Who are Dalits?

India’s caste system assigns individuals a certain hierarchical status according to Hindu beliefs. Traditionally, there are four principal castes (divided into many sub-categories) and one category of people who fall outside the caste system—the Dalits. As members of the lowest rank of Indian society, Dalits face discrimination at almost every level: from access to education and medical facilities to restrictions on where they can live and what jobs they can have. The discrimination against the Dalits is especially significant because of the number of people affected; there are approximately 167 million Dalits in India, constituting over 16 percent of the total population.

Within the Dalit community, there are many divisions into sub-castes. Dalits are divided into leather workers, street sweepers, cobblers, agricultural workers, and manual “scavengers”. The latter group, considered the lowest of the low and officially estimated at one million, traditionally are responsible for digging village graves, disposing of dead animals, and cleaning human excreta. Approximately three-quarters of the Dalit workforce are in the agricultural sector of the economy. A majority of the country’s forty million people who are bonded laborers are Dalits. These jobs rarely provide enough income for Dalits to feed their families or to send their children to school. As a result, many Dalits are impoverished, uneducated, and illiterate.

Dalits have been oppressed, culturally subjugated, and politically marginalized.  The principals of untouchability and “purity and pollution” dictate what Dalits are and are not allowed to do; where they are and are not allowed to live, go, or sit; who they can and cannot give water to, eat with, or marry; extending into the minutia of all aspects of daily life.

Moreover, discrimination for Dalits does not end if they convert from Hinduism to another religion.  In India, Islam, Sikhism, and Christianity (among other religions) maintain some form of caste despite the fact that this contradicts their religious precepts.  As a result, dominant castes maintain leadership positions while Dalit members of these religions are often marginalized and flagrantly discriminated against.  For example, Dalit Christains are provided seperate burial areas from non-Dalit Christains.

The origins of the caste system:

The word Dalit—literally translating to “oppressed” or “broken”—is generally used to refer to people who were once known as “untouchables”, those belonging to castes outside the fourfold Hindu Varna system.  According to the 2001 census, there are some 167 million Dalits (referred to in the census as “Scheduled Castes”) in India alone, though there are tens of millions in other South Asian countries, as well.

The caste system finds its origin in functional groupings, called varnas, which have their origins in the Aryan society of ancient northern India. In their creation myth, four varnas are said to have emanated from the Primeval Being. The Creator’s mouth became the Brahman priests, his two arms formed the Rajanya warriors and kings, his two thighs formed the Vaishya landowners and merchants, and from his feet were born the Shudra artisans and servants. Later, there developed a so-called “fifth” varna: the Untouchables.

This caste system became fixed and hereditary with the emergence of Hinduism and its beliefs of pollution and rebirth. The Laws of Manu (Manusmitri), which date roughly to the 3rd century A.D.—and parts of which form the Sanskrit syllabus of graduation studies in Gujarat even today—preach the sanctity of the varnas and uphold the principles of gradation and rank. They refer to the impurity and servility of the outcastes, while affirming the dominance and total impunity of Brahmins. Those from the “lowest” castes are told that their place in the caste hierarchy is due to their sins in a past life.  Vivid punishments of torture and death are assigned for crimes such as gaining literacy or insulting a member of a dominant caste.  Among the writings of Hindu religious texts, the Manusmitri is undoubtedly the most authoritative one, legitimizing social exclusion and introducing absolute inequality as the guiding principle of social relations.

Forced exclusion and constant oppression:

Today, Dalits make up 16.2% of the total Indian population, but their control over resources of the country is marginal—less than 5%. Close to half of the Dalit population lives under the Poverty Line, and even more (62%) are illiterate. Among the Dalits, most of those engaged in agricultural work are landless or nearly landless agricultural laborers. The average household income for Dalits was of Rs. 17,465 in 1998, just 68% of the national average. Less than 10% of Dalit households can afford safe drinking water, electricity and toilets, which is indicative of their deplorable social condition. Moreover, Dalits are daily victims of the worst crimes and atrocities, far outnumbering other sections of society in that respect as well. The vast majority of these crimes remain unreported due to omnipresent fear, and those that are reported are often ignored by police or end up languishing in the backlogged court system.  Between 1992 and 2000, a total of 334,459 cases were registered nation wide with the police as cognisable crimes against SCs.

