Latasinha's Weblog

Social and political Values and Systems in India.

Dalit movement for empowerment


Dalits have been the victims of discrimination, untouchability, poverty, illiteracy, ignorance and consequential disabilities for a very long time. During the end of nineteenth century, national leaders and reformers prepared an atmosphere for Dalits to join the mainstream. And that was the start of the movement for empowerment of Dalits. Since then the movement has passed through various stages. Different terms have been used for Dalits like Shudras, outcastes, Panchamas, untouchables, depressed class, scheduled castes and Dalits etc. Each one assumed importance at different points of time, as Dalit movement has passed through various stages –

Shudras, Outcastes or Panchamas – Till the beginning of 20th Century, the category lower strata or the bottom groups of Indian Society were known as Shudras, Panchamas or outcastes. In Western and Southern parts of India, they were kept outside the four Varnas. In the Northern and Eastern parts of India, the fourth Varna “Shudra” itself was divided into two parts pure or non-excluded and excluded or untouchables. Their low status gradually made them to suffer inhuman treatment by other sections of the society. Centuries old enslavement, ignorance, suppression and ostracism shook their confidence.

Depressed Class– During the nineteenth Century, in official circles lower castes were addressed as ‘Depressed class’ or ‘Exterior class’. British government in India regarded these people as ‘Oppressed of the oppressed and lowest of the low’. Missionaries were trying to convert this section of society. That was the time, when the attention of humanitarians and reformers was drawn towards the pathetic condition of untouchables. They took the path of Sankritisation to elevate them. But this section under the name of “depressed class” desired a share in political power in India.

Untouchables – By 1909, the lowest castes came to be known as untouchabes. Dr. Ambedkar, who gave the untouchable movement a national character and regarded the terms ‘Depressed classes’, ‘Dalits’, ‘Harijans’ either confusing or degrading and contemptuous. He insisted to address untouchables just as untouchables. Simon Commission in 1928 established their separate identity independent of intermediate castes as untouchables.

Harijans – The attempt of British rulers in 1911 to exclude untouchables from Hindu population and continuous decline of number of Hindus cautioned the national leaders. In order to retain their Hindu identity, Gandhiji and his followers called them Harijans meaning the “people belonging to god”. On one hand, Gandhiji tried to create compassion in the hearts of forward communities for Harijans and on the other he appealed to Harijans to observe cleaner habits, so that they could mix up freely with other sections of society. Dalit leaders did not like the word Harijan as it symbolized a meek and helpless person, at the mercy and benevolence of others, and not the proud and independent human being that they were.

Scheduled Castes – In accordance with the provisions of the Communal Award of 1932, instructions were issued, in July 1934, to schedule a list of the people entitled for preferential treatment in matter of special electoral representation and appointment in the Central Government jobs. This gave birth to the term Scheduled Caste in 1935. Scheduling was a legal activity having sanction of legal authorities. Therefore, no one had any objection to this term. The term continued after the independence as well, for the purpose of Reservation.

After second world war, emergence of the concept od ‘welfare state’ considered it a humanitarian obligation of a civilized society to bring suitable changes to uplift and empower the submerged sections of society. The overwhelming poverty of millions belonging to lower strata of society and their near absence in echelons of power has led the government to of India to intervene.

Their representation in the power structure of the nation was negligible till then. The Constitution of India has guided the State authorities to provide adequate representation to them in power echelons through Affirmative Action Program along with other facilities for giving them social justice through removal of poverty, reduction in inequalities of income and wealth. The Constitution directed the Government to promote educational, economic and other interests of the weaker sections with special care. Access to public facilities, which was denied to untouchables, was made possible. The government initiated various Welfare Plans and Policies for their economic growth and employment generation.

Dalits – Ambedkar’s followers under the banner of various factions of Republican Party of India (Formed in 1956) led the Dalit movement forward. The Mahars of Bombay (8%), Jatavs of UP (Half of the SC Population in UP) and Nadars and Thevars of Southern TN being numerically significant, played a decisive role in taking forward Dalit movement.

