Throughout history, people have defined themselves or been defined by others by their social identities such as ancestry, religion, race, ethnicity, and occupation.

At certain points in history, these identities have even dictated the path followed by individuals though life, sometimes even prescribing their destiny. To mention just a few of the incidences, think about the millions of black people who lived through indentured servitude in America during the nineteenth century because of their racial (black) identity, of the millions who perished in Europe during the holocaust in the 1940s for their religious (Jewish) identity, and of the thousands massacred in the ethnic clash between the Hutu and Tutsi of Rwanda and Burundi, Africa, in1994.

Some societies even require their members to memorize information about their ancestry several generations back as proof of their humanity. Among the Kalabari of Nigeria, for example, an individual who does not preserve knowledge of his identity in terms of ancestry is believed to have descended from Nondo, a mysterious ape.

The post-modern and neo-colonial critiques of caste visualize it as a relatively modern phenomenon, a product of the British colonial rule, traceable not to the ancient, the so-called ‘Hindu’ period of Indian history or to the Purusa-sukta of the Rigveda and the Manusmrti but to the British Census Reports.


Hierarchy-cum-interdependence, occupational specialization, endogamy and commensal restrictions, which the earlier Indologists and sociologists regarded as the defining features of the caste system, were from this point of view, Orientalist-Colonial readings motivated by the desire to systematize diverse forms of local social realities and identities into a holistic theory ‘essentializing’ it as a unique culture. Despite this criticism of ‘essentialization’, endogamy is recognized implicitly or explicitly by these scholars as the essence of the caste system, without which the formation of ‘discrete categories’ or the allegedly modern process of ‘ethnicisation’ or ‘substantialization’ of caste – which according to Nichdas B. Dirks make it a worthy synonym of community in the best sense’ – would not have taken place.

The question arises: is endogamy then an irreducible transhistoric phenomenon embedded in the psyche of the Indian people or it evolved through a historical process and has continued to survive through the ages in a favourable material environment?

Nevertheless, the view that caste endogamy is a residue of the tribal past of communities integrating with the expanding Aryan society is quite common, perhaps because history does provide many instances of tribal groups being transformed into endogamous castes.

But this only shows that as rule assimilation into a caste society could take place only on a group or community basis with the new entrants retaining their distinctive identities, for the general society was already fragmented into social groups differentiated on hereditary principles.


Attributing the origin of endogamous customs to incomplete fusion of tribal elements would imply that caste identities were biologically constructed, but in the view of Prof. Suvira Jaiswal caste society was not a biological but social construct.

In our society, over the centuries, the caste identities have surfaced as an important force in contemporary politics and it demands for redressal of the inequalities and exploitation engendered by this old system have stimulated fresh thinking in academic circles on the question of the essence and dynamics of caste. It is sometimes assumed that a caste mentality is embedded in our psyche. Hence even as traditional notions of its integration with religion, and law are being increasingly challenged (and even repudiated in modern circumstances), the caste structure continues to survive as a noticeable point of our society.

This inference is further strengthened by the studies of the Indian Diaspora where despite the absence of notions of hierarchy and hereditary occupational specialization-points intrinsic to the traditional caste system-the morphology of caste is seen to prevail owing to the ‘separation’, ‘repulsion’ or recognition of ‘difference’ of one caste from another.

Castes, i.e., four orders of society (namely the Brahman, the Kshatriya, the Vaisya and the Sudras), retain separate identities but these are related to each other as constituent units of Hindu community.


Thus, it is claimed, empirical works have demonstrated the inadequacies of earlier indological-sociological formulations of caste system as a hierarchical social system rooted in a religious principle that imputed inherently pure or polluting status to social groups, legitimized by the doctrine of karma (duty).

Traditionally, Untouchables stood outside and beneath the four main Hindu castes (varnas) which ranked all elements of Indian society by ritual purity and pollution.

Associated historically (and often today) with work deemed unclean, Untouchables were seen as permanently and hereditarily defiled. Today Untouchables are a diverse group living throughout the Indian subcontinent and comprising about 16 percent of the country’s approximately 1 billion people. Among Untouchable populations, as within the four main castes, there are additional hierarchies among occupationally-based sub-castes (known as jatis).

