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Dalit, meaning "oppressed" in Sanskrit and "broken/scattered" in Hindi/Urdu, is a term for the members of lower castes in India. The term is mostly used for the ones that have been subjected to untouchability. Dalits were excluded from the four-fold varna system of Hinduism and thought of themselves as forming a fifth varna, describing themselves as Panchama. Dalits now profess various religious beliefs, including Buddhism, Christianity and Sikhism.

The term dalits was in use as a translation for the British Raj census classification of Depressed Classes prior to 1935. It was popularised by the economist and reformer B. R. Ambedkar (1891–1956), himself a Dalit, and in the 1970s its use was invigorated when it was adopted by the Dalit Panthers activist group. India's National Commission for Scheduled Castes considers official use of dalit as a label to be "unconstitutional" because modern legislation prefers Scheduled Castes; however, some sources say that Dalit has encompassed more communities than the official term of Scheduled Castes and is sometimes use to refer to all of India's oppressed peoples. A similar all-encompassing situation prevails in Nepal.

Scheduled Caste communities exist across India, although they are mostly concentrated in four states; they do not share a single language or religion. They comprise 16.6% of India's population, according to the 2011 Census of India. Similar communities are found throughout the rest of South Asia, in Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. They have emigrated to countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Singapore and the Caribbean.

In 1932, the British Raj recommended separate electorates to select leaders for Dalits in the Communal Award.[1][2][3] When Mahatma Gandhi opposed this, negotiations produced the Poona Pact with Ambedkar. The Government of India Act, 1935 introduced the reservation of seats for the Depressed Classes, which the first Scheduled Caste and Tribe representatives returned during the 1937 provincial elections.

From its independence in 1947 and expanded in 1974, India provided jobs and educational opportunities for Dalits.[4] By 1995, 10.1% of Class I, 12.7% of Class II, 16.2% of Class III, and 27.2% of Class IV government jobs were held by Dalits. In 1997, India elected K. R. Narayanan as the nation's President. Many social organisations have promoted better conditions for Dalits through education, healthcare and employment. While caste-based discrimination was prohibited and untouchability abolished by the Constitution of India, such practices still continued. To prevent harassment, assault, discrimination and similar acts against these groups, the Indian government enacted the Prevention of Atrocities Act on 31 March 1995.

Etymology and usage[edit]

The word dalit is a vernacular form of the Sanskrit दलित (dalita). In Classical Sanskrit, this means "divided, split, broken, scattered". This word was repurposed in 19th-century Sanskrit to mean "(a person) not belonging to one of the four Brahminic castes".[5] It was perhaps first used in this sense by Pune-based social reformer Jyotirao Phule, in the context of the oppression faced by the erstwhile "untouchable" castes from the twice-born Hindus.[6]

Dalit is mostly used to describe communities that have been subjected to untouchability.[7][8] Such people were excluded from the four-fold varna system of Hinduism and thought of themselves as forming a fifth varna, describing themselves as Panchama.[9]

The term was in use as a translation for the British Raj census classification of Depressed Classes prior to 1935.[7] It was popularised by the economist and reformer B. R. Ambedkar (1891–1956), himself a Dalit,[10] and in the 1970s its use was invigorated when it was adopted by the Dalit Panthers activist group.[7]

Dalit has become a political identity, similar to the way African Americans in the United States moved away from the use of the term "Negro", to the use of "Black" or "African-American."[11] Socio-legal scholar Oliver Mendelsohn and political economist Marika Vicziany wrote in 1998 that the term had become "intensely political ... While use of the term might seem to express an appropriate solidarity with the contemporary face of Untouchable politics, there remain major problems in adopting it as a generic term. Although the word is now quite widespread, it still has deep roots in a tradition of political radicalism inspired by the figure of B. R. Ambedkar." They suggested its use risked erroneously labelling the entire population of untouchables in India as being united by a radical politics.[6]

Other terms[edit]

Official term[edit]

Scheduled Castes is the preferred official term for Dalits in the opinion of India's National Commissions for Scheduled Castes (NCSC), who took legal advice that indicated modern legislation does not refer to Dalit and that therefore, it says, it is "unconstitutional" for official documents to do so. In 2004, the NCSC noted that some state governments used Dalits rather than Scheduled Castes in documentation and asked them to desist.[12]

Some sources say that Dalit has encompasses a broader range of communities than the official Scheduled Caste definition. It can include nomadic tribes and another official classification that also originated with the British Raj positive discrimination efforts in 1935, being the Scheduled Tribes.[11] It is also sometimes used to refer to the entirety of India's oppressed peoples,[7] which is the context that applies to its use in Nepalese society.[8] An example of the limitations of the Scheduled Caste category is that, under Indian law, such people can only be followers of Buddhism, Hinduism or Sikhism,[13] yet there are communities who claim to be Dalit Christians and the tribal communities often practise folk religions.[citation needed]


Mahatma Gandhi adopted the word Harijan, translated roughly as people of God, to identify untouchables. The name was disliked by Ambedkar as it emphasised the Dalits as belonging to the Greater Hindu Nation rather than being an independent community like Muslims.[14][page needed]

Regional terms[edit]

In Southern India, Dalits are known as Adi Dravida, Adi Karnataka, and Adi Andhra since the 1920s. These terms are used in the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, respectively, to identify people of "untouchable" castes in official documents. These words, particularly the prefix of Adi, denote aboriginal or indigenous identity.[15][page needed]

In Nepal, aside from Harijan and, most commonly, Dalit, terms such as Haris (among Muslims), Achhoot, outcastes and neech jati are used.[10]


