ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Caste in South Asia

This is with reference to “Comparative Contexts of Discrimination: Caste and Untouchability in South Asia” by Surinder S Jodhka and Ghanshyam Shah (EPW, 27 November 2010). Academic discussions about the caste system in south Asia are not a new thing but this paper, based on a large-scale survey, is perhaps a first of its kind and adds to the understanding of caste in a broader perspective. It throws open new possibilities for research in the domain of caste and human rights violation in the south Asian region. The most striking finding of the study is that it documents the prevalence of untouchability in social systems which are not based on the caste system. It shows that religious sanctity for the practice of untouchability is found in all the four countries studied. Hence, the argument that caste system or untouchability has no religious sanction gets weakened by the findings of this study. The paper raises the fundamental question of the internationalisation of the caste issue by demonstrating the prevalence of untouchability across national boundaries. But one should not jump to the conclusion that internationalisation of the caste issues helps in empowering dalits. We already have an elaborate framework of the protection of dalits in the Constitution and the immediate need is to implement them effectively.

The paper tries to link the practice of untouchability to the religious and social practices but it does not talk about the related issues of atrocities on untouchables, the identity politics of the dominant groups in these countries and the issues of social mobility and resistance to it by these dominant groups through the use of violence. Unless, these issues are not engaged with, comparing untouchability that exists in these countries with the conditions in India becomes somewhat problematic. Based on the paper, one can gauge that untouchability found in these countries is perhaps ritualistic and, at the most, a concern grown out of hygiene issues but not a social reaction inbuilt into their social power structures. The paper, with a lot of data in hand, does engage with the issue of the socio-economic backwardness of the untouchable groups in these countries but, perhaps, this might be rooted in their overall backwardness.

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