Groups have been excluded and discriminated against since early times in virtually every part of the world. Some societies impose short periods of impurity on certain members for ritual reasons, such as women after childbirth or at menstruation. Those among the Avarnas more generally subordinated were used as labour and some converted into slaves. The latter worked either in agricultural or artisanal production or in the household.The former lived in communities segregated from the mainstream as the helots in Sparta, or the blacks on plantations in the American south. African slaves were regarded as genetically inferior in the race science of the nineteenth century, but even they were never treated as genetically polluting.

Deliberately ghettoised societies from the past to the present call for deeper study. Why was there resort to this extreme form of exclusion and distancing and why were those that were thus set apart given such a degrading identity? These are questions that are intrinsic to evaluating cultures. We need to know why such systems were created and the effect of the distortions that resulted.

The dialogue between the Chandala and Vishvamitra was not just a casual chat. It has a meaning that we need to fathom.The ideas of those who critiqued the institution of caste directly or indirectly should be more visible in the narrative of the past since our heritage is not one-sided. We should know more of the ideas of the Charvakas, Buddhists and Shramanic teachers, and some such as Chokhamela and Ravidas as well as some Su teachers on the society they lived in. The Charvakas are dismissed because they questioned religion and with the others their social concerns are rarely discussed except in a general way. The Dharmashastra literature is concerned with the well being of only a small part of society. We need to know the thinking of those who disagreed with it so as to have an idea of what was discussed in the dialogues of past time. Alternate ideologies of dissent are significant facets of our culture and we have to understand them.

Early historical texts come to us largely from the upper castes. They have to be sieved meticulously for evidence on the lives of those who have not left records.

For more recent centuries there are oral traditions, even from the ghettoised societies, that need careful examination. Oral history is now a recognised branch of historical exploration. It ranges from what the Incas thought of the Spanish conquest in Latin America, what has been called “the vision of the vanquished”, to the reconstruction of Sub-Saharan African history from Bantu oral sources. The Bantu peoples inhabited central and southern Africa, spoke Bantu languages, and these oral compositions are now being studied analytically. Similar methods may reveal something of the past of Indian communities that only have oral traditions.

History may tell us why the exclusion came to be, but the question – as was famously said – is how to change it. This concern is not only of our time. People in past centuries have spoken against the inequities of Indian society but were unable to change it. We have to ask why. Perhaps with a greater exploration of the reasons for its becoming so rooted we may have better ideas about how to uproot it. This may tell us what we need to do apart from affirmative action, since this latter is not a permanent solution. It is already being hijacked by some influential dominant castes claiming to be OBC (Other Backward Castes) in order to appropriate the advantages. Two more permanent and effective efforts that are obvious would be in the educational curriculum and in civil law.

The mindset that continues to view society through the kind of optics that we have had, now needs to be discarded. In this, education can contribute to creating an ethically more responsible society. But this requires the content of school and college education to be changed to explain and endorse social ethics, apart from the need to improve the quality of education. Inequities and disadvantages cannot be wiped out in a hurry. It needs both a more pointed economy directed towards decreasing disparities and disadvantages, which unfortunately is not the direction in which the current economic change is moving. It also needs the endorsing of social values aimed at altering the mindset so that notions of genetic pollution can be expunged.

Then there are our civil laws enmeshed not only in a range of religious traditions but also drawing from colonial readings that further complicate the laws. Here again the purpose and content of the laws pertaining to marriage and inheritance need to be assessed.

It may be more to the point if we cleared away the multiple laws of majority and minority religious codes and drafted an entirely fresh secular code applicable to all Indian citizens alike. That may bring back the ethical in our thinking.

I have tried to argue that the Savarna society was specific to the time when it was constructed. When historical change required an adjustment this was made in accordance with social and economic needs, although the claim to an unchanging facade was maintained. Where groups in power wished to assert a high status this was conceded often with a legitimation of the appropriate status. The upper castes did not maintain a rigid, unchanging system of caste identity among themselves. However, once the Avarna was created by the upper castes it remained distinctively different as the exceptional, permanently excluded set of communities, their permanent exclusion being irrationally explained as due to genetic impurity. In their case there were no adjustments or concessions, only additions of numbers.

Exclusion can be of different kinds. Some are excluded by those in authority so that the latter can assert authority and set aside others as subordinate. Exclusion also often requires deprivation and this is then given a specific identity to demarcate it as excluded and the deprivation is maintained. The most frequent counterpoint is that authority comes to those that control resources and against those that labour on the resources for those that own them, or do services for them, and are therefore treated as excluded. They are denied rights and obligations. In the worst possible case they are declared genetically polluted.

If we are to understand ourselves as a society, should we not analyse what went into the including of some communities as the mainstream, and the excluding of others. How in historical times did these earlier evolved positions change? Equally important is the question of why the exclusion has taken such an extreme form. Questioning exclusions and identities will explain how and why they came about, their contribution to the making of what we call our civilisation and our ethical values. It might also lead us to effectively annul that part of our heritage that denies social justice and is ethically unacceptable.

Excerpted with permission from Indian Cultures As Heritage: Contemporary Pasts, Romila Thapar, Aleph Book Company.