Historically, Hindu society in India has been characterized by a high degree of social stratification and institutional inequality governed by the caste system. The caste system as a societal order of social, economic, and religious governance for Hindus is based on the principle of inequality and unequal rights. The dalits or the untouchables (known as scheduled castes in government parlance) stand at the bottom of the caste hierarchy, and were historically denied equal rights to property, education, and business, as well as civil, cultural, and religious rights. They were also considered to be polluting, and they suffered from social and physical segregation and isolation. The result was a high level of deprivation and poverty.
Past religious and cultural movements, such as Buddhism, opposed Brahmanic Hinduism and attempted to construct Indian society on principles of equality and fraternity. The dalits themselves initiated social movements against the denial of equal rights and oppression in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, notably the social-political movement of the Indian reformer and politician Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956). During the 1970s and the 1980s, collective action emerged among the dalits in the form of the Dalit Panther movement in Maharashtra State and the Dalit Sangarsh Samiti in Karnataka, and the rise of such political parties as the Bahujan Samaj Party in the north, and similar efforts throughout the country. A strong nongovernmental organization movement also emerged, particularly in south India. In 1998 these groups formed a coalition of civil society organizations and activists: the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights. This coalition facilitated the establishment of an International Dalit Solidarity Network in Europe and the United States.
By 2006, dalit assertion has transcended national boundaries with the dalit diaspora organizing itself into the Ambedkar Mission Society, the Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organization, the Voice of Dalit International in the United Kingdom, Volunteers in Service to India’s Oppressed and Neglected in the United States, and similar organizations in Canada. These organizations generate and disseminate literature about problems of the dalits, undertake advocacy, and use modern information and communication tools to generate discussion and build solidarity.
The constitution of India (1950) guarantees equality before the law (Article 14); prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth (Article 15); and abolished untouchability (Article 17). It further assigned responsibility to the state for the promotion of the educational and economic interests of the dalits (Article 46). On this basis, legal safeguards have been provided, including the Anti-Untouchability Act of 1955, and affirmative action policies in public employment, educational institutions, and the legislature, and other measures for the general economic empowerment of the dalit community. Government policies thus aim to overcome the multiple deprivations that dalits have inherited from exclusion in the past, and provide protection against exclusion and discrimination in the present.
Affirmative action policies are confined to the public sector. In the absence of such policies for the private sector, the state has developed programs for the economic, educational, and social empowerment of the dalits with a focus on improving the private ownership of fixed capital assets, human resource capabilities, and access to basic civil amenities, among other things.
Government policies from 1950 to 2000 indicate both positive change and continuity in deprivation. There has indeed been some improvement. In 2000 about 17 percent of dalits cultivated land, and about 12 percent of dalits in rural areas and 28 percent in urban areas owned small businesses. Literacy rates among dalits have risen from 10.27 percent in 1960 to 54.69 percent in 2001. The unemployment rate in rural areas has been reduced from 6.77 percent in 1978 to 5 percent in 2000, and from 7.37 percent to 5.20 percent in urban areas for the same periods. Lingering limitations in access to assets are the residue of a similar denial in the past.
Affirmative action policies have seen limited, yet positive, gains. The number of dalits employed in central government jobs increased in 2002, along with the number of dalit employees in public sector undertakings. The number of dalits employed in government banks also rose in 2004. In education, about a third of dalit students enrolled in universities and colleges were pursuing higher education in desirable programs because of reservation policies. As a consequence of such positive changes, poverty among dalits declined from 58 percent in 1984 to 37 percent in 2000 in rural areas, and from 56 percent in 1983 to 38 percent in 2000 in urban areas. Furthermore, caste discrimination against dalits in civil, cultural, and religious spheres has been reduced in some public spheres, although more so in urban than in rural areas.
Notwithstanding these gains, India’s dalits continue to suffer in terms of absolute levels of deprivation and indicators of human development. About 70 percent of dalits inhabit rural areas; in 2000 about two-thirds of dalit rural households were landless or near landless (the figure is one-third for nondalits). Less than one-third of the dalit population had access to capital assets (40% for nondalits); 60 percent of dalits were dependent upon wage labor (25% for nondalits); and the dalit unemployment and literacy rate was 5.5 percent and 54.69 percent respectively, compared to 3 percent and 58 percent for nondalits. In addition, the prevalence of anemia among dalit women and mortality among children was high.
Various studies indicate that dalits continue to face discrimination in market and nonmarket transactions, in social services (education, health, and housing), and in political participation. Thus, there remains a long way to go before India’s dalits can imagine a reasonable degree of dignity in their lives and livelihoods.
In 1992 the Indian government withdrew from some public spheres under an overall policy of liberalization. This development weakened the possibility of public sector employment for dalits. The government has made efforts to establish affirmative action policies that apply to the private sector; these efforts have seen response from India’s corporate sector in 2006, but they have not yet taken any shape in terms of policy. However, other initiatives include reserved spots for dalits in private educational institutions, as well as scholarships for research and technical education. In addition, in 2005 India passed the Employment Guarantee Act, which ensures minimum employment for rural laborers. Such initiatives are likely to enhance the status of the dalits.
