"Untouchables" (Dalits) are generally defined as people belonging to castes that rank below the Sudra varna—the lowest of the four major castes (varnas): the Brahmins (priestly caste); Kshatriyas (warrior caste), the Vaisyas (farmer caste); and Sudras (laborers). Dalits have traditionally been regarded as having such low status they don't even register on the caste system. There are an estimated 200 million to 300 million of them, depending how different castes are counted, and they make up one sixth to one forth of India's population. [Source: Tom O’Neill, National Geographic, June 2003]

Untouchables don't like the being called Untouchables. They prefer to be called Dalits, meaning “ground down” and "oppressed." Mahatma Gandhi called them "Harijans" which means "children of god." Many find this term patronizing. They and members of other lower castes are often described these days as "scheduled classes" (a term introduced by the British that means they are on the schedule of castes eligible for government aid).

Other terms used to describe them include Depressed Classes, Avarna (outside the “varna” system), Antyaja (last-borne), Outcastes (inaccurate since they are in caste system), Adi-Dravida (meaning “original Dravidians”), external caste, backwards castes, Panchama (meaning fifth “varna”, a term developed to accommodate intercaste offspring into the caste system) and Pariah (a term used by the British based on the name of the major Untouchable group of Tamil Nadu).

Their low rank is based in on the general belief, often associated with Hinduism, that traditional occupations dealing with death, excrement, blood or dirt—such as butchers, leather workers, scavengers, latrine cleaners and street cleaners—are polluting to other castes and touching them should be avoided. Implicit in this construct is the belief that Dalits deserve their lot in life because they are in the position they are in because of karma and as a punishment for sins committed in earlier lives. Untouchability is not unique to South Asia. Dalit-like groups can be found in Japan (the Burakumin), Korea (the Paekching), Tibet (the Ragyappa) and Burma (Pagoda slaves).

The term “Untouchable” was first used in 1909 in a lecture by the Maharaja Sayaji Rao III of Baroda to describe the primary features of the group’s relationship with other castes. Since 1935 "Untouchables" have officially been known as Scheduled Castes, referring to their listing on government rosters, or schedules. Although the term Untouchable appears in literature produced by these low-ranking castes, in the 1990s, many politically conscious members of these groups prefer to refer to themselves as Dalit , a Hindi word meaning oppressed or downtrodden. According to the 1991 census, there were 138 million Scheduled Caste members in India, approximately 16 percent of the total population. [Source: Library of Congress]

Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes

The Indian constitution created three broad categories of underprivileged groups as part of an effort to help these groups through welfare and administrative means. Three groups were named but not clearly defined: 1) Schedules castes (roughly comprising Dalits), 2) Scheduled Tribes (virtually all Aduvasus or tribes) and 3) Other Backward Classes (other economically disadvantaged groups not included on the lists of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. In 1981 it was estimated there were 105 million Scheduled Caste members and 52 million members of Scheduled Tribes. The Backward Class category is fuzzy and always changing and difficult to pin down on the basis on numbers.

The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes comprise about 16.6 percent and 8.6 percent, respectively, of India’s population (according to the 2011 census). The Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950 lists 1,108 castes across 29 states in its First Schedule, and the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order, 1950 lists 744 tribes across 22 states in its First Schedule. Since independence, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes were given Reservation status, guaranteeing political representation. The Constitution lays down the general principles of affirmative action for SCs and Sts. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The castes and tribes categorized as Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Backward Class are published on list or schedules, which have been revised several times, and are determined on the national and state level for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes but only on the tribal and provincial level for the Backward Classes.

Groups defined as Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes receive special benefits and privileges such as subsidies, loans and job and university placements. Tribal and Harijan welfare departments have been set up in each state to administer benefits for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes legislation. It was originally intended that these benefits would only last for 20 years but they have been extended. To maintain these benefits existing groups fight hard not to lose their Scheduled Caste status and other groups have fought to be included.

The greatest concentrations of Scheduled Caste members in 1991 lived in the states of Andhra Pradesh (10.5 million, or nearly 16 percent of the state's population), Tamil Nadu (10.7 million, or 19 percent), Bihar (12.5 million, or 14 percent), West Bengal (16 million, or 24 percent), and Uttar Pradesh (29.3 million, or 21 percent). Together, these and other Scheduled Caste members comprised about 139 million people, or more than 16 percent of the total population of India. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995 *]

Discrimination Against Dalits

Dalits have traditionally been forbidden from entering Hindu temples and schools, or touching members of other castes (hence the name untoucable). They have had to drink from separate wells and sit on separate benches. In some places Dalits are not allowed to use the same cups or utensils used by members of other castes at restaurants and food stalls. Sometimes they are served from coconut shells or have water poured into their hands rather than in a cup.

