Untouchability is the practice of ostracising a group of people regarded as 'untouchables', as ascribed in the Hindu literature to persons of "high caste" or to persons excluded from the caste system resulting in the segregation and persecutions from the people regarded as "higher" caste.[1]

A Paniya woman hunting crabs in a paddy field

The term is most commonly associated with treatment of the Dalit communities in the Indian subcontinent who were considered "polluting". The term has also been used to refer to other groups, including the Burakumin of Japan, the Baekjeong of Korea, and the Ragyabpa of Tibet, as well as the Romani people and Cagot in Europe, and the Al-Akhdam in Yemen[2][3] Traditionally, the groups characterized as untouchable were those whose occupations and habits of life involved ritually "polluting" activities, such as fishermen, manual scavengers, sweepers and washermen.[4]

Untouchability is believed to have been first mentioned in Dharmashastra, according to the religious Hindu text, untouchables were not considered a part of the varna system. Therefore, they were not treated like the savarnas (Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras).[5]

Due to many caste-based discriminations in Nepal, the government of Nepal legally abolished the caste-system and criminalized any caste-based discrimination, including "untouchability" in 1963.[6] With Nepal's step towards freedom and equality, Nepal previously ruled by a Hindu monarchy was a Hindu nation which now became a secular state,[7] and on 28 May 2008, it was declared a republic,[8] ending it as the Hindu Kingdom with its caste-based discriminations and the untouchability roots.[9]

Untouchability has been outlawed in India, Nepal and Pakistan. However, "untouchability" has not been legally defined.[citation needed] The origin of untouchability and its historicity are still debated. B. R. Ambedkar believed that untouchability has existed at least as far back as 400 AD.[10] A recent study of a sample of households in India concludes that "Notwithstanding the likelihood of under-reporting of the practice of untouchability, 70 percent of the population reported not indulging in this practice. This is an encouraging sign."[11]

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