Maharashtra Dalit movement has a longest and richest experience. In 1972, a distinct political party, in the name of Dalit Panther was formed in Maharashtra. It organised the lower castes under the banner of ‘Dalit’ throughout India. Dalit Sahitya Movement legitimized and reinforced the use of the term Dalit. Since then, this term is very popular amongst the untouchables. In 1972, one of the founders of Dalit Panther, Mr. Namdeo Dhasal widened the scope of Dalit by including SC, tribes, neo-Buddhists, landless labor and economically exploited people. Its orientation is primarily militant and rebellious.

Earlier, the leaders of untouchables had some regard for the cultural tradition of India. They did not reject Vedic literature or the foundations of Hinduism outrightly. Dr. Ambedkar accepted that all parts of Manusmiriti were not condemnable. Gopal Baba Walangkar had said that Vedas did not support untouchability. Kisan Fagoi, another Mahar leader of pre-Ambedkar era had joined Prarthna Samaj. But now Dalit leaders are vehemently against cultural traditions of India, which according to them, are based on inequality and exploitation. There is always a fear of upper caste or intermediate caste backlash.

In mid sixties, an aggressive Dalit movement started under Shoshit Samaj Dal in Central Bihar, which has, presently, become a major center of Naxalite movement. Dal was founded by Jagdeo Mahto, who began to mobilize the lower castes against economic repression and exploitation of women by upper caste feudal elements.

The new phase of Dalit assertion is most prominent in the most populous state of UP, where the upper caste domination has been challenged by BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party) formed in 1984 under the leadership of Kanshi Ram and Mayavati. They redefined Dalit politics especially in north India. Their approach to Dalit issues was more socio-political rather than economic. BSP has started pursuing power with militancy since 1990. Of late, BSP has made significant inroads in UP, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh. BSP has borrowed all their phraseology from Dalit Panthers. Most of their utterances are arrogant, revengeful and opportunistic.

Once again, the tendency of ‘divide and rule’ as was there during British domination emerged in national scenario. The growing desire of Dalits to rule made them very sure of their friends and foes. Dalit leaders, after so many years, identified Brahmins and Caste Hindus as their enemy and intermediate castes as their friends. Kanshi Ram, a BSP leader initiated a formula of DS4, meaning Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangarsh Samiti, taking into its fold untouchables, STs, Muslims and OBCs. OBC leaders also know that Dalit parties now control a large vote bank. Therefore, they are ready to support them in order to increase their political strength.

But Dalits are in no mood to play a second fiddle to other national political parties. Instead of demanding a share in power structure, equity or social justice, Dalit political groups want to reverse the power equation and to transform the society by capturing political power. Their aim is to get hold over the posts of PM-CM (Political Power) through electoral politics and control over administrative authority – the bureaucracy – through Reservations/Affirmative Action Program.


In conclusion, it ca be said that there is an elite section amongst Dalits, which protects its turf under the banner of Dalits at the cost of poorest of Dalits. Its vested interest lies in keeping the Dalit masses out of mainstream and keep them always insecure. For some, it is a recipe for Dalit vote-bank, for others enjoying all the benefits of affirmative action programs initiated and implemented by the Government of India. And here lies the crux of Dalit poltics.

Dalits are not satisfied even after having growing influence in ballot-box politics and attaining enough places in the government jobs. No one knows where the Dalit assertion will lead the nation to? It is not the paternalistic policies, (which have failed to yield so far the desired results) that are required for the upliftment and empowerment of submerged sections of society, but there is need to educate, make them aware of their rights and duties, provide enough employment opportunities and other civic facilities like health etc at the grass root level for the sustainable growth of backward communities.


January 1, 2010 Posted by | Social and political values and systems | | Leave a comment


%d bloggers like this: