Throughout history, there have always been groups of people who have been unfairly discriminated against. Some typical reasons for discrimination include race, ethnicity, economic status, gender, sexual orientation, and even disabilities. In India, there is a group of people, referred to as Dalits, that are heavily discriminated against based on economic and social standing.
They also are not given any opportunity to escape from their low status, due to certain Hindu beliefs. Recently, liberation theologies have begun to emerge as an attempt to give Dalits an opportunity to be respected in India. While the oppression still exists today in modern India, Dalit theology is making people aware of the unjust treatment of Dalits, and hopefully more progress will be made in the near future in resolving the issue.
The word “Dalit” translates to “broken”, “trampled upon”, or “oppressed”. (Amaladoss 1997, 22) This shows that Dalits are completely at the bottom of their society. They are oppressed in several different ways. First, Dalits hold no economic power. They end up performing menial tasks and often become victims of unfair labor practices conducted by wealthy landlords (Amaladoss 1997, 23). This is huge issue because Dalits have to add value to the economy in effort to create a living of their own. However, their efforts are not rewarded, as the landlords typically gain the most from this practice, which creates an even wider gap of economic inequality. Dalits also suffer from a political standpoint. Dalits make up roughly 15 percent of the population, so even in a democracy, they are unable to make a political impact. (Amaladoss 1997, 23)
Essentially, the majority of middle and upper-class members of Indian society will elect leaders that will represent the interests of these members. By doing so, there may never be opportunity for Dalits to climb out of the hole they are in. We can compare this in some ways to the modern day United States of America. Many campaigns are operated heavily through the utilization of donations, presumably from wealthy people. Because many successful candidates were supported by wealthy people, they will continue to ensure that economic policies are beneficial to members of the upper class.
This will create additional economic inequality, rather than reduce it, and this can cause harm to our society’s lower class members. Socially, Dalits are marginalized and do not have any relationships with others, with the exception of the relationship that is required when serving members of higher classes. They live outside of the villages and are unable to use certain public facilities such as village wells and temples. (Amaladoss 1997, 23).
The economic, political, and social oppression has affected the Dalits so much that it actually has caused religious impurity. Dalits have their own gods and goddesses who become servants of the higher gods, according to their mythology (Amaladoss 1997, 23). Discrimination and oppression has been embedded so deeply into Dalit culture, that they accept it as social order.
Although the term “Dalit” has only been around for the last century, Dalits have in fact existed much longer. Dalits were products of the caste system, which has been around for at least two thousand years (Szczepanski 2018). The caste system is associated with Hinduism, which is the dominant religion in India. The caste system intended to rank members of society based on the work they performed, but it soon became hereditary, where everyone was born into a class that they were unable to leave. This was due to the Hindu belief in reincarnation. People had no social mobility during their lives, however, they would move into a higher caste in their next life if they behaved virtuously in their present life. (Szczepanski 2018). Based on the caste system, rankings for society are as follows:
- Brahmin – priests
- Kshatriya – warriors and nobility
- Vaisya – farmers, traders, artisans
- Shudra – farmers, peasants, servants
Notice how Dalits do not appear in the caste system. This is because they were so lowly regarded that they were considered to be below the caste system. During earlier time periods, Dalits were referred to as “untouchables”. This is one of the reasons why they could not use village wells. If an untouchable took water from a public well, the water would be “polluted” and no other caste members would be able to use it. In addition, even the shadow of an untouchable could “pollute” a Brahmin. If a Brahmin was walking by, untouchables had to lay face-down from an appropriate distance away from the Brahmin. (Szczepanski 2018)
If an untouchable came into contact with another caste member, it would contaminate that caste member. The caste member would immediately take a moment to bathe and wash his or her clothes. (Szczepanski 2018) The caste system established a precedent to weed certain people out of society, even if there was no real reason to do so.
Untouchables experienced even more struggle during the time period of 1757 to 1947, which is when Great Britain exercised rule over India. The British were heavily influenced by the Brahmins to reestablish the need for the caste system and social hierarchy. (Misra 2003) Because the caste system was beneficial to the Brahmins, they were able to persuade the British to systematize the Indian society through hierarchal classification. The dominant castes became even stronger when they allied with British rulers, and untouchables became more marginalized as a result.
Certain provisions were written into law which further discriminated against untouchables. A vast majority of untouchables lost their land, and they also were only able to touch the property of higher castes if it was necessary as part of providing their labor. (Misra 2003) Any other contact with their property was referred to as “social pollution”. (Misra 2003) The caste system was disadvantageous to untouchables before colonial rule, but their struggles became much worse when the injustices they suffered were written into law.
In 1947, India gained independence from British rule and adopted a Constitution in 1950. Under the Constitution, many laws which discriminated against Dalits became illegal. Untouchability was abolished, all public facilities became available to Dalits, and economic policies and institutions were created specifically to promote their educational and economic interests. (Prashad 2000) Article 46 of the Indians Constitution states, “The state shall promote with special care the economic interests of the weaker section of the people, and in particular, of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, and shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation.” (Prashad 2000).
