“Untouchability” is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability rising out of “Untouchability” shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law.” –Art. 17 Indian Constitution
The Constitution of India has special provisions dealing with the abolition of Untouchability. Central Legislation exists in the form of the Protection of Civil Rights Act 1955 and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act 1989. In colleges and universities and in state employment positive discrimination exists and a percentage of seats and jobs are reserved for those from the socially and economically backward sections of society.
It may not be inappropriate in this context to recall what Gandhi feelingly said on one occasion on the subject. He said: “I do not want to be re-born, but if I am re-born, I wish that I would be re-born as a Harijan, as an untouchable, so that I may lead a continuous struggle against the oppression and indignities that have been heaped upon these classes of people”.
With the epic fast of Mahatma Gandhi in 1932 in protest against the “communal award” by which the Scheduled Castes were to be given a separate electorate, a vigorous movement against untochablitity was launched on a national basis. Solemn pledges were taken by many members of the Indian National Congress and others that untouchability would no longer find any asylum in the country.
The movement brought forth some good results. Many temples were thrown open and the rigours of untouchability had become a thing of the past at least in the urban centers of the country. But the evil of untouchablitity still lingered in many forms and in many parts of the country. Speaking on the Untouchability Offences Bill, which was passed into the very vitals of our society. It is not only a blot on the Hindu religion, but it has created intolerance, sectionalism and fissiparous tendencies. Many of the evils that we find in our society today are traceable to this heinous monstrosity.
It was really strange that Hindus with their sublime philosophy and their merciful kind-heartedness even towards insects should have been party to such intolerable dwarfing of manhood. Yet, untouchability has been there for centuries and we have now to atone for it. The idea of untouchability is entirely repugnant to the structure, spirit and provisions of the Constitution.”
The Untouchability Offences Act came into force in June 1955. In one sense it may be said to be said to be an expansion of Article 15 of the Constitution. The Act intended to make the enforcement of any disability against the Scheduled Castes illegal.
It provided that when the victim is a member of a Scheduled Caste, the commission of the forbidden act should be presumed to have been done on the ground of untouchability. It has lain down that whatever is open to the general public or to Hindus generally should be equally open to members of the Schedule Castes also.
Thus, for example, no shop may refuse to sell and no person may refuse to render any service to any person on the ground of untouchability. Every person is entitled to such services on the terms on which they may be obtained in the ordinary course of business by any other person.
Any refusal on that ground entails cancellation of any license required in respect of such profession. Any act which interferes in any manner with the exercise of such rights by any person was made an offence punishable with imprisonment for six months or a fine up to Rs. 500 or both. A subsequent offence is punishable with both imprisonment and fine. All offence under the Act are cognizable and may be compounded with leave of the Court.
The Untouchability Offence Act was amended in 1976 making its penal clauses more stringent. The Act has been also renamed as the Protection of Civil Rights Act. One significant new provision of the Act is that a person convicted of an untouchability offence will be disqualified for contesting the elections. It was for the first time that such a provision became a law in the history of elections in India.
In spite of the constitutional provisions, the operation of the Untouchability Offences Act and judicial pronouncements, India cannot yet claim to have rooted out the evil of untouchability completely. In the fight against social evils, legislation is only one of many weapons. People need to be educated and be aware about this malaise. So that we can think about complete eradication of untouchability from society.