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This article needs attention.
Have trimmed out most of this aticle, e.g. Dalit politics, literature etc as going off on a tangent for a Buddhist encyclopedia. Do we just have the section on Dalit in Buddhism or the others as well?

Dalit, meaning "broken/scattered" in Sanskrit and Hindi, is a term mostly used for the castes in India that have been subjected to untouchability. Dalits were excluded from the four-fold varna system of Hinduism and were seen as forming a fifth varna, also known by the name of Panchama.

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 used 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 per cent 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. This was favoured by Ambedkar but when Mahatma Gandhi opposed the proposal it resulted in the Poona Pact. That in turn influenced the Government of India Act, 1935, which introduced the reservation of seats for the Depressed Classes, now renamed as Scheduled Castes.

From soon after its independence in 1947, India introduced a reservation system to enhance the ability of Dalits to have political representation and to obtain government jobs and education.[clarification needed] 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. Nonetheless, while caste-based discrimination was prohibited and untouchability abolished by the Constitution of India, such practices still continue. To prevent harassment, assault, discrimination and similar acts against these groups, the Government of India enacted the Prevention of Atrocities Act on 31 March 1995.

Etymology and usage

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".[1] 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 other Hindus.[2]

Dalit is mostly used to describe communities that have been subjected to untouchability.[3][4] 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.[5]

The term was in use as a translation for the British Raj census classification of Depressed Classes prior to 1935.[3] It was popularised by the economist and reformer B. R. Ambedkar (1891–1956), himself a Dalit,[6] and in the 1970s its use was invigorated when it was adopted by the Dalit Panthers activist group.[3]

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 indeed African-American.[7] 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.[2] Anand Teltumbde also detects a trend towards denial of the politicised identity, for example among educated middle-class people who have converted to Buddhism and argue that, as Buddhists, they cannot be Dalits. This may be due to their improved circumstances giving rise to a desire not to be associated with the what they perceive to be the demeaning Dalit masses.[8]

Other terms

Official term

Scheduled Castes is the 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.[9]

Some sources say that Dalit 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.[7] It is also sometimes used to refer to the entirety of India's oppressed peoples,[3] which is the context that applies to its use in Nepalese society.[4] 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,[10] yet there are communities who claim to be Dalit Christians[11] and the tribal communities often practise folk religions.[12]


Mahatma Gandhi coined the word Harijan, translated roughly as people of God, to identify untouchables in 1933. 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.[13][page needed]. When untouchability was outlawed after Indian independence, the use of the word Harijan to describe the ex-untouchables was more common among other castes than the Dalits themselves.[14]

Regional terms

In Southern India, Dalits are sometimes known as Adi Dravida, Adi Karnataka, and Adi Andhra. This practice began around 1917, when the Adi- prefix was appropriated by Dalit leaders in the region. It embodies a theory that they were the original inhabitants of India, although this is dubious.[15] The terms are used in the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, respectively, to identify people of "untouchable" castes in official documents.[citation needed][clarification needed]

In the Indian state of Maharashtra, according to historian and women's studies academic Shailaja Paik, Dalit is a term mostly used by members of the Mahar caste, into which Ambedkar was born. Most other communities prefer to use their own caste name.[16]

In Nepal, aside from Harijan and, most commonly, Dalit, terms such as Haris (among Muslims), Achhoot, outcastes and neech jati are used.[6]


Scheduled Castes distribution map in India by state and union territory according to the 2011 Census of India.[10] Punjab had the highest proportion of its population as SC (around 32 per cent), while India's island territories and two northeastern states had approximately zero.[10]

Scheduled Caste communities exist across India and comprised 16.6 per cent of the country's population, according to the 2011 Census of India.[17] Uttar Pradesh (21 per cent), West Bengal (11 per cent), Bihar (8 per cent) and Tamil Nadu (7 per cent) between them accounted for almost half the country's total Scheduled Caste population.[18] They were most prevalent as a proportion of the states' population in Punjab, at about 32 per cent,[19] while Mizoram had the lowest at approximately zero.[10]

Similar groups are found throughout the rest of South Asia, in Nepal,[4] Pakistan,[citation needed] Bangladesh[citation needed] and Sri Lanka.[20] They have emigrated to countries such as the United States,[21] United Kingdom,[22] Singapore,[23] and the Caribbean,[24]

Social status

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".[25]

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 to be "polluting" or debased, such as working with leather, working with night soil and other dirty work.[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 per cent of the Dharavi population are Dalits, compared to 16 per cent nationwide. Dalits live together with Muslims (who constitute about a third of Dharavi's population) and other castes and tribes.[28][29]

Gopal Baba Walangkar (ca. 1840-1900) is generally considered to be the pioneer of the Dalit movement, seeking a society in which they were not discriminated. This is despite the work of Harichand Thakur (ca. 1812-1878) with his Matua organisation that involved the Namasudra (Chandala) community in Bengal Presidency, British India. Ambedkar himself believed Walangkar to be the progenitor.[30] Another early social reformer who worked to improve conditions for Dalits was Jyotirao Phule (1827-1890).