Scheduled Castes distribution map in India by state and union territory according to the 2011 Census of India.[13] Punjab had the highest % of its population as SC (~32%), while India's island territories and two northeastern states had 0%.[13]

Scheduled Caste communities exist across India and comprised 16.6% of the country's population, according to the 2011 Census of India.[16] Uttar Pradesh (21%), West Bengal (11%), Bihar (8%) and Tamil Nadu (7%) between them accounted for almost half the country's total Scheduled Caste population.[17] They were most prevalent as a proportion of the states' population in Punjab, at about 32 per cent,[18] while Mizoram had the lowest at approximately zero.[13]

Similar groups are found throughout the rest of South Asia, in Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.[19] They have emigrated to countries such as the United States,[20] United Kingdom,[21] Singapore,[22] the Caribbean,[23] Malaysia, South Africa, and Canada.

Social status[edit]

Dalits have had lowest social status in the traditional Hindu social structure but James Lochtefeld, a professor of religion and Asian studies, said in 2002 that the "adoption and popularization of [the term Dalit] reflects their growing awareness of the situation, and their greater assertiveness in demanding their legal and constitutional rights".[24] Eight years later, Eleanor Zelliot noted that "In spite of much progress over the last sixty years, Dalits are still at the social and economic bottom of society."[11]

In the past, they were believed to be so impure that caste Hindus considered their presence to be polluting. The impure status was related to their historic hereditary occupations that Hindus considered impure or debased, such as producing leather from animals, working with leather, working with night soil and other dirty work.[25] Though the Indian constitution abolished untouchability when India gained its independence from the colonial era, the oppressed status of Dalits remains a reality. In rural India, states Klaus Klostermaier, "they still live in secluded quarters, do the dirtiest work, and are not allowed to use the village well and other common facilities".[26]


Dharavi View 1
Dharavi View 2
Dharavi is a slum in Mumbai, founded in the 1880s during the British colonial era. The colonial government expelled Dalits, along with their traditional profession of leather and tannery work, from Mumbai (Bombay) peninsula to create Dharavi.[27] Currently, about 20% of the Dharavi population are Dalits, compared to 16% nationwide. Dalits live together with Muslims (who constitute about a third of Dharavi's population) and other castes and tribes.[28][29]

From 1950, India implemented laws to improve Dalits' socioeconomic conditions.[30] By 1995, of all government jobs in India, 10.1% of Class I, 12.7% of Class II, 16.2% of Class III, and 27.2% of Class IV jobs were held by Dalits.[31] In 1997, K. R. Narayanan, who was a Dalit, was elected as President of India.[31] Of the most senior jobs in government agencies and government-controlled enterprises, only 1 per cent were held by Dalits, not much change in 40 years.[citation needed] In the 21st century, Dalits have been elected to India's highest judicial and political offices.[32][33]

In 2001, the quality of life of the Dalit population in India was not similar to that of the overall Indian population, on metrics such as access to health care, life expectancy, education attainability, access to drinking water and housing[34][35][36] In 2010, Dalits received international attention due to a portrait exhibition by Marcus Perkins that depicted Dalits.

According to a 2007 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the treatment of Dalits has been like a "hidden apartheid" and that they "endure segregation in housing, schools, and access to public services". HRW noted that Manmohan Singh, then Prime Minister of India, saw a parallel between the apartheid system and untouchability.[37] Zelliot also notes Singh's 2006 comment but says that, despite the obvious similarities, race prejudice and the situation of Dalits "have a different basis and perhaps a different solution."[11]

Economic status[edit]

According to a 2014 report to the Ministry of Minority Affairs by Amitabh Kundu, over 44.8% of Scheduled Tribe (ST) and 33.8% of Scheduled Caste (SC) populations in rural India were living below the poverty line in 2011–12. In urban areas, 27.3% of ST and 21.8% of SC populations were poor.[38][39]

Some Hindu Dalits achieved affluence, although most remain poor. In particular, some Dalit intellectuals such as Chandra Bhan Prasad have argued that the living standards of many Dalits have improved since the economic liberalisation in 1991 and have supported their claims through large surveys.[40][41] According to Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011, nearly 79 percent of rural Adivasi households and 73 percent for Dalit households were most deprived among rural households in India. While 45 percent of scheduled caste households are landless and earn by manual casual labour for their living and same is for 30 percent for Adivasis.[42]

A 2012 survey by Mangalore University in Karnataka stated that 93% of Dalit families still live below the poverty line.[43]



According to a 2014 report by The IndiaGoverns Research Institute, Dalits constitute nearly half of primary school dropouts in Karnataka.[44] In Nepal, Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe students have the highest dropout rates at the primary school level.[45]

Among state schools, 88% discriminated against Dalit children, while 79% required Dalit students to sit in the back of the classroom.[citation needed] A sample survey in 2014, conducted by Dalit Adhikar Abhiyan and funded by ActionAid, found that in 79% of schools in Madhya Pradesh, Dalit children are forbidden from touching mid-day meals. They are required to sit separately at lunch in 35% of schools, and are required to eat with specially marked plates in 28%.[46]

There have been incidents of Dalit teachers and professors being discriminated against and harassed by authorities, upper castes colleagues as well as upper caste students in different education institutes of India.[47][48][49][50][51][52][53]

Namantar Andolan was part of a 16-year Dalit campaign to rename Marathwada University as Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University. In 1977, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Vasantdada Patil, promised a new name to the Dalit Panthers; the Maharashtra Legislature passed a resolution to this effect in July 1978. Thereafter, non-Dalits attacked Dalits and upper-caste Hindus for a fortnight. A new Chief Minister, Sharad Pawar, postponed implementation that led to a Long March by Dalit leaders and sympathisers in December 1979. Thousands of participants and leaders were arrested.[54][55] The renaming, involving some compromise, finally took place on 14 January 1994.

