Who Are the Dalits?

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

Even now, in the 21st century, there is an entire population of people in India and in Hindu regions of Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh who are often considered to be contaminated from birth. Called "Dalits," they face discrimination and even violence from members of higher castes, particularly in terms of access to jobs, to education, and to marriage partners. But who are the Dalits? 

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

India's Untouchables

Just like the "eta" outcasts in Japan, India's untouchables performed spiritually contaminating work that nobody else wanted to do — tasks like preparing bodies for funerals, tanning hides, and killing rats or other pests. 

Anything to do with dead cattle or cow hides was particularly unclean in Hinduism and under both Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, jobs that involved death corrupted the workers' souls, making them unfit to mingle with other kinds of people. As a result, an entire group of drummers that 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 into it by parents who were both Dalits — were not allowed to be touched by those of higher ruling classes nor to grow up to ascend the ranks of society. Because of their uncleanliness in the eyes of Hindu and Buddhist gods, these poor souls were banned from many places and activities — a fate ordained by their past lives.

What They Couldn't Do and Why They Were Untouchable

An untouchable could not enter a Hindu temple or be taught how 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 of the village boundaries, and could not even walk through the neighborhoods where higher caste members lived. If a Brahmin or Kshatriya person approached, an untouchable was expected to throw him or herself face-down on the ground, to prevent even their unclean shadow from touching the high caste person.

Indian people believed that humans were born as untouchables as a form of punishment for misbehavior in a previous life. If a person was born into the untouchable caste, she or he 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 good behavior by a promotion to a caste in their next life.

The caste system and the oppression of untouchables prevailed — and still holds some sway — in India, NepalSri Lanka, and what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh. Interestingly, even some non-Hindu social groups observed caste separation norms in those countries.

Reform and the Dalit Rights Movement

In the 19th century, the ruling British Raj tried to break down 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 themselves usually did not believe in reincarnation.

Indian reformers also took up the cause. Jyotirao Phule even coined the term "Dalit" as a more descriptive and sympathetic term for the untouchables — it literally means "the crushed people." During India's push for independence, activists such as Mohandas Gandhi also took up the cause of the dalits. Gandhi called them the "Harijan," meaning "children of God," to emphasize their humanity.

The constitution of newly-independent India identified groups of former untouchables as "Scheduled castes," singling them out for special consideration and government assistance. As with the Meiji Japanese designation of former hinin and eta outcasts as "new commoners," this actually served to emphasize the distinction rather than to assimilate the traditionally downtrodden groups into larger society.

Today, the dalits have become a powerful political force in India, and enjoy greater access to education than ever before. Some Hindu temples even allow dalits to act as priests; traditionally, they were not allowed to set foot on temple grounds and only Brahmins could serve as priests. Although they still face discrimination from some quarters, the dalits are untouchable no longer.​