Cast Out Caste

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Cast Out Caste


By: Indranil Mukherjee

Date: January 19, 2004

Source: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images.

About the Photographer: Indranil Mukherjee is a photographer with AFP (Agence France-Presse). The world's oldest established news agency, the AFP was founded by Charles-Louis Havas in 1835. The agency, headquartered in Paris, has branches in Washington, Hong Kong, Nicosia, and Montevideo. It provides news and photographs to other news agencies and individuals across the world.


Since ancient times, the caste system is considered to be one of the pillars of the Hindu social order in India. A hierarchically interlinked system, it includes numerous castes and sub-castes. One such caste, Dalit, occupies the lowest position in the Hindu social hierarchy.

The etymology of the term Dalit is traced to the ancient Indian language Sanskrit. Dal in Sanskrit means to split or crack. In Hebrew, Dal refers to something low, weak, and poor. In modern times, the term Dalit is usually referred to those people of a community among Hindus and Christians in India who are split, scattered or crushed, and seen as inferior by people of high castes.

Although Dalits have always been considered an inferior caste, it was mainly during the nineteenth century that they were referred to as Untouchables. Considered outcasts, members of the Dalit community were denied basic civil rights and were often subjected to atrocities. The Dalits were not allowed to touch or enter places and even temples frequented by higher caste members. In the nineteenth century, the British who ruled India at the time coined the terms depressed classes and scheduled castes for Dalits.

Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948) used the more polite term Harijan (son of God) for this community. In recent times, apart from scheduled castes, the Dalits also form a part of the scheduled tribes, and all these communities are, in varying degrees, considered Untouchables. Reports in the past have highlighted various instances of discrimination and brutality against the Dalit community, especially in the rural regions.

According to a 1999 Human Rights Watch report, more than 160 million Dalits in India face severe discrimination—many of these are denied basic civil rights such as access to drinking water, education, and jobs. Although untouchability was abolished by the Indian Constitution in 1950 and subsequent anti-discrimination acts such as the Anti-Untouchability Act have been implemented, the report maintains that there has been a rise in violence against Dalits in the past decades.

A report by the Commission for Scheduled Caste and Schedule Tribe found the average number of cases of crimes against Untouchables registered under the Anti-Untouchability Act were 480 in the 1950s, 1,903 in the 1960s, 3,240 in the 1970s, 3,875 in the 1980s and 1,672 during the early 1990s. The report also states that between the periods of 1981 and 1986 as well as 1995 and 1997, two hundred thousand cases of criminal offenses against Untouchables were registered. These include cases of murder, arson, rape, and other criminal offences.

The United Nations has on numerous occasions censured the Indian government for being unable to prevent brutality against the Dalits. In one of its reports in the mid-1990s, the United Nations condemned the Indian Government for "failing to prevent acts of discrimination towards Untouchables and failing to punish those found responsible and provide just and adequate reparation to the victims."

Since the 1990s, there has also been an increase in the number of Dalit rights movements. Several rallies with the purpose of educating people about the plight of Dalits have been organized. The primary source, a photograph by AFP photographer Indranil Mukherjee, shows a Dalit woman who took part in a protest rally organized by anti-globalization activists at the 2004 World Social Forum. The Forum was held in Mumbai, India.



See primary source image.


The issue of Dalits in India is perceived as a socioeconomic problem. Despite a clear mention in India's Constitution and the Directive Principles that there would be no discrimination against any citizen on grounds of religion, race, caste, place, and birth, there continues widespread discrimination against members of lower communities. Although it is the largest democracy in the world, India has been plagued with social inequalities and a great divide between the rich and the poor.

According to People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) report, there are more Dalits in India than make up the population of Pakistan. The scheduled castes are about sixteen percent of India's population and they contribute mainly in manual labor, art, and culture. However, oppression of Dalits, especially in the rural regions, adversely impacts the country socially and economically.

Experts indicate that the cause of Dalit's social status is two-fold. The main factor is poverty; sometimes people of the Dalit community literally starve because they are unable to participate in the economy. Lack of formal education also contributes to their poverty and social status.

A PUCL report estimated that over seventy-seven percent of lower caste people live in the rural regions of India and do menial jobs, especially in the unorganized agriculture sector. Most of them live in poverty, earning less than thirty rupees a day (about seventy-five cents). Parents send their children not to schools, but to earn daily wages. Consequently, the children supplement their parents' meager income and are deprived of education at an early age. The situation in urban areas fares a little better. Although only twenty percent of Dalits live in cities, many do have jobs. There are fewer reported cases of discrimination. However, owing to lack of competency in technical fields, Dalits cannot match the lifestyles and incomes of those belonging to the upper castes.

The Indian government has taken several steps to improve the condition of Dalits and other lower castes. However, reports from human rights organizations indicate that more plans appear on paper than are actually implemented. The northeastern state of Bihar that has the highest population of Dalits in the country is reportedly affected the most. Although, Dalits have been elected to political parties in the state, the condition of Dalits being treated as untouchables remains a pervasive concern.

On a national level, several panels set by the Indian government have recommended reservation, a program similar to affirmative action in the United States, for the lower caste communities in education, and employment. Soon after independence from British rule, the Indian Constitution advocated a quota system for Dalits and other backward communities in government organizations and educational institutions.

The controversial Mandal Commission, set up in 1979, recommended a quota hike from twenty-seven percent to 49.5 percent for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in government jobs and universities. However, the move to implement these recommendations in 1990 caused widespread discord and brought about the downfall of the incumbent government. Critics argue that a quota system in jobs, especially specialized posts, would give rise to "brain drain," where highly skilled and educated professionals would seek employment outside India. Opponents of such policies state that jobs and admissions should be rendered solely on merit.

As of 2006, the Government of India has proposed a quota system for the private sector and educational institutions. This initiative, deemed by critics as a means to garner votes from oppressed castes, has been marked with protests around the country. Economists have also questioned the intention behind such policies. Infzal Ali, chief economist of the Asian Development Bank, stated in April 2006 that "reservation in private sector would prove counterproductive."

Discrimination against some communities is widespread in most developing countries. Moreover, experts state that the condition of Dalits is similar to that of the African American community in the early and mid-twentieth century United States. Although discrimination against Dalits continues in India, there have been notable contributions from members of this community. These include B.R. Ambedkar (1891–1956), the chief architect of India's Constitution, and K.R. Narayanan (1920–2005), President of India from 1997–2002.



Hiltebeitel, Alf. Rethinking India's Oral and Classical Epics: Draupadi among Rajputs, Muslims, and Dalits. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, May 1, 1999.

Rajeshekar, V.T. and Y. N. Kly. Dalit: The Black Untouchables of India. Clarity Press, June 1997.

Web sites

BBC News. "Dalits' political awakening." September 28, 1999. 〈〉 (accessed May 11, 2006).

Human Rights Watch. "Broken People: Caste Violence Against India's "Untouchables." April 14, 1999. 〈〉 (accessed May 11, 2006). "Job quota in private sector to trigger brain drain." April 27, 2006. 〈〉 (accessed May 11, 2006).

India Together. "Hindu social order and the human rights of dalits." November 2002. 〈〉 (accessed May 11, 2006).

PUCL Bulletin. "Dalits & Human Rights: The Battles Ahead—I." June 1999. 〈〉 (accessed May 11, 2006).