Healthcare and nutrition[edit]

Discrimination also exists in access to healthcare and nutrition. Medical field workers do not visit 65% of Dalit settlements. 47% of Dalits are not allowed entry into ration depots; 64% are given less grains than non-Dalits; and 52% are given grains from a distance.[46] In Haryana state, 49% dalit children under five years are underweight and malnourished while 80% of dalit children in the 6–59 months age group are anaemic in 2015.[56]


Dalits comprise a slightly disproportionate number of India's prison inmates.[57] While Dalits (including both SCs and STs) constitute 25% of the Indian population, they account for 33.2% of prisoners.[58] In the state of Gujarat, where Dalits constitute roughly 6.7% of the population, 32.9% of all convicts.[59] About 24.5% of death row inmates in India are from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes which is proportionate to their population. The percentage is highest in Maharashtra (50%), Karnataka (36.4%) and Madya Pradesh (36%).[60]

Caste-related violence between Dalit and non-Dalits allegedly stems from Dalit's economic success amidst ongoing prejudice.[61][62] A crime against Dalits happens every 18 minutes – 3 women raped every day, 13 murdered every week, 27 atrocities every day, 6 kidnapped every week.[63] The Bhagana rape case is an example of atrocities against Dalit girls and women.[64] In August 2015, due to discrimination from upper castes of the village about 100 dalit families of the district's Bhagana village converted to Islam in a ceremony at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi.[65][66][67] Bangalore records the most offences against Dalits.[68] Inter-caste marriage has been proposed as a remedy,[69][70] but only 5% of Indian marriages cross caste boundaries.[71][72]

A 2006 article reported incidents of violence, disputes and discrimination against Dalits in Maharashtra. The article noted that non-Dalit families claimed they do not treat Dalits differently. A carpenter caste person said, "We tell them anything and they tell us you are pointing fingers at us because of our caste; we all live together, and there are bound to be fights, but they think we target them."[73]

There have been reports of Dalits being forced to eat human feces and drink urine by Christian Thevars (declared a 'Backward class').[74][75][76][77] In one such instance, a 17-year-old girl was set on fire by Yadav (declared an OBC) youth, allegedly because she was allowed school-education.[78] In September 2015, a 45-year-old dalit woman was stripped naked and was forced to drink urine by perpetrators belonging from the Yadav community (a declared OBC) in Madhya Pradesh.[79][80]

Prevention of Atrocities Act[edit]

The 1989 Prevention of Atrocities Act (POA) is an acknowledgement by the Indian government that caste relations are defined by violence.[81] The Act denoted specific crimes against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes as "atrocities" and created corresponding punishments. Its purpose was to curb and punish violence against Dalits. The list of atrocities included humiliations such as the forced consumption of noxious substances. Other atrocities included forced labour, denial of access to water and other public amenities, and sexual abuse. The Act permitted Special Courts to try POA cases. The Act called on states with high levels of caste violence (said to be "atrocity-prone") to appoint qualified officers to monitor and maintain law and order.

In practice the Act suffered from a near-complete implementation failure. Only two states created separate such courts. Policemen showed themselves consistently unwilling to register offences under the act. This reluctance stems partially from ignorance and also from peer protection. According to a 1999 study, nearly a quarter of those government officials charged with enforcing the Act were unaware of its existence.[81][82]


Fa Xian, a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim who recorded his visit to India in the early 5th century, mentioned segregation and its context, as follows:[83]

Throughout the country the people kill no living thing nor drink wine, nor do they eat garlic or onions, with the exception of Chandalas only. The Chandalas are named 'evil men', and dwell apart from others; if they enter a town or market, they sound a piece of wood in order to separate themselves; then men, knowing who they are, avoid coming in contact with them. In this country they not keep swine nor fowls, and do not sell live cattle; they have no butcher's shops and no dealers in intoxicating drink. In selling they use cowrie shells. The Chandalas only hunt and sell flesh. Down from the time of Buddha's nirvana, the kings of these countries (...)

— Fa Xian, 399-414 CE[83][84]

While discrimination has declined in urban areas and in the public sphere,[85] discrimination against Dalits still exists in rural areas and in the private sphere, in everyday matters such as access to eating places, schools, temples and water sources.[86] Some Dalits successfully integrated into urban Indian society, where caste origins are less obvious. In rural India, however, caste origins are more readily apparent and Dalits often remain excluded from local religious life, though some qualitative evidence suggests that exclusion is diminishing.[87][88]

Anecdotal evidence suggests that discrimination against Hindu Dalits is on a slow but steady decline.[87][89][90] For instance, an informal study stated, "In rural Azamgarh District in the state of Uttar Pradesh, for instance, nearly all Dalit households said their bridegrooms now rode in cars to their weddings, compared with 27 percent in 1990. In the past, Dalits would not have been allowed to ride even horses to meet their brides; that was considered an upper-caste privilege."[40]