In some cases higher castes have not even let the shadows of lower castes fall on them and Dalits have been required to wear bells to alert upper class Hindus that they were coming. If a member of a high caste touches an Dalit the are supposed to take a special bath and perform a ritual to regain their purity. Dalits in the countryside have traditionally lived in satellite hamlets, separated from main villages, or segregated neighborhoods. In the cities they often live in segregated slums. In many cases they use their own well and in some cases, their own roads, footpaths and bridges. In some places, Dalits live in hamlets downwind from villages with non-Dalits residents so their wind doesn't defile the higher caste people. Such segregations are regarded as necessary measures to protect others from the Dalit’s polluting presence.

In some places Dalits are still prevented from reading or studying Hindu scriptures. Those that do are sometimes severely beaten as a punishment in accordance with village rules. Dalit children are often prohibited from attending classes with children from higher castes. Even educated Dalits with high level government jobs are forced at sit at the feet of Brahmins when they return to their villages. It has been said that some Dalits are so polluting that they could pollute a corpse, which itself is regarded as polluting. The discrimination against Dalits persists even though they generally have the same skin color and dress in the same clothes as other Indians.

Keeping Dalits in Their Place

In extreme cases lower castes are excluded from village wells and are expected to collect water from muddy pools or stagnant ponds near the boundaries of the village. Under these circumstances the water they collect makes their children sick. Sometimes upper caste members charitably draw water for them and give it to them.

In the old days if an Dalit let his shadow touch a higher caste member he risked being severally beaten. Some carried buckets so their spit wouldn’t contaminate the ground. Until a century ago there were rules in Kerala that described distances, ranging from 12 to 96 paces, which Dalit were required to distance themselves from higher-status Hindus. These rules were in place in part to keep upper castes a safe distance away from Dalit shadows. In some places it was a custom for higher class landowners to deflower Dalit brides on their wedding in front of the helpless groom.

Upper-class land landlord often enlist the help of local police to keep the Dalits down. One state official told TIME: "The condition of the Dalits in the villages is so bad that the concern for most is how to gain minimum self respect and security. What they want today is not jobs, but to be able to live without being humiliated and harassed."

Upper caste members have tormented Dalits by stealing university acceptance letters from their mailboxes and attacking doctors that treat them. In one town, when Dalits attempted to claim land that was legally theirs upper caste members showed up with a diesel engine and drained all the water from their pond.

Hindus use the idea of dharma to rationalize the treatment of dalits. Dharma is an important concept in Hinduism but is difficult to define. Some translate it as meaning “universal justice” or “natural law” but is best viewed as doing what is required based on one’s position and stage in life. Dharma is basically a code of moral conduct and duties and is regarded as one of the most important truths sought by individuals in their lifetime. It is linked with righteousness and responsibility and is sometimes viewed as living in accordance with one’s caste traditions.


Dalit Life and Poverty

Dalits in the countryside have traditionally lived in satellite hamlets, separated from main villages, or segregated neighborhoods. They have their own shrines and wells because they are not allowed to use the ones used by upper castes. Local Dalit communities have traditionally been led by headmen. Disputes and caste-related problems have worked out by a panchayat (caste council).

Many Dalits have only one name and live in extended families made of parents, married sons and their wives and grandchildren or in families composed of married brothers, their wives and their children. Marriages are mostly monogamous. Some polygamy still occurs. Dalit women have traditionally been married as adolescents, were subordinate to their husbands and rarely left their homes. Some Dalit women go veiled.

Dalits are one of South Asia’s most backward and uneducated group. In the early 2000s, about two thirds of Dalits were illiterate, half were landless agricultural peasants and only seven percent had access to safe drinking water, electricity and toilets.

Dalit have traditionally not been allowed to own land. One Dalit said, “We only have the for our houses. We have no land to grow food. We only work for them." Some buy discarded chicken scraps from a restaurants to eat. Many Dalits suffer from malnutrition, typhoid and tuberculosis.

