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Editor: John Hartwell Moore
Date: 2008
Encyclopedia of Race and Racism
Publisher: Macmillan Reference USA
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 5
Content Level: (Level 5)

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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 Page 386  |  Top of Articlebirth. 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 Page 387  |  Top of Articlecentury, 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 Page 388  |  Top of Articleof 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.


India and the United States have the most comprehensive affirmative action systems of all the nations in the world. India, however, favors a quota system, which America

Dalits Reject the Caste System. Dalits Reject the Caste System. At the World Social Forum, held in Bombay in 2004, an Indian Dalit marches against the caste system. Activists demanded that the world pay more attention to the poor, highlighting in particular the plight of the Dalits. INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES.

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 Page 389  |  Top of Articlethat 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.


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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.

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———. 2004. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and the Untouchable Movement. New Delhi: Blumoon Books.

Eleanor Zelliot

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2831200123