During 2006, the Indian government has taken new initiative by extending reservation to Other Backward Castes in public educational institutions and proposed to extend the same to private educational institutions. The reservation in private education institutions would also benefit the Schedule Castes. The progressive extensions of reservation to Other Backward Castes has widened and strengthened the safeguards against the hierarchal discrimination faced by different sections of lower castes. This has encouraged solidarity among Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Castes.
SEE ALSO Ambedkar, B. R.
Bailey, F. G. 1957. Caste and the Economic Frontier: A Village in Highland Orissa.. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press.
Dumont, Louis. 1970. Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and its Implications. Trans. Mark Sainsbury. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. Rev. English ed. 1980. Trans. Mark Sainsbury, Louis Dumont, and Basia Gulati. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Ghurye, G. S. 1969. Caste and Race in India. 5th ed. Bombay: Popular Prakashan.
Omvedt, Gail. 2003. Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Shah, Ghanshyam, ed. 2001. Dalit Identity and Politics. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Shah, Ghanshyam, ed. 2002. Social Movements and the State. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Thorat, Sukhadeo. 1996. Policy and Economic Change: Emerging Situation of Scheduled Castes. In Fourth World: Ideological Perspective and Developmental Prognoses, ed. R. K. Nayak, 202–215. New Delhi: Manohar.
Thorat, Sukhadeo. 2004. Situation of Dalits Since Independence: Some Reflections. In The Dalit Question: Reforms and Social Justice, eds. Bibek Debroy and D. Shyam Babu, 5–15. New Delhi: Globus.
Thorat, Sukhadeo, with R. S. Deshpande. 1999. Caste and Labour Market Discrimination. Indian Journal of Labour Economics (conference issue) 42 (4): 25–35.
Thorat, Sukhadeo, Aryama, and Prashant Negi, eds. 2005. Reservation and Private Sector: Quest for Equal Opportunity and Growth. Jaipur, India: Rawat.
"Dalits." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/dalits
"Dalits." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved January 17, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/dalits
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Dalits: see Harijans.
"Dalits." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/dalits
"Dalits." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved January 17, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/dalits
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Dalit is the word most commonly used for India’s untouchables in the early twenty-first century. Its basic meaning is “broken, ground down,” but “oppressed” is the best translation for its current use. It is a self-chosen word, made popular by the Dalit Panthers in Bombay (now Mumbai) in the 1970s. It replaces ex-untouchable (used because the constitution of independent India made the practice of untouchability illegal) and Harijan (children of God), Mahatma Gandhi’s kind but patronizing term. Scheduled castes is an official governmental designation created in 1935 when a list or schedule was created for castes that qualified for special representation or governmental benefits. Scheduled tribes refers to tribes that merit special treatment. The term Dalit often includes both castes and tribes and may be used by any group that feels itself oppressed.
The untouchables or scheduled castes comprise one-sixth of the population of India, approximately 160 million people, and there are some four hundred castes considered “untouchable.” The phenomenon of a group of outsiders has given English two words: outcaste and pariah. The untouchables, however, are in castes of their own, and pariah literally refers to a drum. One duty of the actual pariah caste was ritual drumming for higher castes.
The English word caste is used for two very different forms of the caste system: varna and jati. The classic categories of varna, depicted in the tenth and last book of the Rig Veda (Sanskrit texts created from 1500 to 900 BCE), describe the gods’ sacrifice of primeval man: From his mouth were made the Brahmans, the priests; from his shoulders the Kshatriyas, the warriors and rulers; from his thighs the Vaishyas, farmers (later changing to indicate merchants and traders); and from his feet the Shudras, servants of all, a category that became inclusive of all who worked with their hands, from musicians to farmers. The first three categories could study the Vedas and receive the sacred thread; the fourth category could not. Untouchables, below Shudras, do not appear in the four oldest texts of the Vedas and later came to be known as avarna, without varna.
The reality of the caste system rests on the jatis, endogamous groups that eat together, often work in one occupation, and consider themselves to have a common history and culture. There are probably more than three thousand jatis in India. Many can be fitted into the varna system, but in Maharashtra and the South there are only two varnas: Brahmans and Shudras. There are, of course, merchants and soldiers and rulers in the South, but few call themselves Kshatriya or Vaishya or Shudra, and the varna category does not seem to matter except for Brah-mans (and untouchables). The system allowed groups coming into India to find a place in the social structure, depending upon their political power and economic skills.
In the modern period, organizations on the basis of jatis were formed to cooperate in economic, educational, and even political matters. This, as well as the British census begun in 1872, which gave jati and varna status to all groups, seems to have strengthened and solidified the caste system.
