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Archaeology of Untouchability

Untouchability as a dynamic reality is bound to produce experience which is always in excess of its description. Hence, the available description is often inadequate to capture the totality of the meaning of the experience. To capture the full experience of untouchability, one requires to invoke other perspectives and methods. This paper argues that at the moment there could be two such frameworks - the philosophical and the archaeological - that could open to us much richer and nuanced meanings of the phenomenon of untouchability.


Archaeology of Untouchability

Gopal Guru

Untouchability as a dynamic reality is bound to produce experience which is always in excess of its description. Hence, the available description is often inadequate to capture the totality of the meaning of the experience. To capture the full experience of untouchability, one requires to invoke other perspectives and methods. This paper argues that at the moment there could be two such frameworks – the philosophical and the archaeological – that could open to us much richer and nuanced meanings of the phenomenon of untouchability.

This work has evolved through long and insightful discussions with Sundar and Dhanu. I thank them for showing unfailing interest in my work.

Gopal Guru ( is with the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

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ebating Sarukkai acquires significance, especially in an intellectual context, where the discourse on untouchability in contemporary times has received only lopsided a ttention in different quarters. For instance, it has elicited some degree of academic interest among historians (Jha 1974), and substantially more attention from sociologists and social anthropologists. Arguably, sociology and social anthropology look impressive inasmuch as these disciplines offer quite a detailed description of untouchability (Dumont 1988; Desai 1976; Shah et al 2006). On the other hand, it is interesting to note that untouchability as a social concern finds its most profound expression in a different discipline – the non-dalit1 and dalit literature.2 On the flip side, in some of the influential disciplines like political science (Rudolph and Rudolph 1967; Rajshekhariah 1976), it figures only marginally, while in others like economics and philosophy,3 it is completely blacked out. Even sociological or anthropological descriptions of untouchability, which may look fascinating to some, do not exhaust all the reference points. To put it differently, untouchability as a dynamic reality tends to produce experience, which is always in excess of these textualised sociological and anthropological descriptions. Hence, available descriptions are often inadequate to capture the totality of the meaning that emanates from this dynamism. This dynamism warrants a fresh perspective that could enable us to tap excess meaning embedded in untouchability as a dynamic practice.

At the moment, I can think of two such frameworks – the philosophical and archaeological, that could reveal a much richer and nuanced meaning of the phenomenon of untouchability. Sarukkai’s paper in my opinion succeeds in assigning both height and depth to the understanding of untouchability thus elevating it from its mere descriptive/empirical, and therefore, more routinised and familiar understanding to its much richer and wider philosophical context.

Sarukkai, in his article elsewhere in this journal (pp 39-48),

o ffers a wider philosophical grasp of the notion of untouchability. This he does by drawing on both Indian and western philosophical traditions. In Sarukkai’s understanding of untouchability, the idea of touch (and skin) becomes important. For touch and skin, as he says, form a primal sense of the body. Sarukkai gives a fascinating i nsight into the phenomenological understanding of untouchability and argues, “the notion of untouchability is an essential r equirement of brahminhood”. For Sarukkai, brahminhood, as a part of this requirement, seeks not just the need to outsource untouch ability to others, but most importantly, it also involves a philosophical move to supplement untouchability into others.

I would argue that Sarukkai’s paper, particularly this new understanding of untouchability as outsourcing and supplementation, questions the final vocabulary that has almost acquired a settled status, particularly in the authoritative sociological work of Louis Dumont. Sarukkai’s take on untouchability thus provides a counter argument to Dumont’s (Dumont 1988: 54), who says, “It is clear that impurity of the untouchable is conceptually inseparable from the purity of Brahmin”. Sarukkai’s perspective on u ntouchability, thus, provides a counter argument to this D umontian understanding of untouchability. In addition to this, it also opens up the possibility of solving some of the “sociological puzzles”.4 F urthermore, his notion of outsourcing offers us an o pportunity to theoretically understand the political dynamics of anti-untouchability movements led by Ambedkar, and subsequently, by the dalit movement in India. Finally, it will not only help us in detecting the spaces that inhabit the upper castes’ a nxious self, but it also offers an opportunity to foreground the moral significance of this notion of supplementation and its c ontestation.

Dealing with Select Issues

Sarukkai’s paper thus offers several insights embedded in his rather capacious reading of untouchability. However, the height and depth that he has assigned to the understanding of untouchability makes it all the more difficult to take on board all the important i ssues that Sarukkai has raised in his paper. Hence, in the first part of this article, I will engage with select issues like metaphysics of the body, 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. Let me offer another clarificatory point that the choice to engage with some issues is informed more by my own convenience and less by the need to seek refutation of Sarukkai’s argument. At best, I can claim that my own take on the issue under consideration is modestly aimed at seeking an extension of Sarukkai’s position. Thus, the first part will involve a dialogue that pertains to the issues as mentioned above.

The second part of this article deals with the possibility of this e xpansion. I would like to argue that there are different types of a rchaeological methods deployed by different scholars, perhaps, for different purposes. However, I plan to choose one that would be more appropriate in making sense of the complex relationship between untouchability and caste. Taking the cue from Vitthal Ramji Shinde (Shinde 1976: 129), one of the leading non-brahmin social thinkers from modern Maharashtra, who says, Asprushtechi malmal, manachy talashi dadun basil ahe (“Untouchability is a kind of repulsive feeling, a sort of nausea, that sits deep at the bottom of brahminical mind”). I would like to argue that modernity forces untouchability to descend deep down at the bottom of “brahminical mind”. As I would argue in the second part, archaeological method seems to be the most appropriate one to detect the nausea-like attitude.

