India's Untouchables: The Dalits

By Ninian, Alex | Contemporary Review, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

India's Untouchables: The Dalits


Ninian, Alex, Contemporary Review


IN the Indian caste system for many centuries, some say 3,000 years, there has been a group of people at the bottom of the scale--some may say off the scale altogether. Originally, and for ages, they were known as Untouchables and are often still known as such today.

For generations it was accepted that this was just part of the pattern of life and there was little said or done to change it, at least by those who were not in the unfortunate position of being one of the Untouchables. Mahatma Gandhi was one of the first people of power or influence who saw the saw the system as being morally wrong and who took up the cause of these people. Gandhi coined the term Harijan in the hope that the use of this term to describe the same group would provide a better image. There is a theory that the word 'Harijan' derives from 'Harf which is another name for the god Vishnu and it was intended to convey the idea of 'Children of God'.

However for some reason it never caught on and, although everyone will know what it means, it is relatively little used now and is regarded as dated and patronising. Some people even interpret it as an insult or a disgrace. The word Dalit has come into universal use in Hindi and in English to describe what was once known as 'Untouchable' or Harijan. Based on the ancient word 'dal', it means 'suppressed' or "oppressed" and is regarded nowadays as a more accurate and realistic description of the group and it is obviously less patronising. But, despite the change of language, the life, or plight, of most Dalits has changed little and improved little over time.

Traditionally in India the main castes have been the Brahmins, the priestly class, Kshatriyas, the soldier class, Vaisyas, the trader class, and Sudras, the cultivator class. Brahmin is another word that has entered into English, strangely more in American rather than British usage. The term 'Boston Brahmin' refers to upper-class Bostonians of old lineage and distinction. Among many other things, the caste system defines not only social status but which jobs or professions their members may pursue and whom they may marry. The Dalits fall outside the whole caste system and are primarily defined as people who have no caste at all. This means that where the caste system still operates, Dalits can marry only other Dalits and may be engaged only in the most menial jobs.

History

Something like two thirds of the total population of India live in the villages or country areas away from the main towns and cities. That is about 800 million people depending on your definition and where you draw the line. Half of these cannot read or write and they live a remote, rural, self-contained, agricultural life which has changed little in centuries and which is governed by age-old conventions and traditions. It is in many of these areas that the caste system remains strong and a normal part of everyday life and, where this applies, Dalits can only work in jobs involving animal carcasses, leather, night soil, scavenging and the like. The caste system is much reduced in urban areas and may even be dying out but it is still very common in towns and cities to see Dalits doing the toilet cleaning jobs, floor sweeping and street cleaning.

In some country areas, the remains of the worst oppression and segregation live on and there are still places where Dalits live in segregated communities and the only contact they have with higher caste people is in doing the menial jobs in their villages. In many cases they still have to make sure that they never come into physical contact with higher caste people and may even have to ensure that they do not touch anything which is going to be touched by higher caste people so they cannot go near eating places or water sources. Some have had to sweep the ground where they had walked to remove the pollution of their footsteps. Untouchability indeed!

History books and literature, even current literature, have stories and descriptions of caste people going out of their way to avoid even the shadow of a Dalit or, worse, Dalits having to walk in such a way as to make sure that their shadow does not fall on a caste person. …

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