Any new entry to the Scheduled Castes should share the caste experience of untouchables

BR Ambedkar with women delegates of the Scheduled Caste Federation during a conference of the federation on 8 July 1942, at Nagpur. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
17 August, 2023

On 23 October 1928, BR Ambedkar appeared before the Indian Statutory Commission to present his evidence regarding the population of the Depressed Classes and the forms of civic disabilities they faced across British India. The commission’s mandate was to review the last colonial constitutional reform introduced in 1919 and also recommend measures required to further devolve power to Indians. Ambedkar, along with PG Solanki, was representing the Depressed Classes—castes and tribes who still needed a legal definition but were understood to be communities despised by Hindu society. Ambedkar contended with the commission that a total of 2.8 million Depressed Classes, as opposed to 1.4 million, as claimed by the Bombay government, lived in the Bombay Presidency.

The commission asked Ambedkar if by Depressed Classes he meant “untouchables in the sense of persons who are Hindus, but who are denied access to Hindu temples.” Ambedkar said “Yes.” The commission followed with, “In another sense you might include in the ‘Depressed Classes’ not only those people whom I have described, but also the criminal tribes, the hill tribes … who are not, perhaps, in the narrower sense untouchables from the point of view of the Hindus hierarchy.” In the commission’s calculation, the 2.8 million figure would add up only after including the tribes with untouchables. Ambedkar again responded in the affirmative. The criminal tribes, now decriminalised and known as denotified tribes, were communities whom the British government had labelled as habitual criminals.

But Ambedkar refused to accept the proposition that the Depressed Classes also meant the tribes and aboriginals. Ambedkar said he believed some communities from criminalised tribes and Hinduised aboriginals were also untouchables. The untouchables were understood to be people whose touch or sight caused pollution to caste Hindus. This was as far as Ambedkar went to accept communities from non-Hindu groups into the Depressed Classes’ fold, dependent primarily on whether untouchability was an element of their social existence.

Four years later, though, in a note to the Indian Franchise Committee, Ambedkar said, “I have agreed to confine the term Depressed Classes to untouchables only. In fact, I have myself sought to exclude from the untouchables all those in whom there cannot be the same consciousness of kind as is shared by those who suffer from the social discrimination that is inherent in the system of untouchability and who are, therefore, likely to exploit the untouchables for their own purposes.” The committee had the mandate to define Depressed Classes. Ambedkar also suggested a new designation for the Depressed Classes to the committee: “exterior castes.” Explaining it, he wrote, “It defines exactly the position of the untouchables who are within the Hindu religion but outside the Hindu society and distinguishes it from Hindus who are economically and educationally depressed but who are both within the pale of Hindu religion and Hindu society.” Until then, the Depressed Classes also included, along with untouchables, some economically and educationally backward groups, which in Independent India eventually became the Other Backward Classes in 1990. At the end of arduous enquiries from several government committees, Ambedkar bagged franchise rights and a separate political representation in legislatures for the Depressed Classes, who are now known as Scheduled Castes. The SCs, though, was a narrowed down definition of Depressed Classes and strictly meant only untouchables.