The 1950 Constitution of India, introduced after the country gained independence, included measures to improve the socioeconomic conditions of Dalits. Aside from banning untouchability, these included the reservation system, a means of positive discrimination that created the classifications of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Communities that were categorised as being one of those groups were guaranteed a percentage of the seats in the national and state legislatures, as well as in government jobs and places of education. The system has its origins in the 1932 Poona Pact between Ambedkar and Gandhi, when Ambedkar conceded his demand that the Dalits should have an electorate separate from the caste Hindus in return for Gandhi accepting measures along these lines.[31] The notion of a separate electorate had been proposed in the Communal Award made by the British Raj authorities,[32] and the outcome of the Pact - the Government of India Act of 1935 - both introduced the new term of Scheduled Castes in replacement for Depressed Classes and reserved seats for them in the legislatures.[33]

By 1995, of all federal government jobs in India - 10.1 per cent of Class I, 12.7 per cent of Class II, 16.2 per cent of Class III, and 27.2 per cent of Class IV jobs were held by Dalits.[34] 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.[35][36]

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.[37][38][39] 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.[40] Eleanor 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."[7] Though the Indian Constitution abolished untouchability, the oppressed status of Dalits remains a reality. In rural India, stated Klaus Klostermaier in 2010, "they still live in secluded quarters, do the dirtiest work, and are not allowed to use the village well and other common facilities".[41] In the same year, Zelliot noted that "In spite of much progress over the last sixty years, Dalits are still at the social and economic bottom of society."[7]

Economic status

According to a 2014 report to the Ministry of Minority Affairs, over 44.8 per cent of Scheduled Tribe (ST) and 33.8 per cent of Scheduled Caste (SC) populations in rural India were living below the poverty line in 2011–12. In urban areas, 27.3 per cent of ST and 21.8 per cent of SC populations were poor.[42][43]

Some Hindu Dalits have achieved affluence, although most remain poor. Some Dalit intellectuals, such as Chandra Bhan Prasad, have argued that the living standards of many Dalits have improved since the economic liberalisation[clarification needed] began in 1991 and have supported their claims through large surveys.[44][45] According to the Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011, nearly 79 per cent of Adivasi households and 73 per cent of Dalit households were the most deprived among rural households in India. While 45 per cent of SC households are landless and earn a living by manual casual labour, the figure is 30 per cent for Adivasis.[46]

A 2012 survey by Mangalore University in Karnataka found that 93 per cent of Dalit families in the state of Karnataka still live below the poverty line.[47]


Most Dalits in India practice Hinduism.[citation needed] According to the 61st round Survey of the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, 90 per cent of Buddhists, one-third of Sikhs, and one-third of Christians in India belonged to Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes.[48][49]



Ambedkar said that untouchability came into Indian society around 400 AD, due to the struggle for supremacy between Buddhism and Brahmanism (an ancient term for Brahmanical Hinduism).[50] Some Hindu priests befriended Dalits and were demoted to low-caste ranks. 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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

Reform movements

A school of untouchables near Bangalore, by Lady Ottoline Morrell.

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.[citation needed]

In the 1930s, Gandhi and Ambedkar disagreed regarding retention of the caste system. Whilst Ambedkar wanted to see it destroyed, Gandhi thought that it could be modified by reinterpreting Hindu texts so that the untouchables were absorbed into the Shudra varna. It was this disagreement that led to the Poona Pact.[31] Despite the disagreement, Gandhi began the Harijan Yatra to help the Dalits.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed] However, educational opportunities to Dalits in Kerala remain limited.[51]

Other Hindu groups attempted to reconcile with the Dalit community.[citation needed] Hindu temples are increasingly receptive to Dalit priests, a function formerly reserved for Brahmins.[52][53][54]

