NCERT Class XII Sociology: Chapter 5 – Patterns of Social Inequality and Exclusion

NCERT Class XII Sociology: Chapter  5 – Patterns of Social Inequality and Exclusion

National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) Book for Class XII
Subject: Sociology
Chapter: Chapter  5 – Patterns of Social Inequality and Exclusion

Class XII NCERT Sociology Text Book Chapter  5  Patterns of Social Inequality and Exclusion is given below

The family, caste, tribe and the market – these are the social institutions thathave been considered in the last two chapters. In Chapters 3 and 4, theseinstitutions were seen from the point of view of their role in forming communitiesand sustaining society. In this chapter we consider an equally important aspectof such institutions, namely their role in creating and sustaining patterns ofinequality and exclusion.

For most of us who are born and live in India, social inequality and exclusionare facts of life. We see beggars in the streets and on railway platforms. We seeyoung children labouring as domestic workers, construction helpers, cleanersand helpers in streetside restaurants (dhabas) and tea-shops. We are notsurprised at the sight of small children, who work as domestic workers in middleclass urban homes, carrying the school bags of older children to school. It doesnot immediately strike us as unjust that some children are denied schooling.Some of us read about caste discrimination against children in schools; someof us face it. Likewise, news reports about violence against women and prejudiceagainst minority groups and the differently abled are part of our everyday lives.

This everydayness of social inequality and exclusion often make them appearinevitable, almost natural. They are seen as givens that cannot be changed. Ifwe do sometimes recognise that inequality and exclusion are not inevitable, weoften think of them as being ‘deserved’ or ‘justified’ in some sense. Perhaps thepoor and marginalised are where they are because they are lacking in ability, orhaven’t tried hard enough to improve their situation? We thus tend to blamethem for their own plight – if only they worked harder or were more intelligent,they wouldn’t be where they are.

A closer examination will show that few work harder than those who arelocated at the lower ranks of society. As a South American proverb says – “Ifhard labour were really such a good thing, the rich would keep it all forthemselves!” All over the world, back-breaking work like stone breaking, digging,carrying heavy weights, pulling rickshaws or carts is invariably done by thepoor. And yet they rarely improve their life chances. How often do we comeacross a poor construction worker who rises to become even a petty constructioncontractor? It is only in films that a street child may become an industrialist,but even in films it is often shown that such a dramatic rise requires illegal orunscrupulous methods.


Identify some of the richest and some of the poorest people in yourneigbourhood, people that you or your family are acquainted with. (Forinstance a rickshawpuller or a porter or a domestic worker and a cinemahall owner or a construction contractor or hotel owner, or doctor… It couldbe something else in your context). Try to talk to one person from each group to find out about their daily routines. For each person, organise theinformation in the form of an imaginary diary detailing the activities of theperson from the time they get up to the time they go to sleep on a typical(or average) working day. Based on these diaries, try to answer the followingquestions and discuss them with your classmates.

How many hours a day do each of these persons spend at work? Whatkind of work do they do – in what ways is their work tiring, stressfull, pleasantor unpleasant? What kinds of relationship does it involve with otherpeople – do they have to take orders, give orders, seek cooperation,enforce discipline….? Are they treated with respect by the people theyhave to deal with in their work, or do they themselves have to showrespect for others? It may be that the poorest, and in some cases even the richest, person youknow actually has no real ‘job’ or is currently ‘not working’. If this is so, do goahead and find out about their daily routine anyway. But in addition, try toanswer the following questions.

Why is the person ‘unemployed’? Has he/she been looking for work?How is he/she supporting herself/himself? In what ways are they affectedby the fact of not having any work? Is their lifestyle any different fromwhen they were working?

Activity 5.1 invites you to rethink the widely held commonsense view thathard work alone can improve an individual’s life chances. It is true that hardwork matters, and so does individual ability. If all other things were equal,then personal effort, talent and luck would surely account for all the differencesbetween individuals. But, as is almost always the case, all other things are notequal. It is these non-individual or group differences that explain socialinequality and exclusion.


The question being asked in this section has three broad answers which maybe stated briefly as follows. First, social inequality and exclusion are socialbecause they are not about individuals but about groups. Second, they aresocial in the sense that they are not economic, although there is usually astrong link between social and economic inequality. Third, they are systematicand structured – there is a definite pattern to social inqualities. These threebroad senses of the ‘social’ will be explored briefly below.


In every society, some people have a greater share of valued resources – money,property, education, health, and power – than others. These social resources can be divided into three forms of capital – economic capital in the form ofmaterial assets and income; cultural capital such as educational qualificationsand status; and social capital in the form of networks of contacts and socialassociations (Bourdieu 1986). Often, these three forms of capital overlap andone can be converted into the other. For example, a person from a well-offfamily (economic capital) can afford expensive higher education, and so canacquire cultural or educational capital. Someone with influential relatives andfriends (social capital) may – through access to good advice, recommendationsor information – manage to get a well-paid job.

Patterns of unequal access to social resources are commonly called socialinequality. Some social inequality reflects innate differences between individualsfor example, their varying abilities and efforts. Someone may be endowed withexceptional intelligence or talent, or may have worked very hard to achievetheir wealth and status. However, by and large, social inequality is not theoutcome of innate or ‘natural’ differences between people, but is produced bythe society in which they live. Sociologists use the term social stratification torefer to a system by which categories of people in a society are ranked in ahierarchy. This hierarchy then shapes people’s identity and experiences, theirrelations with others, as well as their access to resources and opportunities.Three key principles help explain social stratification:

1. Social stratification is a characteristic of society, not simply a function ofindividual differences. Social stratification is a society-wide system thatunequally distributes social resources among categories of people. In themost technologically primitive societies – hunting and gathering societies,for instance – little was produced so only rudimentary social stratificationcould exist. In more technologically advanced societies where people producea surplus over and above their basic needs, however, social resources areunequally distributed to various social categories regardless of people’s innateindividual abilities.

2. Social stratification persists over generations. It is closely linked to thefamily and to the inheritance of social resources from one generation tothe next. A person’s social position is ascribed. That is, children assumethe social positions of their parents. Within the caste system, birth dictatesoccupational opportunities. A Dalit is likely to be confined to traditionaloccupations such as agricultural labour, scavenging, or leather work,with little chance of being able to get high-paying white-collar orprofessional work. The ascribed aspect of social inequality is reinforcedby the practice of endogamy. That is, marriage is usually restricted tomembers of the same caste, ruling out the potential for blurring castelines through inter-marriage.

3. Social stratification is supported by patterns of belief, or ideology. No systemof social stratification is likely to persist over generations unless it is widelyviewed as being either fair or inevitable. The caste system, for example, is justified in terms of the opposition of purity and pollution, with the Brahminsdesignated as the most superior and Dalits as the most inferior by virtue oftheir birth and occupation. Not everyone, though, thinks of a system ofinequality as legitimate. Typically, people with the greatest social privilegesexpress the strongest support for systems of stratification such as casteand race. Those who have experienced the exploitation and humiliation ofbeing at the bottom of the hierarchy are most likely to challenge it.

Often we discuss social exclusion and discrimination as though they pertainto differential economic resources alone. This however is only partially true.People often face discrimination and exclusion because of their gender, religion,ethnicity, language, caste and disability. Thus women from a privilegedbackground may face sexual harassment in public places. A middle classprofessional from a minority religious or ethnic group may find it difficult to getaccommodation in a middle class colony even in a metropolitan city. Peopleoften harbour prejudices about other social groups. Each of us grows up as amember of a community from which we acquire ideas not just about our‘communities’, our ‘caste’ or ‘class’ our ‘gender’ but also about others. Oftenthese ideas reflect prejudices.