It is also interesting to note that Sarukkai’s understanding of untouchability goes close to the understanding of Shinde. As we have seen in the above section, Sarukkai also locates the source of untouchability in the brahminical self. I would further argue in the second part that due to the compulsion of the modern c onditions, untouchability both as practice and as consciousness, finds it difficult to remain on the surface of social interaction as was the case in the feudal past.5 Modernity forces it to slide further down to the bottom of the hierarchical mind. Differently put, untouchability as a discursive practice, plays itself out in a much subtler form than ever before. Untouchability in modern times is forced to hide itself behind certain modern meanings and identities. Hence, a mere s ociological or anthropological d escription does not seem to be e ffective enough to access u ntouchability thus located. Archaeology as a method seems to be more effective in accessing this c omplex mind because it deals not so much with a need to invent, but to discover an e ssence or truth of caste that gets covered with a subtle form of untouchability.

Let me initiate a dialogue with Sarukkai by engaging first with what he describes as metaphysics of body and later explore what implications this idea has for untouchability when understood in the Indian context. Sarukkai offers us different notions of body, that as he says, appear in different Indian philosophical traditions. In the Nyaya tradition, as he continues to argue in his essay, the body is the locus of senses and the body feels through the senses. Sarukkai suggests the need for further exploration in this regard, but from the phenomenological point of view. Sarukkai quoting from Lang, further observes that for the Buddha, the body was indeed the world in that it is within the body that there is the arising and ceasing of the world. Sarukkai further quoting from Buddhism, particularly its Madhyamika tradition from the Buddhist compendium, observes that the notion of impurity of body is all pervading. From Buddhism, he elaborates five impurities of body: womb, seed, body’s nature, bodies’ characteristics and corpse.

Extended Sense of the Impurities of the Body

Taking the cue from Sarukkai, it is possible to make an extended sense of impurities of the body and argue that, in addition to these five impurities, organic body also contains another set of impurities, which seek to undercut the moral significance of both the s acred (in ritual sense) and perfect (physical sense) bodies. All the organic bodies contain within them negative properties like sweat, excreta, urine, mucus and gases. In the material sense, they are the source of foul smell and unpleasant feeling. Thus, at the metaphysical level, the organic body as the source of impurities suggests a kind of ontological equality – that everybody is dirty, both in moral sense as well as material sense. Ontological equality suggesting equal distribution of these impurities or organic refuse sitting underneath the skin of everybody is supposed to bring out in every person a moral insight that in turn will compel him/her to acknowledge this ontological equality. To put differently, this insight is supposed to create a sense of self-realisation among people who then can find no reason to produce pernicious classification of bodies into repulsive and attractive (of course, this is bad news for the cosmetic industry). This i nsight, which can generate a sense of moral relativism, in effect creates the possibility to restrain, and perhaps, totally eliminate morally offensive capacity that a person may use for producing the classification as mentioned above. To put it differently, moral relativism can make it difficult to produce a negative j udgment that often is deployed to seek condemnation of other’s body as filthy.

Metaphysics of the body, leading to moral relativism, has s ignificance inasmuch as it seeks to relativise the notion of the perfect body or “even out” excess moral value that makes some b odies superior to others. Assigning an egalitarian value to

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e verybody becomes a possibility, what is called ontological m irroring of other bodies. It is in this sense that my understanding of the metaphysics of body makes a complementary reading with Sarukkai’s reading of metaphysics of body. I suppose both of us suggest a redescription of untouchability that can have implications for the discourse on disability.

Five Principles

Conversely, it is also possible to argue that everybody is respectworthy, simply because it is constitutive of five principles that are present in every organic body with equal quantity. These are – earth, water, fire, air and akāsa (space). In Indian philosophy (Sānkhya school), these are called Panchamahabhute.6 At the metaphysical level, these Panchamahabhute assign affirmative meaning to “filthy” body as mentioned above. These five principles, which are naturally endowed with internal purity, form the necessary physical conditions for the very organic existence of any body. It is in this sense Panchamahabhute establish an o ntological unity among bodies across time and space. Ontological equality as an underlying principle, therefore, should make all the organic bodies worthy of respect without discrimination. Thus, any cultural construction dividing egalitarian bodies into pernicious gradation could be decisively refuted by invoking the metaphysics of body. Metaphysics of body, in turn, can create moral capacity among those who lack this capacity that is so necessary for assigning moral worth to everybody. Mutual affirmation of bodies becomes a possibility through acknowledgement of Panchamahabhute as an essential need of every organic body. Those who have the ability to use Panchamahabhute to mirror through others’ body, ultimately acquire a moral capacity to shade off some surplus moral value that they attach to their own personality. Self-preservation as morally integrated self finds its basis not in surplus moral value but equal worth – one person one value. The lower caste struggle was aimed at achieving this p rinciple of “one person one value”. Thus, Panchamahabhute can contribute to the creation of egalitarian order in bodies. Panchamahabhute, to paraphrase Aristotle, seeks to provide an ontological mirror, through which people can look at themselves not with the dominant sense of having an excess moral value, but same value as the other (in Aristotelian sense a friend) would have. This moral capacity which flows from these five principles in effect radically undercuts the very basis of H obbesian self-preservation, which is ontologically related to the superior self.

