Appearance of untouchability can be dated to over 2,000 years ago: Romila Thapar

Thapar said clearly those who enforced this found it greatly to their advantage to push entire communities into permanent exclusion so much so that successive generations too were decreed untouchable.

Written by Seema Chishti | New Delhi | Updated: April 15, 2016 8:56 am
Ambedkar, Ambedkar University, Ambedkar University lecture, Romila Thapar, Romila Thapar lecture, Delhi news, India news Romila Thapar in New Delhi on Thursday. (Express Photo by Anil Sharma)

Babasaheb B R Ambedkar, who she had been reading “more and more over the years”, had contributed tremendously to her understanding of the abomination untouchability system in Hinduism, eminent historian and Professor Emerita at JNU, Romila Thapar, said while delivering the eighth Dr BR Ambedkar lecture, organised by Ambedkar University of Delhi, on Thursday.

In a talk lasting over an hour-and-a-half, apart from select questions she fielded, Thapar said a stratified caste-based society has existed in India for millennia, but the appearance of untouchability probably can be dated to more than two millennia ago, when the word ‘asprishya’ makes an appearance and the Chandals were discussed.

Speaking on “permanently excluding” an entire set of people which made untouchability unique, and even worse than slavery (“because under some conditions slaves could become free and citizens”), Thapar said clearly those who enforced this found it greatly to their advantage to push entire communities into permanent exclusion so much so that successive generations too were decreed untouchable.

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The central premise of her talk — ‘Rethinking Civilisation as History’ — was on the limitations of how the term ‘Civilisation’ was used, with a focus on “cultural singularity” to discuss or understand events, creating the idea of ‘the other’ or a mistaken ‘clash of civilisation’ to define a people. She began by elaborating on how the phrase civilisation came about, was of European origin, seeking to define others as either savages or barbarians. Citing the creation of the ‘barbarous’ by the Greece or the ‘Mlechh’ or ‘das’ idea of the ‘other’ by Brahmins in Vedic times, Thapar dwelt on colonial history, 18th century European ideas and its impact on how India was seen by them and how Indians see themselves to date.

Thapar said that the term was used to denote a system with singularity of language, religion, fixed territory and a set of ideas. Eventually, when the term civilisation was used to denote the history of a particular time, it ended up representing the life of the dominant group at any point of time. So, Thapar argued, whenever ‘civilisation’ was used to talk about India, it did not fully represent India either fairly or accurately.

On territory, Thapar elaborated on how a ‘section of people’, arguing for Indian civilisation over a fixed territory, usually, following the description of colonial historians like James Mill, referred to British India as the boundaries, not speaking of Jambudwipe, Aryavarta or Al-Hind as alternative boundaries; “but even that changed so dramatically, that binding Indian civilisation between fixed boundaries was meaningless.”

Thapar spoke of the importance of culture at the frontiers of the boundaries and how it influenced things inside, but that having received inadequate attention so far.

On one religion, Thapar elaborated how for millennia, the wide spectrum of sects, between the Brahmans and Shramans or the Astiks and Nastiks and aajivikas defined a much richer variety of faith. But after colonial European historians came to India and put all non-Muslim and Christian faiths under the ‘Hindu’ label, it was an oversimplification of what was happening here.

She said dialogue between various sects between the Brahmans and Shramans resulted in each one calling the other ‘Pashandas’, or frauds, and levels of intolerance were on display with reference to Buddhism and castes and sects treated as lower and untouchable. In a statement significant with debates today about portrayal of ancient India as tolerant, Thapar said: “The degree of tolerance and ideas of non-violence in the past need to be re-examined.”

On language, too, Thapar spoke of how high-quality debates and arguments took place in Prakrit, which remained a very popular but ignored language as ancient India is characterised as having just a Sanskrit base, ignoring both Prakrit and Pali, and of course languages in peninsular India. While Sanskrit was also the language which the elites and several royals patronised, with a rich repository of literature and philosophy, it was not the only language of the land.

Thapar emphasised on interactions between cultures and across boundaries and even high, dominant cultures executed by often smaller and less dominant castes, such as artisans and craftsmen, about whose interaction we know little. She spoke of the importance of “interface between what see as distinct cultures, which civilisation is about and not separation”. She spoke of co-mingling of people, engagement and cultures who spoke to each other as agents of change and growth, internally and across boundaries accepted (mistakenly) as static and eternal that often generated the maximum activity.

Speaking before her, the Vice Chancellor of AUD, Dr Shyam Menon spoke of plans in the university to institute a Chair for Dr BR Ambedkar Studies and, soon, to have a Centre for Critical Ambedkar Studies. Menon spoke of how the 125th anniversary of Ambedkar had coincided with difficult times for ideals Ambedkar held close to him. “We are seeing distressing times when there is the silencing of rationality, which is under attack.” He also spoke of the “acute intolerance” on display, when “public universities were become epicentres of contestation” to debate whether “difference in ideas can be debated”.

Menon defined a university as a “liberal space” and a “protected space”, which acts as a “testing ground for several ideas”.

