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Essay: Dalits: Overcoming Oppression in India

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Caste systems were integrated into many ancient religions, including Hinduism. The philosophy of this social hierarchy dates back to 3,000 years, as it appears in the Rig Veda, one of the sacred texts of Hinduism. This text discusses the four varnas or groups, in which people in the society are separated into. These four main groups are known as, the Brahmanas, Ksatriyas, Vaisyas, and Sudras. Outside of this fourfold system are the Dalits, or “untouchables” of society who perform the low-status and degrading jobs. While the caste hierarchy is generally based on occupation, the concepts of ritual purity and pollution play a role, as well. For example, the higher the caste the greater purity the people in that caste maintain. Additionally, the lower castes, especially the Dalits, are viewed as polluting to the upper castes. Those who usually partake in such polluting occupations are expected to avoid those above them so as not to pollute the other groups. For such reasons, many lower caste individuals live on the outskirts of Indian villages. Furthermore, people are born into their castes and take up occupations similar to their parents, without opportunity, except through reincarnation, to rise into a caste above. Because of such stagnant and unfair resources offered to the lower castes, especially the Dalits, this paper will argue that such social hierarchy was inhumane towards the “untouchables”, and despite the modernizing of Hinduism discriminatory stereotypes still exist.

The term Dalit emerged during the 1970s during the Dalit Panther’s movement in Maharashtra. After this movement, the people comprising the lowest strata of Hindu society, especially the Dalit Panthers, argued that they preferred to be called Dalits. Everyone who was exploited politically, economically, and religiously was contained in this group. On the other hand, sociologically, this term identifies anyone known as an untouchable and faced social exclusion. Such person is not merely financially struggling, but struggling culturally and religiously, as well. In fact, T.K. Oommen, an Indian sociologist, claimed that Dalit consciousness, “encapsulates deprivations stemming from inhuman conditions of material existence, powerlessness and ideological hegemony” (Kumar, 2005, pg. 517). Such inhumane conditions are prevalent not only in the past when the caste system dominated Hindu society but also in the modern world, in which huge strides have been made to make each human equal.

While the origin of the Hindu caste system is shrouded, it is estimated to have originated over two thousand years ago. In the Laws of Manu, Manu attempts to explain this origin through successions of offspring resulting from inappropriate intermarriage between various varnas or classes. On the other hand, mingling between specific castes or jātis was especially looked down upon in the past. Jāti is essentially akin to a self-imposed designation as a particular species or kind. Therefore, activities such as having sexual relations, eating the same foods together, or participating in particular religious rites with persons outside of one’s birth group are not only considered destructive but that they go against the natural order. However, there are some events, in which people from separate jātis must interact. For example, at village gatherings, people from mixed jātis might need to eat together. During such times caste divisions are most evident. Efforts are made to separate the various groups or acknowledge their hierarchical status. Essentially those in lower castes are belittled by placing those in higher groups on platforms so that they are literally higher than the lower groups (Rodrigues, 2010, pg. 61). While such strict accommodations existed more frequently in the past, diminishing stereotypes of those in the lower caste still exist today, creating inhumane aspects of society.

The origins of the Untouchables, specifically, are found in early scriptural references such as the Upanishads and Buddhist texts. However, these works the Untouchables were referred to as candalas, rather than Dalits. In certain regions, candalas were required to live outside of towns and villages and to signal their arrival into the town. Manu claimed that they should dress in clothes of corpses so as to be recognized and avoided. The extent to which they were avoided went to extremes in the past. Eventually, reform movements transpired and efforts to restore the diminished status of the Untouchables were led. In fact, Mahatma Gandhi eventually began referring to such people as Harijans, meaning children of God. Furthermore, the Government of India officially abolished Untouchability. However, despite these reforms and laws past, which will be discussed in further detail later in this paper, the stigmatization of the Dalit is deeply rooted in Hindu culture, supported by scriptural injunctions and religious practices that have endured for millennia. (Rodrigues, 2010, pg. 66). In fact, such stigmatization was catalyzed by the colonialism of India.