Politics of self-preservation in the Hobbesian sense, therefore, suggests an unwillingness to step out from brahminhood. I nterestingly, brahminhood seeks to preserve itself through the process of Sanskritisation. Sanskritisation as a cultural process involves the efforts on the part of the people at the lower layer to emulate brahminhood. The lower orders instead of rejecting brahminhood seek to perfect it. Practitioners of brahminhood seem to have adopted a much rigorous and all pervading process that has helped the former to preserve brahminhood in e ntrenched form. To put it differently, brahminhood requires not just Sanskritisation, which as a preservative option could be a l ittle unreliable, but structurally a much more stable device to redeem this self-preservation.

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Conversion of the Ecological into Sociological

This structural device involves the conversion of the ecological (“five principles”) into the sociological (hierarchical). The sociologist assigns different, and perhaps, negative meaning to Panchamahabhute through deploying the ideology of purity-pollution, which is so central to the former. This conversion is sustained by the asymmetries of power that robs the Panchamahabhute of their positive meaning. People do not follow the moral basis of metaphysics of body when they act. They are not sufficiently motivated by the exalted, and therefore, the egalitarian meaning that is implied in the metaphysics of Panchamahabhute. In fact, their material interest and the cultural need to draw relative superiority over others seriously undermine the validity of metaphysics as the universal framework that provides moral orientation to social interaction among people. The failure of religio-theological discourse represented by different saint traditions proves this and has to be understood in terms of the corresponding failure of the common people to respond to the appeal of different saints, particularly K abir. Put yet differently, the need to remain socially superior has led the upper castes to convert the ecological into sociological or natural into cultural. Let me explain this in terms of the politics of converting the Panchamahabhute into an instrument that is d eployed to reduce some social section to “walking carrion” (N aipaul 1988: 37), a degraded e ntity filled with a deep sense of repulsion. This transmutation, which is produced by the politics of preservation of the hierarchically superior self, has serious implication for these five principles. They stand discredited; they are robbed of their egalitarian meaning. Let us see how.

According to Manusmriti, the physical association of the upper castes, which is still under the social influence of ritual orders, with the earth is considered to be ritually polluting. According to Manusmriti, members of the top layer in social hierarchy are not supposed to soil their hands with either the earth or mud. Using ritual pollution to assign negative quality to the earth goes completely against the Gandhian naturopathy, which treats the earth with much respect on account of its having a healing value. G andhi considers it as healing inasmuch as it helps in pumping out the excess heat from the body. But the Manu strictures deny this medicinal value to the earth. The earth, thus, suggests a broad division based on purity-pollution thus dividing the top of the twice-born on the pure side and the shudras and ati-shudra on the impure side. Generally speaking, conversion of water as a natural, therefore, pure substance into a polluted substance should be considered as objectionable. Similarly, the use of w ater for maintaining physical hygiene should not be considered as objectionable. But how can one understand the efforts made by some socially privileged sections to use water for constructing morally painful asymmetry in social and cultural life?

Using Water

The upper castes, taking their cue from the Manu code, use water for constructing a perennial division thus rendering some bodies ritually pure and others as eternally impure. Such people treat sea water ritually polluting7 and also as a source of ritual purification. According to this understanding, water, unlike the earth, becomes a standard by which it then becomes possible to measure how deeply the essence of caste has penetrated and perverted the s ocial relations across castes. Water, unlike the earth, is a vailable to every caste, which uses it to reproduce untouchability practices so as to retain relative social superiority on the scale of ritual hierarchy. Thus, water determines the scale of untouchability. Water, in fact, forms the lifeline or provides the most i mportant precondition for the survival of untouchability. Just imagine if there was no water, the untouchability would not have originated at the first instance or it would have gone long ago if the water resources had dried up. Thanks to the water sources or long living Himalayas, water is still available for practising u ntouchability!

According to the laws of Manu (Dumont op cit: 50) fire is considered as another source of purification. In Manusmriti, fire is intrinsically pure, and this is proved by the social strictures that prevent Hindu women to mount her deceased husband’s funeral pyre if she is menstruating (ibid). Fire, according to the Manu Dharma, also acts as the purification agent. The ritual practice in Hindus known as Agni Pariksha underscores the point. Within the Hindu social/cultural practices, the untouchables and women are forced to take this Agni Pariksha for different reasons. The upper castes use fire not only to punish untouchables, but also to purify the vicinity through seeking displacement of the untouchables as “walking carrion”.

The social history of caste riots in the recent past clearly shows how the upper castes have used fire for devastating the little shanty huts of dalits all over the country. Thus, water purifies the upper caste bodies, while fire indirectly maintains the purity of space or the akasa. Fire, as a weapon of the strong upper caste, is deployed by them to destroy not only the untouchables themselves, but their dwellings as well.8 In this regard, it is interesting to further note that fire as a purifying resource is also available to Ambedkar, but for emancipatory purposes. As is well known, during the Chavdar water tank struggle in March 1927 at Mahad in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra, he set Manusmriti on fire in 1927. However, it has to be noted that there is a difference b etween the two social usages of fire. The socially dominant d eploys fire only to perpetuate the division between the ideal u ntouchable (twice-born) and the despicable untouchable, while Ambedkar uses it to symbolically destroy this division.