Prejudices refer to pre-conceived opinions or attitudes held by members ofone group towards another. The word literally means ‘pre-judgement’, that is,an opinion formed in advance of any familiarity with the subject, beforeconsidering any available evidence. A prejudiced person’s preconceived viewsare often based on hearsay rather than on direct evidence, and are resistant tochange even in the face of new information. Prejudice may be either positive ornegative. Although the word is generally used for negative pre-judgements, itcan also apply to favourable pre-judgement. For example, a person may beprejudiced in favour of members of his/her own caste or group and – withoutany evidence – believe them to be superior to members of other castes or groups.

Prejudices are often grounded in stereotypes, fixed and inflexiblecharacterisations of a group of people. Stereotypes are often applied to ethnicand racial groups and to women. In a country such as India, which was colonisedfor a long time, many of these stereotypes are partly colonial creations. Somecommunities were characterised as ‘martial races’, some others as effeminateor cowardly, yet others as untrustworthy. In both English and Indian fictionalwritings we often encounter an entire group of people classified as ‘lazy’ or‘cunning’. It may indeed be true that some individuals are sometimes lazy orcunning, brave or cowardly. But such a general statement is true of individualsin every group. Even for such individuals, it is not true all the time – the sameindividual may be both lazy and hardworking at different times. Stereotypesfix whole groups into single, homogenous categories; they refuse to recognisethe variation across individuals and across contexts or across time. They treatan entire community as though it were a single person with a singleall-encompassing trait or characteristic.


Collect examples of prejudiced behaviourfrom films or novels.

  • Discuss the examples you and yourclassmates have gathered. How areprejudices reflected in the manner a socialgroup is depicted? How do we decidewhether a certain kind of portrayal isprejudiced or not?
  • Can you distinguish between instances ofprejudice that were intentional – i.e., the filmmaker or writer wanted to show it asprejudiced – and unintentional orunconscious prejudice?

If prejudice describes attitudes andopinions, discrimination refers to actualbehaviour towards another group orindividual. Discrimination can be seen inpractices that disqualify members of onegroup from opportunities open to others,as when a person is refused a job becauseof their gender or religion. Discriminationcan be very hard to prove because it maynot be open or explicitly stated.Discriminatory behaviour or practicesmay be presented as motivated by other,more justifiable, reasons rather thanprejudice. For example, the person whois refused a job because of their caste maybe told that they were less qualified thanothers, and that the selection was donepurely on merit.


Social exclusion refers to ways in which individuals may become cut off fromfull involvement in the wider society. It focuses attention on a broad range offactors that prevent individuals or groups from having opportunities open tothe majority of the population. In order to live a full and active life, individualsmust not only be able to feed, clothe and house themselves, but should alsohave access to essential goods and services such as education, health,transportation, insurance, social security, banking and even access to the policeor judiciary. Social exclusion is not accidental but systematic – it is the resultof structural features of society.

It is important to note that social exclusion is involuntary – that is, exclusionis practiced regardless of the wishes of those who are excluded. For example,rich people are never found sleeping on the pavements or under bridges likethousands of homeless poor people in cities and towns. This does not mean thatthe rich are being ‘excluded’ from access to pavements and park benches, becausethey could certainly gain access if they wanted to, but they choose not to. Socialexclusion is sometimes wrongly justified by the same logic – it is said that theexcluded group itself does not wish to participate. The truth of such an argumentis not obvious when exclusion is preventing access to something desirable (asdifferent from something clearly undesirable, like sleeping on the pavement).

  • Prolonged experience of discriminatory or insulting behaviour often producesa reaction on the part of the excluded who then stop trying for inclusion. Forexample, ‘upper’ caste Hindu communities have often denied entry into templesfor the ‘lower’ castes and specially the Dalits. After decades of such treatment,the Dalits may build their own temple, or convert to another religion likeCollect examples of prejudiced behaviourfrom films or novels.
  • Discuss the examples you and yourclassmates have gathered. How areprejudices reflected in the manner a socialgroup is depicted? How do we decidewhether a certain kind of portrayal isprejudiced or not?
  • Can you distinguish between instances ofprejudice that were intentional – i.e., the filmmaker or writer wanted to show it asprejudiced – and unintentional orunconscious prejudice?ACTIVITY 5.2

Buddhism, Christianity or Islam. After they do this, they may no longer desireto be included in the Hindu temple or religious events. But this does not meanthat social exclusion is not being practiced. The point is that the exclusionoccurs regardless of the wishes of the excluded.

India like most societies has been marked by acute practices of socialdiscrimination and exclusion. At different periods of history protest movementsarose against caste, gender and religious discrimination. Yet prejudices remainand often, new ones emerge. Thus legislation alone is unable to transformsociety or produce lasting social change. A constant social campaign to changeawareness and sensitivity is required to break them.

You have already read about the impact of colonialism on Indian society. Whatdiscrimination and exclusion mean was brought home to even the most privilegedIndians at the hands of the British colonial state. Such experiences were, of course,common to the various socially discriminated groups such as women, dalits andother oppressed castes and tribes. Faced with the humiliation of colonial rule andsimultaneously exposed to ideas of democracy and justice, many Indians initiatedand participated in a large number of social reform movements.

In this chapter we focus on four such groups who have suffered from serioussocial inequality and exclusion, namely Dalits or the ex-untouchable castes;adivasis or communities refered to as ‘tribal’; women, and the differently abled.We attempt to look at each of their stories of struggles and achievements in thefollowing sections.



The caste system is a distinct Indian social institution that legitimises andenforces practices of discrimination against people born into particular castes.These practices of discrimination are humiliating, exclusionary and exploitative.

Historically, the caste system classified people by their occupation and status.Every caste was associated with an occupation, which meant that personsborn into a particular caste were also ‘born into’ the occupation associatedwith their caste – they had no choice. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly,each caste also had a specific place in the hierarchy of social status, so that,roughly speaking, not only were occupational categories ranked by social status,but there could be a further ranking within each broad occupational category.In strict scriptural terms, social and economic status were supposed to besharply separated. For example, the ritually highest caste – the Brahmins –were not supposed to amass wealth, and were subordinated to the secularpower of kings and rulers belonging to the Kshatriya castes. On the other hand, despite having the highest secular status and power, the king wassubordinated to the Brahmin in the ritual-religious sphere. (Compare this tothe ‘apartheid’ system described in Box 5.1)

However, in actual historical practice economic and social status tended tocoincide. There was thus a fairly close correlation between social (i.e. caste)status and economic status – the ‘high’ castes were almost invariably of higheconomic status, while the ‘low’ castes were almost always of low economicstatus. In modern times, and particularly since the nineteenth century, thelink between caste and occupation has become much less rigid. Ritual-religiousprohibitions on occupational change are not easily imposed today, and it iseasier than before to change one’s occupation. Moreover, compared to a hundredor fifty years ago, the correlation between caste and economic status is alsoweaker – rich and poor people are to be found in every caste. But – and this isthe key point – the caste-class correlation is still remarkably stable at the macrolevel. As the system has become less rigid, the distinctions between castes ofbroadly similar social and economic status have weakened. Yet, betweendifferent socio-economic groupings, the distinctions continue to be maintained.