In his book Caste, Colonialism and Counter-Modernity Debjani Ganguly discusses the step that caste system took into the twenty-first century, particularly in regards to colonialism. Ganguly presents arguments from various critics, in which they claim that the British were responsible for conceptualizing the caste system in new ways that continue to be hegemonic particularly in Indian politics (Ganguly, 2005, pg. 35). One of these critics, Nicholas Dirk went as far as to claim that, “under colonialism, caste was . . . made out to be . . . far more pervasive, far more totalizing, and far more uniform that it had ever been before” (Ganguly, 2005, pg. 36). In attempting to transform the Indian culture during colonization, the British compounded the stale qualities and traditions such as the caste system. Essentially, most of the British believed that India had an ancient civilization and forms of local self-governance that were stable and deeply entrenched (Cohn, 1996, pg. 58). However, such “stable” governance was upheld by the caste system that left a large part of the population in disarray.

This destructive outlook the British had on Indian society can be understood through examining all social constructs, even modern ones. Essentially, the hierarchy was as much part of the British social formation as it was in India’s society. In fact, Arthur Maurice Hocart, an anthropologist, claimed that “our constitution divides the people into lords and the commons . . . Why then should an Indian classification of the people into four be unreal” (Ganguly, 2005, pg. 39). With such an understanding of societal structure, it is evident that the British may have catalyzed the discrimination between the four groups because they believed it was a natural and universal social concept. Such an outlook on the caste system, compounded by the British control over India illustrates a potential setting in which the Dalits’ fate might have been made. In fact, in his book Ganguly goes on to claim that, “ it was the administrative practices of the British that helped secure caste as a definitive label of identification for the Indian populace” (Ganguly, 2005, pg. 42). Furthermore, studies have shown that the concept of caste that appeared post-colonialism in India drew on the British administrative and epistemological manipulation that occurred during the time of colonialism. Such solidification of the caste system prompted social movements of the Dalits and those at the lower class who had been mistreated as a result of this social hierarchy.

The genealogy of the term Dalit is in itself a type of social outcry against the system. In fact, the term is an anti-Brahmanical, anti-upper class, and an anti-patriarchal idea that can be traced to the writings of the social and political activist Jyotiba Phule. Phule was a lower-caste reformer who started the first social movement in hopes to correct the discrimination caused by the caste system (Begari, 2010, pg. 399). Before national movements came to be, Phule called for an end of the Hindu-Aryan domination by highlighting that lower-caste citizens, particularly the shudras, were the original habitants of India and they did not deserve to be diminished. Therefore, although reformers such as Rammohan Roy, Dayanand Saraswati, and Vivekananda were focused on elitist cultural nationalism, Phule was directed to the freedom struggle of India’s long-oppressed lower castes. Furthermore, Phule viewed Brahmanism as an institutional system that monopolized on knowledge and power by excluding, dividing, and dominating over other groups in society. In such, he believed that Brahmanism should be set aside in order to bolster the outcaste groups in India society. In turn, he started creating schools to educate those on this idea. He termed this education to end Brahmanic hegemony Tritiya Ratna, translated as “third eye” (Begari, 2010, pg. 399). Many other political activists, including B.R. Ambedkar, carried on Phule’s triumphant beginning of Indian social reform.