‘Air’ as an Objectionable Substance

Under what conditions should “air” become an objectionable s ubstance? It can be objectionable when it is converted from its natural status as a pure substance into a source of contamination. However, air in itself does not constitute a source of c ontamination. On the contrary, it can become a source of contamination, particularly when it is filled with foul smell, deadly gas or dangerous bacteria which are quite harmful to the general health of the people. Thus, locating hazardous factories away from h uman habitation is quite understandable from a certain perspective. But how does one understand the location of dalit bastis on the eastern side of a village? This location of dalits to the east of the main village has been empirically confirmed by several anthropological studies on India.9 Is it natural or the part of a social design? I would like to argue that this morphology is part of the social design which has been done by the upper castes. Why? There is an ideology of purity-pollution behind this morphology. The bastis of the untouchables on the eastern side of the village form a part of this deliberate design that is deployed by the upper castes to avoid pollution crossing over from the west to the east should the dalit bastis happen to be situated on the west side of the village. Since the upper castes cannot control the direction of air which flows from the west to the east, they are forced to change the social morphology of the village in such a way so as to situate themselves on the west, while p ushing the untouchables to the east.

Radial Impact of Sound

According to the Nyaya philosophical tradition in India, sound accesses the space. Even in modern times one can actually measure the radial impact of sound. Excess production of sound leads to noise, which ultimately leads to noise pollution. Thus, space comes to be filled with noise pollution. In this context, it might look completely bizarre to believe that at least a few decades b efore, sound created by untouchables was considered a source of ritual pollution. During the feudal social set-up, the untouchables in most parts of India were forced to announce their arrival before they could enter the main village.10 The reason behind such precautionary measure was that the upper castes sought to avoid listening to the sound of an untouchable that the former considered polluting. The notion of sacred sought to turn sound into the source of ritual pollution. Taking evening meals was considered as the most sacred occasion, particularly by the priestly class from the village (Dumont op cit: 54). The upper castes, particularly the brahmin priests from the village, found the sound of an untouchable as a source of interruption in the most sacred occasion. During the night patrolling in the village, the untouchable was permitted to shout only at a low-pitched voice. This was done to avoid the undesirable interruptions. The link between untouchability and morphology of expression (different levels of expression) was firmly established and strictly followed by the upper caste in the village (Kamble 2008). In one of the leading autobiographies of Babytai Kamble, the veskar (the village s ervant), the Mahars (ex-untouchable caste in Maharashtra) were not allowed to use high-pitched sounds during the evenings as it was considered a major source of interruption of sacred functions.

Sarukkai has argued that there is a contact between body and words. Thus, chanting words while bathing, according to Sarukkai establishes this contact. But in case of the untouchables as “walking carrion” with a concentrated expression of repulsion (even today some Indian people feel nauseated after seeing the untouchables and they cover their noses whenever they walk past the untouchables), there is a complete denial of this contact. This is because the words do not belong ontologically to the brahmin body. They flow from the mouth of the walking carrion; a potent source of pollution. Thus, at one level, the untouchables were prohibited from producing high-pitched sounds as it was considered polluting as far as the pure untouchables are concerned. At another level, even the low-pitched sound is considered polluting by the upper castes. Since the sound accesses the space, it can become the source of pollution as well. In order to avoid the menace of words coming from the untouchables, the upper castes, particularly the brahmins forced the untouchables to eliminate

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the word and replace it with sound. This was done by forcing the untouchables to announce their arrival in the public sphere, not by shouting their words but by beating the drum.11 The top of the twice-born castes seem to have used these Panchamahabhute to produce “walking carrion”, a concentrated expression of untouchability. Since the untouchable was a walking danger, there was a need to quarantine this danger in an isolated place called the Chamrauti in Uttar Pradesh, Halgeri in Karnataka, Cherry in Tamil Nadu and Mahar/Mangwad in Maharashtra.

In the above sections, we have seen that the Panchamahabhute do have a capacity to assign universal meaning (ontological e quality) to a body which might look particular in terms of its outer constitution. But at another level, it can also deny a particular body, for example, an untouchable or walking carrion a moral significance. A walking carrion can acquire moral significance in two major ways. First, it can turn a passive, helpless, quarantined body into a potent weapon not so much to produce destruction, on the contrary, for liberating the upper caste bodies that otherwise would remain folded into an estranged being – privileged untouchables. The touch of the despicable untouchable seeks to convert the folded bodies into freely flowing bodies.12 It can liberate the “privileged untouchables”, as Sarukkai would like to call them, from the constraining sense of anxiety. The physical or corporeal or material touch of the hygienic bodies could also be liberating for these bodies folded into themselves. The touch, ranging from a simple handshake to innocent hugging or intensive hugging ( inter-caste marriage consummated as a result of sheer love or that which is led by conviction and reason to produce a decent s ociety) can democratise the very idea of touch. The touch, therefore, can help overcome the mutual reification of culturally folded bodies. Secondly, the untouchable as the actual entity ironically seeks to establish a reverse control on the sacred bodies that are treated as ideal. To put differently, it is the ideal untouchable who feels vulnerable to the threat of the “sociolo gical danger”. We shall discuss this point in greater detail in the second part of this essay.

Mutually Exclusive

Touch and contact can acquire mutually exclusive meanings depending on the particular social context. Thus, touch, which is active purely in private and personal contexts, does not possess any special significance except that it has a functional value. Thus one hand touching other part of the body has only such a functional value. This touching the touched as Sarukkai puts it, has a functional value. However, there is another context, in which folding both the hands together acquires a definite social meaning. Thus, the act of touching/folding both the hands can communicate d ifferent, perhaps, contradictory messages. For example, in the I ndian context, greeting people with both the hands from a distance is considered safe as it serves the purpose of avoiding the touch of others, perhaps, the repulsive other, namely, the untouchables. This point becomes relevant in the context of Sarukkai’s

o bservation that it is only the contact with the other through touch that can define the touched and the untouched. Similarly, Sarukkai’s attempt to elevate untouchability much beyond the b inary of pure and impure, by invoking the metaphysics of body, as mentioned earlier, plays an important role in collapsing the

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c ultural hierarchy that divided these bodies. Also his invocation of Merleau-Ponty becomes quite instructive to appreciate the role that an untouchable as an invisible plays in illuminating the touchable.