Although things have certainly changed, they have not changed much atthe macro level – it is still true that the privileged (and high economic status)sections of society tend to be overwhelmingly ‘upper’ caste while thedisadvantaged (and low economic status) sections are dominated by the socalled ‘lower’ castes. Moreover, the proportion of population that lives in povertyor affluence differs greatly across caste groups. (See Tables 1 and 2) In short,even though there have been major changes brought about by social movementsover more than a century, and despite changed modes of production as well asconcerted attempts by the state to suppress its public role in independent India,caste continues to affect the life chances of Indians in the twenty-first century.

Race and Caste – A Cross-Cultural Comparison

Just like caste in India, race in South Africa stratifies society into a hierarchy.About one South African in seven is of European ancestry, yet South Africa’sWhite minority holds the dominant share of power and wealth. Dutch traders settledin South Africa in the mid-seventeenth century; early in the nineteenth century, theirdescendants were pushed inland by British colonisation. At the beginning of thetwentieth century, the British gained control of what became the Union and then theRepublic of South Africa.

To ensure their political control, the White European minority developed the policy ofapartheid, or separation of the races. An informal practice for many years, apartheidbecame law in 1948 and was used to deny the Black majority South African citizenship,ownership of land, and a formal voice in government. Every individual was classifiedby race and mixed marriages were prohibited. As a racial caste, Blacks held low-paying jobs; on average, they earned only one-fourth what whites did. In the latterhalf of the twentieth century, millions of Blacks were forcibly relocated to ‘Bantustans’or ‘homelands’ – dirt-poor districts with no infrastructure or industry or jobs. All the

homelands together constituted only 14 per cent of South Africa’s land, while Blacksmade up close to 80 per cent of the country’s population. The resulting starvationand suffering was intense and widespread. In short, in a land with extensive naturalresources, including diamonds and precious minerals, the majority of people lived inabject poverty.

The prosperous White minority defended its privileges by viewing Blacks as social inferiors.However, they also relied on a powerful system of military repression to maintain theirpower. Black protestors were routinely jailed, tortured and killed. Despite this reign ofterror, Blacks collectively struggled for decades under the leadership of the AfricanNational Congress and Nelson Mandela, and finally succeeded in coming to powerand forming the government in 1994. Although the Constitution of post-apartheidSouth Africa has banned racial discrimination, economic capital still remainsconcentrated in White hands. Empowering the Black majority represents a continuingchallenge for the new society.

“I have fought against White domination and I have fought against Black domination.I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons livetogether in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live forand to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

NCERT Class XII Sociology: Chapter  5   Patterns of Social Inequality and Exclusion

NCERT Class XII Sociology: Chapter  5   Patterns of Social Inequality and Exclusion


Table 1 shows the percentage of the population of each caste/community that lives below the official ‘Poverty Line’ for 1999-2000.There are separate columns for rural and urban India.

Table 2 is organised in exactly the same way except that it showsthe percentage of population living in affluence rather than inpoverty. ‘Affluence’ is here defined as a monthly per personexpenditure of Rs.1000 for rural India and Rs.2000 for urban India.This is equivalent to a family of five spending Rs.5000 per month inrural India and Rs.10,000 per month in urban India. Please take sometime to study the tables carefully before you answer the questionsbelow.

1.What is the percentage of the Indian population that wasliving below the poverty line in a) Rural India and b) UrbanIndia?

2.Which caste/community group has the highest proportion of itsmembers living in extreme poverty in a) rural and b) urban India?Which caste/community has the lowest percentage of populationliving in poverty?

or3.Approximately how many times higher than the nationalaverage is the poverty percentage for each of the lower castes(ST, SC, OBC)? Is there a significant rural-urban difference?

4.Which caste/community has the lowest percentage of populationliving in affluence in rural and urban India respectively? How doesthis compare with the national average?

5.The affluent population of ‘Upper’ caste Hindus is roughly howmany times larger than the percentage for the ‘lower’ castes (ST,SC, OBC)?6.What do these tables tell you about the relative position of theOBCs? Is there a significant rural-urban difference?


‘Untouchability’ is an extreme and particularly vicious aspect of the caste systemthat prescribes stringent social sanctions against members of castes located atthe bottom of the purity-pollution scale. Strictly speaking, the ‘untouchable’castes are outside the caste hierarchy – they are considered to be so ‘impure’that their mere touch severely pollutes members of all other castes, bringingterrible punishment for the former and forcing the latter to perform elaboratepurification rituals. In fact, notions of ‘distance pollution’ existed in many regionsof India (particularly in the south) such that even the mere presence or theshadow of an ‘untouchable’ person is considered polluting. Despite the limitedliteral meaning of the word, the institution of ‘untouchability’ refers not just tothe avoidance or prohibition of physical contact but to a much broader set ofsocial sanctions.

It is important to emphasise that the three main dimensions of untouchability– namely, exclusion, humiliation-subordination and exploitation – are all equallyimportant in defining the phenomenon. Although other (i.e., ‘touchable’) lowcastes are also subjected to subordination and exploitation to some degree,they do not suffer the extreme forms of exclusion reserved for ‘untouchables.’Dalits experience forms of exclusion that are unique and not practised againstother groups – for instance, being prohibited from sharing drinking water sourcesor participating in collective religious worship, social ceremonies and festivals.At the same time, untouchability may also involve forced inclusion in asubordinated role, such as being compelled to play the drums at a religiousevent. The performance of publicly visible acts of (self-)humiliation andsubordination is an important part of the practice of untouchability. Commoninstances include the imposition of gestures of deference (such as taking offheadgear, carrying footwear in the hand, standing with bowed head, not wearingclean or ‘bright’ clothes, and so on) as well as routinised abuse and humiliation.Moreover, untouchability is almost always associated with economic exploitationof various kinds, most commonly through the imposition of forced, unpaid (or3 under-paid) labour, or the confiscation of property. Finally, untouchability is apan-Indian phenomenon, although its specific forms and intensity varyconsiderably across regions and socio-historical contexts

The Everyday Ordeal of a Dalit ScavengerAmong

the estimated 8 million manual scavengers in India is Narayanamma,who work in a 400 seat public latrine in Anantpur municipality in Andhra Pradesh.From time to time, after the women using the toilet file out, Narayanamma and herfellow workers are called inside. There is no flush. The excrement only piles up at eachseat, or flows into open drains. It is Narayanamma’s job to collect it with her broomonto a flat, tin plate, and pile it into her basket. When the basket is filled, she carries iton her head to a waiting tractor-trolley parked at a distance of half a kilometre. Andthen she is back, waiting for the next call from the toilet. This goes on until about ten inthe morning, when at last Narayanamma washes up, and returns home.“Ai, municipality come, clean this”, is how most people call out to Narayanammaand her fellow workers when they walk down the road.

It is as though we do not have a name, she says. And often they cover their noseswhen we walk past, as though we smell. We have to wait until someone turns on amunicipal tap, or works a hand-pump, when we fill water, so that these are not pollutedby our touch. In the tea-stalls, we do not sit with others on the benches; we squat onthe ground separately. Until recently, there were separate broken teacups for us,which we washed ourselves and these were kept apart only for our use. This continuesto be the practice in villages even in the periphery of Anantpur, as in many parts ofthe state.