Historically in northern India’s ”Hindi Belt,”jati rankings have been particularly strong, while in southern India the caste system has been less rigid. There is further geographic variation, with jatis confined to particular regions and with substantial ethnic and linguistic differences among them.


While most Untouchables live in rural areas, many have migrated to cities seeking economic opportunity and fleeing the rigidities of village life. Dalits have sought escape from Untouchability using other methods too, among them conversion from Hinduism to Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, and Buddhism. Thus today’s Dalit population, while predominantly Hindu, is religiously mixed.

Given this diversity, viewing Untouchables as a single cohesive group is sociologically problematic. Indeed, there are conflicts among Untouchable communities, often based on occupational hierarchies within the broader group. Yet, as a social and political category, Untouchability has long been and continues to be a touchstone for political activity both inside and outside India.

The situation of the Untouchables was an important issue in India’s independence struggle, and key conflicts from the 1930s and I 940s still resound in Dalit politics today. For the Congress Party, Mohandas K. Gandhi (not an Untouchable) sought to champion the group.

Gandhi, a staunch defender of Hinduism, saw Untouchability as a perversion of Hindu doctrine and sought to reform the religion by urging Hindus to treat all people equally regardless of caste. But for Untouchable leaders of the time, particularly B.R. Ambedkar, Gandhi’s renaming of the group as “Harijans” was paternalistic, his view of Hindu doctrine wrongheaded, his faith in upper caste Hindus’ renunciation of the hierarchy naive, and his overall strategy – subordinating the problems of the Untouchables to the struggle for Independence – misconceived. Ambedkar, the most prominent Untouchable in the Independence struggle, rejected the view that Hinduism could be purged of caste.


Instead, he argued that caste hierarchies irredeemably pervaded the religion, prompting his vow not to die a Hindu and his 1956 conversion, with tens of thousands of followers, to Buddhism. In the late colonial period, Dr. Ambedkar exploited Hindu-Muslim divisions in the independence movement and the continuing influence of the British to demand that an independent India include a separate electorate under which only Untouchables would be permitted to vote for Untouchable members of the national legislature.

Under tremendous pressure from Gandhi, who believed that separate electorates would undermine Indian unity, Ambedkar eventually accepted the Poona Pact, which reserved seats in the national legislature for candidates from the “depressed classes.”

To clarify this point further, two aspects of Dalit identity are discussed further: first, Dalit as object of history and second, Dalit as subject of history.

In general, authors of Indian history have treated the Dalits as “object”. The “subject” of their historical writings always have been the opponents of the Dalits. For example Suniti Kumar Chatterji in his work Indo-Aryan and Hindi, has recognised the existence of pre-Aryan people of India as Dasa, Dasyu and Nisadas, whom he has also termed “the Original Indian Austic People” or “Aborigines” or “Dravidian”.


But still they are not the subject of his work. The general term he has used for them is “non-Aryan”, which shows that “Aryan” are his the subject, the others being just “non”. One may note the following statement:

It is now becoming more and more clear that the non-Aryan contributed by far the greater position in the fabric of Indian civilization, and a great deal of Indian religious and cultural traditions, of ancient legend and history, is just non-Aryan translated in terms of the Aryan speech.

One needs to note the phrases “non-Aryan” or “Indian civilization”, in the above quotation. “Non-Aryan” of course are conquered Dasas, who according to Suniti Kumar Chatterji, later on were divided into two groups, Sudras (the serving caste) and the slaves (present Dalits), and the Arya according to him are Vaisya, Ksatriya and Brahman.

But the interesting thing is the Dasa groups, whom he himself has accepted as “original Indian”. If that is true, then “Indian civilisation” should have been theirs; and newcomers who settled after conquering “the original Indian” should have been treated as contributors to the ongoing “Indian civilisation”. This is where the question of “subject” or “object” of Indian history arises.

In the past, literature about the Dalits or written by them has included some study-based publications, which Association Press (YMCA) brought out between 1920 and 1940. In these studies an attempt was made not only to present the views of the Dalits, but also to bring out some positive elements of their past lost identity and heritage.