The fight for temple entry rights for Dalits continues to cause controversy.[55] 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.[56][57] In an 2015 incident in Meerut, when a Dalit belonging to Valmiki caste was denied entry to a Hindu temple he converted to Islam.[58] In September 2015, four Dalit women were fined by the upper-caste Hindus for entering a temple in Karnataka.[59]

There have been allegations that Dalits in Nepal are denied entry to Hindu temples.[60][61] In at least one reported case were beaten up by some upper caste people for doing so.[62]


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. Subsequent Sikh Gurus, all of whom came from the Khatri caste, also denounced the hierarchy of the caste system.[63] Despite this, social stratification exists in the Sikh community. The bulk of the Sikhs of Punjab belong to the Jat caste;[64] there are also two Dalit Sikh castes in the state, called the Mazhabis and the Ramdasias.[65]

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.[66] 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. In the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), 20 of the 140 seats are reserved for low-caste Sikhs.[67]

Sikhs adopt standard surnames such as Singh to disguise caste identities. Nevertheless, families generally do not marry across caste boundaries.[citation needed]


Historically Jainism was practiced by many communities across India.[68] They are often conservative and are generally considered upper-caste.[69]

In 1958,[70] a Sthanakvasi Jain called Muni Sameer Muni[71][72] came into contact with members of the Khatik community in the Udaipur region, who decided to adopt Jainism. Their centre, Ahimsa Nagar, located about four miles from Chittorgarh, was inaugurated by Mohanlal Sukhadia in 1966. Sameer Muni termed them Veerwaal,[73] i.e. belonging to Mahavira. A 22-year-old youth, Chandaram Meghwal, was initiated as a Jain monk at Ahore town in Jalore district in 2005.[74] In 2010 a Mahar engineer called Vishal Damodar was initiated as a Jain monk by Acharya Navaratna Sagar Suriji at Samet Shikhar.[75] Acharya Nanesh, the eighth Achayra of Sadhumargi Jain Shravak Sangha had preached among the Balai community in 1963 near Ratlam.[76] His followers are called Dharmapal.[77] In 1984, some of the Bhangis of Jodhpur came under the influence of Acharya Shri Tulsi and adopted Jainism.[78][79]


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.[citation needed]

Notable people

See also


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Further reading

  • Rajshekhar, V. T. (2003). Dalit – The Black Untouchables of India (2nd ed.). Clarity Press. ISBN 0-932863-05-1. 
  • Joshi, Barbara R. (1986). Untouchable!: Voices of the Dalit Liberation Movement. Zed Books. ISBN 978-0-86232-460-5. 
  • Omvedt, Gail (1994). Dalits and the Democratic Revolution – Dr. Ambedkar and the Dalit Movement in Colonial India. Sage Publications. ISBN 81-7036-368-3. 
  • Samaddara, Ranabira; Shah, Ghanshyam (2001). Dalit Identity and Politics. Sage Publications. ISBN 978-0-7619-9508-1. 
  • Franco, Fernando; Macwan, Jyotsna; Ramanathan, Suguna (2004). Journeys to Freedom: Dalit Narratives. Popular Prakashan. ISBN 978-81-85604-65-7. 
  • Limbale, Sharankumar (2004). Towards an Aesthetic of Dalit Literature. Orient Longman. ISBN 81-250-2656-8. 
  • Zelliot, Eleanor (2005). From Untouchable to Dalit – Essays on the Ambedkar Movement. Manohar. ISBN 81-7304-143-1. 
  • Sharma, Pradeep K. (2006). Dalit Politics and Literature. Shipra Publications. ISBN 978-81-7541-271-2. 
  • Omvedt, Gail (2006). Dalit Visions: The Anti-caste Movement and the Construction of an Indian Identity. Orient Longman. ISBN 978-81-250-2895-6. 
  • Michael, S. M. (2007). Dalits in Modern India – Vision and Values. Sage Publications. ISBN 978-0-7619-3571-1. 
  • Prasad, Amar Nath; Gaijan, M. B. (2007). Dalit Literature: A Critical Exploration. ISBN 81-7625-817-2. 
  • Mani, Braj Ranjan (2005). Debrahmanising History: Dominance and Resistance in Indian Society. Manohar Publishers and Distributors. ISBN 81-7304-640-9. 
  • Ghosh, Partha S. (July 1997). "Positive Discrimination in India: A Political Analysis" (PDF). Ethnic Studies Report. XV (2). Archived from the original (PDF) on 12 March 2004. 
  • Rege, Sharmila (2006). Writing Caste Writing Gender:Narrating Dalit Women's Testimonios. Zubaan. ISBN 9788189013011. 

External links

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