’s utilisation of reservation. To this demand of Madiga’s – the Mala’s started to object and argued that sub-classification of SC reservation is anti Ambedkariate stand and politics, which is equal to dividing dalits. This created potential rift between the two communities. But, ultimately, the principles and philosophy advocated by the Madiga movement gained precedence. And, almost all the major political parties started to support the demand of Madiga movement.
During the whole process of Madiga’s movement for the Sub-Categorisation of the SC reservation; the Madiga’s started to argue that their caste name ‘Madiga’ itself can better represent about their identity, and this is same to any other caste group, like the Mala’s. Any overshadowing of real caste character was seen as a perpetuation of the ‘predominant’ among their ‘SC category’, by the Madiga’s.
As of now, the Madiga’s argument seems to be appropriate. We have to observe how other changes may occur in this discourse. But, as per my personal observation, even a few Madiga’s appears to be in a dilemma to use direct caste name as an identity, on a few occasions. I will try to address the dilemma of Madiga’s in another post.