Dalit FAQ

This FAQ is intended to provide a brief and therefore superficial introduction to the Dalit human rights problem. If you find errors in this FAQ, please  comment on this.

What is Caste?
Caste is determined by birth into a particular group, not by belief. The caste system splits people into a rigid hierarchy of groups defined by birth and occupation. Housing, marriage and all forms of social interaction are divided by caste, and the divisions are reinforced by the threat of ostracism, economic boycott and violence.
Lower- and upper-caste people are almost always indistinguishable in appearance. Further confusing the picture for outsiders, huge economic inequalities between upper and lower castes are masked by overall poverty: all are poor, but discrimination against the poorest stifles opportunity and distributes basic resources unfairly to the least poor. The worst jobs are rigidly assigned to Dalits and keep them "in their place" in the most vulnerable status. And abuse, debt bondage and violence is disproportionately the lot of Dalits.

What are sub-castes?
Within the castes there are more than 3,000 sub-castes or Jati, each having a different status in their own internal hierarchies. Even among the Dalits, there are many different sub-castes, variously positioned at upper and lower levels. 

How did the caste system arise?
The origin of the caste system is disputed. There are several theories. The Hindu creation myth claims that the first man split himself to form the four castes from different parts of his body. A similar "biological" explanation theorises that all things have the three gunas (qualities): satya (Truth); rajas (action); and tamas (inertia) in different proportions. A sociological explanation is given by the Aryan invasion theory, but this is now largely discredited.

What is the Aryan invasion theory?
This is a disputed theory of the origin of the caste system and untouchability, espoused first by British and European colonialists to justify white supremacy and now by Hindu nationalists to justify the status quo. The theory is that the Indian Vedic culture arose from an ancient invasion of India by "Aryans", in about 500 BCE (some say 2000 BCE). Supposedly, the invaders were already organised into three groups, thus becoming the three upper castes, and the mainly Dravidian native inhabitants were conquered, becoming Sudras and Dalits.
Various linguistic and genetic research has attempted to support the theory. However, discovery of archaeological remains of the advanced Indus valley civilisation, which predated the supposed Aryan invasion and surpassed the Aryans at the time, tended to undermine the invasion theory. The alternative, now attracting a degree of academic consensus, is a theory of a long-standing and highly developed indigenous civilisation that was nevertheless influenced by other cultures.

Define  "Dalit"?

Dalit is a Sanskrit word from the root dal, meaning "broken" or "crushed". Dr B R Ambedkar or Jotiba Phule (1827-1890, a social reformer and revolutionary) are variously credited with using the word Dalit for untouchables, as broken victims of the caste system.
In the 1970s, the Dalit Panther Movement (Maharashtra, India) adopted the term Dalit. Today, the word is widely used, especially by Dalit people themselves. 

What is the Dalit problem?

Globally, more than 250,000,000 people suffer discrimination based on "descent or work and occupation" (UN, 12 August 2004). Of these, about 160,000,000 to 180,000,000 are in India.

This discrimination affects every aspect of life: health, housing, education, work, marriage, social interaction... For most Dalits, there is no opportunity to escape from caste-imposed discrimination. Tens of millions of Dalits are trapped in debt bondage.

How many Dalits are there?

About 250,000,000, three-quarters of them in India.

This number is so large that it is difficult to grasp, but for comparison, it is roughly equal to:

  • Quarter of the population of India
  • Not far short of the population of the United States
  • 4% of the population of the world.

The largest population of Dalits is in India. Other countries with the largest Dalit (or similarly oppressed-through-caste) populations are:

Nepal: approximately 4,000,000, one-fifth of the population

Pakistan: approximately 2,000,000
Nigeria: 2,000,000 - 4,000,000 (Osu)
Japan: 1,000,000 - 3,000,000 (Buraku)
Other countries with similar issues include Algeria, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Liberia, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Yemen. There are two caste systems in Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese one not being linked to the Hindu religion.
There is also evidence of discrimination outside these areas in Indian diaspora communities. This has been reported in East and South Africa, North America, the Caribbean, Fiji, Malaysia, Mauritius, the Middle East, Suriname, the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

What do Dalits do for a living?

