160 million outcastes in India
By Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, May 27, 2011
In India, this huge segment of the population is known as 'Dalit' [Broken People]. is a self-designation for a group of people traditionally regarded as of untouchables and unsuitable for making personal relationships. Dalits are a mixed population of numerous caste groups all over South Asia, and speak various languages.
While the caste system has been abolished under the Indian constitution, there is still discrimination and prejudice against Dalits in South Asia. Since Indian independence, significant steps have been taken to provide opportunities in jobs and education. Many social organizations have encouraged proactive provisions to better the conditions of Dalits through improved education, health and employment.
There are many different name proposed for defining this group of people like 'Panchamas' [5th varna], 'Ashprush' [untouchables], 'Harijans' [Children of God], 'Dalits' [Broken People] etc. The constitution of India recognizes them as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. M.K. Gandhi used the name 'Harijan' to define untouchables but it was denied and banned by the government of India.
The word "Dalit" comes from the Sanskrit, and means "ground", "suppressed", "crushed", or "broken to pieces". It was first used by Jyotirao Phule in the nineteenth century, in the context of the oppression faced by the erstwhile "untouchable" castes of the twice-born Hindus.
According to Victor Premasagar, the term expresses their "weakness, poverty and humiliation at the hands of the upper castes in the Indian society."
Mohandas Gandhi coined the word Harijan, translated roughly as "Children of God", to identify the former Untouchables. The terms "Scheduled castes and scheduled tribes" [SC/ST] are the official terms used in Indian government documents to identify former "untouchables" and tribes. However, in 2008 the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, noticing that "Dalit" was used interchangeably with the official term "scheduled castes", called the term "unconstitutional" and asked state governments to end its use. After the order, the Chhattisgarh government ended the official use of the word "Dalit".
"Adi Dravida", "Adi Karnataka" and "Adi Andhra" are words used in the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, respectively, to identify people of former "untouchable" castes in official documents. These words, particularly the prefix of "Adi", denote the aboriginal inhabitants of the land.
The more general term, "Adivasi" derives from the Sanskrit words adi meaning primal, original, first + bas a verb root meaning to sit, settle, or stay, rendering Adivasi as "indigenous" people of India. People who identify themselves as Dalit may also identify themselves as Adivasi, but the distinction is analogous to that of Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes in which there is some intersection but the two are distinct social identities.
In the context of traditional Hindu society, Dalit status has often been historically associated with occupations regarded as ritually impure, such as any involving leatherwork, butchering, or removal of rubbish, animal carcasses, and waste. Dalits work as manual labourers cleaning streets, latrines, and sewers. Engaging in these activities was considered to be polluting to the individual, and this pollution was considered contagious. As a result, Dalits were commonly segregated, and banned from full participation in Hindu social life. For example, they could not enter a temple nor a school, and were required to stay outside the village. Elaborate precautions were sometimes observed to prevent incidental contact between Dalits and other castes. Discrimination against Dalits still exists in rural areas in the private sphere, in everyday matters such as access to eating places, schools, temples and water sources. It has largely disappeared in urban areas and in the public sphere. Some Dalits have successfully integrated into urban Indian society, where caste origins are less obvious and less important in public life. In rural India, however, caste origins are more readily apparent and Dalits often remain excluded from local religious life, though some qualitative evidence suggests that its severity is fast diminishing.
In India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, Dalits have revolutionized politics and have elected a popular Dalit chief minister named Mayawati.
Dalits and similar groups are also found in Nepal and Bangladesh. In addition, the Burakumin of Japan, Al-Akhdam of Yemen, Baekjeong of Korea and Midgan of Somalia are similar in status to Dalits.
The study of the genetics and archaeogenetics of the ethnic groups of South Asia aims at uncovering these groups' genetic history. The geographic position of India makes Indian populations important for the study of the early dispersal of all human populations on the Eurasian continent.
The Indian Genome Variation Consortium observed high levels of genetic divergence between groups of populations that cluster largely on the basis of ethnicity and language. Studies based on mtDNA variation have also reported genetic similarities amongst the various Indian sub-populations. Recent research based on molecular studies and the archaeological record has also suggested an autochthonous differentiation of the genetic structure of the populations in South Asia.
