India And Dalits

It is seventy two years since India got her Independence. Yet a large population in India is still not considered equal. They are considered religiously and socially ‘polluted’ from birth. The word “Dalit” meaning “oppressed “ or “untouchable ” is the name given to the lower caste members of the society. Dalits are the members of the lowest social strata in the Indian Caste System which includes four primary castes : Brahmins (priests), Kshatriya (warriors and princes), Vaishya (farmers and artisans) and Shudra (tenant farmers and servants). Dalits are not allowed to touch those of higher classes nor ascend the ranks of society. Because of their “uncleanliness” in the eyes of the upper case, they were banned from entering public places, using public toilets, public heath care facilities, touching the belongings of the upper caste and doing many such other activities. They face discrimination and even violence from members of the upper caste or traditional social classes, particularly to get jobs, admission for education and getting marriage partners. Many a times, an “untouchable” cannot enter a Hindu Temple or be taught to read. In rural areas, they were banned from fetching water from the wells because their touch would taint the water for everyone else. They were treated as slaves and forced to bow down to the upper caste. Under Hindu beliefs, jobs that involved death corrupted the workers’ souls, making them unfit to mingle with other people. India’s “untouchables” performed spiritually contaminating world that nobody else wanted to do, such as preparing bodies for funerals, tanning hides, and killing rats or pests. People believed that “untouchables” weren’t pure. Born as “untouchables” was considered as a punishment, the result of misbehavior in previous lives. An untouchable cannot ascend the social hierarchy of the caste system and could not eat or drink in the same room where members of the upper caste resided. The caste system and oppression of “untouchables” still hold a sway in the present day world.


In the nineteenth century, the ruling British party tried to end the prejudice directed against the Dalits. British liberals saw the treatment of Untouchables as singularly cruel, because they didn’t believe in reincarnation. Indian Reformers also took up the cause. During India’s push for Independence, activists such as Mahatma Gandhi called the Dalits “Harijan”, meaning “children of God”, to emphasize their humanity and promote their culture. Following Independence in 1947, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar launched the Dalit Movement in 1956, nearly half a million Dalits – formerly untouchables – joined him and converted to Navayana Buddhism. It rejected Hinduism, challenged the caste system in India and promoted the rights of the Dalit community. The condition of the Dalits improved by them. They were guaranteed constitutional rights. Some Hindu Temples allowed them to serve as priests. Although they still face discrimination, the Dalits are no longer called untouchables.

Author: Shrabani Chakraborty

A Story Teller