The so-called ‘untouchables’ have been referred to collectively by many namesover the centuries. Whatever the specific etymology of these names, they are allderogatory and carry a strongly pejorative charge. In fact, many of them continueto be used as forms of abuse even today, although their use is now a criminaloffence. Mahatma Gandhi had popularised the term ‘Harijan’ (literally, childrenof God) in the 1930s to counter the pejorative charge carried by caste names.

However, the ex-untouchable communities and their leaders have coinedanother term, ‘Dalit’, which is now the generally accepted term for referring tothese groups. In Indian languages, the term Dalit literally means ‘downtrodden’and conveys the sense of an oppressed people. Though it was neither coined byDr. Ambedkar nor frequently used by him, the term certainly resonates withhis philosophy and the movement for empowerment that he led. It receivedwide currency during the caste riots in Mumbai in the early 1970s. The DalitPanthers, a radical group that emerged in western India during that time, usedthe term to assert their identity as part of their struggle for rights and dignity


The Indian state has had special programmes for the Scheduled Tribes andScheduled Castes since even before Independence. The ‘Schedules’ listing thecastes and tribes recognised as deserving of special treatment because of themassive discrimination practiced against them were drawn up in 1935, by theBritish Indian government. After Independence, the same policies have beencontinued and many new ones added. Among the most significant additions isthe extension of special programmes to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs)since the early 1990s.

The most important state initiative attempting to compensate for past andpresent caste discrimination is the one popularly known as ‘reservations’. Thisinvolves the setting aside of some places or ‘seats’ for members of the ScheduledCastes and Tribes in different spheres of public life. These include reservation ofseats in the State and Central legislatures (i.e., state assemblies, Lok Sabha andRajya Sabha); reservation of jobs in government service across all departmentsand public sector companies; and reservation of seats in educational institutions.The proportion of reserved seats is equal to the percentage share of the ScheduledCastes and Tribes in the total population. But for the OBCs this proportion isdecided differently. The same principle is extended to other developmentalprogrammes of the government, some of which are exclusively for the ScheduledCastes or Tribes, while others give them preference.

In addition to reservations, there have been a number of laws passed toend, prohibit and punish caste discrimination, specially untouchability. Oneof the earliest such laws was the Caste Disabilities Removal Act of 1850,which disallowed the curtailment of rights of citizens due solely to change ofreligion or caste. The most recent such law was the Constitution Amendment(Ninety Third Amendment) Act of 2005, which became law on 23rd January2006. Coincidentally, both the 1850 law and the 2006 amendment related toeducation. The 93rd Amendment is for introducing reservation for the OtherBackward Classes in institutions of higher education, while the 1850 Act wasused to allow entry of Dalits to government schools. In between, there havebeen numerous laws, of which the important ones are, of course, theConstitution of India itself, passed in 1950; and the Scheduled Castes andScheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989. The Constitutionabolished untouchability (Article 17) and introduced the reservation provisionsmentioned above. The 1989 Prevention of Atrocities Act revised and strenthenedthe legal provisions punishing acts of violence or humiliation against Dalitsand adivasis. The fact that legislation was passed repeatedly on this subjectis proof of the fact that the law alone cannot end a social practice. In fact, asyou will have seen from newspapers and the media, cases of discriminationincluding atrocities against Dalits and adivasis, continue to take place allover India today. The particular case mentioned in Box 5.3 is only


ofObtain a copy of theConstitution of India. Youcan get it from your schoollibrary, from a bookshop, orfrom the Internet(web address: and list all the articlesand sections (laws) thatdeal with the ScheduledCastes and Tribes, or withcaste-related problems likeUntouchability. You canmake a chart of the mostimportant laws and putthem up in your class.

one example; you can find numerous others in thenewspapers and media.
State action alone cannot ensure social change. In anycase, no social group howsoever weak or oppressed is only avictim. Human beings are always capable of organising andacting on their own – often against very heavy odds – tostruggle for justice and dignity. Dalits too have beenincreasingly active on the political, agitational, and culturalfronts. From the pre-Independence struggles andmovements launched by people like Jotiba Phule, Iyotheedas,Periyar, Ambedkar and others (See Chapter 3) tocontemporary political organisations like the Bahujan SamajParty in Uttar Pradesh or the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti ofKarnataka, Dalit political assertion has come a long way.(For an example of a contemporary struggle, see Box 5.3)Dalits have also made significant contributions to literaturein several Indian languages, specially Marathi, Kannada,Tamil, Telugu and Hindi. (See Box 5.4 which features ashort poem by the well known Marathi Dalit poet, DayaPawar.)

D for Dalit, D for Defiance Gohana is a small, dusty town on the Sonepat-Rohtak highway of Haryanawith billboards promising progress… Past the town square, Gohana’s largestdalit neighbourhood, Valmiki Colony, has risen from the ashes. On 31 August 2005, it waslooted and burnt by a mob of Jats after a Jat youth was killed in a scuffle with somedalit youngsters. Dalits had fled their homes fearing attacks by Jats after the murder;the patrolling police had chosen not to stop the mobs from torching 54 dalit houses.“The arson was the Jats’ way of teaching the dalits a lesson,” said Vinod Kumar, whosehouse was burnt. “The police, administration and the government are dominated byJats; they simply watched our houses burn.”

Five months later, the burnt houses have been rebuilt, their facades painted in brightpink, red and green. Marble tiles with bright pictures of Valmiki adorn the facades ofevery house, asserting the dalit identity of the residents. “We had to return. It is ourhome,” said Kumar, sitting on a newly acquired sofa in the drawing room of his housepainted blue.

Kumar embodies the spirit of the dalits of Gohana. In his early 30s, he is not the scavengerthe caste society ordered him to be, but a senior assistant in an insurance company.Most dalits have embraced education and stepped across the line of control of thecaste system. “There are many of us who have a masters degree and work in privateand government jobs. Most of our boys go to school and so do the girls,” he said.

The young men of the Valmiki Colony are not the stereotyped, submissive,suffering dalits that one would traditionally expect to encounter. Dressed inimitation Nike shoes and Wrangler jeans, their body language is defiant. However,the journey of upward social mobility remains tough for the vast majority ofObtain landless dalits in Haryana. “Most boys drop out after high school because of acutepoverty,” said Sudesh Kataria, an assistant engineer working for a multinational. Hehas a diploma in electrical engineering from the Industrial Training Institute, Gurgaon.Kataria’s best friend at ITI, a Jat, once invited him to a family wedding but insisted thathe shouldn’t reveal his identity. “At the wedding a guest asked me about my casteand I lied. Then he asked me about my village and I told him the truth. He knew myvillage was a dalit village.” A fight broke out between the hosts and the guests — howcan they let a dalit in? “They washed the chair I sat on and threw me out,” Katariarecalls. Kataria wants a new life for the dalits — he campaigns throughout the villages of Gurgaonwith other educated dalits. “Our people will rise, stronger and powerful. We need to unite.And once we unite and fight back, there will be no Gohanas or Jhajjars. Not any more.”

The Cityby Daya PawarOne day someone digs up a twentieth century cityand ends on this observation.Here’s an interesting inscription:‘This water tap is open to all castes and religions’.What could it have meant:That this society was divided?That some were high while others were low?Well, all right, then this city deserved burying—Why did they call it the machine age?Seems like the Stone Age in the twentieth century.