It has been found that the ancestral node of the phylogenetic tree of all the mtDNA types typically found in Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe are also to be found in South Asia at relatively high frequencies. The inferred divergence of this common ancestral node is estimated to have occurred slightly less than 50,000 years ago. In India the major maternal lineages, or mitochondrial DNA Haplogroups, are M, R and U, whose coalescence times have been approximated to 50,000 BP. The major paternal lineages represented by Y chromosomes are haplogroups R1a, R2, H, L and J2. Early studies on paternal lineages based on Y chromosomal markers had taken haplogroup R1a1, which is widespread in central Asia, southern Siberia [especially among Altaians] and eastern part of Europe [especially Slavic populations], as well as in the caste populations in India, as an early indication of the Indo-European migration into India from Central Asia. But later studies revealed that R1a1 is widespread in the South Indian Dravidian speaking Tribal populations as well as among other Tribes.
Sachar Committee report of 2006 revealed that scheduled castes and tribes of India are not limited to the religion of Hinduism. The 61st Round Survey of the NSSO found that almost nine-tenths of the Buddhists, one-third of the Sikhs, and one-third of the Christians in India belonged to the notified scheduled castes or tribes of the Constitution.
The Indian caste system is a system of social stratification and social restriction in India in which communities are defined by thousands of endogamous hereditary groups called Jatis.
The Jatis were grouped formally by the Brahminical texts under the four well known categories [the Varnas]: viz Brahmins [scholars, teachers, fire priests], Kshatriyas [kings, warriors, law enforcers, administrators], Vaishyas [agriculturists, cattle raisers, traders, bankers], Shudras [artisans, craftsmen, service providers]. Certain people like foreigners, nomads, forest tribes and the Chandalas [who dealt with disposal of the dead] were excluded altogether and treated as untouchables. Although generally identified with Hinduism, the caste system was also observed among followers of other religions in the Indian subcontinent, including some groups of Muslims and Christians, most likely through cultural assimilation over centuries.
Traditionally, the political power usually lay with the Kshatriyas, the economic power with the Vaishyas and Shudras, while the Brahmins, as custodians and interpreters of Dharma, enjoyed much prestige and given many advantages by the society.
Fa Xian, a Buddhist pilgrim from China, visited India around 400 AD. "Only the lot of the Chandals he found unenviable; outcastes by reason of their degrading work as disposers of dead, they were universally shunned... But no other section of the population was notably disadvantaged, no other caste distinctions attracted comment from the Chinese pilgrim, and no oppressive caste 'system' drew forth his surprised censure". In this period kings of Sudra and Brahmin origin were as common as those of Kschatriya Varna [Hinduism] and caste system was not wholly prohibitive and repressive.
The castes did not constitute a rigid description of the occupation or the social status of a group. Since British society was divided by class, the British attempted to equate the Indian caste system to their own social class system. They saw caste as an indicator of occupation, social standing, and intellectual ability. Intentionally or unintentionally, the caste system became more rigid during the British Raj, when the British started to enumerate castes during the ten year census and codified the system under their rule.
The Harijans, or the people outside the caste system, had the lowest social status. The Harijans, earlier referred to as untouchables by some, worked in what were seen as unhealthy, unpleasant or polluting jobs. In the past, the Harijans suffered from social segregation and restrictions, in addition to extreme poverty. They were not allowed temple worship with others, nor water from the same sources. Persons of higher castes would not interact with them. If somehow a member of a higher caste came into physical or social contact with an untouchable, the member of the higher caste was defiled, and had to bathe thoroughly to purge him or herself of the impurity. Social discrimination developed even among the Harijans; sub-castes among Harijans, such as the dhobi and nai, would not interact with lower-order Bhangis, who were described as "outcastes even among outcastes".
Sociologists have commented on the historical advantages offered by a rigid social structure as well as its drawbacks. While caste is now seen as anachronistic, in its original form the caste system served as an instrument of order in a society where mutual consent rather than compulsion ruled; where the ritual rights and the economic obligations of members of one caste or sub-caste were strictly circumscribed in relation to those of any other caste or sub-caste; where one was born into one's caste and retained one's station in society for life; where merit was inherited, where equality existed within the caste, but inter-caste relations were dynamic - often unequal and hierarchical. A well-defined system of mutual interdependence through a division of labour created security within a community. In addition, the division of labour on the basis of ethnicity allowed immigrants and foreigners to quickly integrate into their own caste niches.
The caste system played an influential role in shaping economic activities, where it functioned much like medieval European guilds, ensuring the division of labour, providing for the training of apprentices, development and protection of intellectual property, and, in some cases, allowing manufacturers to achieve narrow specialization and global monopoly. For instance, producing each variety of cloth was the specialty of a particular sub-caste, but the weavers of Dhaka produced the renowned Muslin that was in demand internationally. It has also been suggested that the majority of people tend to be comfortable in stratified endogamous groups, as they have always been, since ancient times.
Prior to the British use of Varna [Hinduism] categories for enumerating and ranking the Jatis in the decennial Census, the relative ranking of the Jatis and castes was fluid and differed from one place to another, based on their political and economic power. Sociologists such as Bernard Buber and Marriott McKim describe how the perception of the caste system as a static and textual stratification has given way to the perception of the caste system as a more processual, empirical and contextual stratification. Other sociologists such as Y.B Damle have applied theoretical models to explain mobility and flexibility in the caste system in India.
According to these scholars, groups of lower-caste individuals could seek to elevate the status of their caste by attempting to emulate the practices of higher castes. Flexibility in caste laws permitted very low-caste religious clerics such as Valmiki to compose the Ramayana, which became a central work of Hindu scripture. There is also precedent of certain Shudra families within the temples of the Sri Vaishnava sect in South India elevating their caste. The following is a list of changes in varna cited in Hindu texts:
Manu eldest son [Priyavrata] became king, a Kshatriya. Out of his ten sons seven became kings while three became Brahman. Their names were Mahavira, Kavi and Savana. (Ref bhagwat puran chap.5).
Kavash Ailush was born to a Sudra and attained the varna of a Rishi. He became mantra-drashta to numerous Vedic mantras in Rig-Veda 10th Mandal.
Jabala's son [Satyakama] born from unknown father became Rishi by his qualities.
[Matanga] became a Rishi after his birth in low Varna.
According to some psychologists, mobility across broad caste lines may have been "minimal", though sub-castes [Jatis] may have changed their social status over the generations by fission, re-location, and adoption of new rituals.
Sociologist M. N. Srinivas has also debated the question of rigidity in Caste. In an ethnographic study of the Coorgs of Karnataka, he observed considerable flexibility and mobility in their caste hierarchies. He asserts that the caste system is far from a rigid system in which the position of each component caste is fixed for all time; instead, movement has always been possible, especially in the middle regions of the hierarchy. It was always possible for groups born into a lower caste to "rise to a higher position by adopting vegetarianism and teetotalism" i.e. adopt the customs of the higher castes. While theoretically "forbidden", the process was not uncommon in practice. The concept of Sanskritization, or the adoption of upper-caste norms by the lower castes, addressed the complexity and fluidity of caste relations.
The fact that many of the dynasties were of obscure origin suggests some social mobility: a person of any caste, having once acquired political power, could also acquire a genealogy connecting him with the traditional lineages and conferring Kshatriya status. A number of new castes, such as the Kayasthas [scribes] and Khatris [traders], are mentioned in the sources of this period. According to the Brahmanic sources, they originated from inter-caste marriages, but this is clearly an attempt at rationalizing their rank in the hierarchy. Khatri appears to be unquestionably a Practiced form of the Sanskrit Kshatriya. Many of these new castes played a major role in society. The hierarchy of castes did not have a uniform distribution throughout the country.
Both Buddha and Mahavira preached people to break the bonds of the caste system, and severely criticised untouchability, that was prevalent throughout the society. Many bhakti period saints, including Meerabai, Nanak, Kabir, Chaitanya, Dnyaneshwar, Eknath, Ramanija and Tukaram, rejected all caste-based discrimination and accepted disciples from all the castes. Many Hindu reformers such as Swami Vivekananda believe that there is no place for the caste system in Hinduism. The 15th century saint Ramananda accepted all castes, including untouchables, into his fold. Most of these saints subscribed to the Bhakti movements in Hinduism during the medieval period that rejected casteism. Nandanar, a low-caste Hindu cleric, also rejected casteism and accepted Dalits.
