The dalit in India

The dalit in India – caste and social class

Sagarika Ghose

Dalit: The Word and the Sentiment

I search for God, whom should I hear?

I made stone temples, carved God out of stone

But priests are like stone,

They imprison God.

Whom shall I hear?

We were born Untouchables

Because of our deeds.

–Dalit devotional song (Franco, Macwan,

and Ramanathan, 2000: 191)

THE dalit or “Untouchable” is a government servant, the teacher in a state school, a politician. He is generally never a member of the higher judiciary, an eminent lawyer, industrialist or journalist. His freedom operates in designated enclaves: in politics and in the administrative posts he acquires because of state policy. But in areas of contemporary social exchange and culture, his “Untouchability” becomes his only definition. The right to pray to a Hindu god has always been a high caste privilege. Intricacy of religious ritual is directly proportionate to social status. The dalit has been formally excluded from religion, from education, and is a pariah in the entire sanctified universe of the “dvija.” (1)

Unlike racial minorities, the dalit is physically indistinguishable from upper castes, yet metaphorically and literally, the dalit has been a “shit bearer” for three millennia, toiling at the very bottom of the Hindu caste hierarchy. The word “pariah” itself comes from a dalit caste of southern India, the paRaiyar, “those of the drum” (paRai) or the “leather people” (Dumont, 1980: 54).

At 150 million, dalits or “scheduled castes” and “scheduled tribes,” form about 20 percent of India’s population (Census of India, 1991). Backward castes as a whole, taking dalits, tribes, and Other Backward Castes (OBCs) into consideration, form about 52 percent of India’s population. (2) Today, wide-ranging policies on affirmative action have opened up government service and state education to dalits. But areas of freedom are limited, largely to sectors that are under the aegis of the state, such as the civil service or state-owned enterprises. Exclusion from cultural and social networks emerges from the dalit’s crucial exclusion from the system of castes (Mendelsohn and Vicziany, 1998: 39).

The dalit’s pariah status derives its strength and justification from religious texts. In the Manusmriti, (3) the dalit is described as “polluted,” in the same way as a menstruating woman, a widow, or a person who has recently been bereaved is polluted. The dalit is “unclean” from birth. He violates, by his very existence, the brahminical obsession with hygiene (Dumont, 1980: 131). While the “untouchability” of the menstruating woman or the bereaved is temporary and he or she can escape the Untouchable condition after the period of “pollution” is past, the dalit can never escape his status: he is perpetually filthy.

In a hymn from the Purusasukta of the Rg Veda, (4) the dvija are said to have been born from elevated parts of the body of the supreme being. The dalit is the “unborn,” with no physical link with the supreme being. According to this hymn, from the body of Brahma come the four main categories of Hindu society, namely the four varnas (colors or castes): (5) brahmins (priests), kshatriyas (warriors), vaishyas (businessmen), and shudras (servants). The priest is born from the mouth of the Creator, the warrior from the arm, the businessman from the stomach, and the servant from the foot. Untouchables are born from outside the body of the Creator, almost a different species from Brahma’s children. Their entry into the divine body would be as unthinkable as the entry of an animal.

Today, the literary and scholarly efflorescence among dalits is set apart from caste Hindu society as a particularly dalit development. Dalit critiques of nation and society barely impinge on upper-caste notions of the social order, of the nation-state, and of modernity in general. The reasons for this are often attributed to the grafting of traditional caste networks onto modern state institutions–for example, the upper-caste seizures of Western education and the higher bureaucracy. The slide of the independent Indian nation-state into a landscape dominated by the brahminical upper castes has meant that new ways have been found to effectively seal the dalit in his “democratic” prison (Nigam, 2000).

As a result of legally reserved quotas in government and in state educational institutions, sections of dalits have emerged from agricultural poverty to become middle class. Yet the waters of modern opportunity flow along the fields of the upper castes, which were the main beneficiaries of the professional opportunities provided by colonialism and which also stand to gain the benefits of contemporary globalization, such as opportunities in the Information Technology industry or in the private sector. Thus, while dalit political importance and militancy rises, at the same time the dalit remains segregated from caste Hindu society by the invisible arms of caste.

The word “dalit” or “crushed underfoot” or “broken into pieces” is the contemporary version of the word “Untouchable.” “Dalit” owes its genesis to the nineteenth-century writings of Jotirao Govindrao Phule as well as to the literature of the Dalit Panthers, a political group formed in 1972 in the state of Maharashtra. British colonial census takers grouped together all those communities’ neighbors considered “polluted” and called them “Untouchable.” “harijan” or “children of god” was Mahatma Gandhi’s name for dalits. The word “Untouchable” is sometimes still used, but “harijan” is seen as an equivalent of “Uncle Tom,” a paternalistic and condescending categorization of a group doomed to remain in perpetual bondage. Dalit leader Bhaurao Gaikwad observed in 1935 that “It is no use only giving Untouchables a sweet name. Something practical should be done to ameliorate their conditions” (Moon, 1987, vol. 4: 230). Today most Untouchable castes would prefer to use the term “dalit” as an identity of assertion. The UN Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance held in Durban, South Africa, in September 2001 equated “racism” with “casteism”; although this parallel has been systematically criticized, the word “dalit” has been interpreted by some activists as equivalent to “Black.”

