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Untouchability is the social practice of ostracising a (usually) minority endogamous group by regarding them as "ritually polluted" and segregating them from the mainstream by social custom or legal mandate. The excluded group could be one that did not accept the norms of the excluding group and historically included foreigners, nomadic tribes, law-breakers and criminals. This exclusion was a method of punishing law-breakers and also protected against contagion from strangers. A member of the excluded group is known as an untouchable.

The term is commonly associated with treatment of the Dalit class among hindus of Indiamarker, Nepalmarker and Bangladeshmarker. Untouchability has been made illegal in post-Independence India but prejudice continues.

Untouchable groups

Cultural outgroups

Since the 19th century most untouchable groups have been officially integrated and exist, if at all, in the form of a cultural outgroup.
  • African Americans in the United States (and, in the 19th century, Irish, Chinese, and Japanese immigrants)

Untouchability in Kerala

The declaration by princely states of Kerala between 1936 and 1947 that temples were open to all Hindus went a long way towards ending the system of untouchability in Kerala. However some historical forms of untouchability existed in Kerala, Nairs and Namboothiris, who constituted the forward castes forbid those belonging to lower castes within certain proximity to them, believing that the presence of lower castes would pollute them.

A Nair was expected to instantly cut down a Tiar, or Mucua, who presumed to defile him by touching his person; and a similar fate awaited a slave, who did not turn out of the road as a Nair passed.

Historically, the people of the Nayadi, Kanisan and Mukkuvan caste were forbidden to come within 72, 32 and 24 feet respectively from Nairs. In modern India, observance of untouchability is a criminal offence.


  1. Untouchable definition from the Online Etymology Dictionary
  2. India's "Untouchables" Face Violence, Discrimination. Hillary Mayell for National Geographic News. June 2, 2003
  3. Castes and tribes of Southern India, Volume 7 By Edgar Thurston, K. Rangachari, p.251

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