The lecture was chaired by Dean, School of Liberal Studies, Prof Denys Leighton.

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  1. S
    Sirius
    Apr 15, 2016 at 5:15 am
    Agree with both of you. Note that Universities existed unto the time of Arab-Turkic-Mongol invasions, and education in these allowed a 'career change' as it does today. Also note that familial careers are even there today, so Yadav Singh (tainted Noida Engineer in Chief) and his son are emplo in same organization, Mulayam Singh and his son are both CM's, a soldiers son follows his father's footsteps, etc. Can we call all this a perpetuation of caste ?
    Reply
    1. S
      Sirius
      Apr 15, 2016 at 2:17 am
      Thapar is a fraud intellectual. She deliberately speaks in terminologies and contrasting viewpoints, creating a smokescreen to hide specific theory about anything. "Emergence of Untouchability can be traced to 2000 years ago... ", based on a term ! What are the archeological evidences for it ? Have you looked at any town or settlements to identify that ? Any references in clical texts ? Thapar just uses her " stature" to dish out theories convenient to Left and INC ..
      Reply
      1. H
        Hara
        Apr 15, 2016 at 7:04 am
        So why are you mentioning your father? We are not discussing your doubtful parentage either!
        Reply
        1. P
          Ploy
          Apr 15, 2016 at 3:19 am
          Actually it is 3000 years back when the Arya-brahmin scoundrels entered India. Jinnah was a very very clever person to kick out the last remnants of brahmins(including L K Advani) during parion. It was not Hindus who were driven out of stan, IT WAS BRAHMINS. Jinnah was a real visionary. Now those brahmins have very secretly occupied all the top positions in all fields and HAVE SKREWED INDIA exploiting the indigenous people.
          Reply
          1. P
            Ploy
            Apr 15, 2016 at 3:15 am
            Anti-national, Porki, stani, Naxalite, Congi, Commie, AAP, Leftie, Afgani BUT NOT A BRAHMIN.
            Reply
            1. K
              Karna
              Apr 15, 2016 at 4:38 pm
              Bharatk, Get you facts right. Untouchability is something unique to India. and with all due respect, if you really have so much 'GUTS' then why don't you go have a face-to-face conversation with Romila Thapar rather than just making baseless points and making allegations of someone being a criminal etc. lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;Read and learn first then talk. only then people will listen. Get a life.
              Reply
              1. K
                khan
                Apr 15, 2016 at 2:26 am
                What a great discovery if correct
                Reply
                1. M
                  MyTake
                  Apr 15, 2016 at 12:05 am
                  Casteist politics and vote banking is the modern day agenda of the holy man of untouchability. That has let to milk the untouchable cow more than anything else.
                  Reply
                  1. M
                    MyTake
                    Apr 15, 2016 at 12:00 am
                    There also exists untouchability in Indian political circle at its highest echelon. No one but a hi has to be at the top of a congress party and others in the party are in fact untouchable!
                    Reply
                    1. A
                      Avik Basu
                      Apr 15, 2016 at 2:33 am
                      Congress appointed fraud...
                      Reply
                      1. B
                        BHAGWAT GOEL
                        Apr 15, 2016 at 4:19 am
                        JAWAHAR LAL HAD DECLARED COMMUNISTS AS TRAITORS TO BE DECLARED FROM FIRST AVAILABLE POLE. THESE COMMUNIST HISTORIANS LIKE ROMILA THAPAR SHOULD BE HANGED TWICE AFTER THEY DISTORTED INDIAN HISTORY AND EVERYTHING ELSE. THEY ARE PROVEN CURSE. FINALLY THEIR IDEOLOGY IS DEAD EVEN IN RUSSIA,CHINA,CUBA, VIETNAM AND EVERY WHERE ELSE.
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                        1. M
                          Mohammad Bin Tughlaq
                          Apr 15, 2016 at 4:06 am
                          Everyone decries the caste system and blame Brahmins and take vengeance on the unfortunate present ones who are born in a Brahmin family. I do not think anyone has bothered to look into the reason why a caste system was evolved. Each and every patriotic Indian praise the marvels India could achieve in ancient times but strongly condemn the same India when it is this caste or varna system. It was a time when there were no IITs or ITS were there to teach the young ones to be engineers or experts in a particular trade.Naturally that expertise ped from father to son and like that. So eventually carpenters or goldsmiths or bronze-smiths were formed into a family trade. No one thought of changing the trade but concentrated in their own field. Also there was no IAS or IPS examinations to search for best police officer or administrator. Those who were intelligent took such jobs which required intelligence and those who have good physique took such jobs as soldiers. And those with a flair for trade became traders. And then the lowest ones. Those who were fit for nothing became the lower most in the caste system. Such people were made to do manual labours. And because they were mostly doing dirty work were not allowed to mingle with those doing white collar jobs. Because of this compartmentalization of jobs ancient Indians could excel in all fields. All the beautiful sculptures and all are just because the artisans were tutored by their fathers right from the time the tiny hand could hold a chisel. It is that what made India what it was. Now with modernisation and compeive examinations and selection process of the best we can choose anyone for any job irrespective of the caste or varna. But caste system was a necessity of that time.
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                          1. P
                            prasanth
                            Apr 15, 2016 at 2:17 am
                            she know cause she lived during those days:))
                            Reply
                            1. M
                              Manohar Machu
                              Apr 20, 2016 at 7:26 pm