Untouchability was the most visible andcomprehensive form of socialdiscrimination. However, there were alarge group of castes that were of lowstatus and were also subjected tovarying levels of discrimination short ofuntouchability. These were the serviceand artisanal castes who occupied thelower rungs of the caste hierarchy. TheConstitution of India recognises thepossibility that there may be groupsother than the Scheduled Tribes andScheduled Castes who suffer from socialdisadvantages. These groups – whichneed not be based on caste alone, but generally are identified by caste – weredescribed as the ‘socially and educationally backward classes’. This is theconstitutional basis of the popular term ‘Other Backward Classes’ (OBCs), whichis in common use today.

Like the category of the ‘tribe’ (see Chapter 3), the OBCs are defined negatively,by what they are not. They are neither part of the ‘forward’ castes at the upperend of the status spectrum, nor of the Dalits at the lower end. But since castehas entered all the major Indian religions and is not confined to Hinduismalone, there are also members of other religions who belong to the backwardcastes and share the same traditional occupational identification and similaror worse socio-economic status.

For these reasons, the OBCs are a much more diverse group than the Dalitsor adivasis. The first government of independent India under Jawaharlal Nehruappointed a commission to look into measures for the welfare of the OBCs. TheFirst Backward Classes Commission headed by Kaka Kalelkar submitted itsreport in 1953. But the political climate at the time led to the report beingsidelined. From the mid-fifties, the OBC issue became a regional affair pursuedat the state rather than the central level.

The southern states had a long history of backward caste political agitationthat had started in the early twentieth century. Because of these powerfulsocial movements, policies to address the problems of the OBCs were in placelong before they were discussed in most northern states. The OBC issue returnedto the central level in the late 1970s after the Emergency when the Janata Partycame to power. The Second Backward Classes Commission headed byB.P. Mandal was appointed at this time. However, it was only in 1990, whenthe central government decided to implement the ten-year old MandalCommission report, that the OBC issue became a major one in national politics. Since the 1990s we have seen the resurgence of lower caste movements innorth India, among both the OBCs and Dalits. The politicisation of the OBCsallows them to convert their large numbers – recent surveys show that they areabout 41% of the national population – into political influence. This was notpossible at the national level before, as shown by the sidelining of the KalelkarCommission report, and the neglect of the Mandal Commission report.

The large disparities between the upper OBCs (who are largely landed castesand enjoy dominance in rural society in many regions of India) and the lowerOBCs (who are very poor and disadvantaged, and are often not very differentfrom Dalits in socio-economic terms) make this a difficult political category towork with. However, the OBCs are severely under-represented in all spheresexcept landholding and political representation (they have a large number ofMLAs and MPs). Although the upper OBCs are dominant in the rural sector,the situation of urban OBCs is much worse, being much closer to that of theScheduled Castes and Tribes than to the upper castes.


Like the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes are social groupsrecognised by the Indian Constitution as specially marked by poverty,powerlessness and social stigma. The jana or tribes were believed to be‘people of the forest’ whose distinctive habitat in the hill and forest areasshaped their economic, social and political attributes. However, ecologicalisolation was nowhere absolute. Tribal groups have had long and closeassociation with Hindu society and culture, making the boundaries between‘tribe’ and ‘caste’ quite porous. (Recall the discussion of the concept oftribe in Chapter 3).

In the case of adivasis, the movement of populations from one area to anotherfurther complicates the picture. Today, barring the North-Eastern states, thereare no areas of the country that are inhabited exclusively by tribal people; thereare only areas of tribal concentration. Since the middle of the nineteenth century,non-tribals have moved into the tribal districts of central India, while tribalpeople from the same districts have migrated to plantations, mines, factoriesand other places of employment.

In the areas where tribal populations are concentrated, their economic andsocial conditions are usually much worse than those of non-tribals. Theimpoverished and exploited circumstances under which adivasis live can betraced historically to the pattern of accelerated resource extraction started bythe colonial British government and continued by the government of independentIndia. From the late nineteenth century onwards, the colonial governmentreserved most forest tracts for its own use, severing the rights that adivasis hadlong exercised to use the forest for gathering produce and for shifting cultivation.Forests were now to be protected for maximising timber production. With thispolicy, the mainstay of their livelihoods was taken away from adivasis, renderingtheir lives poorer and more insecure. Denied access to forests and land forcultivation, adivasis were forced to either use the forests illegally (and be harassedand prosecuted as ‘encroachers’ and thieves) or migrate in search of wage labour.

The Independence of India in 1947 should have made life easier for adivasisbut this was not the case. One, the government monopoly over forests continued.If anything, the exploitation of forests accelerated. Two, the policy ofcapital-intensive industrialisation adopted by the Indian government requiredmineral resources and power-generation capacities which were concentratedin Adivasi areas. Adivasi lands were rapidly acquired for new mining and damprojects. In the process, millions of adivasis were displaced without anyappropriate compensation or rehabilitation. Justified in the name of ‘nationaldevelopment’ and ‘economic growth’, these policies were actually a form ofinternal colonialism, subjugating adivasis and alienating the resources uponwhich they depended. Projects such as the Sardar Sarovar dam on the riverNarmada in western India and the Polavaram dam on the river Godavari inAndhra Pradesh will displace hundreds of thousands of adivasis, driving themto greater destitution. These processes continue to prevail and have becomeeven more powerful since the 1990s when economic liberalisation policies wereofficially adopted by the Indian government. It is now easier for corporate firmsto acquire large areas of land by displacing adivasis.

Like the term Dalit, the term Adivasi connotes political awareness and theassertion of rights. Literally meaning ‘original inhabitants’, the term was coinedin the 1930s as part of the struggle against the intrusion by the colonialgovernment and outside settlers and moneylenders. Being Adivasi is about sharedexperiences of the loss of forests, the alienation of land, repeated displacementssince Independence in the name of ‘development projects’ and much more.

In spite of the heavy odds against them and in the face of their marginalisationmany tribal groups have been waging struggles against outsiders (called ‘dikus’)and the state. In post-Independence India, the most significant achievementsof Adivasi movements include the attainment of statehood for Jharkhand andChattisgarh, which were originally part of Bihar and Madhya Pradeshrespectively. In this respect adivasis and their struggles are different from theDalit struggle because, unlike Dalits, adivasis were concentrated in contiguousareas and could demand states of their own.

In the Name of Development — Adivasis in the Line of Fire

The new year brought death to Orissa. On 2 January 2006, police openedfire on a group of adivasis, killing twelve and injuring many others. For thepast 23 days, the Adivasis had blocked the state highway at Kalinganagar, peacefullyprotesting against the take-over of their farmlands by a steel company. Their refusalto surrender their land was a red rag to an administration under pressure to expediteindustrial development in the state. The stakes were high — not only this piece of landbut the entire policy of accelerated industrialisation would be jeopardised if thegovernment were to entertain the adivasis’ demands. The police were brought in toforcibly clear the highway. In the confrontation that followed, twelve adivasi menand women lost their lives. Many of them were shot in the back as they were trying torun away. When the dead adivasis’ bodies were returned to their families, it wasfound that the police had cut off their hands, the men’s genitals and the women’sbreasts. The corpses’ mutilation was a warning — we mean business.