More than 60 years after gaining Independence, India is still very much afflicted by the cancer of the caste system. Dalits remain the most vulnerable, marginalized and brutalised community in the country.

 Dalits in Gujarat:

If compared to states like Punjab, Himachal Pradesh or West Bengal where Dalits constitute more than 20 per cent of the population, Gujarat counts a fairly low proportion of Dalits. According to the 2001 Census, there are approximately 3.6 million members of Scheduled Castes in Gujarat, which represents 7.1% of the state’s total population. This relatively low figure is, however, inversely indicative of their miserable condition. More than 80 per cent of the Dalits in Gujarat are daily labourers, the majority of which are in the agricultural sector. Half of the SC population is landless or owns less than one acre of land, which forces them to work on dominant castes’ land in order to survive.

Because of this dependence and the quasi-inexistence of labour welfare in Gujarat, Dalits are subject to immense pressure and utter discrimination. Atrocities committed against them are a daily reality, with more than 4,000 cases reported in the span of 3 years in just 14 districts. Manual scavenging is still very much prevalent also, the State’s institutions in Gujarat themselves employing Dalits to clean dry latrines. For a State that likes to depict itself as a modern and thriving region in India, Gujarat is still a far cry away from ensuring social justice to all of its citizens. In reality, Gujarat has a poor human rights record and must extend and focus its attention to its minorities if it is to be worthy of the kind of image it likes to give itself.

The government of Gujarat has implemented certain policies designed to uplift those belonging to the Scheduled Castes into higher positions.  The most prominent is the reservation system, where certain seats in the government are set aside only for Dalits.  In Gujarat, 7% of seats in the government and education sectors are reserved for Dalits (as opposed to 14% set aside on the national level).  This amounts to 2 of the 26 Members of Parliament (MP) and 13 of the 182 Members of Legislative Assemblies (MLA) currently held by members of the SC.  There are also established reservation systems in place at the district, block, and village levels throughout the state.

Even with this promise of upliftment through reservation, Dalits continue to be discriminated against throughout Gujarat.  The number of atrocity cases against Dalits and the practice of untouchability continue to occur at alarming rates throughout the state, especially when compared to other Indian states.

Dalits in other South Asian countries:

India’s caste system finds corollaries in other parts of the sub-continent, including Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Indeed, as Hinduism spread from northern India to the southern part of the peninsula establishing itself as the dominant religion by the pre-Christian era, so spread the caste system and its ideology justifying the superior standing of the system’s aristocracy. Caste even migrated with the South Asian diaspora to firmly take root in East and South Africa, Mauritius, Fiji, Suriname, the Middle East, Malaysia, the Caribbean, the United Kingdom, and North America. Nevertheless, Asia remains the continent with the largest share of Dalits. There are today in Asia well over 200 million men, women and children enduring near complete social ostracism on the grounds of their descent.

In both Bangladesh and Nepal, the types of discrimination faced by Dalits are very similar to those existing in India. Notions of purity and pollution are prevalent within society, social restrictions, and discrimination in access to public places or jobs are therefore commonplace. Nepal’s situation is noteworthy as not even a fringe of the 4.5 million Dalits (over 20% of the Nepalese population) has been able to significantly emancipate itself. With no affirmative action measures, there are practically no Dalits in Nepal’s legislative assemblies. The literacy rate of Nepalese Dalits is only around 10%, while that of Nepalese Dalit women is even lower. Over 80% of Nepal’s Dalits find themselves below the official poverty line; their life expectancy is not higher than 50 years.

In Pakistan, as well as in Sri Lanka (except Tamil regions), the caste system is somewhat less rigid in the sense that it does not hold any ritual pollution concepts. However, features such as social distance and restricted access to land are still very much a reality. Moreover, the Swat region in northern Pakistan also practices extreme forms of humiliation against Dalits, and especially Dalit women.

Also see: Dalits: An agenda for social transformation


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