Dalits are the main targets of what are termed “caste-related crimes’. Over 2000 dalits died in the three years between 1989 and 1991 as a result of”atrocities against harijans” (Memorandum of Dalit Writers Forum, 1996: 9). In the rural countryside, stripping, hacking to death, massacres and lopping off heads are the marks of a horrific bestiality inspired by the unshakeable taint of dirtiness. (6) The dalit body, powerful, suppressed, and perennially dirty from such tasks as removal of dead cattle and waste, tanning, or toddy tapping (collecting juice from the bud of palm tree flowers) is to be violently exorcised, ritually cleansed, from the pure “Aryan” body of the Hindu caste system. (7)

It is the argument in this paper that despite the far-reaching legislative and educational quotas for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, and their undoubted benefits, dalits still are savagely attacked in the rural countryside and in the urban milieu untouchability still knocks at the closed doors of such institutions as the arranged marriage, the caste Hindu temple, the classical music concert, and the private sector. The cultural hegemony of the dvija remains virtually intact. Dalitness continues to exist as much as an idea as a physical reality. The idea of the polluted bonded servant is so ingrained in the subcontinental mind that the dalit remains at the bottom of the intellectual and emotional landscape of contemporary India, however far he may advance in a public career and agitate for change. Every child born into an upper-caste Hindu family grows up with a mind’s eye image of the acchyut (Untouchable). The Imagined Untouchable is squalid in appearance and it is the religious duty of a “pure” Hindu to consider him perpetually inferior.

The Emergence of the Outcaste Pariah: The Dalit and the Brahmin

“‘If a kalash (vessel) of water comes into a bhangi’s (Untouchable’s) hand,’ sing the women of the dalit Vankar caste, ‘he’ll drink and drink until his stomach bursts'” (Franco, Macwan, and Ramanathan, 2000: 193).

The poor Untouchable! So eager just for water, that when he gets it he drinks until his stomach bursts!

An enormous body of scholarly work exists on the Indian system of castes. For Dumont (1980), Indian society has always been defined by the hierarchy of castes. Caste “is above all, a system of ideas and values, a formal comprehensible rational system … [imbued with] the idea of hierarchy” (35). “Purity” and “pollution” remain central to the caste system–indeed, central to Hinduism itself–and for the Brahmin purification and hygiene are a necessity (Dumont, 1980: 52).

This argument is opposed by, among others, Dipankar Gupta, who argues that Dumont’s idea oversimplifies caste and papers over regional particularities and transactions.

It is impossible to construct a uniform hierarchy of caste

based on the notion of purity and pollution. No caste would

acquiesce to its placement among the so-called “untouchables.”

No caste would agree that members of other castes

are made up of substances better than theirs. No caste

would like its people to marry outside the community. No

caste would like to merge its identity with any other caste.

No caste accepts that it has originated from a shameful act

of miscegenation. Any suggestion of being half-breed is dismissed

haughtily across the board by all castes” (Gupta,

2000: 33).

However self-important, caste remains an invisible engine of Hindu society, creating subtle social and political linkages, functioning as a closed enclave of common practice and thought and working as a lobby or pressure group that over time creates monopolies over certain professions and businesses. (8)

Caste is today seen to have become “secularized”; that is, caste has become a modern interest group, transformed into small monopolies of economic, political, and cultural interests. (9) Caste steps out from the shadows every time a marriage is arranged or a child is born or a new professional or business opportunity emerges.

Caste is, at its very base, linked to production and occupation. It is a system of labor division from which the element of competition has been largely excluded. “Economic roles are allocated by right to closed minority groups of low social status; members of the high status ‘dominant caste’ to whom the low status groups are bound, generally form a numerical majority and must compete among themselves for the services of individual members of the lower castes” (Leach, 1960: 5-6). The membership of a caste implies that a person becomes part of a person-based social network that controls insider information about economic opportunities; transmits skills; and provides varied types of human and material support (Panini, 1996: 39).

Caste is by its very definition exclusive and because of the manner in which particular castes channel themselves into particular occupations, it becomes virtually changeless. India’s software industry, for example, is dominated by Tamil Brahmins; (10) the civil service by kayasthas from Uttar Pradesh. (11)

In the pre-British period, the jajmani system–by which the blacksmith, carpenter, potter, oilman, barber, washerman, and priest all became linked with the household of the upper-caste landowner and were paid in kind by the landholder for services rendered during the year–helped to ensure the durability of the caste system in the rural countryside (Srinivas, 1962; Leach, 1960). Add to this the principle of heredity and caste soon solidified into a family trade as well as an almost irreversible social category that was maintained as much by social taboo as by economic imperative.