The allocation of occupation by birth is a defining characteristic of the caste system, and in particular the restriction of lower castes to tasks deemed too dirty or polluting for members of the upper castes.
The dirtiest jobs come the way of the Dalits. Traditional occupations are associated with death or filth: handling dead bodies or animal carcases; tanning leather; cleaning, especially toilets and human faeces; refuse disposal; and a range of other "impure" tasks including drumming and weaving;

How do Dalits fare against the poverty line?

The allocation of occupation by birth is a defining characteristic of the caste system, and in particular the restriction of lower castes to tasks deemed too dirty or polluting for members of the upper castes.

The dirtiest jobs come the way of the Dalits. Traditional occupations are associated with death or filth: handling dead bodies or animal carcases; tanning leather; cleaning, especially toilets and human faeces; refuse disposal; and a range of other "impure" tasks including drumming and weaving;

How else are Dalits oppressed?

Living areas: Most Dalits are forced to live in segregated areas. In rural India, they are usually required to live outside villages. Even after death, grave sites are segregated.

Accommodation and resources: the best housing is reserved for the upper castes; the government provides separate amenities (electricity, sanitation, health care, water...) for each neighbourhood, which are themselves segregated on caste lines. Dalits are usually left with the worse of the amenities or none at all.
Land rights: over 85% of Indian Dalits own no land and are dependent on landlords for work or land to rent; those that do own land may find it difficult or impossible to enforce their rights; workers rarely receive the statutory minimum wage. Similar problems exist in Nepal.
Education, leading to high rates of illiteracy. Few Dalit children progress beyond primary education and they are often made to sit at the back of the class. Among Indian Dalits, about two-thirds are illiterate, compared with about one-half of the general population.
Access to credit: Dalits' access to credit is almost exclusively from higher-caste, literate and relatively powerful people. High interest rates, borrower illiteracy and extremely low wages make debts difficult to repay and frequently lead to debt bondage.
Debt bondage stemming from extremely low wages: up to 60,000,000 people in India are bonded labourers, 85% of them Dalits, effectively enslaved to pay off debts. Up to 15,000,000 of these are children. High interest rates and low wages make it difficult or impossible ever to escape from debt bondage. Moreover, debts are inherited by children. In some cases, debt "bondage" is all too literal and the labourers are tied up or chained to prevent escape, an unsettling echo of slavery. Despite 1976 legislation to abolish debt bondage, it remains a widespread practice in India. Similar problems exist in Pakistan and Mauritania and it has not been eradicated in Nepal.
Clothing: in some places, including parts of Sri Lanka, caste-specific clothing is required for Dalits.
Access to otherwise-public facilities: Many Dalits are not allowed to use the same water sources or drinking cups as higher castes
Marriage: not being allowed to marry or interact socially with other castes
Violence: Breaches of "untouchability", defiance of the established social order, disputes over land and demands for the minimum wage often lead to violence, sometimes murderous in intensity and leading to multiple deaths. 33,507 cases of atrocities against Dalits were recorded in 2002. Rape is common and mass rape is frequently reported.
Discrimination in law enforcement discourages reports of victimisation and continues the cycle of abuse. Even if police are not hostile to Dalits, they are usually located in upper-caste sections of villages and so they are literally inaccessible to Dalits. Moreover, many allegations of discrimination or atrocities are never entered in police records, still less investigated.
Disrespect, seated in prejudice based on ideas of purity and pollution. In many villages, Dalits must remove their shoes and dismount from bicycles before entering the area where upper castes live.
Disasters: Similar discrimination has been recorded at times of disaster, for example in the 2004 tsunami and the 2001 Gujarat earthquake.

What is "purity-pollution"?

Purity-pollution is a Hindu concept. The higher the rank of a Hindu, the higher the level of purity they must maintain. The lower the rank, the more impure they are. Purity restrictions are most prevalent in marriage, drink, food, and touch.
Certain occupational or social groups, notably Dalits, are regarded as "dirty" and contact with them as being polluting, at least for upper-caste Hindus. In extreme but commonplace interpretations, even contact with the shadow of a Dalit by upper-caste Hindus may require lengthy "cleansing" rituals: to an upper-caste person, a Dalit is literally "untouchable". Language in daily use typically identifies the upper castes with cleanliness and Dalits with filth.

What is the "Devadasi" system? What are Badis?

Many thousands of Dalit girls are forced into "marriage" to temples or local deities in south India, often before puberty, sometimes in payment of a debt. They are then unable to marry and become unwilling prostitutes for upper-caste men, many eventually being sold into brothels.
The Badi Jat is regarded as a prostitution sub-caste. Women and girls are routinely trafficked into brothels. Perversely, and hypocritically, untouchability does not seem to apply to prostitution and customers are mainly men from the upper castes.
In Pakistan, rape of bonded labourers is widespread, often violent and rarely punished. In India, rape of Dalit women is also widespread.

What does it mean to be "twice born"? What is the thread ceremony?
A twice born Hindu is a male member of one of the three upper castes (Brahmins, Ksyatriyas and Vaisyas) who has completed the thread ceremony.
The thread ceremony is a Hindu initiation ceremony, similar to a Christian confirmation or a Jewish Bar Mitzvah. A thread is given to the boy and it is thereafter worn over the left shoulder or around the waist. The thread has three strands, representing the three gunas (qualities): satya (truth); rajas (action); and tamas (inertia).
Sudras and Dalits are excluded from the thread ceremony and cannot become twice-born.

What is a scheduled caste? ...a scheduled tribe?
The British listed the poorest (principally Dalit) sub-castes in 1935, creating detailed lists of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.
The 1948 Indian constitution, thanks to its architect Dr B R Ambedkar, reinforced this classification, for a system of affirmative action called reservation. The concept was that these measures would help the poorest to escape poverty and oppression.
(There is a similar anti-discrimination provision in the 1990 Nepal constitution. However, there is an exception for religious practices and as a result Dalits can be, and most are, prevented from entering Hindu temples.)

What is "reservation"?
Reservation is an attempt by the Indian national government to redress past discrimination. The constitution reserves 22.5% of national government jobs, state legislature seats, seats in the lower house of the national parliament and higher education places for members of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.
Unfortunately, this policy has not been implemented in full. Less than half the national government quota had been filled in total in 1998 and less than 15% of "reserved" public sector jobs. An unspoken policy discriminates in favour of upper castes, particularly Brahmins. Dalit representation in university teaching posts is less than 1%.

Who is already working to help Dalits? Do they have agendas of their own?
Christians: there are about 14,000,000 Christian Dalits. Some Christian missionaries have been criticised for their focus on conversion and preparing converts for the "next life" instead of improving their lot in the present.
Buddhists: many Dalits have converted to a liberal strand of Buddhism.
Others supporting reform in India include Rationalists and Human Rights activists.
Others adopting a militant, revolutionary or violent approach to end upper-caste domination include Naxalite groups (such as the People's War Group), the Maoist Communist Centre and the Communist Party of India.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What are some of the changes you are opposing on the subject of caste?

As in the case of gender inequities, HEF and VF also want to remove or mitigate the representation of the horrors of caste inequalities.  According to HEF, Sudras did not "perform services for members of the three higher castes" but merely "performed services for all classes and did more labor-intensive work," hence neatly erasing the inherent heirarchy of the caste system into higher and lower castes, as also tempering the distasteful occupations such as clearing deadbodies and waste as merely “labor intensive” work.  In addition, the word "Dalit" has been removed from the text and the students are merely told that treating someone as untouchable is against the law in modern India.  Sentences such as “The caste system is just one example of how Hinduism was woven into the fabric of daily life in India" and "Hinduism…has affected how people worship, what jobs they do,… And it has helped to determine the status of people in Indian society" have been deleted.  At one point, the Vedic Foundation insists that caste only be spoken of in the past tense since it is no longer a reality and "According to the Indian Constitution, under the section, Fundamental Rights, the Right to Equality is guaranteed to all citizens."  

2. Isn’t it true that caste system was not hereditary and structured in ancient times and it is only later that it became hereditary?  If so, why is the substitution of caste with varna and “social class” as specified by the Vedic Foundation's changes not acceptable?