The Kalinganagar incident, like many horrors before it and after, briefly made theheadlines and then disappeared from public view. The lives and deaths of poor adivasisslid back into obscurity. Yet their struggle still continues and by revisiting it, we not onlyremind ourselves of the need to address ongoing injustice, but also appreciate howthis conflict encapsulates many of the key issues in the sphere of environment anddevelopment in India today. Like many adivasi-dominated parts of the country,Kalinganagar in Jajpur district of central Orissa is a paradox. Its wealth of naturalresources contrasts sharply with the poverty of its inhabitants, mainly small farmers andlabourers. The rich iron ore deposits in the area are state property and their‘development’ means that Adivasi lands are compulsorily acquired by the state for apittance. While a handful of local residents may get secure jobs on the lower rungs ofthe industrial sector, most are impoverished even further and survive on the edge ofstarvation as wage-labourers. It is estimated that 30 million people, more than theentire population of Canada, have been displaced by this land acquisition policysince India became independent in 1947 (Fernandes 1991). Of these, almost 75 percent are, by the government’s own admission, ‘still awaiting rehabilitation’. This processof land acquisition is justified as being in the public interest since the state is committedto promoting economic growth by expanding industrial production and infrastructure.It is claimed that such growth is necessary for national development.

To these arguments has been added a new justification. Since 1990, theIndian government has adopted a policy of economic liberalisation — divestingthe state of its welfare functions and dismantling the institutional apparatusesregulating private firms. Economic policy has been re-oriented to maximise foreignBOX

exchange earnings, with concessions and subsidies given to Indian and foreign firmsto encourage them to invest in production for export. Kalinganagar’s iron ore attractedincreased interest due to the booming international demand for steel and spurred asteel company, which had bought land from the Orissa state government, to startwork on a new steel plant by building a wall enclosing the factory site. It was theconstruction of this wall that sparked off protests leading to the killing of adivasis. Thestate government had forcibly acquired this land from them years ago by payingthem a few thousand rupees per acre. Since the meagre compensation did not enableadivasis to invest in an alternative livelihood, they had continued to live in the areaand cultivate the land that legally no longer belonged to them (after acquiring theland, the administration had not put it to any use). The move in December 2005 toenclose this land directly deprived adivasis of their sole source of livelihood. Theirdesperation was fuelled by anger when they learnt that the state government hadsold the aquired land to the steel firm at a price roughly ten times the compensationamount paid to the original owners. Adivasis took to the streets, refusing to give up theland that they survived on.

The struggle of adivasis in Orissa and its violent reprisal highlight how conflictsover land and related natural resources remain central to the challenge of India’sdevelopment. Kalinganagar is now marked along with Narmada, Singrauli, Tehri,Hirakud, Koel Karo, Suvarnarekha, Nagarhole, Plachimada and many other sites, onthe map of environmental conflicts in India. Like the others, its contours too reflect thedeep social and political divides that characterise contemporary India.


Because of the obvious biological and physical differences between men andwomen, gender inequality is often treated as natural. However, despiteappearances, scholars have shown that the inequalities between men and womenare social rather than natural. For example, there are no biological reasonsthat can explain why so few women are found in positions of public power. Norcan nature explain why women generally receive a smaller or no share in familyproperty in most societies. But the strongest argument comes from the societiesthat were different from the ‘normal’ or common pattern. If women werebiologically unfit to be inheritors and heads of families, how did matrilinealsocieties (as the Nairs of Kerala used to be, and as the Khasis of Meghalaya stillare) work for centuries? How have women managed to be successful farmersand traders in so many African societies? There is, in short, nothing biologicalabout the inequalities that mark the relations between and men. Gender isthus also a form of social inequality and exclusion like caste and class, butwith its own specific features. In this section we will look at how gender inequalitycame to be recognised as inequality in the Indian context, and the kinds ofresponses that this recognition produced.

The women’s question arose in modern India as part of the nineteenth centurymiddle class social reform movements. The nature of these movements variedfrom region to region. They are often termed as middle class reform movementsbecause many of these reformers were from the newly emerging western educatedIndian middle class. They were often at once inspired by the democratic idealsof the modern west and by a deep pride in their own democratic traditions ofthe past. Many used both these resources to fight for women’s rights. We canonly give illustrative examples here. We draw from the anti-sati campaign ledby Raja Rammohunn Roy in Bengal, the widow remarriage movement in theBombay Presidency where Ranade was one of the leading reformers, from JyotibaPhule’s simultaneous attack on caste and gender oppression, and from thesocial reform movement in Islam led by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan.

Raja Rammohun Roy’s attempts to reform society, religion and the statusof women can be taken as the starting point of nineteenth century social reformin Bengal. A decade before establishing the Brahmo Samaj in 1828, Royundertook the campaign against “sati” which was the first women’s issue toreceive public attention. Rammohun Roy’s ideas represented a curious mixtureof Western rationality and an assertion of Indian traditionality. Both trends canbe located in the over arching context of a response to colonialism. Rammohunthus attacked the practice of sati on the basis of both appeals to humanitarianand natural rights doctrines as well as Hindu shastras.

The deplorable and unjust treatment of the Hindu upper caste widows wasa major issue taken up by the social reformers. Ranade used the writings ofscholars such as Bishop Joseph Butler whose Analogy of Religion and ThreeSermons on Human Nature dominated the moral philosophy syllabus of BombayUniversity in the 1860s. At the same time, M.G. Ranade’s writings entitled theThe Texts of the Hindu Law on theLawfulness of the Remarriage of Widowsand Vedic Authorities for Widow Marriageelaborated the shastric sanction forremarriage of widows.

While Ranade and Rammohun Roybelonged to one kind of nineteenth centuryupper caste and middle class socialreformers, Jotiba Phule came from asocially excluded caste and his attack wasdirected against both caste and genderdiscrimination. He founded theSatyashodak Samaj with its primaryemphasis on “truth seeking”. Phule’s firstpractical social reform efforts were to aidthe two groups considered lowest intraditional Brahmin culture: women anduntouchables. (See Chapter 3)


Find out about a socialreformer in your part ofthe country. Collectinformation about her/him.

  • Read an autobiography/biography of any socialreformer.
  • Can you see any of theideas they fought forexisting today in oureveryday lives or in ourconstitutional provisions.


Make a list ofprofessions in whichwomen are involvedtoday.

  • Can you think of anyeducational fieldwhere women arebarred today?
  • Perhaps the recentdiscussion on womenin the Indian armedforces may throwsome light on this

As in the case of other reformers, a similar trend ofdrawing upon both modern western ideas as well as thesacred texts characterised Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s efforts toreform Muslim society. He wanted girls to be educated, butwithin the precincts of their homes. Like Dayanand Saraswatiof the Arya Samaj, he stood for women’s education but soughtfor a curriculum that included instruction in religiousprinciples, training in the arts of housekeeping andhandicrafts and rearing of children. This may appear verystereotypical today. One has to however realise that oncerights such as education for women were accepted it starteda process that finally made it impossible to confine womento only some kinds of education.

It is often assumed that social reform for women’s rightswas entirely fought for by male reformers and that ideas ofwomen’s equality are alien imports. To learn how wrong boththese assumptions are, read the following extracts from twobooks written by women, Stree Purush Tulana written in 1882and Sultana’s Dream written in 1905.

