Caste, Untouchability and Social Justice: Early North Indian Perspective
Social justice is a comparatively modern term and connotes just and fair treatment to the people constituting a society. It presupposes a social order which is non-discriminatory and people-oriented, one in which disparity, inequality and inequity do not characterize social, economic and other aspects of life and institutions. The term occurs with due emphasis in our constitution. Its preamble proclaims the solemn resolve of the Indian people to secure to all its citizens "justice, social, economic and political" and article 38 commits the State to take appropriate effective steps to usher in "a social order in which justice, social economic and political, shall inform all the institutions of the national life". A few other articles, too, deal with the various facets of justice. All these show an acute awareness of the fact that justice is by its nature an integral whole, that elements of injustice are pervasive in Indian society as a part of its colonial and precolonial heritage and that serious efforts are required to remedy the situation and bring about social transformation. Continuous changes in the course of our long history notwithstanding, the fact of continuity from the past is undeniable and certainly early India has contributed its share to the present situation. Without going into other dimensions of the theme, I shall try to show how the origin and development of caste and untouchability in early north India has been instrumental in perpetrating social injustice to a large segment of the Indian people.
Caste may be defined as a system of social stratification characterized by hierarchy, heredity, pursuit of one or a few particular occupations, inequality, endogamy, restrictions as to taking food from outsiders, and the notion of purity and pollution associated with hierarchy. Notwithstanding the existence of a full-fledged class society in the pre-Aryan mature phase of Harappa culture, the available archaeological evidence unaided by written records owing to the hitherto undeciphered script does not warrant the hypothesis regarding the emergence of caste and untouchability there.1 The evolution of caste as a social phenomenon has, therefore, to be traced through the study of two seminal terms, varna and/4ft', varna being anterior to jati and receiving much greater attention in the earlier texts than jati. From being used to distinguish Arya from the ethnically and culturally separate Dasa and Dasyu in the Rigveda (c. 1500BC-C. lOOOBc), varna, literally meaning colour, came to
Former Director, Indian Council of Historical Research, New Delhi
Social Scientist, Vol. 25, Nos. 11-12, November-December 1997