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Untouchability as systemic violence

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This paper explores the relationship between untouchability and violence in India in B.R. Ambedkar’s writings from 1925 to 1956. Drawing on Slavoj Zizek’s analysis of violence, it will be argued that Ambedkar saw the practice of untouchability against Dalit communities as a type of systemic violence. That is, as violence inherent in a system that not only manifests itself as physical violence but also as subtle forms of coercion that sustains relations of domination and exploitation, including the threat of violence. This vision allowed Ambedkar to challenge the Gandhian notion of untouchability as a socio-religious problem that belonged outside the realm of politics. It will be shown that for Ambedkar, the practice of untouchability transcended aspects of ritual purity and pollution and it was the main cause of the economic exploitation and political suppression of Dalits. Finally, by thinking of untouchability as systemic violence, this paper questions how peaceful was the Indian nationalist movement which struggled to achieve political independence from the British Empire; while at the same time denying the political assertion of Dalits as a political group outside the Hindu electorate.

This talk is part of the Violence and Conflict Graduate Workshop, Faculty of History series.

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