Thus the dalit, the caste that exists outside the caste system, is trapped by his own economic trade. The dalit’s pariahness begins with the Untouchable castes becoming associated with those groups specializing in “impure” tasks, such as cleaning out waste, skinning cattle, working in leather, butchery, fishing, and supervising cremations. Leather workers, washermen, scavengers, undertakers, toilet cleaners, toddy tappers, sweepers and rural laborers were polluted because of their work. (12) Their role in the caste-based economic system meant that the modern dalits, descended from the professionals of impure tasks, are heirs to centuries old filth, professional as well as psychological.

Acchut! (Untouchable!)

Myriad practices existed and still exist to denote the pollution of the dalit. Not only could the dalit not enter a Hindu temple or drink water from temple tanks, but he had to live in segregated huts on the outskirts of villages. In parts of south India in the nineteenth century, dalit women were forbidden to cover their breasts. Dalits had to beat a drum to signal their arrival so the brahmin knew where to hide or how to protect his food. The brahmin is most vulnerable to pollution when he is eating, so if a shadow of a dalit fell on his food, the food too became Untouchable. On occasion dalits had to wear a spittoon so that his spittle did not fall on his surroundings and he could never stand in the way of a wind that might carry his smell or breath to a brahmin. In a Jataka story (377. III. 154), a Brahmin cries, “Curse you, ill omened candala [dalit], get to leeward” (Omvedt, 1998).

Nonetheless, there are qualifications to untouchability. Instances can be found of dalit midwives, local functionaries, and local soothsayers and saints who have been revered by all sections of society. There are also instances of dalits participating in caste Hindu festivals; sections of dalits have also sometimes engaged in upper-caste rituals. (13)

Yet the dalit as pariah played a crucial role in allowing the upper castes a monopoly on education and in certain “pure” trades. Because of the divine sanction for eternal serfdom, the denial of education and thus opportunities for advancement, upper castes were able to successfully eliminate masses of people from the competitive economy that developed under colonial rule (Harrison, 1960).

Reform: From Buddha to Phule to Naicker

Choo-o, choo-o, na chee! O je chandalini’r jhi!

Noshto hobe je doi, she kotha jaano na ki?

(Don’t touch her, don’t touch her, ugh!

She’s the daughter of a Dalit woman!

Your yogurt will get spoiled, don’t you know?)

–Song from Rabindranath Tagore’s

Bengali dance drama Chandalika

In Chandalika, Prakriti, a young dalit woman, falls in love with a Buddhist monk, Ananda, who wins her heart by drinking water from her cup, even as she’s shunned by the rest of the village. Subsequently, Ananda leaves on pilgrimage and Prakriti is devastated. She forces her mother to use her powers of black magic to bring him back. The witchlike mother brings Ananda back to Parkriti but dies in the process. The grief stricken girl is seen seeking the blessings of Ananda, who encourages her to take to Buddhism to escape the cycle of degradation.

The pollution of Prakriti and her mother is contrasted with the purity of Ananda. The mother, a sensual practitioner of black magic, is revealed as ultimately powerless against the monk. Chandalika is not only a comment on the fate of the Untouchable girl but on the new life promised to dalits by religions like Buddhism.

Indeed, Buddhism is easily the most famous of the innumerable reform movements within Hinduism that have been in progress since the fifth and sixth centuries B.C. The underlying impetus to change the dalit’s pariah status was provided by these reform movements and the innumerable voices that have been raised for centuries against orthodox Hindu practices. The ascetic-led Buddhism and Jainism movements developed as alternatives to the ritual-bound and caste-dominated doctrine that Hinduism had become. The ascetic Buddha and Mahavira both sought to create egalitarian faiths based on compassion and simplicity and provided theological foundations for subsequent protests.

The Bhakti movement that emerged in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, exemplified in the cults of popular “saints” like Kabir and Mirabai, tried to negate the power of the brahmin clergy and questioned the brahmin’s chief weapon: purity and the power to dispense untouchability.

It’s all one skin and bone,

one piss and shit,

one blood, one meat.

From one drop, a universe.

Who’s a Brahmin? Who’s shudra?

So sang Kabir, the fifteenth-century Bhakti saint (Hess, 1983: 25). Yet the Bhakti movements were unable to change the workings of the caste system, primarily because these saints formed a sort of mystic fringe, spiritually intense alternatives to the main body of orthodoxy that, although popular and doctrinally seductive, were no threat to a 3,000-year-old faith.

However, the Bhakti movements, the impact of Western ideas during the colonial encounter, social reform movements of the nineteenth century, the Gandhian movement, and finally the dramatic dalit movement led by B. R. Ambedkar have combined to create a significant tradition of anticaste reformism not only among educated elites but also among today’s newly articulate voters.

In the nineteenth century, social reform emanated from the soul searching that had become part of the educated upper-caste elites once they came into contact with Western ideas of liberalism and rationality (Raychaudhuri, 1999: 60). There were campaigns to secure the rights of the widow, ban sati (the practice of widows immolating themselves on their husband’s funeral pyres), and reject caste.

The emergence of Gandhi and Ambedkar–mutually opposed to each other, yet highly significant in their own way to the cause of the dalits–grew from the context created by these nineteenth-century movements as well as the deeper traditions of anticaste protests created by Buddhism, Jainism, and the Bhakti cults. The movement to abolish caste prejudices owed its modern liberal humanist form to Jotirao Govindrao Phule in Maharashtra and later to the campaigns of E. V. Ramaswami Naicker in Madras state.

Jotirao Phule (1827-90) developed powerful arguments against the caste system and the Brahmin and also used Christian missionary arguments to “reject the fictitious world of Hindu religion” (O’Hanlon, 1985: 105). His Satyashodhak Samaj or “Truth-Seeking Society” gave voice in 1873 to the radical idea that brahmins had used religious authority and administrative power acquired under colonial rule to oppress other sections of society. Although “moderate and “respectable” reformers were reluctant to accept such wholesale condemnation of brahmins (O’Hanlon, 1985: 255) and the Satyashodhak Samaj remained virtually limited to the state of Maharashtra, the influence of its ideas can be traced to the anticaste ideologies that emerged subsequently.

The work of Christian missionaries also functioned as a fundamental challenge to traditional caste-based practices. From O’Hanlon’s thesis on the radicalizing influence of Christianity on Phule’s thoughts, it would be accurate to say that caste, as a conceptual category, was seriously challenged only after the arrival of the Christian missionaries, who initiated the radical idea of extending education to the dalits. The first special schools for Untouchables were opened in the 1840s, encouraged not only by the missionaries but also by the British administration. From these schools came the first generation of dalit activists, writers, and politicians. A dalit writer recently wrote that as far as the dalits are concerned, “the British arrived too late and left too early,” a reference to the fact that had it not been for the British colonial administration, dalits would have never gained the right to attend school. (14)

Even though the overwhelming majority of dalits in the colonial period remained railway workers, landless migrant laborers, urban sweepers, stone cutters, and servants, some became soldiers in the army of the East India Company and others, such as the mahars, were able to achieve the status of a wealthy and assertive elite (Zelliot, 1970: 43).

After Phule, the other social reformer who can be seen as precursor of Ambedkar was E. V. Ramaswami Naicker (1879-1973). Naicker founded the Self-Respect Movement, which advocated a vigorous attack on caste, especially “Aryan Brahmins.” He campaigned for forcible temple entry, burning of the Manusmriti, and atheism. Ironically, modern-day political parties like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which are the descendants of the Self-Respect Movement, have veered away from the rationalism and atheism of Naicker and instead lapsed into various forms of Hindu obscurantism. (15)

Both Phule and Naicker, however, positioned themselves as not just anti-brahmin but implacably anticaste and pro-poor, thus preparing the ground for the emergence of Ambedkar’s leadership style.

Ambedkar and Gandhi: The Untouchable and the Patriot-Saint.

There have been many mahatmas in India whose sole

object was to remove Untouchability and to elevate and

absorb the depressed classes, but every one of them has

failed in his mission. Mahatmas have come and mahatmas

have gone. But the Untouchables have remained


B. R. Ambedkar (Moon, 1987, Vol. 3: 67)

Examine the Gandhian attitude to strikes, the Gandhian

reverence for caste and the Gandhian doctrine of Trusteeship

of the rich … Gandhism is the philosophy of the

well-to-do and leisured class.

B. R. Ambedkar (Moon, 1991, Vol. 9: 291)

The taint of Untouchability is an intolerable burden on

Hinduism. Let us not deny God by denying to a fifth of

our race the right of association on an equal footing.

Gandhi (1958: 317)

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956), a dalit who became one of the drafters of the Indian constitution, is regarded as the father of the modern dalit movement. He was a contemporary of Gandhi, the leader of India’s freedom movement. Ambedkar was one of Gandhi’s harshest critics, a bitter opponent of the manner in which Gandhi drew a gauze of unity over what for him was India’s warring social landscape. For Ambedkar, the Gandhian movement was conservative, upper caste, and bourgeois, a movement resisting the full-scale socioeconomic transformation of Indian society (Sarkar, 1983: 345).

Ambedkar’s argument that political democracy was meaningless without social transformation was far too radical for the nationalist upper castes. That Gandhi himself was an upper-caste Hindu–as were most of his key lieutenants–definitely gave, for Ambedkar, a certain caste color to the entire nationalist movement. His own energetic leadership, the series of imaginative protests he launched–including drinking water from prohibited temple tanks, burning the Manusmriti, and his conversion in 1956 to Buddhism as a repudiation of the Hindu religion–galvanized the dalit community, taking off from where Jotirao Phule had stopped.

Ambedkar’s dalit movement would not align itself to the nationalist cause that occupied political centerstage all his life. It would instead campaign openly against caste and Hinduism. At this juncture of India’s independence movement, the motifs of Hinduism were providing the images of nationalism. Hindu goddesses and festivals were being used to instill self-esteem and brotherhood. Ambedkar’s open denunciations of Hinduism and the Indian National Congress–seen as the great hope of all who were pitted against imperialism–became the basis of much of the future criticism of Ambedkar as an imperialist agent trying to divide the nationalist struggle (Shourie, 1997: 483). In “Annihilation of Caste” (Moon, 1979, vol. 1: 37), Ambedkar provided a searing critique of the “enlightened high caste social reformers who did not have the courage to agitate against caste.” The subsequent debate with Gandhi began Ambedkar’s long distrust of the Congress Party and his belief that membership in the Congress would further enslave the dalits.

The attack on caste and the championing of the industrial strike–Gandhi had declared that the industrial strike would never be part of the armory of the Indian freedom struggle–made Ambedkar anathema to Gandhians. Even liberals accused him of trying to take Indian society onto a suicidal self-destructive course (Kumar, 1987: 97). Before independence, Ambedkar’s insistence on separate electorates for Untouchables had been totally unacceptable to Gandhi. Ambedkar’s demand was interpreted as dalit antipatriotism. Gandhi said at the time that “The claims advanced by the Untouchables, that to me is the unkindest cut of all. I claim in my own person to represent the vast mass of the Untouchables” (Moon, 1979, vol. 1: 506).

For Gandhi, Hinduism and the caste system were not negotiable. But Ambedkar rejected both Hinduism and the caste system as well as the claims of any upper caste to represent the dalits. For Gandhi, Untouchability was an evil within Hinduism, to be reformed by Hindus. For Ambedkar, upper-caste leadership of dalits was abhorrent. While Gandhi asserted that he was proud to be a Hindu and that castes were an integral part of Hinduism, Ambedkar categorically stated that he would reject Hinduism unless caste was purged from it completely (Keer, 1990: 231). This has formed the basis of much contemporary antagonism between dalits and the upper castes. For the dvija, the dalit hostility to Gandhi–the patron saint of the independent nation-state of India–was almost an act of treason. For dalits, patriotism for India itself came to be seen as an upper-caste activity.

Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that Gandhi’s own harijan campaign was highly successful and for those dalits who were not with Ambedkar, Gandhi remained an attractive leader–so much so that for the first four decades after independence, significant sections of dalits remained loyal to the Congress largely because of the hope embodied for them in the person of the Mahatma.

Thus, Ambedkar failed to counter the Gandhian charisma. Instead, his legacy to the dalits was this: “Your salvation,” Ambedkar declared, “lies in political power and not in making pilgrimages and in observance of fasts” (Keer, 1990: 168). Aggressive separatist politics and fierce demands for reserved seats in educational institutions were Ambedkar’s gift to his community. These demands have been criticized as divisive and fractious by some. Others have seen them as the only means of deepening the democratization process in India. (16) It would not be inaccurate to say that without Ambedkar, the present-day aggressively articulate dalit protest would not have been possible. Without him, dalits might have remained compliant subordinates in the upper-caste-led Congress.

Contemporary Politics: The Political and Literary Struggle

Affirmative action has now done enough for the Scheduled

Castes…. [T] hey should now focus on winning

power through elections, for the capture of political

power will ultimately transform them (Ram, 1997).

The dalit are linguistically and regionally divided, but dalits do not constitute a mass electoral constituency. Thus dalit radicalism has often been co-opted or it has simply dissolved into splits and factions. However, growing self-awareness and militancy have created a limited autonomous political space.

The Gandhian movement, colonial legislation, and the Ambedkarite movement contributed to the wide-ranging “reservations” (affirmative action or policies) that were written into the Indian constitution. Constitutional reservations of posts and seats for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes (17) are seen to have created what is termed the “Harijan elite” (Sacchidanand, 1977: 5) and have become a highly political and controversial issue. (18) This issue was most starkly manifest in the violent public confrontation between upper castes and dalits that took place over the Mandal Commission Report. In 1990, the V. P. Singh government decided to implement the Mandal Commission Report of the Backward Classes Commission (December 1980) The commission’s controversial report called for reserving 27 percent of all services and public-sector undertakings under the central government and 27 percent of all admissions to institutions of higher education (except in states that have reserved higher percentages) for backward class members and dalits.

Violent controversy arose. It was argued that affirmative action would be difficult to implement in conditions of mass poverty and unemployment that left even upper castes suffering from massive economic deprivation. The efficacy of reserving government posts as a long-term measure of social justice was also questioned. Which groups were to have a monopoly on governing India and holding government posts was also a concern.

Many upper-caste youth tried to immolate themselves to protest these quotas. There were fears that those who had already gained advantage from reservations would only accumulate greater benefits. In the end, the Supreme Court gave its assent to the government order for implementation of the Mandal report, although it inserted a clause excluding the “creamy layer” of the Other Backward Castes (OBCs) in a statement about “taking off the creamy layer for a healthier glass of milk.” This implied excluding the rich intermediate castes (those just above the dalits in the caste hierarchy) from the Mandal recommendations. (This exception has proved difficult to implement.) Still, the Mandal recommendations are generally in place except in some states, where they are stalled in court cases.