Behind the caste system is a strong belief in purity and pollution. Some occupations are polluting, but some castes with no polluting occupation are also polluted by birth. The purity of the upper castes must be preserved, it is believed, and this results in quite literally groups that may not be touched. The classic rationale for the creation of untouchables is twofold: wrongful marriage, that is, the offspring of a male Shudra and a Brahman woman, or karma, misdeeds in this life will result in a low birth in the next life. Few untouchable castes accept either theory, although individuals sometimes attribute their status to a previous birth. Most castes have an elaborate theory whereby some unfortunate and misguided good deed resulted in untouchability.
Three occupations are considered polluting throughout India—the handling of leather or a dead cow, the removal of human waste, and work on the cremation ground. The prohibition against touching a dead cow seems to have extended to the playing of a cowhide drum, hence the pariah caste. In the North, leather workers are known as Chamars (now many call themselves Ravidasis, the name of an untouchable Chamar saint of medieval times). Traditionally the scavenging caste was known as Bhangi but now they prefer to be called Valmikis, after the legendary author of the epic Ramayana. (200 BCE–200 CE.) Other occupations such as washerman and toddy tapper connote untouchability in some areas and not in others. Untouchability by birth is determined in the village setting and is marked by denial of temple entry and the village well, by occupying living quarters outside the village, and usually by having the duty of performing agricultural labor on higher castes’ fields.
Although the concept of purity and pollution goes back to the Upanishads (700–500 BCE), the despised “Chandala” in those texts does not seem to indicate a separate caste by birth. The general consensus is that by the fourth century CE, the status and occupational duties of certain groups indicates the formation of a “caste system,” with untouchables recognized as such.
There is no agreement on the origin of untouchable castes. The scholar and political leader Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891–1956) traced a “broken men” theory and a related previous Buddhist theory to the increasing Hinduization of India in pre-Muslim times. Ambedkar, however, rejected a race theory, holding to the idea of Indians as one race with even the Aryans, thought by most as northern invaders who developed Sanskrit and classical literature in India, as originating in India. There is current controversy about Dalits and race. Most scholars and Dalits prefer the term discrimination by descent to a racial category. There is a new move to claim “original inhabitant” status, which is akin to race. There are also traditions of “sons of the soil” and “lords of the earth” in many untouchable traditions, which suggest a non-Aryan background. Early-twentieth-century movements often used the word Adi or Ad as in Ad Dharm or Adi Dravida, the first or original religion or, in the South, the first Dravidians, as opposed to Brahmanical culture. The current usage is mulnivashi, meaning the inhabitants in India before the Aryan invasion who possessed a nonBrahmanical but complete culture.
The government of India, when faced with Dalit demands such as those presented at the World Conference against Racism held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, and more recently before a United Nations commission, denied that “discrimination by descent” was akin to race and maintained that India must deal with its own peoples without international interference. The practice of untouchability was “abolished” in the constitution of independent India (articles 15 and 17), and the Untouchability (Offenses) Act of 1955 makes such discriminatory practices punishable by law. Article 46 provides the Indian version of affirmative action, specifically the promotion of educational and economic benefits for the “weaker sections” of the society. The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989 prescribes stringent penalties for violence against these groups. The government of India claims this eliminates the need for Dalits to approach Amnesty International, the United Nations, or Human Rights Watch about their concerns, but Dalits take every opportunity to point out the discrimination and violence that continues. The British House of Lords is the latest group outside of India to take up the issue of violence against Dalits.
Buddhism, founded in the sixth century BCE, held that status should be determined by action, not birth. The only people who were Brahmans were those who fulfilled the specific role of Brahmins. All castes were admitted into the Buddhist sangha, the order of monks or bhikhus. Although Buddhism was the most consistently egalitarian, there are suggestions of reform in the Siddhas, the Nath cult and the Mahanubhav religion, as well as others.
The bhakti movement, which held that devotion to God was the key to salvation and happiness, not any sort of ritual or orthodoxy, began in the South in about the eighth century and moved slowly North, covering most of India by the eighteenth century. From Tamil Nadu, the bhakti idea moved to Karnataka where Basavanna (1134–1196) became the most radical of religious leaders. From total equality to intercaste marriage, Basavanna preached a new way, but his followers, the Lingayats, soon became a caste themselves. In the Marathi area, in the fourteenth century, Cokhamela and his family, wife, sister, sister’s husband, and son, all wrote songs of both bliss and humiliation, over four hundred of which are now credited to them. In the North, Ravidas, a Chamar of the fifteenth century, is still very influential as model, source of pride, and symbol of identity.
The general consensus is that the bhakti movement was spiritually egalitarian, but had little social effect. Nevertheless, all the untouchable saints are remembered—their legends told, their songs sung, and their places secured by proof of creativity and piety.
The reform institutions of the nineteenth century, the Brahmo Samaj based in Bengal, the Prarthana Samaj of Bombay province, and the Arya Samaj of Punjab, the United Provinces, and to some degree throughout India, had various sorts of effects. The Brahmo instituted schools for the so-called depressed classes. The Prarthana Samaj admitted a few untouchables into its group, and the Arya Samaj instituted purification rites that theoretically removed untouchables from any polluting category. All had some effect on the Indian mind, but none had any large effect on the depressed classes. A very radical group, the Satyashodhak Samaj (truth-seeking society) of the non-Brahman Jotirao Phule, flourished in the late nineteenth century and was influential in the area that became Maharashtra.