According to a 2014 survey by the New Delhi based National Council of Applied Economic Research and the University of Maryland, 27% of the Indian population still practices Untouchability.[91] Across India, Untouchability was practised among 42% of Brahmins, 33% of communities traditionally called Other Backward Classes and 24% of non-Brahmin forward castes.[92][93] Untouchability was also practiced by people of minority religions – 23% of Sikhs, 18% of Muslims and 5% of Christians.[94] According to statewide data, Untouchability is most commonly practiced in Madhya Pradesh (53%), followed by Himachal Pradesh (50%), Chhattisgarh (48%), Rajasthan and Bihar (47%), Uttar Pradesh (43%), and Uttarakhand (40%).[95][96] In a school near Coimbatore, Tamilnadu, a headmistress was replaced after evidence of discrimation against Dalit students came to light[97]

In the Madhya Pradesh village of Ghatwani, the scheduled tribe population of Bhilala do not allow Dalit villagers to use public borewell of village for fetching water and are forced to drink dirty water.[98][99][100]

Dalits and Muslims face discrimination by upper caste landlords when seeking places to rent in the metropolitan areas around New Delhi and Bangalore[101][102][103][104]

Discrimination in following traditions, rituals and customs[edit]

In several incidents if dalits found burning holika for Holika Dahan ceremony, they are tonsured and paraded naked in the villages.[105][106] Also in some parts of India, Dalit grooms riding horses for wedding ceremonies are often beaten up and ostracised by upper caste people.[107][108][109][110][111] In August 2015, upper caste people burned houses of Dalits alongside vehicles belonging to Dalit families and slaughtered their livestock because dalits dared to carry temple car procession at the village in Tamil Nadu.[112][113][114] In August 2015, Jat Khap Panchayat[115] ordered the rape of two Dalit sisters because their brother eloped with a married Jat girl of the same village.[116][117]


Most Dalits in India practice Hinduism. According to the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Orders (Amendment) Act, 1990, Scheduled Castes can only belong to Hindu or Sikh or Buddhist religions.[118][119] There is no religion bar in case of Scheduled Tribes.[120][121] However, according to the 61st round Survey of the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, 90% of Buddhists, one-third of Sikhs, and one-third of Christians in India belonged to Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes.[122][123]



Ambedkar, himself a Dalit, thought untouchability came into Indian society around 400 AD, due to the struggle for supremacy between Buddhism and Brahmanism (an ancient term for Brahmanical Hinduism).[124] Some Hindu priests befriended Dalits and were demoted to low-caste ranks. One example was Dnyaneshwar, who was transferred into Dalit status in the 13th century, but continued to compose the Dnyaneshwari, a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. Eknath, another excommunicated Brahmin, fought for the rights of untouchables during the Bhakti period. Historical examples of Dalit priests include Chokhamela in the 14th century, who was India's first recorded Dalit poet. Raidas (Ravidass), born into a family of cobblers, is considered a guru by Dalits and is held in high regard. His teachings and writings form part of the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. The 15th-century saint Ramananda Ray accepted all castes, including Untouchables, into his fold. Most of these saints subscribed to the medieval era Bhakti movement in Hinduism that rejected casteism. The story of Nandanar describes a low-caste Hindu devotee who was rejected by the priests but accepted by God.[125]

Due to isolation from the rest of Hindu society, many Dalits continue to debate whether they are "Hindu" or "non-Hindu". Traditionally, Hindu Dalits were barred from many activities that central to Vedic religion and Hindu practices of orthodox sects. Among Hindus, each community followed its own variant of Hinduism. The wide variety of practices and beliefs observed in Hinduism makes any clear assessment difficult.[125]

Reform movements[edit]

A school of untouchables near Bangalore, by Lady Ottoline Morrell.
Birbal Jha speaking for SCST Welfare Dept Bihar

The first people known to have rejected the caste system were Gautama Buddha and Mahavira. Their teachings formed independent religions called Buddhism and Jainism. The earliest known reformation within Hinduism happened during the medieval period when the Bhakti movements and Ramanuja actively encouraged the participation and inclusion of Dalits. Ramanuja took Dalit disciples publicly into his fold and into temple. He put forth the Dalit Nammalvar as the sect's philosophical head and propagated Nammalvar's works as Dravida Veda.[citation needed]

In the 19th century, the Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj and the Ramakrishna Mission actively participated in Dalit emancipation. While Dalits had places to worship, the first "upper-caste" temple to openly welcome Dalits was the Laxminarayan Temple in Wardha in 1928. It was followed by the Temple Entry Proclamation issued by the last King of Travancore in the Indian state of Kerala in 1936.[citation needed]

The Punjabi reformist Satnami movement was founded by Dalit Guru Ghasidas. Guru Ravidas was also a Dalit. Giani Ditt Singh, a Dalit Sikh reformer, started Singh Sabha movement to convert Dalits. Other reformers, such as Jyotirao Phule, Ayyankali of Kerala and Iyothee Thass of Tamil Nadu worked for Dalit emancipation.