One can further build on to this insight, and argue that the untouchable is forced to become the repository of the impurities of the touchable. While this elevation of untouchability beyond the contours of purity-pollution is desirable, at the same time, it also tends to undermine the moral significance of untouchability based on the ideology of purity-pollution. I would like to argue that the untouchable as supplementation of the touchable has contradictory value. This is so because it is available for conservative as well as subversive purposes. On a conservative reading, it could be a rgued, that untouchability has a moral significance. Just imagine what would happen to the touchable, if the untouchable were to refuse to become the dumping ground for somebody’s moral dirt or refuse to illuminate the touchable. It perhaps would lead to the moral decomposition or atrophy of the touchables’ body or they would get crushed under the accumulated weight of these impurities. (Thank god, there has been an untouchable around to carry this burden!) The untouchables as repository of impurities also have a moral significance for a nother reason. The upper caste politicians, including some of the left politicians, should thank the untouchables for providing a vocabulary to express either their agony or anger against their political opponents or beat the opponents with untouchability as a poison weapon. Look at the expression that political leaders use almost every day. “We are not untouchable”, “Do not treat us as untouchable”. It seeks to undercut the s ocial significance of the twice-born by making the latter realise that they are either parasites or free riders resting their burden on the body of the untouchables. The moral depletion of these free riders becomes total when the latter refuse to take any responsibility for the untouchable after he deposits moral dirt in the former.

Idea of Moral Significance

However, the idea of moral significance could be deeply problematic as far as the emancipatory project of the untouchable is concerned. A person who prefers to stay in untouchability just for the sake of moral significance summarily loses the capacity to question asymmetrical social relationship between the touchables and the untouchables. In fact, moral significance becomes a p ossibility only in the context of this asymmetry. Hence, it lacks transformative potential. The sacrifice made for maintaining the superiority, for example, of the top layer of the twice-born, may have only an instrumental value to the extent that it provides v ocabulary to the self-serving politicians, but it hardly has any transformative value for the slave and untouchable. Thus, staying in an asymmetrical relationship necessarily subverts the selfunderstanding that is fundamentally so important for the freedom and ultimate emancipation of the person in question. Those, in question, however, do not stay tied with the master just because they get some spiritual advantage or moral significance. In fact, the force of new aspirations motivates them to walk out from this constraining relationship. They refuse to become the dumping ground for somebody’s garbage. This new emancipatory r ationality could be very well-captured in the modern mood characterising the subversive politics of Ambedkar and his f ollowers. His mood could be paraphrased in the following sentence, “It may be in your interest to deposit your impurities in us, but how can it be in our interest to remain repository of your dirt (moral)”. In the post-Ambedkar dalit movement, the critique of untouchability as supplementation (Sarukkai’s expression) is best captured in the term “Ghamdya”13 that subverts this dalit rationality which is the hallmark of Ambedkar’s emancipatory politics.

Ambedkar’s politics seeks to annihilate caste. But before he a ttacks its roots, he very systematically seeks to prune its branches

  • various untouchability practices. For carrying out this attack against casteism through untouchability, Ambedkar does follow an archaeological method. That is to say, through the social struggle he first seeks to question untouchability practices which are the manifestation of the essence of caste. Also for Ambedkar, the solution lies not in morality; on the contrary, it is fundamentally political. It is because of this primacy of the political that he does not lose sight of caste, while he attacks its existence, i e, untouchability. But for Gandhi, the solution lies not in the political but the moral. Gandhi chooses the moral route which does not centrally take on the essence of untouchability, i e, caste. In the Gandhian moral framework of action against untouchability, the contestation, if any, does not encircle the essence of caste but its existence
  • untouchability. This shift in focus from essence to existence invokes naturally a moral response rather than a p olitical one.
  • Seva (service) as the moral category in Gandhian discourse on untouchability makes sense in the context of this shift. Seva as a moral category, does not seek to attack the roots of the problem, instead it chooses to prune its rough edges. In Gandhi, it is pruning rather than uprooting, while in Ambedkar, the reverse is the case. Although Gandhi looks less interested in establishing the link between untouchability and its essence (caste), it has to be acknowledged that his moral category seva looks certainly radical when compared to Vedantic thinking, which rules out resolution of untouchability through material and corporeal touch.

    Gandhian Approach

    Look at Gandhi’s body language which is so relaxed and flows freely across time and spaces. Reverse is the case for the Shankaracharya, whose body is folded into itself, it is completely frozen. It is in this sense the significance of corporeality of touch that makes Gandhian approach to untouchability analogous to Ambedkar. Because both of them insist that an untouchable must enter the temple with his/her physical body and not through a spiritual mind, which is what the Vedantic view suggests. However, Gandhi and Ambedkar differ from each other quite substantially on other counts. Unlike Gandhi, who finds the solution of untouchability in the moral surgery of the heart, Ambedkar s uggests the annihilation of caste of which untouchability is just the existence. According to Ambedkar, the “brahminical mind” produces opaque forms of untouchability, which can be detected either through sociology or anthropology. Untouchability exists beyond mere description, and hence, requires archaeology that could access untouchability, which as Shinde has very perceptively pointed out, sits at the bottom of this mind. Ambedkar’s thinking and politics follows the archaeological method of d iscovering the essence of untouchability. Let us explore the question what is archaeology? And why is it relevant for understanding untouchability in “elegant India”?