The difference between a caste and a class is that a caste is a social class which has been frozen through religious and ideological sanctions. As the noted historian Romila Thapar observes:

“For a society to become caste based society there have to be three preconditions: the society must register social disparities; there has to be unequal access of various groups within that society to economic resources; inequalities should be legitimized through a theoretically irreversible hierarchy and the imposition of the hierarchy claim to be based on a supra-natural authority. The latter takes the form of a ritual demarcation dependent on degrees of assumed purity or pollution determined by those controlling the religious ideology” 1 

This ideological and theological sanction for freezing economic classes can be found in the earliest of the Vedas. The Rg Veda, in its Purushsukta hymn, does speak of the unequal relationship of the four castes. Subsequent Vedic texts such as Manusmriti that detail elaborate laws on societal regulations of caste system cite the Vedas for their authortity. As such, the existence of caste in Indian society and the traumatic impact it had/has on lower caste population, cannot be simply washed away by claiming caste to be simply a “social class”. 

Further, just as the [upper caste] Vedic Foundation would like to wash away any references to caste, a number of lower caste groups such as Dalits and Adivasis, who have been exploited by the caste system, would prefer to let the world know of their suffering.

3. But the caste system is a thing of the past and that untouchability has been outlawed now—so why teach our children about it now?

Caste system is not a thing of past, it still a prominent practice in India even amongst the urban, educated Indians- the vast majority of marriages amongst Hindus are still arranged along the lines of castes showing how caste still plays an important role in the daily lives of Indians who want to believe that caste system is a thing of past. Even though the Constitution of India has made it illegal to discriminate of the basis of caste, untouchability is still a part of the daily lives of millions of Indians in India – caste-based atrocities are still happening today and discrimination against Dalits is still rampant.2  The Dalit population is still disproportionately below the poverty levels, both in rural as well as urban India, has significantly higher rates of unemployment and landlessness than non-Dalits and has less access to educational, administrative and judicial resources.3  Unless our children are made aware of these inequalities and sensitized about them, this pattern of injustice will simply continue. 

4. Even if there was caste and patriarchy in Ancient India, there was slavery and patriarchy in Greece and Italy too. Why do the texts only focus on the science and mathematics achievements of the Greek and Roman civilizations, while focusing on all the ills of Indian civilizations?

First, we did not write the textbooks, and certainly agree that the textbooks need to put a balanced perspective on things.  What we are questioning is what kind of a “balance” we need to advocate—one that erases all histories of oppression of large numbers of the subaltern, or one that addresses all of them and truly educates our children.  While the Hindutva groups advocate the former, we staunchly promote the latter.

Secondly, as concerned persons of South Asia heritage, and especially having been
witness to a similar politically motivated white-washing of history in India, we feel obligated to direct our scholarly and community resources and experiences towards addressing issues pertaining to the history of Ancient India and Hinduism.

We also note that the Vedic Foundation and HEF have not made any suggestions about promoting the spectacular achievements of science and mathematics in Vedic age—which are certainly historically correct, but have been preoccupied with whitewashing caste system and debating contentious claims of the origin of Aryans.  This further supports our claims that these groups are not really concerned about the need of Hindu school children for affirmation of Hindu histories, but are cynically manipulating this need in the Hindu communities to push their own politically motivated agendas.


1. The Penguin History of Early India: From the origins to AD 1300, By Romila Thapar, pg 63-64
2. See an extensive listing of atrocities against Dalits at website of National Campaign of Dalit Human Rights http://www.dalits.org/atrocities.html and a special report on Dalit houses being burnt down in Gohana http://www.dalits.org/Gohana1.htm 
3. In his presentation “Dalits and Globalization” delivered at the World Social Forum held in Mumbai, Professor SK Thorat presents very important data on socio-economic indicators of the Dalits.  In 1999-2000, nearly 75% of the Dalits are landless or near landless, 65% of Dalit households are dependent upon wage labour, the literacy rates was around 37% as opposed to 58% in non-Dalit, 43% of Dalits are below poverty levels, almost twice as many as the non-Dalits.  During 1980-2000, a total of about 300,000 cases of human right violation and atrocities were registered by the SC with the police. http://www.idsn.org/Thorat.html 


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