Political activity on the part of Dalits began as early as the 1890s with the attempt to create a petition for reenlistment of Mahars and other untouchable castes into the army. The participation of untouchables in the army had been important in the eighteenth and most of the nineteenth centuries, but the late-nineteenth-century British emphasis on “martial castes” barred untouchables from the army. Gopalnak Baba (Vittalnak) Walankar, a retired Havaldar (native officer in the British army) in Bombay province, created a long petition with the help of Hindu caste reformers, but the ex-army men were too timid to sign it. In the early twentieth century, Dalits from all over the country petitioned the various British commissions for rights and privileges, including the Minto-Morley tour for the 1909 reforms and the Southborough (Franchise) Commission in 1919.
In the testimony before the Southborough Commission, a new and different voice was heard. Ambedkar had returned from his study at Columbia University in New York and had not yet departed for his study at the London School of Economics and Gray’s Inn. In long and sophisticated testimony, Ambedkar asked for a very low franchise for untouchables, few of whom were educated or land owning, and representation in such numbers as would “enable them to claim redress.” But the government allowed two nominated seats for untouchables in the Madras Legislative Council, and one each in the provinces of Bombay (a few years later increased to two), United Provinces, Bengal, Bihar, and the Central provinces. M. C. Rajah of Madras, who had served on the Madras Legislative Council and had written the first book on untouchables from within the group itself, was nominated to the central Legislative Council. With this unpromising start, the effort of Dalits to serve on legislative bodies and to create new laws was set in ever-increasing motion.
Both Ambedkar and an untouchable from Madras, Rattamalle Srinivasan, were nominated to attend the Round Table Conferences of 1930 to 1932, which were to determine the nature of representation in India. In London, as Sikhs and Muslims pled for separate electorates, that is, electorates in which Muslims would vote for Muslim representatives, Sikhs for Sikh, and so on, Ambedkar also began to think that untouchable representatives in legislative bodies should be elected by their fellow untouchables. This view appealed to the British, and the Communal Award of 1932 gave such representation to the depressed classes. Mahatma Gandhi, however, who was in the Yeravda prison near Pune for civil disobedience, was so opposed to separate electorates for untouchables that he declared a fast unto death. Ambedkar gave in, striking the best bargain he could: enhanced numbers of depressed classes representatives.
Ambedkar had supported Gandhi as one of the few caste Hindus trying to change the untouchables’ situation with his Vaikom Satyagraha movement in the South. Ambedkar became quite critical of the lack of commitment to untouchables’ rights on the part of the Indian National Congress, however, and the outcome of the so-called Poona Pact of 1932 made him an implacable critic. Dalits continue to feel that Gandhi betrayed them with his denial of the right of separate electorates, which for them meant genuine political power. In 1933 Gandhi began to use the term Harijan (children of God) for untouchables, and until Dalit came to be widely used Harijan was the universal designation for untouchables, in spite of the objection of some.
Gandhi was a caste Hindu, a Vaishya. Ambedkar was a Mahar and knew discrimination firsthand. Gandhi never repudiated the varna theory of four major groups, although he fought against the idea of a group below the varnas and he held all varnas to be equal. Ambedkar repudiated the entire caste hierarchy, dismissing what was a current effort among untouchables to “sanskritize,” that is, adopt upper-class customs in order to raise their status. Gandhi did not believe in political battles for untouchables’ rights or approve their attempts to enter temples unless the temple authorities agreed. Ambedkar felt political power was part of the solution to untouchability. Basically, Gandhi’s faith was in change of heart; Ambedkar’s trust was in law, political power, and education. Ambedkar went on to become the best-known voice of the untouchables, and also a powerful representative, serving both the government of India before independence and as law minister in independent India’s first cabinet. In the latter capacity he chaired the committee charged with drafting a constitution for India.
Ambedkar began the Independent Labour Party in 1936 and was successful in gaining eleven of the fifteen seats reserved for scheduled castes, plus seats for three Hindu caste legislators. The party was not successful, however, in gaining rights for Dalits and for workers. An effort to reintroduce the idea of separate electorates brought about the Scheduled Castes Party in 1942. Ambedkar’s Republican Party was the next try but did not come into being until after his death in 1956. Lacking a central figure, it was soon divided into various leaders’ components. But Dalits are politically very aware, and the lack of party success resulted in the Dalit Panther movement in Bombay, which was combined with a Dalit literary movement in the 1970s. After a strong initial impact, the Panthers split, and now constitute only minor parties in Tamil Nadu and some cities of Uttar Pradesh. The literary movement, however, has spread to almost all the language areas of India.
