Is Untouchability Still Practiced in India?

Guest Blogger: Amit Thorat, Associate Fellow, NCAER

     The most common response to this question is that proportion of Indians who practice untouchability is minuscule and that too, mostly in rural India. The reason for this could be that what you don’t see or hear and possibly don’t practice, doesn’t exist. Yet in most homes, the tea and food is served to the men and women, who clean our clothes and homes, in separate plates, not used by anyone else or guest! Though not all of the domestic workers belong to lower castes, many do.

     When caste based practices of untouchability is written or spoken about, the focus is primarily on those who suffer this practice and how they are denied access to Hindu temples, public water utilities, made to live is segregated areas, disallowed to take out marriage processions, sell milk to cooperatives, get a haircut, walk without wearing footwear, walk on certain roads and sit separately in public function and at the back in school. I could go on but then I would end up doing what most write-ups do, enumerate the well known facts of life for many Dalits in India.

     The India Human Development Survey data for the first time allows us to do something different. It shifts the focus from the sufferers of this dehumanizing practice to the perpetrators. The IHDS is a unique nationally representative panel data of 42,152 households for India, fielded for 2004/05 and 2011-12. This data is a joint undertaking of NCAER and University of Maryland.

The second questionnaire for the 2011-12 wave, asks a direct question to the respondent ‘Do any members of your household practice untouchability’? seeking a yes or no response. This question is followed by a second question for those who respond negatively to the first, ‘would it be ok for someone from the low caste community to enter your kitchen or use your utensils’?

     The mindset prevalent amongst the upper casts is that people belonging to the lower castes (or even those who work in their homes) are unclean and dirty so they should not enter the kitchen or share utensils, which reinforces the notion of ‘purity and pollution’.

      Figure 1 shows the results generated form the responses to these two questions. It clearly shows that in India 27% of the population claims openly to practice untouchability. Assuming many hide their behavior, this could be an underestimate. In rural areas 30% of the respondents agreed to practicing untouchability. It should be kept in mind that that it is not possible to get accurate responses to such sensitive questions. The urban incidence is 20%. It is possible that in urban areas many respondents would like to be politically correct and hide such behavior much more than in rural areas where such practices are seen as part of the tradition and hence normal.  

     Figure 2 shows the breakup of those who confess to this practice by their social group. It clearly indicates that the most common practitioners are the Brahmins (traditionally priests). More than half of them were happy to share this aspect of their social behavior and religious belief with the interviewers. Interestingly the next largest share is from amongst the Other Backward Castes (OBC), who have recently been awarded reservation in educational institutions and in public sector employment. Next are the forward castes.

     Normally one would believe that the scheduled castes or the scheduled tribes would report very low levels of practice themselves, but we find 15% of the SC claiming they engage in this practice. One possible explanation could be that some of them understood the question as themselves being subjected to the practice and not necessarily the practitioners themselves. But recent studies and anecdotal evidence from qualitative surveys indicate that, centuries of being treated as untouchable has leads to an internalization of the idea and acceptance of the practice, which could explain their response. Alternatively SC household which responded as practicing untouchability could also be from slightly higher sub-castes within the SC fold which look down upon other sub-castes,  which are graded below them in caste hierarchies. It would be interesting to investigate this further by looking at the sub-caste of these SC households.


     Interestingly 23% of rural and 15% of urban Adivasis also responded that they engage in this practice. This is not surprising as some of the adivasi tribes, particularly in the North East,  have traditionally owned vast forest tracks and have functioned as small tribal kingdoms on their forest lands. Thought not strictly part of the Hindu social hierarchy, many consider themselves to be above the untouchables who had no access to land or capital.


     Untouchability is clearly a mindset, which is based on the notion of ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’; IHDS data shows that it still governs a large part of how we socially treat and understand those who are ostensibly born in the lower castes. Having said that, one must remember that over 70% of the Indian households say they do not practice untouchability, giving us hope for the future.


     The same break up across religious groups shows an even more intriguing pattern. The Jain show up as practicing untouchability the most (35%) followed by the Hindus (30%). The results for Jains are not conclusive due to a small sample for the Jains in the survey. Surprisingly the Sikhs (23%) and the Muslims (18%) too confess to this practice. These findings indicate that conversion has not lead to a total mind-set change, that was hoped to be achieved and caste identity is a sticky baggage difficult to dislodge in social settings!


     Our analysis however shows that the practice falls with a rise in education. So while 69% of Brahmin households, where the highest adult education was between 1st and 4th standard said they practiced untouchability, only 45% of households agreed to the practice, where any adult in the household had graduate level education. Education seems to reduce the prevalence of the practice the most amongst the Brahmins and the OBC.


     Interestingly level of household income does not make any difference. The difference between the poorest and the richest household calming to practice untouchability was a merely 2% in rural and 1% in urban regions. Clearly caste discrimination tends to remain neutral to the economic standing of people.


      The states that show up as the top ones with respect to the practice are Madhya Pradesh 53%, Himachal Pradesh 50%, Chhattisgarh 48%, Rajasthan and Bihar 47%, U.P 43% and Uttarakhand 40%. Sates with the lowest incidences are Andhra Pradesh 10%, Entire North-East 7%, Maharashtra 4%, Kerla 2% and west Bengal 1%. Sample sizes for smaller states are small and hence results are  not conclusive and differences between states should be treated with caution.


      The data shows that 70% of household denied practicing untouchability, even assuming many respondents were uncomfortable revealing the truth, this indicates an evolving trend, yet it’s a long road till we manage to erase the practice from our minds and our deeds.

[Based on preliminary data from IHDS-II. Views are personal.]

29 October 2014   

© Sonalde Desai 2012