    Archaeology of Untouchability

    Archaeology, in recent times, has become a generic term that a ppears in different fields of inquiry ranging from the social s ciences to humanities to physical sciences like geomorphology. For example, medical practitioners have been using archaeology to understand the diminishing height (physical) of persons across generations. Parentage with nutritional deficiency, leads to d iminishing height in the successive generation. Similarly, in g eomorphology, archaeology is an important method to access the natural substance that due to changes in nature gets hidden underneath water bodies, earth and snow.14 In fact, changes occurring in the natural substance can best be captured with archaeology as a method of analysis. For example, in the region experiencing snowfall, one finds peaks getting covered with snow and b ecoming denuded during the hot weather. The importance of a rchaeology in history deals not so much with invention, but discovering historical evidence in different forms (artefacts, even quantitative data) so as to provide the background for making conjectures and their refutation. The debate among the Indian historians over certain disputed historical structures proves this point quite adequately. Archaeology in history thus involves extracting the truth from the past by “carefully” discovering and analysing the historical data (Nicole 2005). Some of the sociologists also find a rchaeology as a useful method to study social r elations in India.15

    Interestingly, archaeology also finds its relevance in the d ebates between two leading Marxist thinkers: Hobsbawm and Althusser. Hobsbawm finds in Althusser an archaeological operation and identifies in the latter different layers of theoretical thinking, which gradually accumulated on top of Marx’s original thought (Hobsbawm 1994: 1). Finally and most importantly, in the Foucauldian sense, archaeology tries to define

    not the thoughts, representation, images, themes, preoccupations that are concealed or revealed in discourse, but those discourses themselves, those discourses as practices obeying certain rules. It does not treat discourses as document, as a sign of something else, as an element that ought to be transparent, but where unfortunate opacity must often be pierced if one is to reach at least the depth of the essential in the place in which it is held in reverse, it is connected with discourses in its own volume as a monument. It is not interpretative discipline, it does not seek another, better hidden discourse, it refuses to be allegorical (Foucault 1994: 136).

    A Foucauldian take on archaeology would also help us to distinguish archaeology from architecture. In the Indian context, dalits used the metaphor of the pyramid to describe the caste system, and more particularly, the varna system, while the Marxists put caste and untouchability as located at the superstructure. In the archaeological sense, caste and untouchability are not a kind of order or an open design. In fact, as we shall see in the following pages it plays out quite secretly and subtly. For example, in public discussion, themes on dalits come to be listed at the fag end of a seminar/conference or at the end of a research journal.16 This preferential order looks natural, because those who have the power to put dalits in an irreversible order, do not find it necessary to provide any reason for such preferential arrangement.

    september 12, 2009 vol xliv no 37


    Thus, archaeology seeks to access this inalterability of the “Indian mind”. It seeks to reveal or fathom the untouchability-ridden “Indian mind” that hides within itself a persisting element of caste. The Indian mind essentially operates through the subtle act of transferring value from one sphere to another. Thus, a rchaeology is a generic concept that appears relevant to different scholars in different contexts. However, covering and discovering or melting and freeing are essential and defining features of archaeology common to all the perspectives on archaeology. Secondly, archaeology for its definition requires a hidden context with opacity or anonymity. That is to say it does not b ecome relevant in a transparent context. Let us explore what is this context for untouchability.

    The Context of Archaeology of Untouchability

    Let me in the beginning argue that archaeology as a method of discovering the essence or the truth of caste becomes intelligible only in certain contexts. For example, archaeology may become redundant in the rural context, where caste hierarchies play out openly by resorting to blatant untouchability practices, and hence, caste does not require untouchability to adopt subtle forms for its own expression. Let me make this point further clear by citing some evidence from some villages in Tamil Nadu and M aharashtra.17 In these villages, where the upper castes have raised a physical wall of separation between the touchables and the untouchables, archaeology does not need to discover anything more. To put it differently, archaeology requires a spatially ambiguous context for its success. Similarly, archaeology would become ineffective in the rural context, where the untouchables still have to appear in the public with body markers (with a broom and basket of filth on the head, certain dress codes, black ribbon on the wrists) constituting them into walking carrion with a concentrated expression of repulsion. To put it differently, archaeology does not make sense, particularly in the face to face or intimate social context. Rather, archaeology becomes intelligible in the social context, where every other person appears as a stranger to every other person in opaque social relations. The urban context makes it difficult for the pure untouchable to remain in touch with the despicable untouchable. I am already suggesting, as does Sarukkai, that the despicable untouchable provides a subjective condition for self-preservation of the “pure untouchables”. The growing dilution of the interactive sphere leading to growing anonymity makes the domestic space within the urban context as the only sphere for the protection of the “pure untouchable”. The domestic sphere provides an opportunity for the resolution of anxiety that continues to grip the urban upper castes. Let me f urther argue how the domestic space offers a stable context for the pure untouchable to overcome his/her anxiety.

