Dalits, also known as untouchables, are members of the lowest social status group in the Hindu caste system. A Dalit is actually born below the caste system, which includes the four primary castes of Brahmins (priests), Kshatriya (warriors and princes), Vaisya (farmers and artisans) and Shudra (tenant farmers or servants).
Just like the eta outcasts in Japan, India's untouchables performed spiritually contaminating work that nobody else wanted to do - tasks like preparing bodies for funerals, tanning hides, and killing rats or other pests. Under both Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, these jobs that involved death corrupted the workers' souls, making them unfit to mingle with other kinds of people.
Humans were born as untouchables as a form of punishment for misbehavior in a previous life. If a person was born in to the untouchable caste, she or he could not ascend to a higher caste within that lifetime; untouchables had to marry fellow untouchables, and could not eat in the same room or drink from the same well as a caste member. In Hindu reincarnation theories, however, those who scrupulously followed these restrictions could be rewarded for their good behavior by a promotion to a caste in their next life.
The caste system and the oppression of untouchables prevailed (and still holds some sway) in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh. Interestingly, even some non-Hindu social groups observed caste separation norms in those countries.
Reform and the Dalit Rights Movement
In the nineteenth century, the ruling British Raj tried to break down some aspects of the caste system in India, particularly those surrounding the untouchables. British liberals saw the treatment of untouchables as singularly cruel (perhaps in part because they themselves usually did not believe in reincarnation). Indian reformers also took up the cause. Jyotirao Phule coined the term "Dalit" as a more descriptive and sympathetic term for the untouchables; literally, it means "the crushed people."
During India's push for independence, activists such as Mohandas Gandhi also took up the cause of the dalits. Gandhi called them the harijan, meaning "children of God," to emphasize their humanity. The constitution of newly-independent India identified groups of former untouchables as "Scheduled castes," singling them out for special consideration and government assistance. As with the Meiji Japanese designation of former hinin and eta outcasts as "new commoners," this actually served to emphasize the distinction rather than to assimilate the traditionally downtrodden groups into larger society.
Today, the dalits have become a powerful political force in India, and enjoy greater access to education than ever before. Some Hindu temples even allow dalits to act as priests; traditionally, they were not allowed to set foot on temple grounds, and only Brahmins could serve as priests. Although they still face discrimination from some quarters, the dalits are untouchable no longer.
Michael, S.M. Untouchable: Dalits in Modern India, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1999.
Perez, Rosa Maria. Kings and Untouchables: A Study of the Caste System in Western India, Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, 2004.
Also Known As: Panchamas, Scheduled Castes, Ashprush, Harijan, Chandala, Domba