Despite Phule’s hard work to correct the caste system, it was the social and political work of B.R. Ambedkar that gave the term Dalit its driving force that carries into present day. Ambedkar was particularly interested in the caste system because of the pressures of his own jati. Therefore, most of his writings and speeches deal with the problem of oppression as a result of the caste system. In his paper Caste in India, their mechanism, genesis and development, Ambedkar discusses the origin of the caste. He claims the endogamy, or marriage within one’s caste, superimposed on exogamy, marriage outside of one’s caste led to the creation of this system. He further argues that Brahmans were the original catalysts of the social hierarchy, as they wanted to be divided from the rest of the population and seen as better than the rest. Additionally, since such beliefs and practices are as old as the Vedas they are instilled deep in each Indian’s mind, insomuch that individuality does not exist in this culture. Ambedkar believes that the caste system was able to exist for so long because of the constant struggle for power between the Brahmans and the Kshatriyas, the two upper groups, while the other groups were left to struggle for freedom. Such blatant ignoring of the lower castes compounded the oppression that would last throughout generations. With such understandings, Ambedkar viewed the Brahmans as maintenance workers of the caste system, rather than leaders of society. With these beliefs and ideas predominating his papers and speeches, Ambedkar paved the way for many social reform movements as a hope to redistribute power in society (Fasana, 1976, pg. 753).
The Mahar Conference of Untouchables and Non-Brahmins started Ambedkar’s mission for Dalits to gain self-pride, self-improvement, and self-confidence. This conference was convened in 1927 and discussed the psychological aspects of untouchability, ways to instill self-pride in Dalits, and means of addressing the oppression via legal means. Additionally, the conference, as well as other movements following, sparked awareness and unity that enabled those oppressed to create a political party and a non-Brahmin movement. Such a movement presided over a few basics ideas, which arose from its leaders. The leaders of this movement first questioned the principles of the sacred texts, which held Brahmins as exclusive and those beneath them as servile. The second basic idea relates back to Phule’s theory about Hindu-Aryans. Essentially, it was believed that the Brahmins were alien Aryans who traveled to India and forced their religious and social system on the inhabitants. Equating the Brahmins with Aryan immigrants is part of the mythology of many non-Brahmin movements. Finally, the non-Brahmins sought to highlight that Brahmins monopolized Western education and jobs. In particular, the Brahmins held the highest positions available to the non-British. This social movement of the non-Brahmins that was sparked by the Mahar Conference had many lasting impacts. However, it was three major movements in particular that showed the world the detrimental oppression the Dalits were facing (Gehlot, 1993, pg. 383).

Sanskritisation was one of these three major movements that the Dalits used as a technique to better their lives. Sanskritisation is a process in which low caste Hindus alter their rituals, ideologies, and ways of life to match those of the higher castes. In doing so the Dalits hoped that overall the community would treat them better. Sanskritisation has been a core element of many messianic movements. Generally speaking, messianic movements were struggles of lower castes to cope with tensions under leaders who they hoped would release them from their distress. Many modern reformers tried to Sanskritise Dalits in order to help them achieve higher status for them in society. M.N. Srinivas originally coined this term and linked it to the religious and cultural complex found in classical Sanskrit. This process was one of the major changes in the caste system in modern India as it marked the decline of strict concern for the ritual hierarchy of castes. However, many have argued that its link with the caste system is only a part of the entire concept. In fact, Srinivas argued, “Sanskritisation . . . means also the spread of certain values which are not directly connected with the caste system” (Shah, 2005, pg. 242). Essentially, the concept of sankritisation has evolved to embody not only the caste system but the expanding of various religious ideas. However, in the beginning, this process was a powerful tactic used by the Dalits as a sort of social movement.

Another major social movement was the process of conversion by the Dalits. The mass religious conversion that many of them underwent strongly shows the degree of deprivation and discrimination they faced. Their discontent was expressed in the rise of religions such as Jainism and Buddhism, which rejected caste systems. The conversion took place as early as sixth century B.C., in which Buddhism arose in the North Plains of Bihar as a protest against the domination of the Brahmans against the rest of the population. In modern time conversions to Buddhism have occurred primarily in Dalit groups. Additionally, by 1961 more than 30 million Dalits embraced Buddhism over Hinduism. Even Ambedkar converted to Buddhism in 1956 as a way of securing justice, dignity, and equality. This event was part of the larger struggle of Ambedkar to regain Dalit selfhood and fight against the appropriating forces of Brahmanism. In fact, Ambedkar even wrote a book titled Buddha and His Dhamma as, “a vehicle of social-ethical reconstruction that has implications not only for the recovery of the subjectivity of the oppressed (for instance Dalits), but also articulates a vision of a just and humane India and the world” (Kamble, 2003, pg. 4305). Essentially, Ambedkar wanted to use the ideals of Buddhism to highlight a better system that maintains humane treatment at the same time as emphasizing the corruption of Brahmanism.