Stree Purush Tulana (or Comparison of Men and Women) was written by aMaharashtrian housewife, Tarabai Shinde, as a protest against the doublestandards of a male dominated society. A young Brahmin widow had beensentenced to death by the courts for killing her newborn baby because it wasillegitimate, but no effort had been made to identify or punish the man who hadfathered the baby. Stree Purush Tulana created quite a stir when it was published.Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain was born in a well-to-do Bengali Muslimfamily, and was lucky to have a husband who was very liberal in outlook and

5.5From Stree Purush Tulana 1882…Who are these women you give such names to? Whose womb did you takeyour birth in? Who carried the killing burden of you for nine months? Who was the saintwho made you the light in her eye, …How would you feel if someone said about yourmother, “That old chap’s mother, you know, she’s a gateway to hell’. Or your sister, “Thatso-and so-s’ sister, she’s a real storehouse of deceit’. …Would you just sit and listen totheir bad words?……Then you get blessed with a bit of education and promoted to some important newoffice- and you start feeling ashamed of your first wife. Money works its influence on youand you begin to say to yourself, what does a wife matter after all? Don’t we just givethem a few rupees a month and keep them at home like any other servant, to do thecooking and look after the house? You begin to think of her like some female slaveyou’ve paid for….If one of your horses died it wouldn’t take long to replace it, andthere’s no great labour needed to get another wife either. ..The problem is Yamahasn’t got time to carry off wives fast enough, or you’d probably get through severaldifferent ones in one day

From Sultana’s Dream (1905)…”What is the matter, dear?” she said affectionately.

“ I feel somewhat awkward,” I said, in a rather apologising tone, “as being a purdahnishinwoman I am not accustomed to walking about unveiled.”“You need not be afraid of coming across a man here. This is Ladyland, free from sin andharm…”…I became very curious to know where the men were. I met more than a hundredwomen while walking there, but not a single man.“Where are the men?” I asked her.“In their proper places, where they ought to be.”“Pray let me know what you mean by ‘their proper places.”’“Oh, I see my mistake, you cannot know our customs, as you were never here before.We shut our men indoors.”“Just as we are kept in the zenana?”“Exactly so.”“How funny.” I burst into a laugh. Sister Sara laughed too.


Find out the names ofa few women’sorganisations thatemerged both at thenational level and inyour part of thecountry

  • Find out about anywoman who was partof a tribal or peasantmovement, a tradeunion or one of themany strands of thefreedom movement.
  • Identify a novel, a shortstory or play in yourregion which depictedthe struggle of womenagainst discrimination.

encouraged her education first in Urdu and later in Bengaliand English. She was already a successful author in Urduand Bengali when she wrote Sultana’s Dream to test herabilities in English. This remarkable short story is probablythe earliest example of science fiction writing in India, andamong the first by a woman author anywhere in the world.In her dream, Sultana visits a magical country where thegender roles are reversed. Men are confined to the home andobserve ‘purdah’ while women are busy scientists vying witheach other at inventing devices that will control the cloudsand regulate rain, and machines that fly or ‘air-cars’.

Apart from the early feminist visions there were a largenumber of women’s organisations that arose both at the allIndia and local levels in the early twentieth century. And thenbegan the participation of women in the national movementitself. Not surprisingly women’s rights were part and parcelof the nationalist vision.

In 1931, the Karachi Session of the Indian NationalCongress issued a declaration on the Fundamental Rights ofCitizenship in India whereby it committed itself to women’sequality. The declaration reads as follows:

1.All citizens are equal before the law, irrespective of religion,caste, creed or sex.

2.No disability attaches to any citizen, by reason of his or her religion, caste,creed or sex, in regard to public employment, office of power or honour, andin the exercise of any trade or calling.


ofDivide your class intogroups. Each group canchose a topic relating towomen’s rights on whichthey must collectinformation fromnewspapers, radio,television news or othersource. Discuss yourfindings with yourclassmates.Possible examples oftopics could be :

  • 33 per cent reservationfor women in electedbodies
  • Domestic violence
  • Right to employment… there are manyother topics of interest,choose the oneswhich interest you.

3.The franchise shall be on the basis of universal adultsuffrage.

4.Woman shall have the right to vote, to represent andthe right to hold public offices. (Report of theSub-Committee, ‘Woman’s Role in Planned Economy’,1947: 37-38).

Two decades after Independence, women’s issuesre-emerged in the 1970s. In the nineteenth century reformmovements, the emphasis had been on the backwardaspects of tradition like sati, child marriage, or theill treatment of widows. In the 1970s, the emphasis was on‘modern’ issues – the rape of women in police custody, dowrymurders, the representation of women in popular media,and the gendered consequences of unequal development.The law was a major site for reform in the 1980s and after,specially when it was discovered that many laws of concernto women had not been changed since the 19th century. Aswe enter the twenty-first century, new sites of genderinjustice are emerging. You will recall the discussion of thedeclining sex ratio in Chapter 2. The sharp fall in the childsex ratio and the implicit social bias against the girl childrepresents one of the new challenges of gender inequality.

Social change whether on women’s rights or any otherissue is never a battle won once and for all. As with othersocial issues the struggle is long, and the women’smovement in India will have to fight to defend hard won rights as well as take up new issues as they emerge.


The differently abled are not ‘disabled’ only because they are physically ormentally ‘impaired’ but also because society is built in a manner that does notcater to their needs. In contrast to the struggles over Dalit, adivasi or women’srights, the rights of the differently abled have been recognised only very recently.Yet in all historical periods, in all societies there have been people who aredifferently abled. One of the leading activists and scholars of disability in theIndian context, Anita Ghai, argues that this invisibility of the disabled can becompared to the Invisible Man of Ralph Ellison. Ellison’s novel of that name isa famous indictment of racism against African Americans in the USA.

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to seeme. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in the circussideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of

hard distorting glass. When they approach me they see only mysurroundings, themselves, figments of their imagination. Indeedeverything and anything except me. (Ellison, 1952: 3)

The very term ‘differently abled’ is significant because it draws attention tothe fact that public perception of the ‘disabled’ needs to be questioned. Here are some common features central to the public perception of ‘diability’all over the world —

  • Disability is understood as a biological given.
  • Whenever a disabled person is confronted with problems, it is taken forgranted that the problems originate from her/his impairment.
  • The disabled person is seen as a victim.
  • Disability is supposed to be linked with the disabled individual’s selfperception.
  • The very idea of disability suggests that they are in need of help.

In India labels such as ‘disability’, ‘handicap’, ‘crippled’,‘blind’ and ‘deaf’ are used synonymously. Often these termsare hurled at people as insults. In a culture that looks up tobodily ‘perfection’, all deviations from the ‘perfect body’ signifyabnormality, defect and distortion. Labels such as bechara(poor thing) accentuate the victim status for the disabledperson. The roots of such attitudes lie in the culturalconception that views an impaired body as a result of fate.Destiny is seen as the culprit, and disabled people are thevictims. The common perception views disability asretribution for past karma (actions) from which there can beno reprieve. The dominant cultural construction in Indiatherefore looks at disability as essentially a characteristic ofthe individual. The popular images in mythology portray thedisabled in an extremely negative fashion.
The very term ‘differently abled’ challenges each of theseassumptions. Terms such as ‘mentally challenged’, ‘visuallyimpaired’ and ‘physically impaired’ came to replace the moretrite negative terms such as ‘retarded’, ‘crippled’ or ‘lame’.The disabled are rendered disabled not because they arebiologically disabled but because society renders them so.

We are disabled by buildings that are not designed to admit us,and this in turn leads to a range of further disablements regardingour education, our chances of gaining employment, our social livesand so on. The disablement lies in the construction of society, notin the physical condition of the individual. (Brisenden 1986, p.176)


Find out how differenttraditional or mythicalstories depict thedisabled. You candraw from any of theinnumerable regionalsources of folklore,mythology, andtraditional storytellingin India, or from anyother part of theworld.