The political momentum has been taken over by the Bahujan (majority) Samaj Party (BSP) founded in 1984 by Kanshi Ram, a Punjabi. In the North and to a smaller degree in Maharashtra it has considerable strength. Ram had established two earlier organizations, BAMCEF (All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation) and a political party. BAMCEF claimed 200,000 members, including university-educated Dalits and Bahujans. Both these organizations gave way to the BSP, which has made real inroads into the politics of Uttar Pradesh. Its base is the Chamar community, and although Ram refused to talk about caste, he probably was from the Ramdasi Sikh community, recruited from the Chamars. In 1985 Mayawati Kumari, a single woman commonly called simply Maya-wati, emerged as an effective and powerful leader, and she has led the party single-handedly since Kanshi Ram’s death in 2006. An early partnership with the Socialist Party of Mulayam Singh Yadav, which promised enormous power, soon broke apart, and Mayawati has ruled Uttar Pradesh as chief minister three times within other alliances. Links with the Brahmanical party of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been held suspect by some Dalits but welcomed by others. In the 2007 elections Mayawati’s BSP party in combination with Brahmans won a clear majority, and she is now chief minister in Uttar Pradesh.
refuses to use. All government positions have quotas for scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, and backward classes, and the system has produced a somewhat effective middle class of educated Dalits. However, the first-class government servant category is rarely filled. Any educational institution that receives government funding must also include the Dalit categories, but the increasing numbers of private educational institutions have no such requirement. Medical schools have seen much protest of reserved places for scheduled castes and tribes and other backward classes. There is considerable pressure to force private businesses to hire scheduled castes and tribes, and many envy the U.S. commitment to affirmative action.
Much of the discrimination against untouchables in the cities, in terms of personal insults, has lessened. In the villages especially, however, there is actually increasing violence over such matters as a Dalit marrying into a higher caste, a quarrel over land, or a Dalit assuming a privilege that is not traditional. Rape, arson, physical violence, and boycotts are familiar weapons against Dalits claiming equality. The National Commission for Scheduled Castes records the atrocities that are reported to it, and these vary from 25,000 to 30,000 per year. The statistics vary from state to state, and many violent encounters are not brought to the attention of the police or the courts.
Ambedkar rejected Hinduism as early as 1935, but he did not convert until shortly before his death in 1956. He had learned about Buddhism as a boy, read about Buddhism from then on, studied Pali, and compiled The Buddha and His Dhamma, based on Theravada texts but adding his own rational and humanitarian views. The fiftieth anniversary of his conversion was celebrated in October 2006. Conversions continue in many parts of India, especially in Delhi. Many use “Navayana,” the new vehicle, as a name for Ambedkar Buddhism.
SEE ALSO Affirmative Action.
Ambedkar, Bhimrao Ramji. 1979–2005. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches. 20 vols. Bombay (later Mumbai): Government of Maharashtra.
Dangle, Arjun, ed. 1992. Poisoned Bread: Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit Literature. Bombay: Orient Longman. Deliège, Robert. 1999. The Untouchables of India. Translated by Nora Scott. Oxford, U.K.: Berg.
Kshirsagar, R. K. 1994. Dalit Movement in India and Its Leaders, 1857–1956. New Delhi: M.D. Publications.
Kumar, Vivek. 2006. India’s Roaring Revolution: Dalit Assertion and New Horizons. Delhi: Gangadeep Publications.
Mendelsohn, Oliver, and Marika Vicziany. 1998. The Untouchables: Subordination, Poverty, and the State in Modern India. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Singh, K. S., ed. 1993. The Scheduled Castes. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Thorat, Sukhadeo, and Umakant, eds. 2004. Caste, Race, and Discrimination: Discourses in International Context. New Delhi: Rawat.
Yagati, Chinna Rao. 2003. Dalit Studies: A Bibliographical Handbook. New Delhi: Kanishka Publishers.
Zelliot, Eleanor. 2001. From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on the Ambedkar Movement, 3rd ed. New Delhi: Manohar.
———. 2004. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and the Untouchable Movement. New Delhi: Blumoon Books.
"Dalits." Encyclopedia of Race and Racism. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/dalits
"Dalits." Encyclopedia of Race and Racism. . Retrieved January 17, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/dalits
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DALITS The Rig Veda, which dates back at least to the second millennium before the common era, described the origins of the entire universe from the self-sacrifice of Purusha, the Cosmic Being, on the funeral pyre. From Purusha's body emerged the four categories of humans: from his mouth, the Brahman; from his arms the Rajanya, or Kshatriya; from his thighs the Vaishya; and from his feet the Shudra. These categories were subsequently referred to as varṇs (colors), a term also used to categorize timber and precious stones.