For example, Briggs in his work on The Chamars says that he interviewed people living in villages and towns, who are working as farmers, tanners, shoemakers, wizards, gurus and servants and his “single aim has been in all cases to record the Chamars’ point of view” Alexander Robertson’s study on The Mahar Folk appeared in 1938. In the foreword to this work John McKenzie, the former principal of Wilson College, Bombay, says that Robertson “presents to us (the Chamar) not as a mere object of scientific interest, but as’ a man, and as a man possessing all the worth and dignity, and all the capacity for practical, intellectual and spiritual attainment, that are found in other members of God’s great family.” Space does not allow more examples from these works, to show they have tried to present the life of the Dalits from their point of View.

Notable among the more recent studies; which are also of a more scientific nature, is Untouchable: An Indian Life History by James Freeman, in which the writer presents details of an Orissa Dalit named Muli of 40 mostly in Muli’s own words, which looks like an autobiography.

The main question which this work addresses is what happens when an untouchable attempts to break out of his accepted role? Worthy of mention is also a study of the movement against untouchability in the twentieth century Panjab, entitled Religion as Social Vision, This work, which analyses cases of Chamars and Churas of the Panjab deals mainly with the question: “What happens when untouchables decide that they are not Hindus to subscribe to the concepts under girding castes, concepts many untouchables regard as oppression?”

Despite the successive waves of Brahminical-hierarchical incorporation of the diverse peoples and cultures in pre-modern times and the unprecedented valorisation of the same under colonialism, the sub¬-continental society has successfully survived as pluralist and heterogeneous. First of all, to the extent that hierarchical incorporation represented a specific form of dominance it has been resented to and resisted from the very beginning.

And the contestation has left its own diversely negotiated cultural markers, practices and thought-patterns, more or less, intense or attenuated, in different parts of the country and in various spheres of collective life. Secondly, there exist still vast areas of the sub-continent, though unified under a single state system, to which this basically caste ¬anti-caste contestation has not even been extended.

These are known as the tribal areas in which the on-going process of hierarchical incorporation as well as resistance to it is clearly visible. Thirdly, as noted above, unification under modernity has been ambiguous: if on the one hand, ascriptive hierarchy was valorised, its opposite, humanist egalitarianism in its juridical form of Rule of Law was installed within the new institutions.

These historically secured interlinked interfaces and politically erected ambivalent social spaces together, turned resilient, when seized upon by the colonially subalternised masses as potential springboards for launching collective efforts towards self-definition, assertion and determination.

The dalit-subaltens, whether already incorporated, or in the process of incorporation, or yet to be incorporated, perched as they were ambiguously between caste and non-caste, had two basic options for their democratic self-assertion one, to repudiate the process of hierarchicalisation, confront and contest it with its own counter-thesis; two, to abandon the hierarchicalised universe as beyond redemption, and join other competing and rival egalitarian religio-cultural canopies, exploiting the pluralist option guaranteed by the modern legal system.

The two options are, needless to add, ideal-typical, and in the concrete historical circumstances presented themselves as a series of combinations; but together they also constituted the single central dilemma for the dalit ¬subalterns, often debilitating most struggles of self-emergence.

1. The first observation concerning the democratic self-emergence of the dalit-subaltems is that the initial steps taken by them were in the realm of religion and culture rather than political economy.

2. The second observation is that though the first steps taken by the dalit-subaltems were in the realm of the religio-cultural, the politico economic was never absent as the distinguishing mark of modernity

3. The third observation is that these, hesitant and often faltering, first steps towards emergence, unambiguously were in the direction of co¬operation, collaboration and communion with the dominant others in an effort to secure dignity and self-respect within rather than without culture.

4. The fourth observation is that this historic offer, except for some earlier, individual and scattered, hence inconsequential positive responses, everywhere across the land was resented and rejected and the dalit¬ subaltern bid for self-emergence contested, resisted and sabotaged. .

5. The fifth observation is that beginning with their historically given semi-isolation, now clinched by the pervasive resistance by the Brahminised dominance, the dalit-subaltern emergence, as it entered the self-reflexive phase, became adversarial and even separatist.

6. The sixth observation is that turning towards alternative religio-cu1tural universes or confronting Brahminism defiantly with different religious constructions from out of the same cultural material was a choice determined by the positions that the various groups held in the social hierarchy.

7. The seventh observation is that, having been constrained to turn antagonistic vis-a-vis the dominant social-religious universe, the dalit ¬subaltern emergence has taken upon itself the arduous path of working its way out, in the teeth of multifaceted opposition, appropriation, domestication and even obliteration.

