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What is a Dalit?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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In the Indian caste system, a dalit is someone who is without caste. There are several other terms for dalits, including untouchables, outcastes, kanjjar, bhangi, harijan, and chura. “Dalit” is the more socially acceptable term, adopted to express the systemic impression which people without caste have endured over thousands of years of Indian culture. Numerous organizations have lobbied to change the way that dalits are treated in Indian society, and a number of laws have been passed in attempts to outlaw discrimination.

The Indian caste system is quite complex, and based in the Hindu religion although people of all religions are divided into castes in India, along with several other nations. For thousands of years, caste was a crucial determining factor in where someone fit into society, and the rigid system did not have room for social climbing or efforts against discrimination. There are four castes in India, also known as varnas; people who do not fall into any caste are considered dalits, and their lack of caste turns them into social pariahs.

Because a dalit essentially lacks divinity, he or she may be assigned to menial labor which higher castes believe is polluting. Dalits have traditionally participated in animal slaughter, garbage collection, sewage handling, and dealing with cadavers. These polluting vocations only enforce the status of dalits, with upper castes forcing them to use different facilities, and to avoid handling or touching people of caste. In some parts of India, dalits were not even allowed to cast a shadow onto upper class members of Indian society.

In the twentieth century, Indian society underwent numerous reforms, including a formal rejection of the caste system. In practice, this rejection has been difficult to enforce in some regions of India, as the social roles dictated by caste are so embedded into Indian society. However, legislation against the caste system has allowed dalits more civil rights, providing access to education, healthcare, and social services. Many dalits unfortunately continue to perform menial work, and some are bonded laborers, essentially slaves who must work to pay off debts.

Many social justice organizations advocate for people with a dalit status. Their efforts have made life as a dalit much easier in modern India, and they have laid the groundwork for progressive antidiscrimination legislation. While the caste system in India is unlikely to disappear altogether, changes in Indian society allow people to move around more freely in society, pursuing personal hopes and dreams in addition to living in accordance with religious and cultural values.

PublicPeople is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon340327 — On Jul 02, 2013

What are examples of Dalits?

By anon192635 — On Jul 02, 2011

I would like to comment here, so that I can clear up a few things. Apartheid and such maligns are visible to the naked eye, but just as no amount of light can conquer the darkness in every nook and crevice, similarly, no atrocity and discrimination can be completed gotten rid of.

The mere reason for me to share my opinion is because, what the governmental and non-governmental agencies are doing is, creating a quota. Something that should be rightfully ours (just as any other citizen's rights), is only presented to us because the law says so. We are given economic, educational and social reservations, which in turn creates an envious animosity against us.

What the scene was a hundred years ago, it's the same. The only difference being, that the "upper" castes, or the non-dalits, have to accept the fact by law. But still, animosity and discrimination reigns in the corners of their hearts, which can be seen in various acts which are not under law, like offending someone or insulting someone. These invisible discriminations can only be gotten rid of if the people who pray to god for karma and moksha (freedom of the soul to attain peace) learn to get rid of the illusory superiority.

As long as people feel they are compelled, that they are better than others, because some religious book tells them, we are not going to ever live in a peaceful world.

It's like asking this question: "Does god love you more than he loves me?" --Gaurav F.

By bear78 — On Mar 31, 2011

I think India has gotten far and is moving towards ending the discrimination against Dalits. It may seem slow but I have full confidence in it. I think as Indians are more educated and get to experience other cultures first-hand, they will notice more and more the discrimination that is taking place.

Has anyone heard of Ruth Manorama and the National Federation of Dalit Women? I read about her in a magazine about NGOs. She is the President of this organization and has started a campaign called

"Dalits among the Dalits." She and others are working to end discrimination and improve the lives of Dalits, especially Dalit women in India. The best part is that she is of Dalit background herself and she is even one of the nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize.

So Ruth Manorama is an example to Dalits in India and proof that they can change their lives. Efforts such as these will have great impact and I believe will be a source of hope and aspiration for Dalits.

By candyquilt — On Mar 30, 2011

I heard that the caste system was started to point out which occupations a family or person worked in. Because children often took up the family occupation and continued it and so did their children and so on.

But I guess at some point, the system turned into discrimination. I was born and raised in the U.S. but my mom tells me a lot about growing up and going to school in India. She says that in school, her cast was written next to her name and the teachers knew which cast each student belonged to.

My grandmother also was resistant to my mom playing or making friends with kids of lower castes and also kids of different religions. And I think in many towns in India, there is huge opposition to inter-caste marriages and many of them result in murder of the couple. They call this honor killings and law enforcement rarely if ever does anything.

Universities also allocate a certain number of seats for each caste. Once a certain cast fills up, the other students who applied are refused. That means that even institutions of education are more concerned about cast rather than intelligence and capacity in students.

By discographer — On Mar 27, 2011

I personally think that the belief of karma and reincarnation in Hinduism is why Dalits have been enduring so much discrimination and ill treatment in India.

I have Indian friends and we watch Indian cinema together sometimes. I noticed a trend through these films that people who are not happy with their lives and life standards are told to endure whatever they experience because it must be a result of their karma- the things they have done in their past lives.

I think the Dalits are forced to believe that they were bad people in their past lives, and so that is why they must live as a Dalit now. I think they also believe that if they endure these challenging life conditions, if they don't resist or rebel to it, they will be reborn into a better life.

I'm glad that both the governmental and non-governmental organizations in India are working to end Dalit discrimination, the caste system and its implications. But I also understand that it's not an easy thing to accomplish because these beliefs are embedded in the society and the religion.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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