Practice Question: Elaborate various forms of Dalit assertions in contemporary India? Discuss. (20 Marks) (Socio Paper 2018)

Approach: Contextual Introduction;  Outline the methods and forms of dalit assertions; mention its relevance, give examples of the assertions; Conclusion.


It is widely known that traditional Indian society was based on varna and jati. Though this traditional system has undergone many changes over a period of time, caste continues to be a powerful institution in our socio-economic, religious and political life. In this system, Dalits were considered as impure and this resulted in untouchability towards them. They were assigned the lowest position in the caste hierarchy based on ritual purity and occupation. Dalits are oppressed throughout the recorded history of India.

The term ‘Dalit’ is a Marathi word literary meaning ‘ground’ or ‘broken to pieces’. It was first proposed by some Marathi-speaking literary writers in Maharashtra in 1960s in place of terms like ‘Harijan’ or Achchuta. Dalit Panthers started using it to assert their identity. Before the use of this term, Ambedkar himself had used alternative terms like ‘Depressed Classes’, ‘exterior’ or ‘excluded’ caste, ‘Bahishkrit’ or ‘Pad Dalit’ to refer to the poor and downtrodden. The British administration tried to replace the term ‘untouchable’ first by “Depressed Classes” in 1919 and later by “Scheduled Castes” (SCs) in 1935. Gandhi, an ardent champion of removing untouchability, also appealed to caste Hindus to use the term ‘Harijan’ meaning man of god instead of ‘Antyaja’.

It has now been recognised that the term ‘Dalit’ has attained hermeneutic ability to refer to the exploitative past of the Scheduled Castes. The term has the ontological ability to encompass within itself all the oppressed and exploited sections of society including Adivasis, minorities and women.

The emergence of Dalit movement can be traced back in socio-religious movements, these movements worked as a base for forthcoming movements. The leaders of Bhakti movement like Ramananda, Raidas, Chaitanya, Chandidas, or Ramanuj played an important role between 10th and 13th centuries to oppose caste distinctions and assert equality before God. These movements attempted to remove untouchabilityby taking the Dalits into the fold of the caste system. The leaders of this movement argued that untouchability was not an essential part of Hinduism and that of caste system.

The phenomenon of Dalit assertion in India has often been understood through the prism of two models of Dalit social mobility: the first is conversion and the second is Sanskritisation. It is generally believed that Dalits make use of either one of these models to escape from caste-based social exclusion .

The major issues around which most of the Dalit movements have been centred in colonial and post-colonial India are confined to the problem of untouchability. In this sense, these movements are predominantly anti-untouchability movement. But at the same time, these movements also raised issues of agricultural labourers as Dalits are mostly engaged in such activity. The issue of increasing or maintaining reservations in elections, government jobs and welfare programmes has also concerned the leaders of these movements.

G. Shah has tried to classify such movements into two types, namely a) reformative and b) alternative movement. While the former tries to reform the caste system to solve the problem of untouchability, the latter attempts to create an alternative socio-cultural structure through conversion to some other religion or by acquiring education, economic status or political power.

Ambedkar wrote extensively to construct the Dalit perspective of nationalism and build an anti-Hindu and anti-Gandhian perspective for liberation of the Dalit. He had a different approach and philosophy regarding the emancipation of Dalits. He believed that the egalitarian social order for which he is striving is not possible within Hinduism whose very foundation is hierarchical with SCs at the bottom. The Chaturvarna system, which Gandhi did not oppose, was part of Hinduism. The religious sanctity behind caste and Varna must be destroyed and it is possible to do so by discarding the divine authority of the Shastras. Obviously, Ambedkar did not have faith in the charitable spirit of the caste Hindus towards the untouchables. He asserted that SCs should get organised, educate and struggle for self-respect rather than depend on sympathy. Along with ‘annihilation of caste’, he also raised the demand for separate electorate for the dalits.

As he moved close to Buddhism, he developed the alternative of what may be called “Buddhist economics” as against the Marxist socialism. He then argued that equality will be of no value without fraternity and liberty. The Mahars of Maharashtra under the leadership of Ambedkar also initiated the Buddhist conversion movement in the mid-1950s. But since early 1930s, Ambedkar was very clear that to improve their status, dalits have to renounce Hindu religion.

Mukhopadhyay has classified Ambedkar’s leadership into three phases; the first phase is from 1924 to 1930. During this period, he mainly organized many campaigns like Kala Ram and Mahad Satyagraha.In the second phase which started in 1930, the main focus was on attaining political power in order to improve the socioeconomic position. The third and the final phase was in a way against Hinduism as during this period he adopted Buddhism.

After Ambedkar many significant developments took place in the Dalit movements. The beginning of the autonomous Dalit movement can be traced back to 1937 when the Independent Labour Party (IPL) was established by Ambedkar. Since then the Dalit political consciousness has grown rapidly.

There are many factors that are responsible for the rise of Dalit movements in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The major factors include entry of Dalits into military services, Dalit reform movements, Dalit education, conversions, missionary activities, Islamic revivalism and Hindu reforms. On the other hand, there are some minor factors like land settlement, industry, communication facilities, education, press and books, legal system etc. which have contributed in the rise and development of Dalit movements in India.

The political mobilization of the dalits has contributed in Indian democracy by promoting independent Dalit leadership and by mobilizing them for direct participation. The formation of Republican Party of India, Dalit Panther Movement, Dalit Sathya Movement, All India Backward SC, OBC and minority communities Employees Federation and Bahujan Samaj Party were some important organizations which come up during this period.

The Human Rights Watch Report written by Smita Narula ‘Broken People: Caste Violence Against India’s “Untouchables” was published in 1999. The report focuses primarily on the abuse against Dalit communities. It projects caste as a determinative factor for the attainment of social, political, civil and economic rights. The report brought into the limelight the subjugated and abject condition of Dalits at global level. It initiated a fresh discourse about the plight of Dalits in India. These efforts at global level made caste a global problem not India specific. It facilitated links between Dalits and marginalized groups across the world.

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