Dalit Groups and Professions

Dalits are not homogeneous group. They are stratified into around 900 castes or castelike subdivisions that ranked in terms of superiority and inferiority like other castes. Among the higher ranking ones are Dalit priests who serve the other Dalits because members of other castes won’t serve them. Because contact with blood is considered polluting many midwives are Dalits. Dalits are their equivalents are found not just in India but throughout South Asia

The Dalit castes and rankings are generally linked to occupation. Traditional Dalit professions include skinning carcasses, collecting garbage, leatherworking, cleaning latrines, collecting "night soil" ("human excrement"), cremating the dead, catching rats, brewing alcohol, cobbling, carpet making and cloth-weaving. Some Dalits have traditionally earned money by collecting coins from cremated bodies and selling meat from cattle slaughtered for leather to Muslims. Others have pounded leather washers used as seals in water pumps.

Many Dalits have “clean” jobs such as menial laborers and farm workers. Their low caste rankings means they are often exploited. Some are sold as bonded laborers and work in larger farms owned by upper-class landowners who pay wages in terms a few kilos of rice. Other Dalits take jobs—such as carrying bricks produced by kilns or hauling rocks in a quarry—that are not necessarily restricted to Dalits but are so undesirable that other castes will not take them. Some Dalits have few options other than scavenging and begging.

Castes made obsolete like the leatherworking Chamars have became field and factory workers. The birdcatcher caste used to catch birds in the forest and sold them in villages for their meat and feathers and as medicines. Today most birdcatchers are farmers.

Dalit Latrine Cleaners

Some Dalits work as sewer and latrine cleaners. If there is a clog they have to climb into the excrement and unclog it manually. The work is often done by a scavenger caste, known as Bhangis, Pakhis, Sikkaliars, depending on the region. They have traditionally cleaned sewers and gutters and removed dead animals without using any protective clothing. They have high incidents if stomach and lung infections. It is not unusual for dozens of them to die of gas poisoning in a single city. They are regarded as the lowest of the low even among Dalits, who will not take food or drink from them. Women often place their veils over their noses and mouths when they walk by.

One latrine cleaner told the Financial Times, "I start at six and finish at three, cleaning latrines and unblocking drains. When I clean the latrines, the smell and dirt comes to my face and hands. I cannot do anything about it, I have to clean them. When there is a drainage problem, we have to go down into manholes to unclog the human waste." Among the things the latrine cleaner suffered from were skin allergies and breathing problems. Some of his workers suffer trachoma and have gone blind from bacterial conjunctivitis.

Describing a latrine cleaner at work, Tom O’Neill wrote in National Geographic, “Dinesh Parmar, a lithe 25-year-old with a gold chain glittering around his neck, removed the cover. Cockroaches scurried from the darkness as the stench from below filed the street. Parmar hesitated for only an instant, then dropped into the hole with no gloves, no gas mask. His body hidden inside, he methodically lifted bucket after bucket of excrement over his head, upending them in the street. Flies clustered thickly, Then he stopped, dizzy from the carbon monoxide, seeping out of the sewer. The supervisor nodded, allowing Parmar to climb out...Parmat left brown footsteps as he led the way to a nearby lane, he climbed down into several more manholes to scoop up clots of sludge.” When he was finished he received some water and soap from a nearby resident and carefully washed himself and his clothes in the street.”

Latrine cleaners also carry away feces from public latrines, clean the toilet holes in private houses, and clean up the droppings of animals in the streets. A woman Dalit latrine cleaner told the Financial Times, "I feel sick doing this dirty work. I have to pick up the night soil and clean latrines with my bare hands. The smell and gas burns my eyes. It is a sickening job, but nobody will give me another. My father and mother did the same work. I don't want my children to do this dirty work, but they might end up doing it out of desperation.”

Ratcatchers and Leatherworkers

The Musahars are an Dalit subcaste of fieldworkers whose major responsibility is ridding croplands of pests such as snails, insects and rats. Concentrated in the state of Bihar and regarded as the lowest of the low and the poorest of the poor, the Musahars are famed for not only catching rats but eating them as well. In the 19th century, the British asked the Musahars for help riding Indian cities of rats.

The two million or so Musahars generally live in villages without safe drinking water and electricity. Their literacy rate is less than 5 percent. One Indian social scientist who has done research on the Musahars says that he has never come across a Musahar doctor, engineer, or lawyer. The most successful Musahar is Bhagwati Devi, a woman who became a parliamentarian in New Delhi even though she is illiterate.

Early in the 20th is century the Vaddar caste were paid 1 rupee for every 100 rats caught. More than 13 million rat tails were turned in, roughly one for each human victim during worst years of the Great Plague in Europe.

Chamars have traditionally dealt with leather and dead animals. They include leatherworkers, tanners and shoemakers. They also have the polluting tasks of removing dead cattle from villages. Their occupation is rooted in upper caste aversions to killing cattle, eating beef and handling animal hides. In the countryside they often are farmers who work for a landlord.

The Jatav are either viewed as an Dalit group or a smidgen above the Dalits. Also known as the Jadav, Jatava and Jatu, Chamar and Harijan, they have traditionally been leather workers and soinces leather has traditionally been regarded as dirty crafts that s why they were relegated to Dalit status. They live mostly in Utter Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab and around Delhi. There are about 30 million of them in these states. They make up about 10 percent of the population there.

Mazhabis, Dhobis and Mahars

The Mazhabi caste gathers cattle droppings, makes dung cakes for cooking fuel, dances at weddings and hauls away dead mules and donkeys. Dhobis are a caste that wash clothes “polluted by blood or human waste.” Street sweepers are one of the lowest castes. Brooms have traditionally been a bunch of twigs bound together with no handle. The sweepers have to hunch over to sweep.

The Mahars are an Dalit servant group found mostly in the Maranthi-speaking areas of the Maharashtra, and to a lesser extent Madhya Pradesh and Baroda. Many have converted from Hinduism to Buddhism (See Neo-Buddhists) and are great admirers of B.R. Ambedkar, who himself converted to Buddhism. Despite their conversion they still occupy their same position in the caste system and are treated by non-Dalits and Dalits.

Mahars have traditionally been responsible for removing dead carcasses from villages. They also have brought wood to cremation grounds, carried messages to other villagers, acted as village watchmen, cared for horses, and fixed mud walls. They were expected to eat the flesh of the animals they dragged from the villages. The Mangs are a caste of ropemakers that are regarded as lower than Mahars. They keep pigs.


Because touching a corpse is regarded as a polluting act only Dalits cremate and bury the dead. The cremations in Varanasi and other places are preformed by the Doms, a subcaste that makes their living burning bodies for cremations for a fee that ranges considerably depending on the wealth of the family. The Doms are a Dalit caste. Touching a corpse after death is viewed as polluting. So terrible is their work that Doms are expected to weep when their children are born and party when death releases them from their macabre responsibilities.

The Doms are an example of Dalits that earn quite a lot of money. In addition to charging money for performing the cremations the Doms also take a cut from the exorbitantly-priced wood sold near the ghats. The Doms in Varanasi have become very wealthy from their trade and some Indians have accused them of "extortion" because of the high prices they charge and the fact they often take money from poor families that struggle to pay for the cremations. Because they are the only ones allowed to perform the cremations, the Doms have established a monopoly that allows them to charge very high prices. When customers can't pay the full price the Doms hold back the supply of wood and bodies end up half-burned.

In the 1980s the Dom Raja controlled the ghats and the supply of wood used to burn the 35,000 or so bodies brought to Ganges in Varanasi for cremations. The Raja did not perform a cremation unless he was paid in advance the $45 or so for the wood, and often he demanded an extra payment to guarantee the soul would be liberated. These payments, some claimed, made him the richest man in Varanasi. [Source:Geoffrey Ward, Smithsonian magazine, September 1985]

Describing an encounter with the Dom Raja, Geoffrey Ward wrote in Smithsonian magazine: "The Dom Raja himself sat cross-legged on a string bed inside his darkened room. Eight hangers on sat at his feet around a little table on which rests a brass tumbler and half-empty bottle of clear homemade liquor. The Dom Raja was immensely fat, nearly naked and totally bald. His thick fingers were covered with big gold rings. When he spoke he slurred his words. I had not brought him a handsome gift, he finally mumbled, so he saw no reason to speak further with me." [Ibid]

Gandhi and Laws that Protect and Help Dalit

Legally there are no "Dalits." After independence, the Indian Constitution officially abolished "untouchability." and discrimination against "former" Dalits. Dalits are allowed to own law according to Indian law but often times they are relegated to living in compounds outside villages, towns and cities. Police rarely enforce the laws that ban Untouchability.

