The Untouchable Caste: Who Are The Dalits?

By Antonia Čirjak on February 10 2020 in Society

The official term for Dalits in India is Scheduled Castes. Credit: CatherineLProd /
The official term for Dalits in India is Scheduled Castes. Credit: CatherineLProd /
  • Dalits are called avarna because they do not belong to any of the casts. People that do belong within the casts are called savarna.
  • The fight to end the deeply rooted discrimination started during the 19th century, when those who have been outside of the castes have begun to organize themselves
  • A huge number of Dalit families live in extreme poverty and are discriminated even in the school system and the health services.

The Dalits are a population of people living in India and certain regions of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Nepal. They are considered contaminated from the day they were born and are faced with significant discrimination. Because of this, they are often called the “Untouchables”.

They are often violently attacked due to their low social position. They have continuously been held back by the rest of society and are not considered to be a part of the Hindu caste system. People from higher social classes consider them to be below the caste system. The official term for Dalits in India is Scheduled Castes.

The Hindu Caste System

The Varna system describes the caste system in Hinduism. The word varna can mean class, order, or type. It refers to different social classes in old Hindu texts that divide the society into four castes (varnas). The first caste is the Brahmins, which are teachers and priests, people that deal with knowledge and information. The Kshatriyas are a caste that gathers warriors, rulers, and different officials. Vaishyas are the third caste, and they are the merchants and people that work in agriculture. Finally, we have the Shudras, which are laborers that provide various services.

Old Nepali Brahmin woman
Old Nepali Brahmin woman. Credit: Matt Hahnewald /

People belonging to one of the castes are called savarna. The Dalits do not fall in any of them, so they are called avarna. The caste system in Hinduism is very clearly designed to divide society, forming social stratification. Their social status defines people, and the upper castes can openly discriminate against the lower ones. However, the discrimination is mostly felt by those outside the system, below the castes, such as the Dalits.

The History Of Dalits

Dalits as a movement is generally considered to have gained its start during the 19th century. It is then that the people outside the castes have begun to organize themselves and search for places where they would not be discriminated against. In 1950, after India gained its independence, the Constitution of India was introduced. In certain parts, it was dealing with suggestions and measures on how to improve the position of Dalits in society. One of the measures was organizing special reservations where Dalits could live without being attacked. Communities that were classified as Dalits, or Scheduled Castes officially, also got a certain number of seats in government and educational positions. 

In time, more and more important positions in society have been held by Dalits. However, this didn’t have a significant influence on how the other castes in India perceive them. According to research, their quality of life is still far worse than that of the rest of the population. The majority of Dalit families live below the poverty line. A lot of human rights activists are dealing with this problem every day. The treatment of Dalits in Indian society is not something that is talked about much in global media. However, it is an enormous problem that can be compared to apartheid.  

Korku tribe is scheduled tribe community
Members of the Korku tribe; a Scheduled tribe community. Credit: CRS PHOTO /

The Discrimination Of Dalits

Dalits have been believed to be impure by the higher castes. They believed that the existence of Dalits causes pollution. That belief is partly tied to the type of work Dalits did during history, which was tied to cleaning and possibly even dealing with feces. Dalit children are discriminated against in schools, going so far that, in most cases, they are forbidden from touching the meals during lunch. Dalits are also discriminated against through healthcare; they are avoided by doctors and are often banned from entering shops with rations. 

There are often disputes between Dalits and other castes because some Dalits are still able to have some economic success despite being heavily prejudiced. Those disputes often end in violence. However, since adopting the term Dalit, and it becoming more popular, they have become more aware of the situation. That has brought about the rise in their demands for more constitutional and legal rights. Another thing worth mentioning is that discrimination against Dalits has been slightly lower in urban areas, but is still very much prevalent in more rural areas. 

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