Some other movements in Hinduism have also welcomed lower-castes into their fold, the earliest being the Bhakti movements of the medieval period. Dalit politics involved many reform movements; these arose primarily as a reaction to the advent of Christian missionaries in India and their attempts to convert Dalits, who were attracted to the prospect of escaping the caste system.
In the 19th Century, the Brahmo Samaj under Raja Ram Mohan Roy actively campaigned against untouchability and casteism. The Arya Samaj founded by Swami Dayanand also renounced discrimination against Dalits. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and his disciple Swami Vivekananda founded the Ramakrishna Mission that participated in the emancipation of Dalits. Upper-caste Hindus such as Mannathu Padmanabhan participated in movements to abolish untouchability against Dalits; Padmanabhan opened his family temple to Dalits for worship. Narayana Guru, a pious Hindu and an authority on the Vedas, also criticized casteism and campaigned for the rights of lower-caste Hindus within the context of Hinduism.
The first upper-caste temple to openly welcome Dalits into their fold was the Laxminarayan Temple in Wardha in the year 1928; the move was spearheaded by reformer Jamnalal Bajaj.
The caste system has also been criticized by many Indian social reformers. Some reformers, such as Jyotirao Phule and Iyothee Thass, argued that the lower caste people were the original inhabitants of India, who had been conquered in the ancient past by "Brahmin invaders." Mahatma Gandhi coined the term Harijan, a euphemistic word for untouchable, literally meaning Sons of God. B. R. Ambedkar, born in Hindu Dalit community, was a heavy critic of the caste system. He pioneered the Dalit Buddhist movement in India, and asked his followers to leave Hinduism, and convert to Buddhism. India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, based on his own relationship with Dalit reformer Ambedkar, supported the eradication of untouchability for the benefit of the Dalit community. In 1936, the Maharaja proclaimed that "outcastes should not be denied the consolations and the solace of the Hindu faith". Even today, the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple that first welcomed Dalits in the state of Kerala is revered by the Dalit Hindu community.
There have been several studies examining caste members as discrete populations, examining the hypothesis that their ancestors have different origins. A 2002–03 study by T. Kivisild et al. concluded that the "Indian tribal and caste populations derive largely from the same genetic heritage of Pleistocene southern and western Asians and have received limited gene flow from external regions since the Holocene." Studies point to the various Indian caste groups having similar genetic origins and having negligible genetic input from outside south Asia. Because the Indian samples for this study were taken from a single geographical area, it remains to be investigated whether its findings can be safely generalized.
An earlier 1995 study by Joanna L. Mountain et al. of Stanford University had concluded that there was "no clear separation into three genetically distinct groups along caste lines", although "an inferred tree revealed some clustering according to caste affiliation". A 2006 study by Ismail Thanseem et al. of Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology [India] concluded that the "lower caste groups might have originated with the hierarchical divisions that arose within the tribal groups with the spread of Neolithic agriculturalists, much earlier than the arrival of Aryan speakers", and "the Indo-Europeans established themselves as upper castes among this already developed caste-like class structure within the tribes." The study indicated that the Indian caste system may have its roots long before the arrival of the Indo-Aryans; a rudimentary version of the caste system may have emerged with the shift towards cultivation and settlements, and the divisions may have become more well-defined and intensified with the arrival of Indo-Aryans.
A 2006 genetic study by the National Institute of Biologicals in India, testing a sample of men from 32 tribal and 45 caste groups, concluded that the Indians have acquired very few genes from Indo-European speakers. More recent studies have also debunked the British claims that so-called Aryans and Dravidians have a racial divide. A study conducted by the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology [Hyderabad, India] in 2009 [in collaboration with Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvardand MIT] analyzed half a million genetic markers across the genomes of 132 individuals from 25 ethnic groups from 13 states in India across multiple caste groups. The study establishes, based on the impossibility of identifying any genetic indicators across caste lines that castes in South Asia grew out of traditional tribal organizations during the formation of Indian society and was not the product of any Aryan invasion and subjugation of Dravidian people. The actual study says "Analysis of these data demonstrated that the upper castes have a higher affinity to Europeans than to Asians, and the upper castes are significantly more similar to Europeans than are the lower castes"
Some researchers from India, Europe and the U.S. claim that genetic similarities to Europeans were more common in members of the higher ranks. Their findings, published in Genome Research, claimed the idea that members of higher castes are more closely related to Europeans than are the lower castes.