Who Are the Dalits?

Also called 'Untouchables,' they traditionally were oppressed by Hindus

Dalit girls at a wedding in Gujarat.
Poras Chaudhary / Image Bank

Even in the 21st century, an entire population in India and Hindu regions of Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh is often considered contaminated from birth. Called "Dalits," they face discrimination and even violence from members of higher castes, or traditional social classes, particularly in access to jobs, education, and marriage partners.

Dalits, also known as "Untouchables," are members of the lowest social group in the Hindu caste system. The word "Dalit," meaning "oppressed" or "broken," is the name members of this group gave themselves in the 1930s. A Dalit actually is born below the caste system, which includes four primary castes: Brahmins (priests), Kshatriya (warriors and princes), Vaishya (farmers and artisans), and Shudra (tenant farmers and servants).

India's Untouchables

Like the "Eta" outcasts in Japan, India's Untouchables performed spiritually contaminating work that nobody else wanted to do, such as preparing bodies for funerals, tanning hides, and killing rats or other pests. Doing anything with dead cattle or cow hides was particularly unclean in Hinduism. Under both Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, jobs that involved death corrupted the workers' souls, making them unfit to mingle with other people. A group of drummers who arose in southern India called the Parayan were considered untouchable because their drumheads were made of cowhide.

Even people who had no choice in the matter—those born of parents who were both Dalits—were not allowed to be touched by those of higher classes nor ascend the ranks of society. Because of their uncleanliness in the eyes of Hindu and Buddhist gods, they were banned from many places and activities, as ordained by their past lives.

An Untouchable couldn't enter a Hindu temple or be taught to read. They were banned from drawing water from village wells because their touch would taint the water for everyone else. They had to live outside village boundaries and could not walk through the neighborhoods of higher caste members. If a Brahmin or Kshatriya approached, an Untouchable was expected to throw himself or herself face down on the ground, to prevent even their unclean shadows from touching the higher caste.

Why They Were 'Untouchable'

Indians believed that people were born as Untouchables as punishment for misbehavior in previous lives. An Untouchable could not ascend to a higher caste within that lifetime; Untouchables had to marry fellow Untouchables and could not eat in the same room or drink from the same well as a caste member. In Hindu reincarnation theories, however, those who scrupulously followed these restrictions could be rewarded for their behavior by a promotion to a higher caste in their next life.

The caste system and the oppression of Untouchables still holds some sway in Hindu populations. Even some non-Hindu social groups observe caste separation in Hindu countries.

Reform and the Dalit Rights Movement

In the 19th century, the ruling British Raj tried to end some aspects of the caste system in India, particularly those surrounding the Untouchables. British liberals saw the treatment of Untouchables as singularly cruel, perhaps in part because they usually didn't believe in reincarnation.

Indian reformers also took up the cause. Jyotirao Phule coined the term "Dalit" as a more descriptive and sympathetic term for the Untouchables. During India's push for independence, activists such as Mohandas Gandhi also took up the Dalits' cause. Gandhi called them the "Harijan," meaning "children of God," to emphasize their humanity.

Following independence in 1947, India's new constitution identified groups of former untouchables as "scheduled castes," singling them out for consideration and government assistance. As with the Meiji Japanese designation of former Hinin and Eta outcasts as "new commoners," this emphasized the distinction rather than formally assimilating the traditionally downtrodden groups into society.

Eighty years after the term was coined, the Dalits have become a powerful political force in India and enjoy greater access to education. Some Hindu temples allow Dalits to serve as priests. Although they still face discrimination from some quarters, the Dalits are untouchable no longer.​