The Plight of Indian Dalits: An overview of Culture and Prejudice

The word Dalit means ‘trampled upon/ oppressed’. The term was first coined by Mahatma Jatirao Phule (1827-1890), a social reformer in Maharashtra, to describe the oppressed condition of the ‘untouchables’ and ‘outcastes’ of Western.[1] Dalits reside all over the world and are recognised by the global community as well. According to the Indian Sociologists, the term Dalits have been used for untouchables of the society who have faced worst kind of social exclusion.[2]

This blog primarily focuses on the problems faced by Indian Dalits and the violation of their rights due to superstitions of the Indian Culture. The initial Dalit movements started in the 1930s, they were essentially revolting for social equality. The Dalits are placed in the lower rungs of the Indian society due to various reasons- socio-economic, religious, political, cultural etc. These revolts were attempts to escape oppression and caste discrimination. They also aimed at achieving political, social and religious equalities although, all these movements declined individually, they are of considerable significance to the community.

Rationale

The reason behind this study is to show the society that its norms and interests are responsible for the terrible conditions of the Dalits of our country. It also indicates that our mistakes should be rectified.

Objectives

The objective of the forthcoming discussion is to 1) understand the cultural motives due to which the Dalits are subjected to oppression and cruelty and 2) shed light on the cultural resistance faced by them during their revolution. 

Discussion

In India, there were four varnas – Brahmin, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. Shudras were the lowest-ranked, and they were labourers and service providers. The caste system was started by the Aryans who had migrated from Europe, they considered themselves to be superior because of their race and carried on cast practice for centuries.

Dalits were oppressed by the upper classes, who treated them like slaves. Dalits were supposed to be varna less and therefore; they were considered to be below Shudras. This cultural prejudice is present in the system for thousands of years and helped the upper castes to exploit the lower castes. Even Manu Smriti, which is widely regarded as the most authoritative and sacred book of Hindu Law, acknowledges and justifies caste system. The caste division can also be seen in Hindu sacred epic Mahabharata where it is seen that the people from the lower caste were subjected to hard labour work and cruelty.

Common untouchability practices[3]:

Segregation in housing, schools and cremation grounds

De facto prohibition of inter-caste marriage                                                                         

Limitation or prohibition of access to public places such as roads, temples and tea houses

Denial or limitation of access to public services such as water taps, health care and education

Restrictions on occupation; assignment of the most menial, dirty and dangerous jobs as defined by the caste hierarchy

De facto prohibition of access to ownership of land.

These practices are still prominent in our society and give us an idea of their condition which is daunting. Dalit is not a caste; it is a constructed identity which is a reality and cannot be denied. There is a difference between an economically weaker person and a Dalit, the former is just deprived of the economic benefits, but the latter is boycotted from the cultural and social sphere. Even if a Dalit achieves economic stability, he is not accepted by the upper classes, and he still is politically and socially boycotted. Indian Sociologists have never mentioned Dalits specifically in their works as they do not have varna, they were referred to as other lower castes, and their existence has altogether been ignored.[4] As the Indian Culture did not represent them, their own Culture and folk dances remain ostracised.

In the British era, some people regard Dalits as untouchables and refuse to sit or dine with them. It was believed that people of higher castes would become impure even if the shadow of an untouchable person touches him and to re-gain his purity, he had to take a dip into holy waters of the Ganga. Oppression of Dalits became a prominent issue when Dr B.R. Ambedkar, a Dalit himself, strongly advocated for abolishing the caste system.

Congress leader Gandhiji also supported the movement, he condemned the caste system and said everyone was the same in the eyes of God. He gave Dalits the name “Harijans” which meant “the children of God” and fought for their rights. After independence, they were provided reservations by the Indian Constitution[5] under the Scheduled Caste category. Untouchability was banned under Article 17[6]. Even after all these steps, the deep-rooted caste system could not be done away with.  Still, Dalits were ill-treated and were denied fundamental rights. The issue is that these rights are just provided on paper but are not enforced by the system[7]. The caste system was not only culturally but also politically motivated as the politicians gained the support of the upper class by promoting the caste system unofficially.

The question arises that why has the caste system existed for so long in the Indian Culture. This system was continued by the society as it was beneficial to the upper castes and during the era of modernity, it gave them control over the labourers.[8] They interrupted imparting of education to the lower castes, so their children remain labourers and wealth would still be concentrated in the hands of only one social group. For centuries they agreed to their condition as they were labelled by the society as untouchables. It is similar to the labelling theory of crime developed by sociologists in the early 1960s. It states that people behave and reflect in the way they are labelled by society. Due to labelling, these Dalits felt that it was their fault that they were born in their family, and it was by gods will that they were subject to degraded life. These were the reasons for the oppression of Dalits in the course of Indian history.

