The Dalit Movement Today

The term “Dalit” has different meanings for different people. The most common use of the term is to define people who were once known as “untouchables”, seperated from the rest of society by the caste system. Navsarjan redefines the ideological context of the word to mean three things:

  • Someone who believes in equality
  • Practices equality in his or her life, and
  • Protests inequality wherever he or she sees it

This redefinition challenges Dalits to be more egalitarian in their own lives, both in terms of inter sub-caste discrimination and sexism; allows for the inclusion of Dalits from different religious backgrounds (Dalits who have converted to a different religion, but still suffer discrimination); and allows for the inclusion of people who are not from the “untouchable” castes, but still believe in values of equality.

A past passive participle of the Sanskrit root dal that means to crack or split, the word Dalit is today common across most Indian languages, meaning poor and oppressed people. As it refers to those who have been broken, ground down by those above them in a deliberate way, there is also clearly an inherent denial of pollution, karma and justified caste hierarchy to the word itself. Though use of the term Dalit in public discourse is of relatively recent origin – the 1960s – it is supposed to have been used first by Jotirao Phule (1827-1890) in his attempt to work for dalituthan, that is, the uplifting of the exploited sections of society.

While Dr. Ambedkar did not popularize the word Dalit, his philosophy has remained a key source in its emergence and popularity. Marathi literary figures and neo-Buddhists began to use the word in their writings and contributed to the literary initiatives in replacing Harijan (man of God) and achchuta (untouchable) with Dalit, in the 1970s. They expressed their anger, protest and aspiration through this new word, rejecting the Hindu caste system and objecting to Gandhi’s belief that caste Hindus’ “charitable spirit” would be enough to overcome Untouchability.

While the word “Dalit” stems from opposition to terms bestowed upon Dalits by the non-Dalits—terms that legitimised their discrimination and deprivation—it has today essentially emerged as a political category. Dalits in legal parlance are called Scheduled Castes (SCs), and are identified as such by the President of India under Article 341 of the Constitution.

This constitutional identity, however, is exclusive and fails to capture the true picture. Dalits who have converted from Hinduism to another religion no longer qualify as SCs, although their status in society often remains the same. Moreover, Dalit movements in contemporary India are not uniform and each articulates a particular identity, be they Christian Dalits, Neo-Buddhists or Muslim Dalits. Hence, Dalit should not be seen as a term just describing a caste community. Rather, it should be viewed as a symbol of change and liberation, as a progressive ideology, helping the Dalit movement to achieve its end results. Increasingly used as a suffix, Dalit is a part of the identity of a person that holds certain values—those pertaining to equality and humanism.

Dalit is one who believes in equality, who practices equality and who combats inequality.


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