During and after the sixth century b.c., Brahmans composed sūtras ("threads," brief Sanskrit prose aphorisms) and shāstras (more elaborate Sanskrit verse instructions) regarding morally correct behavior (dharma). The sūtras and shāstras saw the four varṇ divisions of society to be cosmically ordained, with Brahmans outranking the other three varṇs. The varṇa into which one was born was seen as a direct consequence of how one had performed one's morally correct behavior (dharma) in one's previous lives. The Dharma Shāstra, attributed to the sage Manu, assigned occupations to each of the varṇs. Brahmans were to study, teach, and perform sacrifices. Kshatriyas were to rule, wage war, sponsor sacrifices, and study. Vaishyas were to farm, breed cattle, trade, lend money, and study. The disadvantaged Shudras were to serve the three higher varṇs
According to Manu, men of each varṇ were to marry women of the same varṇ Men of the three higher varṇas were considered "twice-born"; their second birth ceremony (upanayana) was performed when they received the sacred thread (janeu) and could study the Vedic texts. Shudras, considered "once-born," were not permitted to undergo the second-birth ceremony, wear the sacred thread, study the Vedic texts, or marry according to the four highest forms of marriage. According to Manu's Dharma Shāstra, Shudras were created to be the slaves of Brahmans; a Shudra who insulted a twice-born man with "gross invective" should have his tongue cut out; if a Shudra taught Brahmans their duty, the king should order hot oil to be poured into that Shudra's mouth and ears; Brahmans could confidently seize a Shudra's property; and a Brahman who killed a Shudra needed to perform only the same penance as if he had killed a cat or crow. Manu's Dharma Shāstra predicted that a kingdom with a shortage of twice-born inhabitants and a surplus of Shudras would soon "entirely perish." The Bhagavad Gītā provided some comfort for Shudras. It stated that Shudras who faithfully fulfilled their assigned duties in this life could be reborn in higher varṇs in their later lives. Furthermore, a Shudra who worshiped Lord Krishna with sufficient devotion (bhakti) in this life could at the end of this life be freed from the bonds of reincarnation.
The sūtras and shāstras agreed that Shudras were the lowest of the four varṇas. Nevertheless, Manu's Dharma Shāstra identified groups that were even lower than Shudras. These lower groups included the offspring of the mixing or confusion of varṇas (varṇa samkara), that is, sexual activities between varṇas. This mixing of varṇas endangered society. According to Manu, these activities generated new birth groups (jatis) with their own names and occupations. One of the most offensive mixing of varṇas occurred when a Shudra male impregnated a Brahman female. Manu labeled the offspring of such miscegenation a Chandala, considered to be the "lowest of men." According to Manu, Chandalas were to live apart from other people, never entering villages or towns after dark. They were to eat from broken dishes, carry out the corpses of unclaimed dead, execute criminals, and take for themselves the clothes, ornaments, and beds of the executed criminals. They should not look at an eating Brahman or touch a Brahman's sacrificial offerings.
Another offensive mixing of varṇas occurred when a Brahman male impregnated a Shudra female. Manu labeled the offspring of their miscegenation a Nishada (also a "living corpse") who subsisted by killing fish. Lower than even a Chandala or a Nishada was an Antyavasayin, the offspring of a Chandala male impregnating a Nishada female. According to Manu, Antyavasayins were employed in burial grounds and were "despised" even by other groups excluded from the four varṇas. By establishing morally reprehensible origins for such groups, Manu's Dharma Shāstra provided justification for their rejection by much of society and their continuing disadvantages.
Manu's Dharma Shāstra also listed occupations "reviled by the twice-born." These included managing horses and chariots, medical healing, doing things for women, trading, fishing, carpentry, hunting, snaring, working with leather, and drumming. Persons subsisting by these occupations were to live near burial grounds or in mountains or groves of trees. Brahmans were not to accept any food from outcastes or persons engaged in "reviled" occupations (although Brahmans could receive uncooked food from Shudras). Those among the twice-born who engaged in the most offensive behavior (e.g., drinking spirituous liquor) were to be branded as outcastes and left to wander over the face of the earth. Relatives were to perform their funeral rites and thereafter neither converse with them, nor marry them, nor share inheritance with them. Only after performing prescribed penances could such outcastes be restored to their former positions among their relatives.
One of the Jataka tales (a collection of stories in the Pali canon about Buddha's former births) described an occasion when the yet-to-be-Buddha was born as a Chandala in a Chandala village. When he went to the city as a young man, having learned to be a sweeper, he discovered that people called him a "vile outcaste" and that high-varṇa women rinsed their eyes with perfumed water after seeing him. He discovered later, when he disguised himself as a Brahman, his inadvertent use of a Chandala form of speech revealed his true identity to a group of genuine Brahmans, who drove him away. In the epic Mahābhārata, during a devastating famine, the great Brahman seer Vishvamitra begged a Chandala to let him eat the dog meat hanging in the Chandala hamlet. In the end, with considerable reluctance, the Chandala gave the dog meat to Vishvamitra. In one well-known narrative, King Harishchandra, fulfilling his promise to a sage, donated his entire kingdom to the sage and left, with his wife and son, for a neighboring country. There a Chandala chief hired Harishchandra to collect the cremation-ground fees and burn the bodies brought for cremation. Harishchandra's subsequent profoundly moral behavior led to his restoration (with his wife and son) to his original kingdom.
