Minorities in India – Dalits
By Palak Mathur and Jessica Singh
A minority is a sociological group that does not constitute a politically dominant voting majority of the total population of a given society. In socio-economics, the term “minority” typically refers to a socially subordinate ethnic group. Physical existence of majority and minority group is an outcome of the differential treatment which the groups are experiencing – one enjoying the privileges whereas other being deprived of such privileges.
In India, we have minority groups that can be identified in terms of religion, caste, creed and race. Dalits are one of them. Dalit is a term for a group of people traditionally regarded as untouchables (outcastes) or of low caste. The word ‘Dalits’ comes from the Hindi root dal and means ‘held under check’, ‘suppressed’ or ‘crushed’ — or, in a looser sense, ‘oppressed’. The usage of the term “Dalit” seems to have originated from the Arya Samaj and their dalitoddhāra (“improvement of the downtrodden”) program. The Arya Samaj began the All India Shraddhanand Dalitodwar Sabha to improve the lot of Dalits.
The Constitution of India provides for Fundamental rights, which include freedom of religion. Clauses also provide for Freedom of Speech, as well as separation of executive and judiciary and freedom of movement within the country and abroad. It is often held, particularly by Indian human rights groups and activists that members of the Dalit or Untouchable caste have suffered and continue to suffer substantial discrimination. Although human rights problems do exist in India, the country is generally not regarded as a human rights concern, unlike other countries in South Asia. Based on these considerations, the report Freedom in the World 2006 by Freedom House gave India a political rights rating of 2, and a civil liberties rating of 3, earning it the designation of free.
In constitutional terms, Dalits are known as scheduled castes. There are currently 166.6 million Dalits in India. The constitution requires the government to define a list or schedule of the lowest castes in need of compensatory programmes. These scheduled castes include untouchable converts to Sikhism but exclude converts to Christianity and Buddhism; the groups that are excluded and continue to be treated as untouchables probably constitute another 2 per cent of the population.
The roots of Dalit oppression go back to the origins of the caste system in Hindu religion. The philosophy of caste is contained in the Manusmriti, a sacred Hindu text dating from the second century BCE. The dalit’s pariah status derives its strength and justification from religious texts. In the Manusmriti, 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. 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. ‘Untouchable’ outcast communities were forbidden to join in the religious and social life of the community and were confined to menial polluting tasks such as animal slaughter and leather-working. The introduction of Islam to India from about the thirteenth century AD led to widespread conversions by many low-caste and ‘untouchable’ groups, and by the mid-nineteenth century about one quarter of the population was Muslim.
During the struggle for Indian independence two different approaches emerged for the improvement of the situation of the people now known as Dalits. The first was led by Mahatma Gandhi, who believed in raising the status of Dalit people (or, as he preferred to call them, Harijans) while retaining elements of the traditional caste system but removing the degrading stigma and manifestations of ‘untouchability’. The other approach was led by Dr Ambedkar, a lawyer and himself an ‘untouchable’, who believed that only by destroying the caste system could ‘untouchability’ be destroyed. Ambedkar became the chief spokesperson for those ‘untouchables’ who demanded separate legal and constitutional recognition similar in status to that accorded to Muslims, Sikhs and Christians. However, this was opposed by Gandhi and Ambedkar eventually gave up the demand. After rejecting Hindu values, in 1956 he converted to Buddhism and was later followed by a large number of converts.
After independence, the Indian constitution abolished untouchability in law. Today Dalit politics largely centres on the just dispensation of the affirmative action benefits granted to them under constitution. Various laws were made that were derived from Constitution like the Protection of Civil Rights Act 1955/1976 and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989. However, these laws remain ineffective in their implementation.
Politically, dalits have not been able to participate in mainstream debates and discussions despite the system of much-debated reservations that works both at national and state levels. Almost 90 per cent of Dalits live in rural areas. Economic exploitation remains their most acute problem. They are almost all marginal farmers or landless labourers. Large numbers migrate to cities or to labour-scarce rural areas in different parts of India. Many are in debt and are obliged to work-off their debts as bonded labour, despite the fact that this practice was abolished by law in 1976. In these cases a labourer takes a loan from a landlord or moneylender and in return agrees to work for that person until the debt has been repaid. In practice such debts are difficult to repay as interest rates are high and poverty forces the labourer into deeper debt. The debt can then be passed on to the next generation and it is almost impossible to escape the cycle of bondage. In some areas many high-caste landlords pay their Dalit labourers minimum wages in cash or food, or nothing at all; resistance is frequently met by violence, sometimes resulting in the death or injury of the victim. Mob violence against Dalit communities is frequently reported, sometimes led by landlords, and has been especially noticeable in situations where Dalit workers have joined labour unions or made progress in gaining education and economic mobility.