The logic of the Mandal recommendations was akin to letting the dalit eat a single meal at the Brahmin’s table. (19) Omvedt writes:

The reservation system was instituted not so much on the

basis of the Constitution as on that of the decades-old elite

resistance to restructuring public employment. It serves several

purposes. It allows the elite to maintain the facade of a

generous patron of Dalits while continuing to deprive them

of mass-level education and access to resource. It provides a

process to absorb some of their brightest members into a

system still based more on extortion and corruption than

true public service. Finally, it continues to block a true

representation of the majority of the nation’s population, a

representation which the founders and leaders of the anti-caste

movement had always seen as part of a full-scale political

and social-economic transformation (Omvedt, 2001).

The reservations scheme has also come under strain from the process of liberalization initiated by the government a decade ago. As the state has begun to retreat from the “commanding heights” of the economy, “the hard won battle for backward castes reservations will become meaningless if the state begins to reduce the number of government posts and sheds many of its functions” (Panini, 1996: 28).

There has thus emerged a dalit demand for reservations in the growing private sector, once more angering the upper castes. The January 13, 2002, Bhopal Declaration pointed out that there is not a single dalit billionaire, businessman, or industrialist. (20) It demanded the incorporation of a United States-style “equal opportunity for all” principle in Indian industry so that dalits may escape the historical burden of performing the economy’s “polluted” tasks.

The Bhopal Declaration voices a cry for the dalit to abandon the ghetto of government service and emerge as players in the private arena. For dalits to have reached a level of self-confident articulation to call for legislated entry into assets mainly all owned by the dvija is a protest against the paradox of political saliency yet social degradation that this paper has examined.

In addition to the Bhopal Declaration, the Dalit Shiksha Andolan (Dalit Education Revolution) and the Dalit Sahitya Academies (Dalit Literary Academy) are evidence of the thirst for intellectual capital and the desire to create a new “private sector dalit” by means of the English language and to create intellectual dynamism. (21)

The need to foster intellectual energy remains one of the crucial features of dalit self-criticism. “The tragedy is every young dalit intellectual’s ambition is to be a civil servant … an administrative slave of Hindu-brahminism…. [T] he dalit community has not produced a powerful socio-spiritual philosopher … who is able to play the role of Jewish liberators” (Ilaiah, 2002:11).

In fact, the All-India Backward and Minority Employees Federation (BAMCEF), which was established in 1976, had envisioned itself as a “talent bank” for dalits. In 1976 a BAMCEF bulletin declared that “educated persons from oppressed communities are trapped in government services. About 2 million educated oppressed have joined these jobs … but their cowardice, selfishness, inherent timidity and lack of desire of social service to their own creed … makes them useless.”

BAMCEF failed at intellectual awakening and dalit leaders like Kanshi Ram and Mayawati broke away to set up the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in 1984 because of the futility, they declared, of BAMCEF-style campaigns to awaken the class of dalit government servants who had sunk into the torpor of protective legislation.

The emergence of the BSP has been an important milestone toward the goal of achieving an autonomous dalit political identity. The swearing in of Mayawati, a dalit woman, as chief minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh–India’s most politically important state, supplying the largest number of legislators to the national assembly–is an event whose importance cannot be exaggerated. In a political dispensation controlled until recently almost entirely by hereditary landlords or westernized upper castes, the rise of India’s plebian politicians is nothing short of revolutionary. The consistent rise in the vote share of the BSP in Uttar Pradesh is indicative of the rising awareness of political autonomy, although this electoral phenomenon remains largely limited to north India. (22)

The BSP revolution, however, suffers from several contradictions. The party has often been accused of creating a new “power elite” and patronage networks among dalits. The most significant criticism made of the BSP is that it has on many occasions allied with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); indeed, it rules the state of Uttar Pradesh today in partnership with the BJP. Since the BJP’s identity is that of a party of high-caste Hindus, this alliance stands in direct contravention of Ambedkar’s searing rejection of Hinduism and upper castes.

Nonetheless, the BSP remains the single most successful dalit political formation at the national level. Its success is in contrast to the history of the Dalit Panthers. The Panthers–who borrowed their name from the Black Panthers in the United States–emerged in 1972, comprised mainly of poets and writers. While the Panthers contributed a great deal of revolutionary literature and campaigned against several crimes against dalits, within a few years the movement splintered and became co-opted, joining various government committees and panels. The BSP, on the other hand, has built strong grassroots links with rural areas. BSP politicians prefer to use the term “bahujan samaj” or “society of the backward” rather than dalit in the attempt to build broader based electoral alliances with other backward castes.