Eyewitness Accounts of Disadvantaged Groups
Around 300 b.c. Seleucus Nicator, a general under Alexander the Great, sent an ambassador, Megasthenes, to attend Chandragupta Maurya's court in Pataliputra (present-day Patna). Although none of Megasthenes' writings have survived, in later years other Greeks cited him when reporting on the lands and peoples of South Asia. According to Megasthenes, no one in India had slaves, although a companion of Alexander the Great reported that slavery existed in the Indus River region.
At the beginning of the fifth century a.d., Fahsien, a Chinese Buddhist monk, traveled throughout northern India. In his journals he described Chandalas as fishermen and hunters who sold meat and were considered wicked. They lived apart from others. When they entered a city gate or marketplace, they struck a piece of wood so that people could avoid them. Two centuries later, another Chinese Buddhist monk, Hsieun Tsang, traveled throughout much of India. He reported that meat eating was forbidden. Those who ate meat were "despised." They lived outside the town walls and were seldom seen.
In the eleventh century, Alberuni, a Muslim from the court of Ghazni (in Afghanistan) who had traveled to India, wrote in Arabic his descriptions of the four-varṇa system. Below the four varṇas he described eight craft groups who lived outside the varṇas' towns. Five of these craft groups freely intermarried but refused to marry three of the groups: shoemakers, weavers, and woolen-cloth thickeners. Below these eight craft groups came four groups considered "degraded outcastes" (among them Chandalas) who did "dirty work like the cleansing of the villages" and who were thought of as illegitimate children of a Shudra male and a Brahman female.
In the 1500s the Portuguese settling on India's southwestern coast labeled the local intra-marrying groups castas. Later the French and British modified this term, calling the groups "castes." In 1666 M. de Thevenot, a French traveler, reported that in Kerala, if a high caste Nair felt the breath of a Polea, the Nair considered himself polluted and was obliged to kill the Polea; otherwise the local ruler would put the Nair to death or sell him into slavery. Poleas, when working in the fields, called out "Po! Po!" to warn Nairs of their presence. Poleas could not enter towns. If they wanted to buy some commodity, they called it out and left money in a designated spot; a local merchant then left the commodity at the spot and collected the money.
More than a century later, a French Jesuit missionary, the Abbé J. A. Dubois, described Pariahs in South India as lower than Shudras and abhorred by other castes. Pariahs were village scavengers who cleaned the public latrines, swept the streets, and removed the rubbish. A Brahman had to purify himself by bathing if a Pariah's shadow fell on him. On the Kerala coast, many Pariahs were lifelong serfs of their landlords, who could sell them to other local landlords. Highest among the Pariahs were the Valluvas, who presided over Pariah marriages and other religious ceremonies. Valluvas married only other Valluvas. Among the slightly higher castes regarded as Shudras, the various cultivating castes looked down on, and refused to eat with, occupational castes who were "dependent on the public" such as barbers, washermen, and shoemakers.
The British Colonial Period
In 1871 and 1872, the British recorded their first all-India census, in which they noted respondents' castes and tribes and tried, often with difficulty, to place each group within the four-varṇa framework. Shortly after the first census, government offices began receiving petitions from castes and caste groups claiming higher status than that ascribed to them in the census. For example, during the 1891 census in Madras presidency, Shanars (a "polluting" caste whose occupation was tapping the sap of palm trees) claimed to be Nadars of the Kshatriya varṇa. The census commissioner rejected their claims. Ignoring the rejection, in 1897 fifteen Shanars entered a temple in Kamundi and worshiped the Goddess Meenakshi. The court case filed against the Shanars demanded financial payments to purify the "defiled" temple. The British courts at every level, including the Privy Council in London, ruled against the Shanars, resting their case on the fact that no Shanars had entered such a temple before.
The census revealed that significant portions of India's population were disadvantaged. They were referred to as depressed classes, backward castes, tribes, adivasis, adi-Hindus, and adi-Dravidas. They were also called by the English term "outcastes," even though few of them had been cast out by their relatives. They were also called by the English term "untouchables." However, except in a few South Indian locations, pollution by touching was seldom the issue. In most cases, higher castes felt polluted if they ate food cooked by those labeled "untouchables" or used eating or drinking utensils that had been used by them.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, widely varying groups, including Christian missionaries, the Ārya Samāj, the Servants of India Society, the Justice Party, the Theosophical Society, and the Self-Respect Movement, advocated various forms of uplift for disadvantaged groups. These included admission into temples, access to education and employment, representation on decision-making bodies, and the right to interdine and intermarry. Champions of uplift, though often disagreeing on strategies, included E. V. Ramaswamy Naicker (a non-Brahman from South India), Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi (a Vaishya from Gujarat), and Dr. Bhimrao R. Ambedkar (a Mahar "untouchable" from Maharashtra).
