UNTOUCHABILITY, a feature of the caste system prevalent in Hindu society since time immemorial, reduces certain classes and castes to a very low level in the social scale. The caste system, the origins of which can be traced to the Puruṣa Sūkta, hymn 90, of the tenth book of the Ṛgveda, had, by the time of the Epics, become an inalienable part of the Varṇāśrama Dharma of the Āryans. While Buddhism disapproved of caste distinctions, the Bhagavad-gitā (IV. 13) confers divine sanction on the caste system. Again, Bhagavad-gitā implies the distribution of human beings into castes in accordance with their guṇa or qualities and karma or actions. The lowest caste, the Śūdras, were permanently relegated to the lowest position, their divinely ordained dharma or duty being to serve the dvijas or twice-born as the three upper classes, Brāhmaṇs, Kṣatriyas and Vaiśyas, were collectively designated. Even among the Śūdras there were two different categories : the untouchables whose very touch or even proximity supposedly caused pollution to the upper caste Hindus, and others who, though looked down upon and depressed, were yet tolerated and not considered untouchables. The latter comprised craftsmen and menials such as carpenters, barbers, water-carriers and cooks, while the former sometimes referred to as pañcham, the fifth caste, included scavengers, cobblers, skinners of dead animals and others who extracted alcoholic spirits and were given the despicable name of chaṇḍāls. The untouchables were compelled to live in utter poverty and subhuman conditions in separate insanitary colonies or wards on the outskirts of villages or outside the city walls.
There is no place for untouchability in Sikhism. Both the precept and practice of the Gurūs condemned it along with the rest of the caste system. "All ideas of contamination of pollution by touch are superstition", said Gurū Nānak. He decried the hypocrisy of the Brāhmaṇ who would not hesitate to eat the flesh of a goat killed to the accompaniment of a Muslim's formula. but would consider the entry of another person in their cooking square as contaminating (GG, 472). Elsewhere he says : "Evil thinking, hard-heartedness, slander, anger ---these be the real untouchables. How may one's cooking square be unpolluted with these four seated along side" (GG, 91). Towards the so-called low-caste untouchables, on the other hand, the Gurūs looked with compassion and preached the ennobling remedy of devotional worship of God. Gurū Nānak said, "Nānak is on the side of the lowest of the low-castes, and doth not envy the company of those highly placed. Thy benevolent glance, O Lord, falleth where the lowly are cherished" (GG,15). Gurū Arjan, who without discrimination included the hymns of saints coming from the so-called low-castes in the Sikh Scripture, in his homage to the outcaste devotees of God, expressed himself thus : "One of a despised caste, unknown, unrecognized, through devotion shall be honoured in all four directions... Such a one whose very touch is (now) avoided, shall have his feet scrubbed and washed by the whole creation" (GG, 386).
Hindu orthodoxy and practice of untouchability had never been strong in the Punjab, which being a frontier state was more open to the social egalitarianism of Islam. Yet in order to give a concrete shape to the rejection of untouchability, the Gurūs established the twin institutions of saṅgat (fellowship) and paṅgat (commensality) which allow no difference between man and man on the grounds of caste, creed, colour, sex or social status. When Gurū Gobind Siṅgh created the Khālsā through the rites sanctified by ceremonies of the sword, he introduced the practice of making all novitiates during the initiation to sip amrit and eat kaṛāh prasād from the same bowl. The peculiar circumstances of the eighteenth century and the subsequent Sikh rule gave rise to a semi-Sikh priestly class which took over control of Sikh theology and liturgy and brought back several non-Sikh rituals and practices including caste distinction and even, to some extent, untouchability. The Siṅgh Sabhā movement of the last quarter of the nineteenth century strove, with considerable success, to restore the old purity of religious thought and practice. A severe blow to untouchability was, however, dealt on 12 October 1920 when members of the Khālsā Barādarī, an organization of the so-called low-caste Sikhs, supported by progressive and reformist elements, entered the Harimandar at Amritsar and their offerings and ardās were accepted and shared by those present.
There are other factors too which have helped to loosen the stranglehold of untouchability even on Hindu society.
The afflorescence of Bhakti movement and the sant tradition from the fourteenth-century onwards had already thrown up a galaxy of holy men belonging to the low and untouchable castes.
One of them, Kabīr, had bluntly challenged the Brāhmaṇ to prove his claim to superiority over Śūdras simply on the grounds of birth. "There is no caste or clan in the womb", says Kabīr, "all creation is from the Divine seed. Tell me Paṇḍit ! Since when have you become a Brāhmaṇ. If you claim to be a Brāhmaṇ by birth from a Brāhmaṇ woman, why didn't you choose a different path to come into the world? How are you Brāhmaṇ and we Śūdras? Do you have milk in your veins against blood in ours? He alone is called a Brāhmaṇ among us who meditates upon Brāhmaṇ, the Supreme Being" (GC, 324). Spread of liberal education and general awareness, rise of liberal religious movements of the nineteenth century, modern means of travel (trams, trains, buses where inter-caste bodily contact or proximity is unavoidable), and the introduction of democracy and universal adult suffrage equating the lowest with the highest in voting strength are 'some of the other factors that militated against the practice of untouchability. Under the Constitution of India the practice of untouchability is legally abolished. Article 17 in Part III, "Fundamental Rights," of the Constitution of India reads : "Untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of 'untouchability' shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law."
Gurbachan Siṅgh Tālib