8. The eighth observation is that the second alternative of elaborating, distinct, different and even rival ‘sacred canopy’ through are-interpretation of history and culture has been broadly Buddhistic.

It was in this context that the dalit movement developed before Independence as an isolated revolt of the weakest and most oppressed sections of the population. The isolation had serious consequences: for it meant that, instead of organizing as the most revolutionary section of a unified movement, dalits developed a separatism in which they made demands of nationalists as well the British.

A hostility developed to communism and class analysis (which was put forward in such a way as to appear to dalits to exclude considerations of caste as such, which continues to have serious consequences today.

Still the achievements of the dalit movement are impressive, and are too often overlooked. They have given birth to a tradition of struggle in many areas, not only on cultural and ritual issues but on breaking feudal bonds. They have mounted powerful pressure on the national movement resulting in constitutional provisions for reservations and laws making untouchability an offence; unsatisfactory as these have been, they still provided weapons in the hands of low-caste organizers.

They have created a deep-seated conviction of equality and self-confidence which is inevitably making it heard. If this has not yet achieved a revolutionary transformation in the life of the most exploited sections of society, it is because of the incompleteness of the revolutionary and democratic movement itself. If this is to go forward, the dalit movement will inevitably be a part of it.

Post-independence changes in the political and economic set up and industrialization have had their impact on the internal homogeneity of castes which have thrown up their own elite, who may use the ideology of caste for narrow political interests without effecting any radical transformation in the condition of their caste in general. It is not without significance that the caste battles are fought these days on issues of reservation in jobs and institutions of higher education, but there is no strong movement around the questions of land-reform and primary education which would transform the lives of the Dalit masses.

Dr. Ambedkar seems to have foreseen this possibility when he criticized the view that abolition of sub castes should be the first step towards caste-reform. He categorically wrote, ‘abolition of sub-castes will only help to strengthen the castes and make them more powerful and therefore more mischievous. He argued for the annihilation of caste for which he thought the real remedy lies in inter-caste marriages.

The fact that he taught the Dalit communities self- respect and organized them for collective political action does not mean that he wanted to nurture caste identities. For Ambedkar social and cultural emancipation of women and men was as important as political and economic empowerment.

It is unfortunate that in the unabashed pursuit of political power today the holistic vision of Ambedkar is completely forgotten; and the pernicious strength of caste and patriarchal mentalities in our society is not seriously combated.

Finally, I draw out the implications for theories of human rights and international politics. Before proceeding, it is useful to discuss one skeptical critique of this article’s underlying premise, that caste discrimination has always been a subject of human rights concern.

To this claim, some might point to the broad language of such international instruments as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).

Indeed, as we shall see, Dalits have used this expansive language as a basis on which to make their more specific claims. Yet for Dalit activists, such implicit coverage was insufficient. Failing to name Dalit problems expressly meant that they went little noticed on the international stage.

All-encompassing human rights language does not recognize the caste basis on which Dalits are abused and therefore makes it difficult to identify appropriate remedies. Finally, many Dalit activists, like those in other aggrieved communities, have political agendas that go beyond ending abuses and protecting rights.

International recognition of “rights” can help solidify group identity, facilitate mobilization, and enhance group power among aggrieved communities such as India’s Dalits.

Second, and more relevant to recent efforts to internationalize caste discrimination and violence as human rights issues, there are a large number of non-violent Dalit “civil society organizations.” These organizations seek to raise Dalit consciousness, support individuals and communities in their day-to-day socio-economic struggles, and encourage attempts to vindicate Constitutional and legal rights.

At the grassroots level, Dalit activism has also grown in recent years, often with little linkage to Dalit politicians in India’s most powerful parties. Indeed, in many cases, civic activists condemn politicians for opportunism in allying with non-Dalit parties while doing little to help their constituencies. While it is difficult to generalize about these non-party organizations, there appear to be several general types.

First, in some rural regions, especially Bihar, Dalits have formed armed self-help groups (senas) to protect themselves against upper caste violence. Naxalite rebels have been involved in caste warfare for years in some regions.

Violence grew both because of increasing Dalit resistance to ritual subordination and because of growing upper caste aggression aimed at maintaining age-old hierarchies and economic inequalities.

Beyond these contextual issues, however, the eventual successes of Dalit activists highlight the relevance of organizational and rhetorical factors, over which aggrieved groups exercise significant control. In projecting the Dalit cause overseas, the formation of a national coalition of formerly disparate Indian NGOs played a key role, as did the rapid creation of an international network of solidarity NGOs. These provided an ongoing organizational basis for consciousness-raising, lobbying, and other activism in a variety of international forums.

On a rhetorical level, Dalit activists advanced their cause internationally by strategically adapting to the needs of international actors. Most importantly, they reframed caste ¬based discrimination within the broader rubric of work -and-descent ¬based discrimination. Additionally, Dalit activists uncovered, publicized, and linked themselves to victims of similar abuses outside India and the Hindu cultural zone.

Notably, international NGOs and foundations played an assistive role in these processes, providing resources, ideas, legitimacy, and publicity to the long term efforts of small groups of Indian and expatriate activists.

Today, much remains to be done to help India’s Dalits and victims of similar discrimination worldwide. In contrast to the recent past, however, there has been real progress on the international stage. The evils of caste ¬based discrimination are today far better known, and major human rights organizations, both nongovernmental and intergovernmental, have placed the issues on their agendas.

The key to ending abuses must come from domestic political and social processes, but to the extent that international attention and resources can help, Dalits have significantly advanced their cause in recent years.

Notes and References:

  • Ebiegberi Joe Alagoa, “Oral Tradition among the Ijo of the Niger Delta,” The Journal of African History 7, no. 3 (1966), 409. In Kalabari oral traditions, Nondo, the ape, is believed to have inhabited the mangrove Swamps of Kalabari in the past. He later was domesticated by man and gradually became indistinguishable from man.
  • Ronald, Inden. “Orientalist construction of India”. Modern Asian Studies 20, no.3 (1986): 401-46.
  • Suvira, Jaiswal. Caste: Origin, Function and Dimensions of Chang. Delhi: 1998, Introduction.
  • Nicholas, B. Dirks. Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India. Delhi. 2006: 6-7.
  • Clifford, Bob. Dalit Rights are Human Rights, New Delhi. 2008:5.
  • Clifford, Bob. Dalit Rights are Human Rights, New Delhi. 2008:5.
  • Clifford, Bob. Dalit Rights are Human Rights, New Delhi. 2008:5.
  • Christopher, Jaffrelot. India’s Sailent Revolution: The Rise of the Lower Castes in Northern India. 2003: 11-32.
  • . Christopher, Jaffrelot. India’s Sailent Revolution: The Rise of the Lower Castes in Northern India. 2003: 20.
  • Clifford, Bob. Dalit Rights are Human Rights, New Delhi. 2008: 6.
  • Chaterjee, Suniti Kumar. Indo-Aryan and Hindi. Calcutta. 1969: 18-36.
  • Geo, W. Briggs. The Chamars. Calcutta. 1920: 38.
  • Alexander, Robertson. The Mahar Folk. Calcutta.1938: xii.
  • James, M. Freeman. Untouchable: An Indian Life History. London: 1979.
  • James, Massey. Dalits in India. New Delhi. 1995: 125.
  • Aloysius,G. Dalit – Subaltern Emergence in Religio-Cultural Subjectivity. New Delhi. 2004: 12.
  • Aloysius,G. Dalit – Subaltern Emergence in Religio-Cultural Subjectivity. New Delhi. 2004: 12
  • .1 Aloysius,G. Dalit – Subaltern Emergence in Religio-Cultural Subjectivity. New Delhi. 2004: 2-28.
  • Ambedkar, B.R. Annihilation of Caste: An Undelivered Speech, edited by Mulk Raj Anand, 81-82. New Delhi: 1990.
  • Ambedkar, B.R. Annihilation of Caste: An Undelivered Speech, edited by Mulk Raj Anand, 81-82. New Delhi: 1990.
  • Suvira, Jaiswal. Caste: Origin, Function and Dimensions of Chang. Delhi: 1998, Introduction.
  • Clifford, Bob. Dalit Rights are Human Rights, New Delhi. 2008: 5.


Dr. K.N. Sethi,

P.G. Department of History,

Sambalpur University,

Odisha – 768019, India