Guest Post: The Untouchability provision under the Indian Constitution and its contemporary Interpretation

[This is a guest-post by Swati Singh, 4th year Student at ILS Law College, Pune, who is also a columnist at Constitutional Renaissance Blog]

What is Untouchability?

Defining untouchability has always been an arduous task for both the layman and the experts. Britannica defines an untouchable as someone who is a Dalit, officially Scheduled Caste, formerly Harijan, in traditional Indian society, the former name for any member of a wide range of low-caste Hindu groups and any person outside the caste system. Article 17 of the Indian Constitution lays down the provision for abolishing untouchability stating that the enforcement of any disability arising out of untouchability shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law. However, the article in itself does not define the term untouchability presuming it is  known to one and all. 

Evolution of Article 17

In pursuance of Article 17, the Parliament passed the Untouchability (Offenses) Act in 1955. However, the Act fails to define untouchability itself. With respect to the practice of untouchability, the Act makes it a crime to disallow any person from entering public veneration due to the practice of untouchability among other things. 

More than 70 years ago, when the framers of the Constitution were debating this Article in the Constituent Assembly, economist and socialist leader K.T. Shah wanted the Drafting Committee to clarify this: ‘We all know that at certain periods women are regarded as untouchables…will it be regarded as an offence under this article? The question arose from the lack of definition of the term “untouchability”. With respect to the same, K.M. Munshi argued that in the draft Constitution, the word “untouchability” had been deliberately placed within quotation marks – thus making it clear that the idea was to “deal with it in the sense in which it is normally understood” (i.e., the narrow, specific sense). Despite this, another Constituent Assembly member, Naziruddin Ahmad proposed an amendment which stated that no one shall be treated or regarded as an ‘untouchable’ on the basis of their caste or religion, thus wanting to water down the word to make it less ambiguous. However, the same was rejected by the Chairman of the Assembly, Dr. B R Ambedkar. 

While some of the debates focused on the caste- centred aspect of untouchability, the definition of the word could not  be narrowed down. From the deliberations over Article 17, it seems that the framers felt the need to incorporate a separate provision for Untouchability in the Constitution apart from Article 14 and 15. It appears from the discussions in the Constituent Assembly that the practice was so widespread and prevalent that the drafters had to specifically call out and criminalise the same. 

Sabarimala Judgement and the Renewed Debate over Article 17

Facts of the case : Sabrimala is a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Ayyappa, located in Kerala. Being a place of pilgrimage, the shrine is visited by 45-50 million devotees every year. In 1991, the Kerala High Court banned the entry of women above the age of 10 and below 50 years from entering the temple stating that only the priests of the temple can make the decision as to who can and cannot enter the temple. In 2006, the ban was contested  by the Indian Young Lawyers Association who claimed that the ban was  “a violation of ideals of equality, non-discrimination and religious freedom”. The following year, the (Left Democratic Front) government in Kerala led by Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan had filed an affidavit in the court supporting the PIL (Public Interest Litigation) and questioned the ban on entry of women devotees. The Apex Court in 2017 referred this case to a constitution bench with the most pertinent question being : Does this ban on women from entering the temple amount to violation of their fundamental rights as enshrined in the Indian Constitution?

The Supreme Court in 2018 declared the ban on menstruating women from entering the shrine at the Ayyappa Temple as unconstitutional. The majority believed that women must be treated equally with their male counterparts under Articles 14 and 15 and affirmed their right to freedom of religion under Article 25. The petitioners in the case argued that Article 17 of the Constitution prohibited untouchability “in any form.” The question, therefore, was whether the banning of women from entering  the temple fell within the ambit of Article 17. 

For Justice Indu Malhotra, the meaning of the word untouchability was straightforward. According to her, Article 17 intends  to prohibit caste-based untouchability only. It does not cover other forms of social exclusion. In advocating against literal interpretation of the Article, she cites various academics, precedents, and debates of the Constituent assembly to make her point. She even emphasised on the lack of other precedents that grant Article 17 an alternative meaning. 

Justice Chandrachud did not disagree that untouchability primarily includes caste-based discrimination and exclusion, however he did not believe that the provision solely included the aspect of caste. While acknowledging the efforts of the drafters of the Constitution to remove the perils arising out of caste hierarchy, J. Chandrachud took the literal meaning of untouchability in any form to include menstrual taboos in the scope of the Article. He took Article 17’s roots of “purity and pollution” and literally interpreted the phrase “in any form” to advance this provision to the exclusion of women. He Further stated that by the order of prioritisation, the right to religious freedom is to be “exercised in a manner consonant with the vision underlying the provisions of part III.” Therefore, the banning of women from religious worship is subordinate to constitutional values of liberty, dignity and equality. 

Conclusion

Article 17 puts the word “untouchability” within quotation marks, suggesting that its meaning is limited to its specific, historical sense i.e. untouchability based on caste hierarchy. Consequently, while barring of women of menstruating age from a temple is undoubtedly a practice of segregation, exclusion, and enforcement of hierarchies like untouchability, the question remains whether this practice can be included in the term “untouchability.” Justice Indu Malhotra counter arguments and dissenting voice has also been subject to criticism. It is argued that J. Malhotra sets a dangerous precedent when she says that the rationality of a religious practice should not be questioned by the Court. The dissenting argument presented by Justice Malhotra in rejecting the merits of Article 15 and 17, come from a restrictive practice of constitutional interpretation through an “originalist approach” that is based on the intention of the framers of the Constitution at the time of drafting the text. The critics believe that originalism as a method of constitutional interpretation has been losing relevance and becoming redundant while the “living tree” doctrine (the constitution as an evolving and organic instrument) has gained prominence. 

From a reading of the Constitutional Assembly debates, it can be inferred that the framers intentionally left the meaning of the term untouchability vague. It is possible that the framers felt that new forms of social exclusion can arise in the future, thus they did not delve into defining the word. There is, therefore, strong warrant in the constitutional text and drafting history for the broad reading of the term untouchability. To quote J. Dipak Misra, in a recent judgement, “a constant awakening as regards the text, context, perspective, purpose and the rule of law” is to assert constitutional morality and the dignity of women across castes of a particular faith in this case as an overriding constitutional goal. 

* Read Shreya Singh’s article titled “Untouchability In India: An Age-Old “Social Distance” Still Maintained” here to understand Article 17 further. (Read here)

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