Article 17 of India's Constitution makes it mandatory to abolish all forms of untouchability but what does untouchability mean? There's also the protection of Civil Rights Act 1955, India that makes this illegal but even there untouchability isn't defined.

Edit: The Civil Rights Act states

Where any act constituting an offence under this Act is committed in relation to a member of a Scheduled Caste 1 ***, the Court shall presume, unless the contrary is proved, that such act was committed on the ground of "untouchability".

Does that mean it has to be absolutely proved that the grounds weren't untouchability?

Edit: The act states that notwithstanding anything in the code of criminal procedure 1970 the offences shall be tried summarily, does that mean an appeal from a conviction in this law is impossible in that do summary trials effect appealability?

1 Answer 1


Untouchability refers to social practices with respect to those who are avarna, referring to the ancient 4 occupational classes identified by the varna system as exemplified by the Mānavadharmaśāstras. Anyone who is not kṣatriya, brahmin, vaiśya or śudra is avarna ("outcaste; dalit; untouchable"). Article 17 simply asserts that "Untouchability" is forbidden, leaving it to ordinary interpretation to figure out what that really means.

The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989. "Scheduled Caste" is invoked in Art. 341 of the constitution, which simply says

(1) The President may with respect to any State or Union territory, and where it is a State after consultation with the Governor thereof, by public notification, specify the castes, races or tribes or parts of or groups within castes, races or tribes which shall for the purposes of this Constitution be deemed to be Scheduled Castes in relation to that State or Union territory, as the case may be

(2) Parliament may by law include in or exclude from the list of Scheduled Castes specified in a notification issued under clause ( 1 ) any caste, race or tribe or part of or group within any caste, race or tribe, but save as aforesaid a notification issued under the said clause shall not be varied by any subsequent notification

Leaving aside the further definition of those in a Scheduled Caste, the act lists numerous specific actions which are prohibited, the Offenses of Atrocities in Ch II, for example

(a) puts any inedible or obnoxious substance into the mouth of a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe or forces such member to drink or eat such inedible or obnoxious substance

You can summarize this as "you cannot commit crimes against a member of a Scheduled Caste".

The membership question is reduced to lists, for example The Constitution, (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950. There are about 7 such orders for caste, and as many for tribes. Note that only Hindus can be in Scheduled Castes, and Sikhs are dealt with by listing relevant caste members as Hindus irrespective of their religious profession. It is unclear what the law says about the indigenous Christians e.g. Malankara Nasrani, who seem to be likewise treated as Hindu.

  • the law I mentioned also criminalises promoting and preaching indirectly or directly to practice untouchability. what are the limits to this ? (specifically the "punishment for other crimes arising out of untouchability" section) does this criminalise private conduct too because that's how I imagine 90% of those cases to be if taken by plain meaning ?
    – user49663
    Apr 6, 2023 at 23:01
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    §7(c) is pretty broad, and could easily apply to a conversation between two people.
    – user6726
    Apr 6, 2023 at 23:57
  • "Anyone who is not kṣatriya, brahmin, vaiśya or śudra is avarna ('outcaste; dalit; untouchable')." Am I correct in understanding, however, that this does not apply to non-Indians (e.g., Europeans)? Apr 7, 2023 at 17:14
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    That's socio-historical context. The lists of Scheduled Castes is the legal implementation of the notion "untouchable". Originally there was no such thing as "India", though since Syrian Christians have been there for 2000 years, it would be interesting to know how they were integrated into society. Further probing into the social aspects ought to be asked on Hinduism SE.
    – user6726
    Apr 7, 2023 at 17:49

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