There was no international recognition of Dalits until the late 1990s when the United Nations finally took up the cast discrimination issue. In 2001 at the United Nations Conference Against Racism, Durban many Indian Dalits raised the issue of caste divide in India. Since then, there has been much progress, the Indian Government and the judiciary have given the violation of Dalit rights importance and have punished the offenders. The plights of Dalits have reduced, but it has not been entirely relegated. About 200 million Dalits are living in India fighting for their rights; recently on 20th May 2019, a Dalit man was killed in the state of Uttarakhand because he was dinning in-front of an upper caste. There have been many other Dalit killings which show that the caste system has still not been eradicated from the country and the measures taken by the Government are not enough to help this community. 

However, the Dalits have come to a realisation of their rights and are were revolting against the unjust treatment. In the modern era of today where Dalits are encouraged, their literature has thrived. Dalit panther and Dalit school of literature represent a new level of pride, militancy and sophisticated creativity[9]. There have been various books[10][11] published by Dalits which not only bestow Dalit Literature but also give impetus to the Dalit movement. Also, it sheds light on the problems they face and communicates remedies they deem fit for reducing their plight. This is very helpful as they experience the problems themselves and can understand the issues which need to be addressed first and communicate it through literature.

Caste discrimination is not an internal matter, which only the state is obliged to act upon. Our community has a responsibility to act because caste discrimination is a global human rights problem one of the biggest and most overlooked of our times which acts against the universal principles of non-discrimination, human dignity and equality. Hence, we should not discriminate.

Conclusion

“I speak not for myself but those without a voice.

Those who have fought for their rights…

their right to live in peace, their right to be treated with dignity.

their right to equality of opportunity, their right to be educated.”         

Malala Yousufi

Though this quote was written in the context of woman rights, it is an indication of the feelings of an oppressed community which deserves to be treated with equal respect and demands equal freedom and opportunity. Culture is something which India is known for, but its practices keep on changing with time. The society developed the concept of the caste system, but its norms have become obsolete. In the past, there was Monarchy, and therefore the power was in the hands of the monarch. The people did not choose him; the transfer of power was hereditary.

Now in the era of democracy and communism, everyone is believed to be equal, and they have equal powers in the process of electing the Government. Our Constitution does not distinguish between the people of different caste and does not intend to make any harmful discrimination. Caste discrimination can and should be eliminated, but it requires action on many levels from the grassroots level to state and national level, as well as to the international level. Legislation, its implementation, as well as the change in the people’s mindsets, should be looked at. It is us who hold the prejudice towards them and if we surmount it, then we can give them the respect they deserve. Therefore, let us stand with Dalits and help the community progress.


References

Books

Susie Tharu, The Exercise of Freedom: An Introduction to Dalit Writing 2011

Toral Jatin Gajarawala, Untouchable Fictions: Literary Realism and the Crisis of Caste 2012

Journal Articles

John, Jose Kalapura. “DALIT STRUGGLE FOR EQUALITY: A STUDY OF THREE MOVEMENTS IN THE 1930S.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 62 (2001): 668-84.

Kumar, Vivek. “Situating Dalits in Indian Sociology.” Sociological Bulletin, vol. 54, no. 3, 2005, pp. 514–532.

Raju Shekhar, A Voice to the Dalit Cause, Economic and Political Weekly (January 28, 2017)

Bob, Clifford. “‘Dalit Rights Are Human Rights’: Caste Discrimination, International Activism, and the Construction of a New Human Rights Issue.” Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 1, 2007, pp. 167–193.

Sunita Reddy Bharati. “’Dalit’: A Term Asserting Unity.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 37, no. 42,    2002, pp. 4339–4340.

Statutes

The Constitution of India, 1950

The Constitution of India, 1950, Art. 17

Websites

International Dalit Solidarity Network; (https://idsn.org/caste-discrimination/)


[1] John, Jose Kalapura. “DALIT STRUGGLE FOR EQUALITY: A STUDY OF THREE MOVEMENTS IN THE 1930S.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 62 (2001): 668-84.

[2] Kumar, Vivek. “Situating Dalits in Indian Sociology.” Sociological Bulletin, vol. 54, no. 3, 2005, pp. 514–532.

[3] International Dalit Solidarity Network  (https://idsn.org/caste-discrimination/)

[4] Kumar, Vivek. “Situating Dalits in Indian Sociology.” Sociological Bulletin, vol. 54, no. 3, 2005, pp. 514–532.

[5] The Constitution of India, 1950

[6] The Constitution of India, 1950, Art. 17

[7] Bob, Clifford. “‘Dalit Rights Are Human Rights’: Caste Discrimination, International Activism, and the Construction of a New Human Rights Issue.” Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 1, 2007, pp. 167–193.

[8] Raju Shekhar, A Voice to the Dalit Cause, Economic and Political Weekly (January 28, 2017)

[9] Sunita Reddy Bharati. “’Dalit’: A Term Asserting Unity.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 37, no. 42,    2002, pp. 4339–4340.

[10] Susie Tharu, The Exercise of Freedom: An Introduction to Dalit Writing 201

[11] Toral Jatin Gajarawala, Untouchable Fictions: Literary Realism and the Crisis of Caste 2012

Dishay Chitalia from The WB National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata

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