    Domestic Sphere

    First, the domestic sphere offers the space for conducting purificatory functions. The touchables or the twice-born persons use the domestic sphere for both physical and ritual purification. It is quite revealing to note that some of the parents hose down their children after they return home from school, not because their bodies are mired in mud or dust, but because they might have

    Economic & Political Weekly

    september 12, 2009 vol xliv no 37

    messed up with the untouchable children, while in the school.18 Second, the domestic sphere also provides an opportunity for the upper castes to feel sovereign over controlling the domestic space. Practising untouchability at home becomes the major source of the sovereignty. The need to realise this sovereignty cannot be fulfilled in the public sphere, which can offer only an abstract sense of sovereignty as citizen of the Indian Republic. This becomes clear from following moves that the pure self makes in protecting the domestic sphere as a sphere of sovereignty. First, he invites only those about whose background he is absolutely sure. He enjoys discretionary power. Second, the twiceborn host uses money power to retain his ritual power in case the twice-born host commits the mistake by inviting a person with ambiguous social identity, gets food from the hotel, and finally, he knows the invitee is from the lower caste, but since he cannot avoid inviting the latter he offers him a tender coconut. The shell of the used tender coconut is a safe device for avoiding ritual pollution because the shell can be disposed of.

    Interestingly, the axis between the domestic and the public spheres provides space for archaeological articulation. As mentioned above, the domestic sphere is the sphere of sovereignty for the upper caste. He/she, due to the pressure of social vigilance, can enjoy sovereignty only the fragmented time and space and not in continuous time. In fact, the pressure of social vigilance, forces him/her to don universal masks, while he is in the public domain. Thus, he becomes co-worker, teacher, citizen, consumer, and so on, depending on the spheres. In the journey back home, these sacred souls begin to drop each of these universal identities. He becomes completely denuded in the domestic. This is analogous to the archaeology of the glacier as mentioned above. It is in this sense that the domestic becomes the sphere of deflation of pretension. For the untouchables, therefore, it is the domestic sphere which is the testing ground for the morally integrated or genuine personality. This has been further confirmed by some of the anthropologists (Khare 1984: 14). How does one get an insight into this deflation of the “pure self” who hides behind the universal identities? While there are several dalit autobiographies that offer an insight into this archaeological insight, let me cite an interesting conversation between the upper caste landlord and the prospectus untouchable tenants: Landlord: May I know your name? Tenant: My name is Bhagvan. (This Hindu sounding name anticipates a subsequent question from the landlord.) Landlord: Which region are you from? Tenant: I am a Maharashtrian. (This does not give any idea of his social background.) Landlord: Which language do you speak? Tenant: Hindustani or English. Landlord: Are you a vegetarian or a non-vegetarian? (This is true in some regions only.) Tenant: Vegetarian. (This does not help the landlord to overcome landlord’s reservations, and hence, he uses the last question.) Landlord: Where do you work? (This is the last but sure source of knowing the caste of a tenant because as Harkishan Santoshi has observed in his testimonies, the caste of a person reaches to working place earlier than his/her transfer papers (Guru 1986)).

    Contradictory Move

    This offensive archaeology has implications at three levels. First, The conversation between the landlord and the prospective ten-at the phenomenological level, the social attitude of the ideal unant underlies an archaeological move, which is deeply contradic-touchable (the upper caste) does point out the social relations rather tory in nature. The landlord’s archaeology involves a set of ques-than the knowledge conditions. Second, this archaeology suggests tions, which are authoritative, irrational, and hence, offensive. the irresoluble tension between a good citizen and a good person. To This archaeology, which is aimed at restoring inalienability be-put it differently, an upper caste person may be a citizen good tween the sacred self and the modern enterprise acquires an of-enough to grant at least a temporary recognition to an untouchable, fensive character, particularly on the normative ground. The pro-but he/she may not be a good person. Third, the domestic as the spective tenant, instead of rejecting the irrational question on private sphere cordoned off by the ideology of purity-pollution efrational grounds, chooses to cope with it by adopting a defensive fectively denies the private the benign quality of being the space for archaeology, which involves universal answers for the particular healing and recuperating necessitated by the ravages of the public questions. This withdrawal into guided universalism thus sug-world.19 Fourth, this Janus-faced ideal untouchable thus violates the gests a loss of self-esteem as far as the tenant is concerned. Aristotelian principle that suggests an interconnection between the

    The tenant fails to put a counter question to the landlord, thus private and the public which is bound by the totality of moral qualiexposing the latter’s failure to follow market rationality. It is by ties of the good “man”. F inally, the ideal untouchable and his/her this primacy of the irrational over the rational or ritual value over attitudes towards the real untouchable confirms Sarukkai’s main the monetary value, that the offensive archaeology adopted by a rgument, according to which the self- definition of the upper caste the upper caste landlord cannot be reduced to mere psychology, or the ideal untouchable becomes possible only in relation to the asbecause the landlord does not ask these questions for satisfying criptive identity of the untouchable. This sacred self cannot exist his psychological curiosity. In fact, in this case, the offensive without the p resence of other – the despicable untouchable. This a rchaeology establishes an ontological link with the ritually tense co existence becomes a possibility only through outsourcing s uperior self. The offensive archaeology, which operates through untouchability to the other. However, those who supplement uncoercive questioning, in the process tends to render the landlord touchability into others continue to suffer from endless anxiety. That completely denuded, of course, on moral ground. The prospective is to say they can neither completely detoxify themselves of an eletenant also suffers from a painful skinning off layers of different ment of untouchability, nor can they brandish it openly. Ironically, universal identity, which he puts on himself as defence m echanism. the predicament makes the archaeological method inevitable for the Thus, archaeology suggests a double bind. detection of untouchability, which sits deep in the anxious self.

