Defined as ‘keeping space between yourself and other people outside of your home’, social distancing has been prescribed as the most effective counter to the spread of COVID-19. An alien phrase a few months ago, it has now permeated public policy and consciousness to become the new normal. 

While the terminology may be new, in India the caste system has mandated social distancing for thousands of years. Members of the lower castes, particularly Dalits, have been forced to physically and culturally distance themselves from upper caste people. The notion that upper castes will be polluted if they come into contact with lower castes has been used to justify caste endogamy and the social boycott of the latter.

Social boycott is the umbrella term for the range of practices which are used to marginalize lower castes, from untouchability to exclusion from community functions.  The 1928 Starte Committee Report, which was commissioned by the government of Bombay to study the status of the Depressed Classes (Dalits) commented there was no 'weapon more effective' to suppress the lower castes, and that the 'the method of open violence pales away before it…it is the more dangerous because it passes as a lawful method consistent with the theory of freedom of contact'.

Ambedkar wanted to mitigate the danger posed by social boycotts by providing Dalits with the option to seek legal redress (Anupama Roy, The Caste Question, p.165). In 1946, he quoted the Starte Committee report in his submission States and Minorities to the Sub-Committee on Fundamental Rights of the Constituent Assembly. The submission contained a clause, borrowed from the Burma Anti-Boycott Act, 1922, which defined boycott, declared it as a cognizable offence, and directed the legislature to prescribe a punishment under law.

The proposed provisions on social boycott did not find its way into the Constitution of India, 1950. There was no debate in the Constituent Assembly on the standalone category of social boycott. The Assembly did debate the problem of social discrimination extensively, especially in the context of Article 15; it also specifically outlawed the practice of untouchability under Article 17.

The issue of social boycott and caste-based distancing has never been fully resolved in India. The emergence of COVID-19 has brought up certain questions: who do we consider unclean, and why? The controversial ad by Kent RO Systems, which suggested that domestic workers – who often belong to lower castes – are more likely to be infection carriers, urges consumers to prioritize their 'health and purity'. This is despite the fact that no specific social group is more likely to be a carrier of the disease.

While social distancing is certainly necessary during this pandemic, will it undo the gains that India has made against social boycotting?

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