Reformers called on the British government to identify the disadvantaged groups in order to end their longstanding historical disabilities. J. H. Hutton, the census commissioner in 1931, instructed provincial superintendents to draw up lists of groups handicapped by their "degraded position in the Hindu social scheme." Criteria by which groups were identified varied from province to province but generally included such ritual disabilities as denial of admission to Hindu temples and higher castes' perceptions that members of these groups polluted higher castes. The Government of India Act of 1935 entitled the "degraded" groups to special electoral representation. In 1936 provincial governments prepared lists ("schedules") of local groups meeting the "degraded" criteria, and the official designations of these groups became "scheduled castes" (SCs) and "scheduled tribes" (STs).
Untouchability after India's Independence
Dr. Ambedkar was appointed chairman of the drafting committee for India's Constitution. Under his leadership the constitution initiated a policy of affirmative action referred to as "protective discrimination" or "compensatory discrimination." Article 17 declared that untouchability was abolished and any disability arising from untouchability was an offense "punishable in accordance with law." Article 15(2) guaranteed to all castes (including scheduled castes) access to public restaurants, wells, tanks, bathing ghats, and roads and places dedicated to the use of the general public. Article 15(4) declared that the state could make "special provision" for the advancement of scheduled castes and tribes. Articles 330 and 331 reserved seats in the national Parliament and the state assemblies for members of the scheduled castes and tribes. The percentages of seats in the legislative bodies were to match as nearly as possible the proportion of scheduled castes and tribes living in the represented territory. Article 325 declared that all voters—not just SCs and STs—could participate in the election of candidates for the SC and ST reserved seats. Article 335 reserved state-and central-government jobs for members of the scheduled castes and tribes. To address the guarantees in Article 16 of equal rights for all Indian citizens, the Constitution stipulated that these reservations of legislative seats and government jobs for SCs and STs would end after ten years. Over subsequent decades, Parliament periodically amended the Constitution to extend the SC and ST reservations for another ten years.
In 1960 the government of India published an all-India list of 405 scheduled castes and 225 scheduled tribes arranged in alphabetical order. According to this list, some castes were referred to by many different names, some castes were "scheduled" in certain localities but not in neighboring localities, and some castes (often referred to by different names) existed in India's different linguistic regions. In 1976 the government of India replaced its 1960 all-India list with an amended state-by-state list of 841 scheduled castes and 501 scheduled tribes. Some castes and tribes were still "scheduled" in certain localities but not in neighboring localities, and some castes and tribes were still referred to by various different names. When designations were unclear, India's Constitution stipulated that Parliament and the president were to make the final decisions regarding a group's "scheduled" or "nonscheduled" status. According to the published lists, scheduled castes formed about 17 percent of India's population, and scheduled tribes about 7.5 percent, for a total of 22.5 percent.
The Identification of "Dalits"
After the adoption of India's constitution, Dr. Ambedkar became increasingly disillusioned with trying to legislate significant changes for India's "untouchables." Following his failure to gain passage of the Hindu Code Bill in 1951, or to be elected to parliament in 1952, he turned to Buddhism as a solution to untouchability. In earlier writings he had argued that India's contemporary untouchables had once been Kshatriyas and Buddhists, whom hostile Brahmans had relegated to the bottom ranks of society. Convinced that Hinduism inherently incorporated caste discrimination, Ambedkar urged India's untouchables to abandon Hinduism and become Buddhists. In 1955, the year before he died, he himself converted to Buddhism. The millions of untouchables, many of them members of Ambedkar's Mahar caste, who followed his example were called neo-Buddhists. By becoming Buddhists, they sacrificed their legal benefits as members of the scheduled castes. They and other members of scheduled castes and tribes called themselves Dalits, a Marathi term for "oppressed," preferring this term to many demeaning alternatives such as "untouchables," "backward classes," or even to Gandhi's term harijan (children of God). Non-Hindu (e.g., Christian, Muslim) castes, who as such did not qualify as scheduled castes, also called themselves Dalits. Soon references were being made to Dalit activism and agitation as well as Dalit poetry, literature, drama, art, and film. Dalits' efforts to assert their rights sometimes met with deadly violence, as higher castes punished them for their assertiveness. Human rights groups became involved, and Dalit organizations appealed to the United Nations to include "caste" with its already established categories of race, color, and sex, to which all human rights applied.
The 1990s saw the appearance of candidates and political parties specifically representing SCs and other backward classes as defined in 1980 by the Mandal Commission. The appearance of these political parties generated reorientations of voting behavior (especially in the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh) and the election of candidates, parties, and ministries privileging the Dalits and other backward classes.
Joseph W. Elder
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Dubois, Abbé J. A. Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies. Translated by Henry K. Beauchamp. 3rd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906.
Galanter, Marc. Competing Equalities: Law and the Backward Classes of India. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
Gomango, Giridhar, Constitutional Provisions for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. Mumbai: Himalaya Publishing House, 1992.
Government of India, Office of the Registrar General. Census of India, Paper No. 2, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Arranged in Alphabetical Order. New Delhi: Publications Division, 1960.
Keer, Dhananjay. Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission. 2nd ed. Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1962.
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"Dalits." Encyclopedia of India. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/international/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/dalits
"Dalits." Encyclopedia of India. . Retrieved January 17, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/international/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/dalits