Being Untouchable


As home to one in six of the world’s population, with a highly complex ethnic make-up, 1,600 languages,1 a third of the world’s poor,2 43% of its children under-nourished,3 and the fourth largest number of billionaires in the world, 4 India confounds all expectations.

But India enjoys a rising global profile, and with that comes heightened responsibilities. The big ideas of our times, from global development goals, to environmental protection, to human rights, will succeed or fail based on how countries of India’s stature deal with them.

We all have a stake in India. That is why we must not ignore one of the largest global scandals of all, which persists within its borders, and which fuels exploitation and poverty – a pervasive social hierarchy based on birth, which treats 167 million people as outcasts.

These are the Dalits. If a group of 100 people represented the population of the world, five would be Americans, three would be Indian Dalits.

They form the ‘bottom’ of India’s caste system, below the four main ‘varna’ groups. ‘Dalit’ means ‘broken’ or ‘crushed’. It is the name chosen by these ‘untouchables’ of old, and it represents their sense of a history reverberating with oppression, exploitation and injustice.

Dalits are the worst victims of what is arguably the most tenacious hierarchy on earth. The caste system has ancient roots, and became a means of social stratification, in which ‘low’ castes were expected to perform dirty, degrading and dangerous tasks for the rest of society. Caste has been described not as a means for the division of labour, but for the division of labourers.

Although associated originally with Hinduism, the caste system is practised across all religious communities in India today.

It may be tempting to forget the caste system and focus on India’s economic boom. However, the two cannot be separated so simply. Much of India’s economic infrastructure is overlaid on this ancient system of hierarchy and obligation. Caste is deeply-embedded, not only in the rural areas which almost never intersect with modern, trendy, industrialising India, but also in the fast-growing urban centres.

In the past, Dalits had to ensure their shadow never fell on non-Dalits, so as not to pollute them. It is not quite like that today. But Dalits are still treated as untouchable in myriad ways.

This exhibition exposes, through a series of portraits, what it means to be untouchable in an emerging superpower.

1The 1991 census recognised 1,576 “mother tongues”.
2‘DFID India Country Plan 2008-15’, p. 2.
3Ibid, p. 4.
4Forbes magazine, ‘Special Report: The World’s Billionaires’, 3 March 2010.