Having been firmly planted in Indian society for thousands of years, untouchability has been one of the worst dehumanizing forms of social discrimination practiced in it. As a result, vast sections of humanity are inhumanly segregated as outcastes, suppressed andcondemned to live in poverty, squalor and degradation, all their potentialities for growth neutralized. Expressing his faith in ‘humanism’ which does not depend on any divine sanction, and at which he had arrived after much thought and deliberation, Anand says that as a writer he became conscious of the need to help raise the untouchables, the peasants, the serfs, the coolies and the other suppressed members of society, to human dignity and self-awareness in lieu of the abjectness, apathy and despair to which they have been condemned.
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As India strives to make great strides in its economy and infrastructure, it is constantly reminded of its social reality that is based on an age-old caste system. The history of India has seen sporadic incidents of discrimination against a particular group of people, mostly under the attestation from the traditional systems of caste and untouchability. The most recent incident is the lynching of Dalits by cow-protection groups in Una, Gujarat. It is interesting and informative to know about the origin of such social stratification that has affected the discourse of Indian society and politics in some manner.The caste system as we see it today has not been pronounced in just one book; infact it has been shaped by multiple texts.
The most ancient mention of the caste system is found in the Rig Veda, believed to be developed between 1500-800 BC, where it was called the Varna system. It classified the society into four varnas:the Brahmins: priests, scholars and teachers;the Kshatriyas: rulers, warriors and administrators;the Vaishyas: cattle herders, agriculturists, artisans and merchants; andthe Shudras: labourers and service providers.The barriers of caste continued to strengthen over centuries, until voices of reforms emerged from the colonial India.
In the nineteenth century, Jyotirao Phule questioned the discriminatory social system which had rendered lakhs of people poor, ignorant and illiterate. He fought for equal rights and education for lower classes. In early twentieth century, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar catalyzed political mobilization of the oppressed. By then, the British had codified castes on the basis of occupation, and had placed the oppressed castes under a list called “scheduled castes”, a term still used today. BR Ambedkar won special political representation for the Untouchables, or Harijans (“children of God”, a term coined by Mahatma Gandhi) from the British. After independence, in the capacity of India’s first Law Minister, he ensured that social equality became a cornerstone of the Indian Constitution. Post independence, the relevance of caste system in Indian society has certainly reduced but not diminished. Thanks to law, an open display of caste discrimination in offices, markets and places of worship has reduced to a large extent; however, perceptions and prejudices in private matters like marriage and household have continued to exist.
People from oppressed classes have been granted reservations in government educational institutes and jobs, which has helped to break traditional barriers of occupation and has brought those people in the mainstream; but at the same time, a debate on meritocracy and “forward-looking” attitude has ensued which goes on till today.
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