The third and final major movement discussed, by which leaders illuminated the oppression of Dalits and fought for change was the process of political action. By the 1930s Dalits had become fully aware of their social misfortunes and political rights, as a result of Ambedkar’s reform. There were four major political events in which Dalits played an important role: Table Conferences, Gandhi’s fast and the Poona Pact, Ambedkar’s Declaration, and Dalit Conferences, and Provincial Governments. There were three Round Tables Conferences from 1930 to 1932. They were a series of conferences organized by the British Government to discuss constitutional reforms in India. The first conference was significant because profound leaders represented the Dalits. However, at the second conference, Gandhi was the sole representative. During this conference the British Indian administration granted the “Communal Award”, separate electorates to Dalits, but not outside of the Hindu system. Gandhi took objection to this and started fasting as a result. The fast prompted Hindus to open hundreds of temples, public wells, public squares, etc. to Dalits. This fast eventually led to the Poona Pact, an agreement, which led to better treatment for Dalits (John, 2001 pg. 674).

The Poona Pact was an agreement between Ambedkar and Gandhi on the reservation of electoral seats for the depressed classes in the British India government. It was signed so that Gandhi would conclude his fast that he was undertaking at the time in jail as a way to protest the “Communal Award”. This pact gave the Dalits political power, but not autonomy. Essentially, this Pact was viewed as a way to end the ongoing debate over Dalit representation to the provincial legislatures. During this time Ambedkar and Gandhi butt heads over this issue of whether or not to have separate electorates for Dalits. Gandhi believed that having separate electorates would separate the untouchables from Hindu society forever, as Gandhi believed the problem of untouchability to be a political problem rather than a social problem. Additionally, many believed, including Gandhi, Congressmen, and Hindus at large thought that Ambedkar wanted to divide the country, and that “Ambedkar was holding the whole of Hindu society and Mahatma to ransom” (Gehlot, 1993, pg. 386). On the other hand, Ambedkar feared that Gandhi’s approach to this problem would make caste Hindus more powerful and Dalits weaker.

Furthermore, many of the depressed castes thought that Gandhi’s fast was a ploy to crush the aspirations of the untouchables and win the confidence of the Hindu orthodoxy. It is entirely up for debate on whose side, Ambedkar or Gandhi’s, was more productive. However, both had powerful impacts in enlightening the population to the distress the Dalits face and their influences still last today.

Another event that sparked an extreme movement in the problem of oppression in India was Ambedkar’s Declaration. During the Bombay Presidency Depressed Classes Conference Ambedkar addressed 10,000 Dalits, saying that, “I had the misfortune to be born with the stigma of ‘untouchable’. But it is not my fault, but I will not die a Hindu for this is within my power” (John, 2001, pg. 675). The Conference passed a resolution that the depressed classes would leave the Hindu-system together and join any other religion that assured equality and respect. In fact, Eleanor Zelliot, an American writer and specialist on the history of Hindu, argued that Ambedkar’s Declaration highlighted the anguish of each Dalit who suffered due to casteism and was, “a stab at the religion which denied him equality and self-respect” (John, 2001, pg. 675). Essentially, this speech was incredibly profound because Ambedkar took the fight against oppression a step farther than it had been before. He was not only highlighting the atrocities the Dalits struggle with from the rest of the population, but also threatened to leave Hinduism if a change was not enacted. This tactic was an intelligent strategy as a way to mobilize the Dalits, as it opened their eyes to the possibility of leaving Hinduism all together, in order to take their equality rather than wait for it.

