by Vikas Kamat
First Online: December 01, 2006
Page Last Updated: April 04, 2014
The Dalits are the collection of all the communities of India
who were denied a status in the traditional Caste System of India. They were
considered even lower that the lowest caste, namely the Shudras. Gandhi
coined the word "Harijan" or "Children of God" to
collectively address this community, but over a period of time, even the word
Harijan has been considered derogatory. The politically correct term to use is
"Scheduled Castes" or "Dalits". Literally, a Dalit means an
Untouchability and Exploitation
Although Hindu scholars dispute the relationship of untouchability
to Hindu codes, the rigid caste system prevalent in India denied social status
and civil amenities to a class who were poor and took up menial professions such
as cleaning, and washing.
In various parts of India, it was considered unholy to even
touch the Dalits (hence the name asprushya or untouchable), and the
Dalits could not use the same public facilities (such as well, or a restaurant)
frequented by the upper-castes.
Mahatma Gandhi, during his leadership of India during the
20th century, made fight against untouchability as one of the top priorities of
India and implemented many programs. Entry into temples, sharing meals with the
Dalits, and voluntarily performing jobs (such as cleaning toilets) meant for the
Dalits were some of these activities.
© K. L. Kamat
Picture of a Dalit Cobbler (Chamar)
The Ugly Turn of Reservations
After India became independent (in 1947), the successive
Governments implemented many plans to better the conditions of the Dalits. The
most important of them are the "Reservations" or the "Quota
System" (also called "Roaster System"), where many privileges of
the Government were to be provided only for Dalits; privileges such as job
quotas, admissions to universities, political appointments, political
representation, and even promotions within the Government.
type of policy has led to a lot of controversy and social turmoil in India due
to the following reasons.
Abuse of the system -- The rampantly corrupt system of India
has been used by non-Dalits to enjoy the benefits meant for Dalits.
Repeat Beneficiaries -- The few Dalits who benefited from
the reservations, keep reaping the benefits again and again, thus denying
the opportunity to first time beneficiaries.
Reverse Discrimination -- Selecting candidates based on
caste, rather than their merit or qualifications has caused a lot of anger
Conflict with Scheduled Tribes -- The reservations for
Dalits are often combined with reservations meant for aboriginals and other
backward classes of India.
Religious Conversions and Conflict
Many Dalits who came in contact with Christian missionaries
chose to abandon their Hindu roots and adopted the Christian faith. This
religious conversion has given rise to two folded turmoil in India. First, due
to conversion, the Dalits lost the privileges meant for Scheduled Castes --
Christianity is believed to be void of the caste discrimination, and the quotas
were meant for people who otherwise were socially backward. Many laws were
passed so that people thus converted could continue to enjoy the special quotas,
after agitations and counter-agitations. Secondly, the Dalits are torn between
retaining their cultural identity and adopting a new one.
Dalits are also converting to Buddhism, following the footsteps of Bhimrao
Ramji Ambedkar, a great Dalit leader.
Some Important Dalit Leaders
Guru Ghasidas -- 19th century Dalit Saint
- Peddanna -- A Virashaiva Saint who was born as an
B.R. Ambedkar -- A very important leader who gave
expression to the Dalit movement. Also an architect of India's constitution,
and later converted to Buddhism.
K.R. Narayan , who went on to serve as the President of
- Mayawati -- A Dalit woman who has been the Chief Minister of State of
Uttar Pradesh several times.
Current Status of Dalits
While a lot of progress has been made to improve the status of Dalits, the reform has not transformed the Indian orthodoxy. The Indian
newspapers often report incidents when Dalit women are abused, Dalit kids are
expelled from schools and the like.
A new generation of Dalit leadership has emerged in India. However, due to
other problems of India, their agenda gets twisted, misinterpreted, and even ridiculed.
Many Dalits do not wish to be identified as Dalits for obvious reasons, and the
Dalit community is losing valuable leaders to neo-brahmanism.
A new form of literature has emerged in India, consisting of prose and poetry
written by Dalit writers. They document the stories of India, hitherto untold.
(see: Uchalya, the caste of
Dalits are getting caught in the crossfire between the religious fervor of
Christian missionaries and Hindu fundamentalists who are bent on opposing
conversions in India.