The empirical evidence shows that their capability deprivation with regard to other caste groups is higher. Recent data from Census 2001 shows that the literacy rates for the SCs was as low as 55 percent, compared to a national average of 69 percent. Similarly, the life expectancy estimates for 1998-99 show that at national level, the life expectancy for Dalits was 62 years and 66 for other castes. The infant mortality rate among the SCs was around 83 per thousand live births which was considerably higher than for the other caste (68 per thousand). The percentage of under-nourished children at national level was 54 percent for the SCs, and 44 percent for the non-SCs. An average of 44.15 percent of Dalits households did not have access to health care services, while this figure amounted to 37% for other households.
Similarly, in terms of access to property or resources, such as ownership of agricultural land, 56% of Dalits owned less than one acre (of which 47.5% owned less than half acre). Landless and near landless (that is, those owning less than one acre) put together
account nearly 70% of the total Dalits in 1991. Dalits have also witnessed an increase of 2.4 per cent in crime (from 26,252 cases against Dalits reported in 2003 to 26,887 cases in 2004.
Reservation has been in existence since its inception without any interruption. This has helped in creation of new educated Dalit middle class, but this is relatively and proportionately very low. The majority of Dalits still fail to utilize the privileges under this scheme.
A majority of Dalit Children in both rural and urban areas do not attend schools. Though education documents assure us that schools are available within walking distance to all children in rural areas, this does not even hold if one looks more closely at official statistics. Further, given the spatial segregation of Dalit communities in villages and among them specially those who traditionally remove night soil and the fact that schools are located within the upper caste areas, the question of how socially accessible schools are is also relevant.
Dalits and Religion
Dalits are not limited to the religion of Hinduism, but they are present in other religions too.
Islam: Muslim society in India can also be separated into several caste-like groups. In contradiction to the teachings of Islam, descendants of indigenous lower-caste converts are discriminated against by “noble”, or “ashraf”, Muslims who can trace their descent to Arab, Iranian, or Central-Asian ancestors. There are several groups in India working to emancipate them from upper-caste Muslim discrimination.
The Dalit Muslims are referred to by the Ashraf and Ajlaf Muslims as Arzal or “ritually degraded”. They were first recorded in the 1901 census as those “with whom no other Muhammadan would associate, and who are forbidden to enter the mosque or to use the public burial ground”. They are relegated to “menial” professions such as scavenging and carrying night soil.
Ambedkar wrote about the Dalit Muslims and was extremely critical of their mistreatment by upper-caste Muslims, writing: “Within these groups there are castes with social precedence of exactly the same nature as one finds among the Hindus.”
Sikhism: Dalits form a class among the Sikhs who stratify their society according to traditional casteism. The most recent controversy was at the Talhan village Gurudwara near Jalandhar where there was a dispute between JatSikhs and Ravidasia Sikhs. The Different Sikh Dalits are Ravidasia Sikh and Mazhabi Sikh. Although Sikhism does not recognize the Caste System, many families, especially the ones with immediate cultural ties to India, generally do not marry among different castes.
There are sects such as the Adi-Dharmis who have now abandoned Sikh Temples and the 5 Ks. They are like the Ravidasis and regard Ravidas as their guru. They are also clean shaven as opposed to the mainstream Sikhs. Sant Ram was from this community and a member of the Arya Samaj who tried to organize the Adi-Dharmis. Other Sikh groups include Jhiwars, Bazigars, Rai Sikh (many of whom are Ravidasias.) Just as with Hindu Dalits, there has been violence against Sikh Dalits.
Christianity: Across India, many Christian communities still follow the caste system. Sometimes the social stratification remains unchanged and in some cases such as among Goan Christians, the stratification varies as compared to the Hindu system. Conversion to Christianity does not necessarily free Dalits from the bondage of the caste system.
Buddhism: In Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and a few other regions, Dalits have come under the influence of the neo-Buddhist movement initiated by Ambedkar. Some of them have come under the influence of the Neo-Buddhist and Christian Missionaries and have converted away from Hinduism into religions such as Christianity and Buddhism in what they have been told is an “attempt to eliminate the prejudice they face”.