Gandhi sympathized with he "untouchables," calling them “haijana” (people of God). He campaigned to get "untouchables" admitted to the lower classes. Early in his career as an activist he shocked fellow Hindus by allowing Untouchables into his ashram. His family adopted an Untouchable girl. He rejected the notion that some people were more impure than others and had everyone in his ashram participate in cleaning chores. In his Harijan tour in 1933 he traveled across India, encouraging temples to let untouchables in and tried to persuade Hindus to generally be more tolerant of untouchables. His effort attracted some attention to the issue but yielded few concrete results. Some have claimed Gandhi didn’t go far enough. He never formally renounced the caste system.

Legislation, programs and reforms have gone a long way towards improving the health, education, political representation and economic opportunities of Dalits. There are laws that guarantee Dalits the right to enter temples and shops. After a fierce court battle Dalits won the right to claim land illegally occupied by upper castes.

See Caste Quotas Below

Dalits Improving Their Lives

Many Dalits have escaped their low status position by converting to Islam, Buddhism or Christianity in the past century. They have been attracted to these religions in part because of their egalitarian doctrines and partly because membership in these religions helps to hide their backgrounds. Dalits in Bihar who have been banned from temples have threatened to convert to a new religion.

Following the example of their revered leader, Dr. Ambedkar, who converted to Buddhism four years before his death in 1956, millions of Dalits have embraced the faith of the Buddha. The Dalits who converted to Christianity and Islam have done so over the past few centuries often to raise their socioeconomic status. However, Christians, Muslims and Buddhists of Dalit origin still often suffer from discrimination by Christians, Muslims and Buddhists — and others — of higher caste backgrounds.

Government-imposed quotas have helped Dalits. In Uttar Pradesh, for example, 150 positions are reserved for Dalits in the élite 540-member Indian Administrative Service. Nationwide, Dalits receive 15 percent of all government jobs and university places. Educated Dalits often infuriated when they return to their villages and are "feudally harassed" by members of the upper castes.

Other Dalits have moved from the villages to the cities, where caste prejudice is less suffocating and castes mingle more freely. The advent of public transportation, which Dalits can ride on like everyone else, and other aspects of modern life have made the observances of Dalit separation almost impossible. In some neighborhoods Dalit live with other castes and share the same well. One Dalit told National Geographic, in Bombay, “I have freedom to whatever job I want and to live where I want.”

The best way for an Dalit to really advance is to get a government job or university scholarship given through the quota system. Many have been propelled into the middle class. Some have even become quite rich in some cases by taking advantage of monopolies of unclean jobs only allowed Dalits (See Doms above).

Some Dalits have been educated at Catholic schools and Jesuit missions. The Kasturba Balika School in New Delhi provides education for 700 underprivileged girls, most of them Dalits. The school is named after the wife of Mahatma Gandhi.

Dalits Still Suffering Despite Improvements

Despite improvements in some aspects of Dalit status, 90 percent of them live in rural areas in the mid-1990s, where an increasing proportion — more than 50 percent — work as landless agricultural laborers. State and national governments have attempted to secure more just distribution of land by creating land ceilings and abolishing absentee landlordism, but evasive tactics by landowners have successfully prevented more than minimal redistribution of land to tenant farmers and laborers. In contemporary India, field hands face increased competition from tractors and harvesting machines. Similarly, artisans are being challenged by expanding commercial markets in mass-produced factory goods, undercutting traditional mutual obligations between patrons and clients. The spread of the Green Revolution has tended to increase the gap between the prosperous and the poor — most of whom are low-caste. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Education and election to political office have advanced the status of many Dalits, but the overall picture remains one of great inequity. In recent decades, Dalit anger has been expressed in writings, demonstrations, strikes, and the activities of such groups as the Dalit Panthers, a radical political party demanding revolutionary change. A wider Dalit movement, including political parties, educational activities, self-help centers, and labor organizations, has spread to many areas of the country.*

In a 1982 Dalit publication, Dilip Hiro wrote, "It is one of the great modern Indian tragedies and dangers that even well meaning Indians still find it so difficult to accept Dalit mobility as being legitimate in fact as well as in theory. . . ." Still, against all odds, a small intelligentsia has worked for many years toward the goal of freeing India of caste consciousness.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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