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When Constituent Assembly Discussed Untouchability

It was on Nov 29, 1948 that vexed issue of untouchability came in for detailed discussions

Policy Pulse
Publish Date: Mar 22 2016 2:48PM | Updated Date: Mar 22 2016 3:05PM

When Constituent Assembly Discussed Untouchability

It was on November 29, 1948 with the President of the Constituent Assembly Dr Rajendra Prasad in chair when the vexed issue of untouchability came in for detailed discussions wherein a number of members, including KM Munshi, SC Banerjee, and Sardar Patel made several important points. This, indeed, deserves a relook at a time when a debate in the country rages on about discrimination in the wake of suicide by Rohith Vemula. Pulse Research Bureau reproduces here excerpts from the debate on the issue that dogs the country once again by those who framed the Constitution:   

Srijut Rohini Kumar Chaudhury: The second part of my amendment is, for defining untouchability, it may be clearly stated that. 
"Untouchability' means any act committed in exercise of discrimination on, grounds of religion, caste or lawful vocation of life mentioned in clause 4." 
Sir, in the fundamental rights, it has been laid down that untouchability in any form should be an offence punishable by law. That being so it is necessary that the offence should be properly defined. As it stands, the word 'untouchability' is very vague. It should be defined in the manner in which I have put it, or in some other better form which may be decided upon by the House. 
Dr SC Banerjee (Bengal: General): Mr. President, the word 'untouchability' actually requires clarification. We have been accustomed to this word for the last 25 years, still there is a lot of confusion as to what it connotes. Sometimes it means merely taking a glass of water and sometimes it has been used in the sense of admission of 'Harijans' into temples, sometimes it meant inter-caste dinner, sometimes inter-caste marriage. Mahatma Gandhi who is the main exponent of 'untouchability', has used it in various ways and on different occasions with different meanings. So when we are going to use the word 'untouchability', we should be very clear in our mind as to what we really mean by it. What is the real implication of this word? I think we should make no distinction between untouchability and caste distinction, because as Mr Thakur has said, untouchability is merely a symptom, the root cause is caste distinction and unless and until the root cause, that is caste distinction is removed, untouchability in some form or other is bound to exist and when we are going to have an independent India, we should expect everyone to be enjoying equal social conditions. It is incumbent on us that we should be very clear as to make it explicit that in the future independent India there should be no distinction between man and man in the social field. In other words, caste distinction must be abolished. Of course there is difficulty as to whether we can make it justiciable or not. I have thought over it for a long time. I do really believe that in place of untouchability, some other word, -- such as, 'caste distinction' should be used or the word 'untouchability' should be clearly defined so as to leave no doubt in the mind of any one as to what we really mean by it. 
Mr KM Munshi: Sir, I oppose this amendment. The definition is so, worded that if it is accepted, it will make any discrimination even on the ground of place of birth or 'caste or even sex untouchability. What does the definition say?
"Untouchability' means any act committed in exercise of discrimination on grounds of religion, caste or lawful vocation of life mentioned in clause 4." 
Now, Sir, clause 4 does not deal with untouchability at all. It deals with discrimination regarding services and various other things. It may mean discrimination even between touchables and touchables, between people of one province and another. The word 'untouchability' is mentioned in clause 6. The word 'untouchability' is put purposely within inverted commas in order to indicate that the Union legislature when it defines 'untouchability' will be able to deal with it in the sense in which it is normally understood. 
The present amendment will be extending the scope of the definition of untouchability. Sir, I oppose the amendment. 
Mr Dhirendra Nath Datta (Bengal: General): Sir, it seems to me that whether the definition suggested by Mr. Rohini Kumar Chaudhury is accepted or not, it is necessary that there should be some definition put in. Here it is said that 'untouchability' in any form is an offence. A magistrate or a judge dealing with offences shall have to look to the definition. One magistrate will consider a particular thing to be untouchability, while another magistrate may hold a different thing to be untouchability, with the result there will be no uniformity on the part of the magistracy in dealing with offences. It will be very difficult for the judge to decide cases. Moreover, untouchability means different things in different areas. In Bengal, untouchability means one thing, while in other provinces, it means an entirely different thing. So, unless a definition is put in, it would be impossible for the judiciary to deal with offences coming under untouchability. Whether you accept the amendment of Mr Rohini Kumar Chaudhury or not, some definition must be there. This question may be left to the Drafting Committee to find out some suitable definition of the word 'untouchability'. I strongly feel that unless there is a definition it cannot be dealt with as an offence. We all feel that untouchability should be made an offence and it should be done away with. I also feel with my friend Mr Thakur that the root cause of untouchability, namely, the caste system, in Hindu society should be abolished altogether. Unless the caste system is abolished, untouchability will persist in some form or other. It has been said times without number by our leaders that unless Hindu society is drastically reformed by abolishing the caste system, it is bound to perish. Caste system should be abolished. So, if we are to deal with 'untouchability' as an offence, there should be some definition and I hope it would be left to the Drafting Committee to frame suitable definition so that it will be placed before the House for discussion. With these words, I support the amendment. 
Mr President: I should like to draw the attention of the House to clause 24 which says:
"The Union Legislature shall make laws to give effect to those provisions of this part which require such legislation and to prescribe punishment for those acts which are declared to be offences in this part and are not already punishable." 
I take it that the Union legislature will define the word 'untouchability' so that the courts might prescribe proper punishment. 
Srijut Rohini Kumar Chaudhury: I beg leave to withdraw the amendment. The amendment was, by leave of the Assembly, withdrawn. 
Mr President: I do not propose to put to vote of the House clause by clause. We will discuss each clause and the House will come to certain decisions. These decisions will be reviewed when the whole Constitution is ready. Suitable alterations will be made in the light of what precedes and what follows, so that there might be no discrepancy between one part and another. Therefore, the House need not be very meticulous about words now. 
The Hon'ble Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel: There shall be no duplication of debates and it shall not be open to reopen the whole thing. There shall be only reconciliation between various clauses, in the matter of phraseology. 
Mr President: I do not suggest any duplication or any second discussion clause by clause. When the whole draft comes back we shall see how each clause fits in and that there is no discrepancy. Subject to that I think the House can take clause by clause into consideration. 
Srijut Rohini Kumar Chaudhury: Sir, on a point of information, I should like to know whether a separate Bill like the Bill of Rights will embody all these provisions and then will be presented to this House. In that case it will be unnecessary to discuss these amendments. 
Mr President: We are now discussing that very thing. As I said, we shall see at the end that all conflicts and discrepancies are removed; not that we shall discuss the whole thing over again. 
M Ananthasayanam Ayyangar (Madras: General): Sir, you should put the question that clause 1, as amended, be passed. 
Mr President: I am not taking formal votes because it will not then be open to review later on. Therefore, I am taking up the consideration of the clauses one after another. 
The Hon'ble Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel: Sir, unless it is accepted by the House there is no point in going through, the whole report. When the whole report is gone through, if is understood that the necessary adjustments will be made. But if you leave the whole thing open without taking votes there is no point in going through the report. 
NV Gadgil (Bombay: General): Does a vote mean that it is finally accepted and there is no further scope of any further suggestions even in the matter of principle? 
K Santhanam: Sir, some of the rules may be changed afterwards and you can ask the House to change anything. But let us accept the clauses. 
Mr President: It is always open to the House to review its own decisions and in that way every decision that we take today will be open to review. But I was suggesting that even without reopening the whole thing we might remove all conflicts and discrepancies which may appear later on by making the necessary adjustments. In any case I will put clause 1 to vote. 
The question is that clause 1, as amended, be passed. 
The motion was adopted. (To be continued)