However, the “society of the backward” has failed to materialize primarily because of the nature of agrarian relations, which pits backward castes against each other and thus divides the society of the backward. Since brahmins have become urbanized, it is the intermediate backward castes (those just above the “pollution line”) who have become owners of the land on which the dalit is a laborer. This has led several dalit intellectuals to argue that the greater enemy of the dalit is no longer the brahmin but the intermediate castes, which are often placed in a directly competitive position with dalits. Debates on the dalit’s main enemy have divided the community and a united dalit movement remains unlikely.

This high degree of political involvement has been accompanied by heightened intellectual activity. This is seen in the founding of several magazines, such as Dalit Voice, an English-language dalit journal that has completed its twentieth year in publication. Yet the large number of dalit journals has not secured for the dalit journalist a place in the mainstream media. In his article “In Search Of A Dalit Journalist,” B. N. Uniyal writes that when he undertook a survey of national newspapers and magazines to see if any media house employed a dalit, the figure was an astounding zero (Uniyal, 1996). In fact, he reports that editors and senior staffers became angry at him for carrying out this exercise. Among 686 journalists accredited by the government, 454 were upper caste. The remaining 232 did not carry their caste names and in a random sample of 47, not one was a dalit.

The Dalit Writers Forum, in a memorandum submitted to the Press Council (“End Apartheid,” 1997), says the situation is similar in the legal, corporate, banking, software, and cultural sectors. (23) In a survey of Indian matrimonial advertising carried out in 2000, the advertising agency McCann Erickson noted that caste remains as important in the new century as it was four decades ago (McCann Erickson, 2000). Intercaste marriages between dalits and caste Hindus is extremely uncommon. (24) At the University of Delhi, only 6 of the school’s 311 professors are dalits (Xaxa, 2002). The Dalit Writers Forum alleges that an invisible apartheid exists in contemporary India.


To take on the dalit identity is to be a radical soldier for empowerment. To seek to merge with the mainstream would be to renege on dalitness, to risk the opprobrium of the community and social disdain from the upper castes. The exploited dalit must seek radical empowerment. But the empowered dalit remains socially trapped–precisely because his empowerment comes on the basis of the very social category that he is trying to rise from. Significantly, co-optation by the elite of dalit movements has been a significant reason for their own relative powerlessness. Dalits on their own, linguistically and culturally divided as they are, simply do not have the numbers to become a truly mass movement without building links with other minorities, such as Muslims. With the exception of the BSP, dalit movements have found it difficult to grow.

Its been argued that that since Hindu culture is dominated by religion, the intellectual entrapment of the dalit cannot be eased unless a large scale re-writing of the Hindu holy texts takes place (Ilaiah, 2001: 57). In sharp contrast with Jesus or Mohammad, Hindu gods have developed through history as aristocrats. Hindu deities are presented as kings and queens, strengthening the implicit assumption that the poor do not deserve a god.

The upper caste indifference to the dalit, the unwillingness to participate in transformations of the dalit’s condition, emerge from the religious sanctity attached to the dalit’s pariahness. The dalits pariah status in the moral world of the Indian village and town is related to a certain secretive silent conviction about Untouchability. But while it is perhaps true that an overemphasis on caste could obscure the very real issue of the poverty that afflicts all sections of the laboring poor, both the brahmin and the Untouchable remain tenacious moral categories in the Indian subcontinent. “Untouchable” or harijan is still a term of social abuse and prejudice, however much Westernized elites may like to believe that the issue of caste is buried. In the cities, caste practices cannot operate because it is difficult to avoid a stranger’s shadow in a bus or roadside restaurant, yet these practices can be and are enforced in the full range of private social and cultural choices.


(1) Dvija translates as “twice born” or upper caste. Those born into the upper castes are usually invested with a “sacred thread” at investiture ceremonies held for boys about to enter their teens. The investiture ceremony is considered to be the “second birth” into the caste hierarchy.

(2) Upper castes form about 25.5 percent of the total population. At the same time 90.23 percent of A-grade posts in government service are held by upper castes. Dalits hold about 7.18 percent these posts, according to the Mandal Commission Report of the Backward Classes Commission (1980).

According to the Census of India (1991), 77 percent of scheduled castes (SC) and 90 percent of scheduled tribes (ST) are tied to the primary sector. Further, of the total dalit work force in the primary sector, 65 percent of SC and 36 percent of ST are landless agricultural laborers. Over 80 percent of dalit landholdings are either small or marginal plots. Also, 63 percent of SCs and 70 percent STs remain illiterate. We should note here the movement in illiteracy figures. In 1971 only 15 percent of the total dalit population was literate; by 1991 it has reached 37 percent. Only 6 percent of dalit women were literate in 1971. By 1991, the figure stands at 24 percent. Literacy among dalits has been rapid and fairly revolutionary.

(3) The Manusmriti or Laws of Manu is the book of Hindu law and dates from the seventh century A.D.

(4) This was composed between 1500-1000 B.C.