In the 1930s Gandhi and Ambedkar disagreed over whether Dalits should become a separate electorate. Although he failed to get Ambedkar's support for a joint electorate, Gandhi nevertheless began the "Harijan Yatra" to help the Dalits. Palwankar Baloo, a Dalit politician and a cricketer, joined the Hindu Mahasabha in the independence fight.[126]

The declaration by princely states of Kerala between 1936 and 1947 that temples were open to all Hindus went a long way towards ending Untouchability there. According to Kerala tradition, Dalits were forced to maintain a distance of 96 feet from Nambudiris, 64 feet from Nairs and 48 feet from other upper castes (like Maarans and Arya Vysyas).[127] However, educational opportunities to Dalits in Kerala remain limited.[128]

Other Hindu groups attempted to reconcile with the Dalit community. In August 2006, Dalit activist Namdeo Dhasal engaged in dialogue with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in an attempt to "bury the hatchet". Hindu temples are increasingly receptive to Dalit priests, a function formerly reserved for Brahmins.[129][130][131] Suryavanshi Das, for example, is the Dalit priest of a notable temple in Bihar.[132]

The fight for temple entry rights for Dalits continues to cause controversy.[133][134] Brahmins such as Subramania Bharati passed Brahminhood onto a Dalit[citation needed], while in Shivaji's Maratha Empire Dalit warriors (the Mahar Regiment) joined his forces.[135][136] In an 2015 incident in Meerut, when a Dalit belonging to Valmiki caste was denied entry to a Hindu temple he converted to Islam.[137][138]

Dalits in Nepal became accepted into the priesthood (traditionally reserved for Brahmins) and the Dalit priestly order is called "Pandaram"[139] but as of 2014 many Dalits are still not allowed to enter Hindu Temples in Nepal[140][141] and usually beaten up by Brahmins if they enter Hindu temples.[142]

In September 2015, four dalit women were fined by the upper-caste Hindus for entering a temple in Karnataka.[143]


In Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and a few other regions, Dalits came under the influence of the neo-Buddhist movement initiated by Ambedkar. In the 1950s, he turned his attention to Buddhism and travelled to Ceylon to attend a convention of Buddhist scholars and monks. While dedicating a new Buddhist vihara near Pune, he announced that he was writing a book on Buddhism, and that he planned a formal conversion. Ambedkar twice visited Burma in 1954; the second time to attend a conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists in Rangoon. In 1955, he founded the Bharatiya Bauddha Mahasabha (Buddhist Society of India). He completed writing The Buddha and His Dhamma in 1956.[citation needed]

After meetings with the Buddhist monk Hammalawa Saddhatissa, Ambedkar organised a public ceremony for himself and his supporters in Nagpur on 14 October 1956. Accepting the Three Refuges and Five Precepts in the traditional manner, he completed his conversion. He then proceeded to convert an estimated 500,000 of his supporters. Taking the 22 Vows, they explicitly condemned and rejected Hinduism and Hindu philosophy.[citation needed]


Guru Nanak in Guru Granth Sahib calls for everyone to treat each other equally.[note 1] Subsequent Sikh Gurus, all of whom came from the Khatri caste, also denounced the hierarchy of the caste system.[147] despite which social stratification exists in the Sikh community. The bulk of the Sikhs of Punjab belong to the Jat caste, which is a landowning rural caste;[148] there are also two Dalit Sikh castes in the state, called the Mazhabis and the Ramdasias.[149][150]

Sunrinder S. Jodhka says that, in practice, Sikhs belonging to the landowning dominant castes have not shed all their prejudices against the dalit castes. While dalits would be allowed entry into the village gurudwaras they would not be permitted to cook or serve langar (the communal meal). Therefore, wherever they could mobilise resources, the Sikh dalits of Punjab have tried to construct their own gurudwara and other local-level institutions in order to attain a certain degree of cultural autonomy.[151] In 1953, Sikh leader, Master Tara Singh, succeeded in winning the demands from the Government to include Sikh castes of the converted untouchables in the list of scheduled castes.[152][153] In the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, 20 of the 140 seats are reserved for low-caste Sikhs.[152][153] Sikhs adopt standard surnames such as Singh to disguise caste identities. Nevertheless, families generally do not marry across caste boundaries.[citation needed]

Talhan Gurdwara conflict[edit]

In 2003 the Talhan village Gurudwara endured a bitter dispute between Jat Sikhs and Chamars. The Chamars came out in force and confronted the Randhawa and Bains Jat Sikh landlords, who refused to give the Chamars a share on the governing committee of a shrine dedicated to Shaheed Baba Nihal Singh. The shrine earned 3–7 crore Indian Rupees, and the Jat Sikh landlords allegedly "gobbled up a substantial portion of the offerings". Though Dalits form more than 60 percent of Talhan’s 5,000-strong population, local traditions ensured that they were denied a place on the committee. The landlords, in league with radical Sikh organisations and the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, attempted to keep out the Dalits by razing the shrine overnight and constructing a gurdwara on it, but the Dalit quest for a say in the governing committee did not end.[154]

Chamars fought a four-year court battle with the landlords and their allies, including the Punjab Police. In that time Dalits conducted several boycotts against the Chamars. The Jat Sikhs and their allies cut off the power supply to their homes. In addition, various scuffles and fights set Chamar youths armed with lathis, rocks, bricks, soda bottles and anything they could find fought Jat Sikh landlords, youths and the Punjab police. Dalit youngsters painted their homes and motorcycles with the slogan, Putt Chamar De (proud sons of Chamars) in retaliation to the Jat slogan, Putt Jattan De.[154]

Attack on Ramanand[edit]

Ramanand Dass was a leader of the Dera Sach Khand, a follower of Guru Ravidass and preacher of Ravidassia religion. His name came to international attention when he was murdered at age 57[155] in a 24 May 2009 attack in the Guru Ravidass Temple in Rudolfsheim, Vienna. The attack triggered rioting across much of Northern India.

The identities of the six alleged Sikh attackers were established. All were males from Punjab and other regions in northern India. Two had entered the country illegally, and four had applied for asylum.[citation needed]

Attack on Bant Singh[edit]

Bant Singh[156][157] is a lower caste Mazhabi, Dalit Sikh farmer and singer from Jhabhar village in Mansa district, Punjab, India, who has emerged as an agricultural labour activist, fighting landowners. Described by Amit Sengupta as "an icon of Dalit resistance he has been active in organizing poor, agricultural workers, activism that continues despite a 2006 attack that cost him both of his lower arms and his left leg."

After his minor daughter was raped in 2000, Bant took the rapists to court, braving threats of violence and attempted bribes. Rapes of Dalits by non-Dalits are not commonly reported. The 2004 trial culminated in life sentences for three of the culprits, "the first time that a Dalit from the region who had complained against upper-caste violence had managed to secure a conviction."

On the evening of 7 January 2006 Bant Singh was returning home from campaigning for a national agricultural labour rally. He was assaulted by seven men, allegedly sent by Jaswant and Niranjan Singh, the headman of his village, who have links with the Indian National Congress party. One of them brandished a revolver to prevent any resistance while the other six beat him with iron rods and axes. He was left for dead, but barely survived.

He was first taken to civil hospital in Mansa but was not properly treated there. Then he moved to the PGI at Chandigarh, where both lower arms and one leg had to be amputated since gangrene had set in and his kidneys had collapsed due to blood loss. The original doctor was eventually suspended for misconduct.[158]


Historically Jainism was practiced by many communities across India.[159] They are often conservative and are generally considered upper-caste.[160]

In 1958,[161] a Sthanakvasi Jain Muni Sameer Muni[162][163] came into contact with members of the Khatik community in Udaipur region, who decided to adopt Jainism. Their center Ahimsa Nagar, located about 4 miles from Chittorgarh, was inaugurated by Mohanlal Sukhadia in 1966. Sameer Muni termed them Veerwaal,[164] i.e. belonging to Lord Mahavira. A 22-year-old youth, Chandaram Meghwal, was initiated as a Jain monk at Ahore town in Jalore district in 2005.[165] In 2010 a Mahar engineer Vishal Damodar was initiated as a Jain monk by Acharya Navaratna Sagar Suriji at Samet Shikhar.[166] Acharya Nanesh, the eighth Achayra of Sadhumargi Jain Shravak Sangha had preached among the Balai community in 1963 near Ratlam.[167] His followers are termed Dharmapal.[168] In 1984, some of the Bhangis of Jodhpur came under the influence of Acharya Shri Tulsi and adopted Jainism.[169][170]


Many Christian communities in South India follow the caste system. The social stratification in some communities such as the Goan Catholics remained but varied from the Hindu system.

A 1992 study[171] of Catholics in Tamil Nadu found some Dalit Christians faced segregated churches, cemeteries, services and even processions. A Christian Dalit activist with the pen name Bama Faustina has provided a firsthand account of discrimination by upper-caste nuns and priests in South India.

Political involvement[edit]

Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is an Indian Dalit party.

Dalit political parties include:

Anti-Dalit prejudices exist in groups such as the extremist militia Ranvir Sena, largely run by upper-caste landlords in Bihar. They oppose equal treatment of Dalits and have resorted to violence. The Ranvir Sena is considered a terrorist organisation by the government of India.[175] In 2015, Cobrapost exposed many leaders especially like C. P. Thakur alongside former PM Chandra Shekhar associated with Ranvir Sena in Bihar Dalit massacres[176] while governments of Nitish Kumar (under pressure from BJP), Lalu Prasad Yadav and Rabri Devi did nothing to get justice for Dalits.[177]

The rise of Hindutva's (Hindu nationalism) role in Indian politics has accompanied allegations that religious conversions of Dalits are due to allurements like education and jobs rather than faith. Critics[who?] argue that laws banning conversion and limiting social relief for converts mean that conversion impedes economic success. However, Bangaru Laxman, a Dalit politician, was a prominent member of the Hindutva movement.[citation needed]

Another political issue is Dalit affirmative-action quotas in government jobs and university admissions. About 8% of the seats in the National and State Parliaments are reserved for Scheduled Caste and Tribe candidates.[citation needed]

Dalit Babu Jagjivan Ram was Deputy Prime Minister of India from 24 March 1977 to 28 July 1979 representing his party CFD (later Congress(J)).[178] In 1997, K. R. Narayanan was elected as the first Dalit President of India. K. G. Balakrishnan (Dalit origin) was appointed Chief Justice of India on 14 January 2007.[citation needed]

In modern times several Bharatiya Janata Party leaders were Dalits, including Dinanath Bhaskar, Ramchandra Veerappa and Dr. Suraj Bhan.[citation needed]

In India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, Dalits have had a major political impact.[179] The Dalit-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) had previously run the government and that party's leader, Mayawati, served several times as chief minister.[180][181] Regarding her election in 2007, some reports claimed her 2007 election victory was due to her ability to win support from both 17% of Muslims and nearly 17% Brahmins[182] alongside 80% of Dalits.[183] However, surveys of voters on the eve of elections, indicated that caste loyalties were not the voters' principal concern. Instead, inflation and other issues of social and economic development dictated the outcome.[184][185][186][187] Mayawati's success in reaching across castes has led to speculation about her as a potential future Prime Minister of India.[188]

Damodaram Sanjivayya was chief minister of Andhra Pradesh (from 11 January 1960 – 12 March 1962), Mayawati was four times chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, while Jitan Ram Manjhi was chief minister of Bihar for just less than a year.

Indian law and the Indian constitution do not discriminate against Dalits.[189][190]

Dalits as well as tribal people have benefited from broad and mandatory job reservations, school admission quotas and affirmative action programmes since 1947. Dalits also have reserved seats in India's parliament and state assemblies and are enjoying greater political power.[189]

Vote bank[edit]

Dalits are often used as a Votebank by political parties[191][192] especially Indian National Congress[193] and Bhartiya Janata Party,[194][195] without otherwise including them in decision making of party affairs.[196][197][198] A survey about 2014 elections found that BJP got 24% national Dalit vote share (doubled from 12 percent in 2009), Congress got 19 percent and Bahujan Samaj Party got 14%. But BJP was left behind by Aam Aadmi Party that gained votes among Dalits in Punjab (21 percent Dalit votes) and in Delhi (more than 40%).[199]

Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Sub-Plan[edit]

The SC, ST Sub-Plan (Indiramma Kalalu) is a budget allocation by the Government of Andhra Pradesh for the welfare of Dalits. The law was enacted in May 2013. Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes have separate panels for spending. The plan was meant to prevent the government from diverting funds meant for SCs and STs to other programs, which was historically the case. No national SC, ST Sub-Plan[200] exists.[201] Scheduled Castes Sub Plan and Tribal Sub-Plan funds are often diverted by state governments to other purposes.[202]

While the Indian Constitution has provisions for the social and economic uplift of Dalits to support their upward social mobility, these concessions are limited to Hindus. Dalits who have converted to other religions have asked that benefits be extended to them.[203]

Beyond South Asia[edit]

William Darity and Jessica Nembhard compared the economic disparities faced by Dalits, to those among groups in nations such as Australia, Belize, Brazil, Canada, Malaysia and South Africa. They claimed that India has a lower level of intergroup inequality than many other nations. However, given India's general poverty, the quality of life for Dalits and non-Dalits is lower than similarly situated groups in other countries.[204]

United Kingdom[edit]

After World War II, immigration from the former British Empire,[205] predominantly Pakistan, India and Bangladesh was substantial, largely driven by labour shortages. Like the rest of the Subcontinent diaspora, Dalits immigrated and established their own communities.

A 2009 report alleged that caste discrimination is "rife" in the United Kingdom.[206][207] The report alleged that casteism persists in the workplace and within the National Health Service[208] and at doctor's offices.[206][209]

Indians are divided on the subject[210] and such claims are disputed by the UK Hindu Council[208] who assert that the issue was being "manipulated" by Christians and other anti-Indian activists eager to convert Hindus.[211]

Hindu groups asserted that caste issues will be resolved as generations pass[212] and that a trend towards inter-caste marriages should help.[212] Some claim that caste discrimination is non-existent.[213] Some have rejected the government's right to interfere in the community. The Hindu Forum of Britain conducted their own research, concluding that caste discrimination was "not endemic in British society", that reports to the contrary aimed to increase discrimination by legislating expression and behaviour and that barriers should instead be removed through education.[207]

A 2010 study found that caste discrimination occurs in Britain at work and in service provision. While not ruling out the possibility of discrimination in education, no such incidents were uncovered. The report found favourable results from educational activities. However, non-legislative approaches were claimed to be less effective in the workplace and would not help when the authorities were discriminating. One criticism of discrimination law was the difficulty in obtaining proof of violations. Perceived benefits of legislation were that it provides redress, leads to greater understanding and reduces the social acceptance of such discrimination.[212]

More recent studies in Britain were inconclusive and found that discrimination was "not religion specific and is subscribed to by members of any or no religion".[214] Equalities Minister Helen Grant found insufficient evidence to justify specific legislation, while Shadow Equalities minister Kate Green said that the impact is on a relatively small number of people.[214] Religious studies professor Gavin Flood of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies concluded that the Hindu community in Britain is particularly well integrated, loosening caste ties.[215] Casteist beliefs were prevalent mainly among first generation immigrants, with such prejudices declining with each successive generation due to greater assimilation.[214]

Supporters of anti-caste legislation include Lord Avebury and Lady Thornton.[216]

Sikh diaspora in Britain[edit]

A Sikh gurdwara in Smethwick. The majority of gurdwaras in Britain are Caste based[217] and one can indirectly inquire about a person's caste based upon which gurdwara he attends.

Sikhs in the United Kingdom are affected by caste. Gurdwaras such as those of the Ramgarhia Sikhs are organised along caste lines and most gurdwaras are controlled by a single caste.[217] In most British towns and cities with a significant Sikh population, rival gurdwaras can be found with caste-specific management committees.[218]

Caste remains an important factor in Sikh religious organisations: the caste system and caste identity is entrenched and reinforced among British Sikhs.[217][219]

A Valmiki Temple in the UK. Caste segregation has meant that Mazhabi Sikhs and Hindu Churas have united to establish their own Temples throughout Britain. Some Valmiki temples keep a copy of the Guru Granth Sahib[220] and Mazhabi Sikhs and Valmikis prayer together.

Dalit Sikhs have formed a network of lower caste temples throughout the UK. Caste tensions erupt between higher caste Jat Sikhs and lower caste Sikhs. Violence has erupted between the two communities over inter-caste marriages. In the city of Wolverhampton incidents of Jat Sikhs refused to share water taps and avoided physical contact with lower castes. At a sports competition in Birmingham in 1999, Jat Sikhs refused to eat food that had been cooked and prepared by the Chamar community.[221]

Many Jat Sikhs refer to lower-caste temples as the 'Ramghariya Gurdwara'or 'Ghumaran Da Gurdwara'or "Chamar Gurdwara" etc. The majority of higher caste Sikhs would not eat in a Ravidassi house or in Ravidassi temples. Many Chamars stated that they are made to feel unwelcome in Sikh gurdwaras and Hindu temples. Many Sikhs do not wish to give Chamars equal status in their gurdwaras and communities.[222] Sikh Chamars (Ramdassi Sikhs) united with fellow Chamars across religious boundaries to form Ravidassi temples.

Mazhabi Sikhs were subjected to the same forms of inequality and discrimination in gurdwaras from Upper caste Sikhs and unified with Hindu Churas to form Valmiki temples.[citation needed]

Sikh gurdwaras, which often are controlled by the older first generation immigrants, in Britain generally frown upon inter-caste marriages even though they are on the rise. More and more families are involved in inter-caste marriages, and also more generally in mixed marriages.

The few gurdwaras that accept inter-caste marriages do so reluctantly. Gurdwaras may insist on the presence of Singh and Kaur in the names of the bridegroom and bride, or deny them access to gurdwara-based religious services and community centres.[223]

Dalits in the Caribbean[edit]

It is estimated that in 1883, about one-third of the immigrants who arrived in the Caribbean were Dalits.The shared experience of being exploited in a foreign land gradually broke down caste barriers in the Caribbean Hindu communities.[23]


Dalit literature forms a distinct part of Indian literature.[224][225] One of the first Dalit writers was Madara Chennaiah, an 11th-century cobbler-saint who lived in the reign of Western Chalukyas and who is regarded by some scholars as the "father of Vachana poetry". Another early Dalit poet is Dohara Kakkaiah, a Dalit by birth, six of whose confessional poems survive. The Bharatiya Dalit Sahitya Akademi[226] (Indian Dalit Literature Academy)[227] was founded in 1984 by Babu Jagjivan Ram.

Notable modern authors include Mahatma Phule and Ambedkar in Maharashtra, who focused on the issues of Dalits through their works and writings. This started a new trend in Dalit writing and inspired many Dalits to offer work in Marathi, Hindi, Tamil and Punjabi.[228] There are novels, poems and even drama on Dalit issues. The Indian author Rajesh Talwar has written a play titled 'Gandhi, Ambedkar, and the Four Legged Scorpion' in which the personal experiences of Dr Ambedkar and the sufferings of the community have been highlighted.[229]

Baburao Bagul, Bandhu Madhav[230] and Shankar Rao Kharat, worked in the 1960s. Later the Little magazine movement became popular.[231] In Sri Lanka, writers such as K.Daniel[232] and Dominic Jeeva gained mainstream popularity.

Dalits in the film industry[edit]

Until the 2000s Dalits had little involvement in Bollywood ot other film industries of India.[233][234] Chirag Paswan (son of Dalit leader Ram Vilas Paswan) launched his career in Bollywood with his debut film Miley Naa Miley Hum in 2011. Despite political connections and the financial ability to struggle against ingrained prejudices, Chirag was not able to "bag" any other movie project in the following years. Chirag, in his early days, described Bollywood as his "childhood dream", but eventually entered politics instead. When the media tried to talk to him about "Caste in Bollywood", he refused to talk about the matter, and his silence speaks for itself.[235] In modern-day Bollywood, only 4 mainstream films had a Dalit character being portrayed as a hero Chachi 420 (1997), Eklavya: The Royal Guard (2007),[236] Aarakshan (2011)[237] and Manjhi - The Mountain Man (2015).[238] The continued use of caste based references to Dalit sub-castes in South Indian films [typecast, & pigeonholed in their main socio-economic sub-group] angers many Dalit fans.[239]

Internal conflicts[edit]

Several Dalit groups are rivals and sometimes communal tensions are evident. A study found more than 900 Dalit sub-castes throughout India, with internal divisions.[240] Emphasising any one caste threatens what is claimed to be an emerging Dalit identity and fostering rivalry among SCs.[241]

A DLM[clarification needed] party leader said in the early 2000s that it is easier to organise Dalits on a caste basis than to fight caste prejudice itself.[241]

Balmikis and Pasis in the 1990s refused to support the BSP, claiming it was a Jatav party[242] but over 80% of dalits from all united dalit castes voted BSP to power in 2007.[183]

Many converted Dalit Sikhs claim a superior status over the Hindu Raigars, Joatia Chamars and Ravidasis and sometimes refuse to intermarry with them.[243] They are divided into gotras that regulate their marriage alliances. In Andhra Pradesh, Mala and Madiga were constantly in conflict with each other[244] but as of 2015 Mala and Madiga students work for common dalit cause at University level.[245]

Although the Khateek (butchers) are generally viewed as a higher caste than Bhangis, the latter refuse to offer cleaning services to Khateeks, believing that their profession renders them unclean. They also consider the Balai, Dhobi, Dholi and Mogya as unclean and do not associate with them.[246]

Notable Dalits[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Guru Nanak has mentioned in his first composition of Jup Ji Sahib which is recited daily by all practising Sikhs that all souls are to be treated with care and respect as God is the Giver of all souls. "The Guru has given me this one understanding: there is only the One, the Giver of all souls. May I never forget Him!", Guru Granth Sahib, 2[144] Guru Nanak said that blessings are rained down when the lowly person, regardless of any background are cared for. "In that place where the lowly are cared for-there, the Blessings of Your Glance of Grace rain down.", Guru Granth Sahib, 15[145] Guru Nanak had spoken we need to prize humility above all and thus caste is not an issue. "One who takes pride in wealth and lands is a fool, blind and ignorant. One whose heart is mercifully blessed with abiding humility, O Nanak, is liberated here, and obtains peace hereafter." Granth Sahib, 278[146]


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External links[edit]