After Ambedkar’s declaration, many prominent religious leaders reached out and welcomed him to join their respected religions. The Dalits then debated whether to leave the Hindu system or not and in trying to come to a decision they held many conferences including two national ones. Ambedkar came to realize the tremendous impact 50 million Dalits leaving would have on Hinduism so he supported these conferences and held discussions with representatives of various faiths. The two most significant conferences were the Lucknow Conference and the Patna Conference. The Lucknow Conference aimed to consult the representatives of various faiths. Fourteen representatives from ten religions and 100 Dalit delegates from seven provinces took part in this meeting. The delegates declared that they were not in any hurry to join any religion, but made clear that no religion would be considered which did not offer the fullest social equality and respect. The conference ended in full agreement that the Dalits would leave the Hindu-fold, but the final decision was ultimately left to Ambedkar and a later conference. The Patna Conference was that later conference. This conference also consulted representatives of many religions, including Catholic missionaries of Patna in order to decide on what religion the Dalits were to join. Although some Congress-led Dalit leaders opposed the conference it did take place and passed some resolutions to reconstruct unity among the Dalits. However, a decision on conversion was not taken. These conferences and discussions were incredibly important in progressing socially in India. In showed many Dalits they way they should be treated and the rights they had available to them (John, 2001, pg. 676).

Despite this incredible progress made through social movements, charismatic leaders, laws past, etc., there is still an extreme amount of inhumane treatment towards Dalits in India. The discussions and debates held my many Dalits and social and political activists during the peek of many movements were incredibly important in unifying Dalits and creating change. However, this unity has since faded away. The problem of untouchability is no longer at the fore of social and political discussions. Because of this neglect, a temporary Band-Aid was put on the problem. However, through present day injustices, it is evident that this social issue needs to be readdressed and fixed once and for all. In fact, Amit, a Dalit in the northern state of Haryana, claimed that “It’s like you are born with a stamp on your forehead and you can never get rid of it” (India’s, 2012). In Amit’s village, Dalits are still not allowed to enter temples or visit houses of upper castes. Additionally, in this village Dalits are continuously being tied to trees and beaten by those of the upper class. The police are unable to take action, as they are also Dalits. This community is just one example of how the oppression of Dalits is still very much a problem to many in the Indian society and change is being enacted to slow.

Each Dalit is born with a stigma of unworthiness. It is their cross to bear in society, and while some can overcome it, others cannot. In fact, a Ph.D. student in the Hyderabad Central University hanged himself in 2016, as he felt he did not deserve to have been born, and his birth was a fatal accident. However, Rohith Vemula is not one lone accident of a man suffering the brutality of society. Rather, a spectrum of suicide deaths has occurred by several Dalit students in India. Out of the 25 students who committed suicide in Hyderabad since 2007, 23 of them were Dalits. This included two in the prestigious All-India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi. This data signifies the many lives that have been defeated by the social system in India. Even those who attempt to climb the ladder and receive higher education still face the chance of being forced back down at any second.

These tragedies faced by Dalits go far beyond suicide. In fact, a report by the National Human Rights Commission stated that a crime is committed every 18 minutes against a Dalit. Furthermore, every day, on average, three Dalit women are raped, to Dalits are murdered, and two Dalit houses are burned. Even today, 37% of Dalits still live below the poverty line. 54% are undernourished and 48% of villages deny Dalits access to water. While India is supposed to be a democratic republic, justice, equality, liberty, and fraternity, the four basic tenets assured in the Preamble of India’s Constitution are evidently not available to all. Dalits continue to be oppressed and discriminated against in villages, educational institutions, political settings, and the job market, leaving them with very limited resources socially (Kumar, A.).

With the tragedies that have occurred, it seems as if the government has done not much to fix this issue. However, the Protection of Civil Rights, 1955, and the SC/ST (Preventions of Atrocities) Act, 1989, prescribed punishments for crimes against Dalits. Special courts have been established in major states for fast the trial of cases that fall under these Acts. Furthermore, the prime minister in 2006 went as far as to equate untouchability to apartheid in South Africa. In December 2015, the SC and ST Amendment Bill passed by Parliament made several critical changes. New activities were added to the list of offenses (Kumar, A.). With such recent and strong government action, it is confusing why crimes and tragedies of Dalits are still extremely prevalent in many Indian societies. I believe that despite extreme government changes the prejudice against Dalits are still embedded in many Indians minds and the only way to combat this segregation is to re-educate the public and ensure that new generations are not being convoluted in their backward society that still preaches the hierarchy of castes in India. With such a tactic the problem might be able to simmer off until it is gone forever. Otherwise, it will continue to persist, compounding and increasing the atrocities that already occur.

Works Cited

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