(5) Varna means “color,” a possible development from the early hierarchy perceived between the invading central Asian tribes into the Gangetic plains; these invaders are described as “Aryans” while the indigenous, darker skinned inhabitants are designated “Dasyus” or “Dravidians.” Although correlation between color and caste is misleading, it is assumed that lighter skinned are placed in the upper castes rather than in the dalit category.

(6) One of the worst massacres of dalits took place in December 1997 at Lakshmanpur Bathe village in Bihar, where 67 dalits were slaughtered by the upper-caste Ranvir Sena.

(7) For more on armed conflicts between dalits and other castes and on harijan “atrocities,” see Report of the Committee on Untouchability (1969).

(8) See Harrison (1957).

(9) Kothari and Maru (1965): 99-100. For more on how caste influences modern politics, see also Harrison (1960).

(10) “The Great Leap Forward (2000).

(11) Kayasthas are upper-caste educated “scribes.”

(12) Gandhi’s campaign of cleaning out toilets by the upper castes, forcing his own wife to clear out human waste, and enforcing upper-caste menial labor in his model villages was a fundamental attack on the Untouchability of such labor.

(13) See Srinivas (2002) for more on “sanskritization,” the process of upward mobility within the caste system. Sanskritization is a process through which castes are able to better themselves in the caste hierarchy by first acquiring greater wealth and then emulating the practices of the twice born. Neera Burra (1996) has shown how some rural dalits practiced upper-caste rituals. Burra points out that the penetration of Buddhism among some rural dalits was limited and many, even after the Ambedkarite revolution, continued to worship their old Hindu gods. It may be argued that sankritization might have resulted in some mobility but it is doubtful if dalits have ever been able to rise out of Untouchability through sanskritization.

(14) See Prasad (2000).

(15) The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, political parties that rule the state of Tamil Nadu, were born from Naicker’s Self-Respect Movement. Today they openly ally with religious groups and have created a ritualized hero-worshipping political culture by which political leaders are viewed as gods and indulge in a range of superstitious practices.

(16) Most contemporary observers are sharply divided on the role of caste in Indian politics. Caste has been seen as the engine of social change and as a means of fracturing social unity and weakening nationalism. For more on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s attempts to shed its upper-caste image and become a more “backward caste”-friendly party, see Jaffrelot (1993).

(17) Reservations have been the single most important avenue by which a Dalit middle class has emerged. The SCs are guaranteed 15 percent of the seats and the STs 7.5 percent of the seats in the Lok Sabha (national parliament) and state legislatures. Reservations provisions, which were slated to end in the 1960s, have been extended. (A similar percentage of seats for the SCs and the STs have been established in the central government.)

(18) Upper castes particularly resent the benefits that have accrued to the “dalit elite.” “Large numbers of educated harijan elite have little active concern for their caste fellows…. [A]lienated from their own base … [they] have risen high in the social hierarchy and snapped their ties with their bleak past…. [T] hey seek a re-alignment with status and power groups in the wider society” (Sacchidanand, 1977: 170).

(19) For a critique of the Mandal Report, see Radhakrishnan (1996: 129).

(20) Since the declaration, the government of the state of Madhya Pradesh has awarded the first private contract (worth about $500) to a dalit businessman and has committed itself to awarding more. Dalits have called for “supplier diversity” in the private sector in the belief that unless dalits are able to choose their own occupation, instead of having traditional occupations imposed on them because of their caste, there will be no escape from the ghetto.

(21) Dalit intellectuals like Kancha Ilaiah advocate mass English-language schools at the primary level to raise educational levels among dalits.

(22) The BSP was formed on April 14, 1984, in Delhi. The following figures indicate the BSP’s performance in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly:

1989: 9.83 percent of popular vote, won 13 legislative assembly seats.

1991: 9.2 percent of popular vote, won 12 legislative assembly seats.

1993: 11.2 percent of the vote; with a pre-poll alliance with the Sama jwadi Party, won 67 legislative assembly seats.

1995: Mayawati becomes chief minister with the BJP’s support.

1996: 20.06 percent of the vote; with pre-poll alliance with Congress, won 67 seats.

1997: Mayawati becomes chief minister again, with BJP as a coalition partner.

2002: 23 percent of the popular vote, won 99 legislative assembly seats.

(23) The memorandum reports that of the 3 million teachers employed in 256 universities and 11,000 colleges in India, only 2 percent are dalits. In 1993, 14 dalit judges served on the Delhi High Court and several hundreds were in the lower judiciary; further up the scale, on the Supreme Court or in the higher judiciary, the number of dalit judges fell dramatically.

(24) The killing of a high-caste brahmin boy and a lower-caste girl for falling in love and violating caste codes was widely reported. See Times Of India, August 8, 2001. There have been many such incidents, although this was one of the few in which the victims were killed by their own families.


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Sagarika Ghose, a novelist and journalist, has been closely involved with the movement among Dalit intellectuals of north India to find a voice within the cultural mainstream. Her novel, The Gin Drinkers (2000), is based on the manner in which the Indian upper castes have monopolized modern education and describes how Dalits have been ghettoized into the “political” and “official” realms.

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