  • Make a list of popularsayings or proverbsthat show negativeattitudes towards thedisabled.


Have you seen the film Iqbal? If youhave not do try and see it. It is anexemplary story of the grit anddetermination of a young boy whocannot hear and speak but who has apassion for cricket and finally excels asa bowler. The film brings alive not justIqbal’s struggles but also the manypossible concrete meanings of thephrase ‘differently abled’.

The social construction of disability has yetanother dimension. There is a close relationshipbetween disability and poverty. Malnutrition,mothers weakened by frequent childbirth,inadequate immunisation programmes, accidentsin overcrowded homes, all contribute to anincidence of disability among poor people that ishigher than among people living in easiercircumstances. Furthermore, disability createsand exacerbates poverty by increasing isolationand economic strain, not just for the individualbut for the family; there is little doubt that disabledpeople are among the poorest in poor countries.

Shastri Bhawan,New DelhiDated: 15.06.2005Sub: – Invitation of suggestions/ comments on Draft National Policy forPersons with Disabilities.1.According to the Census, 2001, there are 2.19 crore persons with disabilities in Indiawhich constitute 2.13 per cent of total population. This includes persons with visual,hearing, speech, locomotor and mental disabilities. Seventy five per cent personswith disabilities live in rural areas.2.A comprehensive legal and institutional structure has already been put in placefor the welfare of persons with disabilities. The Persons with Disability (EqualOpportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act of 1995 was enacted…3.Rehabilitation of persons with disabilities requires multisectoral collaborativeapproach of various central government ministries, state Governments, UTadministrations, members of civil society, organisations of persons with disabilitiesand non-government organisations working for the welfare of persons withdisabilities so that better synergy in delivery of services is achieved. …Director, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment,Room No. 253, A-Wing, Shastri Bhawan,New Delhi-110001 Tele fax-011-23383853

Significantly, efforts to redress the situation have come from the disabledthemselves. The government has had to respond as the notification in the box 5.8shows. It is only recently with the efforts of the differently abled themselves thatsome awareness is building in society on the need to rethink ‘disability’. Thisis illustrated by the newspaper report below. Recognition of disability is absent from the wider educational discourse.This is evident from the historical practices within the educational system thatcontinue to marginalise the issue of disability by maintaining two separatestreams – one for disabled students and one for everyone else.

‘Disabled-unfriendly’ Courts

Describing the non-consideration of handicapped persons for Judge postsas an “exclusive” policy of the higher judiciary, a senior jurist says by continuingto ignore the handicapped, the judiciary is violating a statutory mandate. “The HighCourt building itself is far from disabled-friendly.” All entrances to the actual courtcomplex are preceded by staircases and none of them has a ramp. Even to accessthe limited elevator facility, one has to climb several steps. The condition of the City Civil Court, where many handicapped or injured personscome to depose before courts hearing accident claims cases, is worse. One can seedisabled, injured or old people being carried up the stairs by their companions, saysan advocate. The Hindu Wednesday 2 August 2006.

In this chapter we have looked at caste, tribe, gender and disability asinstitutions that generate and perpetuate inequalities and exclusion. However,they also provoke struggles against these inequalities. Historically, theunderstanding of inequality in the social sciences has been dominated bynotions of class, race and more recently, gender. It is only later that thecomplexities of other categories like caste and tribe have received attention. Inthe Indian context, caste, tribe and gender are now getting the attention theydeserve. But there remain categories that are still in need of attention, suchas those who are marginalised by religion or by a combination of categories.More complex formations like groups defined by religion and caste, genderand religion, or caste and region are likely to claim our attention in the nearfuture, as shown, for example, by the Sachar Committee Report on the Muslimcommunity.

In a country where half the children in the age group of 5-14 are out ofschool how can there be space for children with disabilities, especially if asegregated schooling is being advocated for them? Even if the legislationoptimistically tries to make education available to every disabled child, parents in avillage do not see this as instrumental in achieving any autonomy for their disabledchild. What they would prefer is perhaps a better way of fetching water from the welland improved agricultural facilities. Similarly, parents in an urban slum expect educationto be related to a world of work that would enhance their child’s basic quality of life.


1.How is social inequality different from the inequality of individuals?

2.What are some of the features of social stratification?

3.How would you distinguish prejudice from other kinds of opinion or belief?

4.What is social exclusion?

5.What is the relationship between caste and economic inequality today?

6.What is untouchability?

7.Describe some of the policies designed to address caste inequality.

8.How are the Other Backward Castes different from the Dalits (or ScheduledCastes)?

9.What are the major issues of concern to adivasis today?

10.What are the major issues taken up by the women’s movement over itshistory?

11.In what sense can one say that ‘disability’ is as much a social as a physicalthing?


Bourdieu, Pierre. 1986. ‘The Forms of Capital’ in Richardson, John G. ed. Handbookof Theory and Research in the Sociology of Education. Greenwood Press. New York. Brisenden, Simon. 1986. ‘Independent Living and the Medical Model of Divability’, inDisability, Handicap and Society. V.1, n.2, pp. 173-78. Deshpande, Satish. 2003. Contemporary India: A Sociological View. Penguin Books.New Delhi. Ellison, R. 1952. Invisible Man. Modern Library. New York.

Fernandes, Walter. 1991. ‘Power and Powerlessness: Development Projects andDisplacement of Tribals’, in Social Action. 41:243-270. Fuller. C.J. ed. 1996. Caste Today. Oxford University Press. New Delhi. Ghai, Anita. 2002. ‘Disability in The Indian Context’ in Corker, Marian. andShakespeare, Tom. ed. Disability/Postmodernity: Embodying Disability Theory.Continuum. London, pp. 88-100. Ghai, Anita. 2002. ‘Marginalisation and Disability: experiences from the third world’,in Priestly, M. ed. Disability and the Life Course: Global Perspectives. CambridgeUniversity Press. Cambridge.

Giddens, Anthony. 2001. Sociology. Fourth edition, Polity Press. Cambridge. Jeffery, Craig. Roger Jeffery and Patricia Jeffery. 2005. ‘Broken Trajectories: DalitYoung Men and Formal Education’, in Chopra, Radhika. and Patricia Jeffery. ed.Educational Regimes in Contemporary India. Sage Publications. New Delhi.

Karna, G.N. 2001. Disability Studies in India: Retrospect and Prospects. GyanPublishing House. New Delhi. Macionis, John J. 1991. Sociology. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs. NJ. Mander, Harsh. 2001. Unheard Voices: Stories of Forgotten Lives. Penguin India. NewDelhi. Shah, Ghanshyam, Harsh Mander, Sukhadeo Thorat, Satish Deshpande and AmitaBaviskar. 2006. Untouchability in Rural India. Sage Publications. New Delhi. Sharma, Ursula. 1999. Caste (Concepts in the Social Sciences Series). OpenUniversity Press. Buckingham and Philadelphia. Srinivas, M.N. ed. 1996. Caste: Its Modern Avatar. Viking Penguin. Delhi. Zaidi, A.M. and S.G. Zaidi. 1984. ‘A fight to Finish’, in Annual Report of the IndianNational Congress 1939-1940. Vol. 11,1936-1938; and 12, 1939-1946,

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