Steps taken by Government of India
The Infrastructure and Project Monitoring Division (IPMD) in the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation monitors the performance of infrastructure sectors and Central sector projects costing Rs.20 crore and above. Under this division was set up a Twenty Point Programme(TPP) with the objective of improving the quality of life of people, especially those living below poverty line. As per TPP-2006 there are 20 points and 65 items. TPP-2006 includes Anusuchit Jaati, Jan Jaati, Alp-sankhyak evam Anya Pichhre Varg Kalyan [Welfare of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Minorities and OBCs] as one of its points.
After independence, the Government of India has taken number of steps to strengthen the educational base of the persons belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
The National Policy on Education 1986, updated in 1992 envisages paying greater attention to the education of the educationally backward minorities in the interest of
equity and social justice. In pursuance of the revised Programme of Action (POA) 1992, two new Centrally-sponsored schemes, i.e., (i) Scheme of Area Intensive Programme for Educationally Backward Monorities; and (ii) Scheme of Financial Assistance for Modernisation of Madarsa Education were launched during 1993-94. Over a time, it has been felt that all these schemes need to be implemented in an integrated way so as to have wider coverage, greater thrust and visibility of minority education programme. In the Tenth Plan the aforesaid two schemes have been merged to form the Area Intensive and Madarsa Modernisation Programme. The National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions 2004 has been set-up by an Act of Parliament under which minority education institutions can seek affiliation to Scheduled Universities. University of Delhi, North Eastern Hill University; Pondicherry University; Assam University; Nagaland University and Mizoram University are at present in the Schedule.
The Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation has updated the National Housing and Habitat Policy, 1998. The new National Urban Housing and Habitat Policy, 2007 (NUHHP-2007), has been finalised in consultation with all concerned and laid in the Parliament on 07.12.2007. The new Policy is aimed to provide housing and other basic infrastructure to economically weaker sections, low income groups and other sections of the society at affordable cost. This policy lays special emphasis on SC/ST/BC/Minorities.
Government of India have come up with various schemes for the upliftment of Dalits. In 2006, the Government has drawn up and implemented a reservation policy through a legislative enactment in Parliament that will entitle members of Other Backward Classes (OBCs), both Hindu and Muslim, to avail of fifty per cent of seats in all government educational institutions and all government-aided and sponsored educational institutions. This is in consonance with the objectives of the Ninth Five Year Plan (1997-2002) that chooses to enhance ‘growth with social justice and equity’. It needs to be mentioned that the Ninth Plan emphasizes on the removal of historical social wrongs through the vehicle of private participation and private ownership in industry.
Though the government has taken many steps and measures for the upliftment of Dalits and to bring them to the mainstream, these steps fall short due to lack of political will and very less awareness or lack of it among the people about the scheme. There is a-state driven-transfer of economic power that is slowly taking shape from the urban, westernized, educated upper-castes to the rural masses and intermediary castes. This has been manifest in various densely-populated states across the country like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. The politics of this newly emerging constituent class has re-defined Indian politics since 1991 after the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report (1990). In its report of 1980, the Commission endorsed the affirmative action policies existing in Indian law whereby lower castes (also known as Other Backward Classes and Scheduled Castes and Tribes) were provided with exclusive access to a certain proportion in higher education and governmental jobs and recommend changes to the quota system by increasing these to 49.5 per cent (a rise of 27 per cent).
It is amply clear that various issues related to minorities have started putting pressure on the policy formulation and implementation by the government. Also, the dominant heterogeneous groups are quite fragmented and that government policy cannot be faulted for working to further the interests of any particular group as such. However, there are substantial difficulties; these include problems with the implementation of policies currently dealing with property rights and interests and the restructuring of rights of religious minorities. The plurality existing within the political framework and the pressures generated by the polity is now seeing a continuous process of social churning affecting the position of minority groups.
The schemes that are run on papers need to reach the masses for which the people need to be made aware about these schemes and how to utilize these schemes. India has been running caste-based Reservation since independence for the upliftment of Dalits. And many Dalits have utilized the scheme and attained good positions too. These new educated Dalits should come forward and spread the word among others so that they may also benefit from this. Government of India has brought various Education Schemes but most of them have failed. The government should address these issues and concerns of the people by recognizing their felt needs. Until and unless these people are educated, their upliftment is a distant step. Another important issue is of Power, the power structure curtails the freedom of Dalits to choose to live as they desire. It plays a fundamental role in the perpetuation of their poverty. Assessing the power structure of the caste system is important to understand the dynamics of well-being of Dalits. We need to realise that a formal recognition of diversity by the state is indispensable; it can minimize the disadvantages faced by a community in the public arena and create new opportunities for it.
- India 2009 – Publication Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India
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- Dalits on Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dalit
- Minority Group on Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minority_group