                              Blood Libel. OMG! What evil! In Christian Europe, false stories were planted about Jews.. How Jews have to kill little Christian boys and use their blood to make Matzah balls for Jewish Pover. In India today, a version of the blood libel accusation on Hindus has started showing up.
                              Reply
                              1. M
                                Manohar Machu
                                Apr 20, 2016 at 7:20 pm
                                Doctrine of Discovery (Google search this…I can’t make this up. The Christian Church of Europe pretty much made a universal law that all lands of the world unless discovered by the Christians does not belong to the natives… It is the right of Christians to take any land and property belonging to non Christians. The doctrine has been cited by the US Supreme Court as recently as 2005, in City of Sherrill, NY v. Oneida Nation: “Under the ‘doctrine of discovery…’ fee le (ownership) to the lands occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign-first the discovering European nation and later the original states and the United States.”
                                Reply
                                1. M
                                  Manohar Machu
                                  Apr 20, 2016 at 7:27 pm
                                  NO NO NO.. Caste thingi is not worse than Slavery, The holocaust and ethnic cleansing of Native Indians of the Americas... Thapar woman can P on someone else and explain that it is raining...
                                  Reply
                                  1. M
                                    Manohar Machu
                                    Apr 20, 2016 at 7:18 pm
                                    Now lets look at the alleged “egalitarian” culture of Christianity.lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;Inquisition in Goa, India (and in Spain): The Christian priests went about one of the most horrific tyranny and torture on Indian people who believed differently from the dictates of the Church.lt;br/gt;Crusades: Bill Donahue of the American Catholic church justifies the crusades saying, Christians defending Europe from the desire of the Muslims to convert them was totally justified. The Europeans did not want to surrender to the Muslims and convert instead the entire Europe resorted to violence which this Donahue fella totally justifies as self defense.
                                    Reply
                                    1. M
                                      Manohar Machu
                                      Apr 20, 2016 at 7:21 pm
                                      Slavery: The horrible cruelty of slavery was justified with the Biblical scriptures and practiced the most in the Bible Belt of the Americas. There is no place in the New Testament where Jesus objects to the practice of slavery. St. Paul even admonishes slaves to serve their masters well—and to serve their Christian masters especially well: Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ…. —EPHESIANS 6:5
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                                      1. M
                                        Manohar Machu
                                        Apr 20, 2016 at 6:21 pm
                                        Talking about Ambedkar, he said this:lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;Dr. B.R.Ambedkar's patriotism and his message of patriotism to be the down trodden in India is very clear Conversion to non-Indic religions is undesirable and will be detrimental to the integrity of this nation and this country. The truth of this is borneout by facts - those areas where the majority Indian potion has converted to the non- Indic religion, Islam had seceded from India( stan and Bangladesh). In the north-east of India, most people were converted by missionaries to Christianity and therefore, they are also engaged in secessionist movements and insurgencies.lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;Christian Missionaries approached him to convert himself and his dalits to Christianity. They promised huge financial and other inducements . The Muslims also pleaded with him for conversion to Islam. In fact,lt;br/gt;the Nizam of Hyderabad offered him Rs. 75 mln if he and his flock converted to Islam.Dr. B.R.Ambedkar spurned the offers of Christins and Muslims . He said: if one converts to Christianity he ceases to be an Indian. The brotherhood in Islam is confined to the Believers; that is, only to Muslims. It cannot promote universal brother-hood. I will not convert to either of these religions . I will convert to one of the religions that are born here, in this country India. Of all the various Indic religions, Sanatan Dharma, Arya Samaj, Vaishnavism. Savaism, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Veerasevism, etc. Buddhism appeals to me most . It is all humanity embracing . It has no castes. I will therefore convert to Buddhism and advise all my Dalit brothers to convert to Buddhism and avoid conversion non-Indic religion.
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                                        1. M
                                          Manohar Machu
                                          Apr 20, 2016 at 7:23 pm
                                          The Holocaust: Anger against the Jews for the Jews did not want to convert to Christianity got 6 million Jews ged to death. Read the antisemitic rantings of Martin Luther the founder of the Protestant movement which was the impetus for the Holocaust. (Google for “Nasi Vatican Photos”)
                                          Reply
                                          1. M
                                            Manohar Machu
                                            Apr 20, 2016 at 7:25 pm
                                            The Holocaust: Anger against the Jews for the Jews did not want to convert to Christianity got 6 million Jews ged to death. Read the antisemitic rantings of Martin Luther the founder of the Protestant movement which was the impetus for the Holocaust. (Google for “Nasi Vatican Photos”)
                                            Reply
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