Academic journal article Polish Sociological Review

Between Exclusion and Exclusivity: Dalits in Contemporary India

Academic journal article Polish Sociological Review

Between Exclusion and Exclusivity: Dalits in Contemporary India

Article excerpt

Abstract: The article explores the alternative strategies adopted by the lowest caste groups known by the generic term dalits to improve their social status in India. The mapping of various strategies has been done by taking into consideration the four historical stages, namely, medieval period, renaissance, postcolonial modernity and postmodernity. It has been argued that in these stages different strategies were employed by the dalits. It is in the postmodern state that the dalit discourse of equality has shifted its emphasis from inclusion and equality to exclusivity and difference. There are two predominant dalit discourses, each complimenting the other, in contemporary India. The first is the use of democratic means to claim power at the formal level by creating a distinct voter-constituency through the articulation of dalit identity. The second is a strong articulation of the exclusiveness of the dalit experience. The argument is that the dalit experience cannot be comprehended by non-dalits as a result of which only dalit can theorise his experience.

Keywords: Exclusion, exclusivity, dalit, postcolonial, modernity, dalit intellectuals, Bhakti movement, equality.

The expression 'dalit' is now synonymous with the lowest sections of the traditional Indian society, who were known by different names at different points of time. 'Untouchables,' depressed classes, schedules castes, underprivileged castes, etc. are some of the names given to them. At present they constitute about 15 per cent of the population of India - the number which could be higher than a large number of countries of the world. With the exception of north-eastern tribal part of India, the caste system is most common form of social organisation of India, which provides a broad context of thinking of and conceptualising Indian society. Various studies suggest that caste is found among other religious communities, particularly among Sikhs, Christians and Muslims - a result of conversion of people in India. However, understanding caste and dalits is not an easy task, because there has been a great degree of complexity in the caste hierarchy largely due to variations in culture, social practices, and religious practices across the country within Hindu community. Caste system among the non-Hindu religious communities offers another difficulty in making a clear-cut generalisation about the Indian society. Despite the presence of caste hierarchies in these religious communities, there have been noticeable differences among them from the Hindu caste hierarchy. For example, many of the castes that occupy upper caste status among the Sikhs are lower castes among the Hindus (Judge 2002). Despite all these difficulties, it is possible to make certain broad generalisations about caste system. Certain common properties/markers of caste have been succinctly delineated here. The purpose of this exercise is to situate dalits in the Indian social structure with its major specific features.

First, in virtual all regions of the country two broad divisions exist among the numerous caste communities, namely, the separation between manual and non-manual labour. All those castes that are involved, in ideal typical sense, in non-manual occupations are bracketed as twice-born upper castes. Two occupations that come immediately to the mind as exceptions are swordsmanship and cooking, as these were performed by upper castes. However, the reason for these occupations' higher status is quite obvious. All the caste communities which were doing manual labour were regarded as lower castes. There have been two kinds of manual labour - unclean and clean. The castes involved in unclean/dirty/polluting work were considered untouchables whose touch could pollute the upper caste people. In this way, the dalits belonged to the lowest rungs of the Indian society.

Second, all the dalit castes faced discrimination and exclusion, which varied across castes and regions. One of the prevalent discriminations was that they were not allowed to touch the upper caste people. …

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