    Notes Kilvenmani in Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu in Foucault, Michel (1994): Archaeology of Knowledge 1962. Several houses of Valmikis from Gohana in (London: Routledge).

    1 Anand Mulk Raj’s The Untouchables, Shivaram Karanth’s Choma’s Duddi, Thakazhi Shivashanka-Harayana were set on fire by the upper castes in Guru, Gopal (1986): “Social Discrimination and Sanra Pillai’s Scavenger’s Boy, U R Ananthamurthy’s January 2007. skritisation: Some Theoretical Issues”, Sociologi-S amskara are some of the prominent literary

    9 Karve, Irawati, makes this observation in her semi-cal Bulletin.texts that centrally touch upon the question of nal work on Maharashtra. Even research study on – (1996): Dalit Cultural Movement in Maharashtra u ntouchability.the Dignity Index in Maharashtra, Vikas Adhyayan (Mumbai: Vikas Adhyayan Kendra). Kendra, Mumbai, 2009, proves this point.

    2 Baburao Bagul, Jevanha Me Jat Chorali Hoti (short Gupta, Dipankar (2003): “Domesticated Public: Tradistory collection) (Nagpur: Siddarth Publication) tion, Modernity and the Public/Private Divide” in

    10 This has been the common practice among the 1978, Om Prakash Walmiki, Jhootan (tran) Prabha Gurpreet Mahajan, The Public and the Private:

    upper caste Indians from different parts of India. Mukherjee (Calcutta: Samya Publication), 2002. I ssues of Democratic Citizenship (Delhi: Sage).

    Interestingly, e g, Thomas Isaac’s India’s Ex- Untouchables, Michael Walzer also reconfirms

    3 It is only in Ambedkar’s collective writings and Hobsbawm, E J (1994): “The Structural of Capital” in

    this in his work on Spheres of Justice: A Defence of

    speeches that one come across a thick discussion Gregory Elliot (ed.), A lthusser: A Critical Reader

    Pluralism and Equality.

    on the impact of untouchability on economics. (Oxford: Blackwell). 11 Baby Kamble (2008), this has also been confirmed

    4 The sociological puzzle could be understood in Jha, Vivekananda (1974): “From Tribe to Untouchabi

    by Mehbubhai from Behat block in Saharanpur

    terms of intense practices of untouchability that is lity: The Case of Nisad” (New Delhi: People’s

    district, UP.

    found in the regions with negligible brahmin pop- P ublishing House).

    ulation. Or, less intense untouchability practices

    12 U R Ananthamurthy, Samskara, The Janpith

    Kamble, Baby (2008): The Prison We Broke, Marathi with larger brahmin population, particularly in

    Award Winning work, translation by Maya Pandit (Delhi: Orient Long-Uttar Pradesh. I have dealt with this issue in my 13 For more discussion, Guru (1996). This term could

    man). power of touch, published in Frontline, December also be understood through the literary imagina-

    Khare, R S (1984): The Untouchables as Himself, Ideo

    2007. tion of dalit literary writers like Prahlad Chend

    logy, Identity and Pragmatism among the Lucknow

    wankar, who has written the poem “The Cup”.

    5 In 19th century, Pune in Maharashtra, the un-Chamers (Cambridge: Cambridge University touchables were forced to appear in the public 14 I benefited from the discussion I held with Harjit Press).

    with an earthen pot hanging around their neck Singh, an expert in Glaciology.

    Naipaul, V S (1988): India: A Wounded Civilisation

    and broom sticking around their waist. The un-15 Kramer C, I E Douglas quoted in Nicole 2005, (Delhi: Picador).

    touchables were forced to use the pot as spittoon p 242.

    Nicole, Boivin (2005): “Orientalism, Ideology and as their spit was also considered as polluting. The 16 Bibilio, VII, Nos 9 and 10, October 2002.

    Identity: Examining Caste in South Asian Archaebroom was supposed to erase their footprints 17 Frontline, December 2008.

    ology”, Journal of Social Archaeology.

    which were considered as polluting.

    18 My own fieldwork from the villages from Sawant-

    Rudolph, S H and L I Rudolph (1967): The Modernity

    6 See The Samkhya Karika, translated by Nandalal

    wadi block from the Tal (deep) Konkan region of

    of Tradition: Political D evelopment in India

    Sinha (Delhi: Oriental Books), 1915.


    (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

    7 In the orthodox Hinduism, although there are

    19 Michael de Certan, quoted in Gupta (2003: 56).

    Rajshekhariah, A M (1976): Politics of Untouchability umpteen number of references that suggest cross

    ing sea is a taboo, one can also argue that some of

    (New Delhi: Ashis P ublishers). the orthodox Hindus do treat sea water as pollut-Shah, Ghanshyam, H Mander, S Thorat, S Deshpande


    ing, which is why they do not immerse the ashes and A Baviskar (2006): U ntouchability in Rural

    of the dead into sea water, even if they are close to Desai, I P (1976): Untouchability in Rural Gujarat India (Delhi: Sage).

    sea water (particularly, from the coastal region). (Mumbai: Popular Prakashan). Shinde, Vitthal Ramji (1976): Bhartatil Ashprush

    8 Forty-three untouchable agricultural labourers Dumont, Louis (1988): Homo Hierarchicus (New ctecha Prashna (Mumbai: Social Welfare and Cul

    were burnt alive by the upper caste landlords in D elhi: Oxford University Press). tural Department, Government of Maharashtra).

    september 12, 2009 vol xliv no 37

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