To make for past suffering of Dalits, the government instituted certain affirmative action policies, such as reserving state jobs and educational admissions for Dalits. (Prashad 2000). The creation of democracy seemed to be a turning point for Dalits. In theory, these new policies placed every caste on a level playing field, if not favoring the Dalits. However, those who still maintained control of society found ways around the rules designed to protect Dalits. They still face several challenges to this day.
Dalits are still frequent victims of violent crimes. Based on a 2010 study by the National Human Rights Commission, a crime is committed against Dalits every 18 minutes. On a daily average, three Dalit women are raped, two Dalits are murdered, and two Dalit houses are burnt down. (Jha 2016). Members of higher castes have responded violently to the implementation of the affirmative action policies, and this is creating a deeper conflict between classes, as opposed to reducing the tension. In spite of the economic institutions created to aid the economic interests of Dalits, poverty is still an extreme issue. 37 percent of Dalits live below the poverty line, 54 percent are malnourished, and 20 percent die before their 5th birthday. (Jha 2016)
Even though all public facilities became available to Dalits after the adoption of the Constitution, they still didn’t receive the same level of public service as others. Dalits are prevented from entering certain police stations, and they also do not get mail delivered to their home. One of the most concerning issues is that Dalits are still unable to access public water sources in 48 percent of Indian villages. (Jha 2016) Even though untouchability has been abolished for a long period of time, it still clearly remains a harsh reality in India today.
Education is the most important way for Dalits to achieve their social, political, and economic goals. However, vast inequalities continue to exist within the realm of education, as Dalits are often unable to attain quality education. Article 21A of the Indians Constitution mandates that the state shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of six to fourteen years old. (Mandal 2014) Because of the nature of our world today, education is now a commercialized industry. Most members of higher classes pay tuition and send their children to high-quality private schools. As a result, government-funded schools have become low-quality centers of learning for marginalized groups of people. (Mandal 2014) This gap in education helps the higher class maintain a competitive advantage over Dalits.
Because Dalits are unable to get a quality education, it is difficult for them to meet minimum job requirements and become competitive in the skilled labor market. A certain number of government jobs are reserved for Dalits as a result of affirmative action policies. However, the number of available government jobs has been significantly dropping since the 1990s. This is due to increasing job opportunities in the private sector. (Mandal 2014) Commercialization and the increasing opportunities in the private sector can be harmful to Dalits because private industries are not subject to the laws that reserve jobs for them.
Private corporations have their own hiring processes, many of which will prevent Dalits from being hired. Since the public sector is now offering a fewer number of jobs reserved for Dalits, more Dalits are going back to the trend performing cheap menial labor for wealthy landowners. Even some of this work is becoming unavailable to Dalits. Most unskilled labor is now being replaced by machines and skilled laborers, so it almost seems as if society is running out of room for Dalits. The same gap that existed between caste members and untouchables hundreds of years ago still exists today.
As a result of the various instances of oppression that Dalits have faced in India, Dalit theology is currently being developed. Many Dalits have converted to Christianity because they wanted to break away from the caste system, which is validated by the Hindu belief in reincarnation. (Vinod 2012) The Dalit theological movement began with the idea that Dalits need to be more assertive, rather than hiding their identity and heritage. They aim for social order, where dignity of all Dalits is recognized and social mobility is available to all Dalits. (Vinod 2012)
One of the focuses of Dalit theology are self-identify. Self-identity is how people get pride and integrity, and most Dalits typically have a negative self-image, that they are not proud to be who they are. Many Dalit Christians are afraid to reveal their identity as a Dalit for various reasons, such as losing friends and feeling that people want to avoid them or will look down on them. (Vinod 2012) Because many Dalits fear being rejected by other members of society if they are aware of their Dalit identity, they typically maintain a negative self-image.
One of the most controversial, yet prominent, Dalit theologians was Arvind P. Nirmal. Nirmal grew up experiencing poverty, social discrimination, and other forms of oppression resulting from the Indian caste system, and made the connection that this social hierarchy is primarily responsible for the Dalits’ suffering. He even argued against traditional methods of Christian worship, that the traditional structure of the Church Administration itself replicates the ideas of social order and hierarchy. (Aleaz 2012)
If hierarchy truly is the primary cause for the oppression of Dalits, it makes sense that any type of hierarchy should be kept at a minimum. Because of this, Nirmal taught by referring to Jesus as being a Dalit. (Aleaz 2012) This was actually a common method used by Christians who were responsible for the development of other liberative theologies. By showing that Jesus is on the side of the oppressed, it helps the oppressed relate more easily to the teachings of the Bible. Because a large issue with Dalits is self-identity, Nirmal tried to address that issue through portraying Jesus as a Dalit, to make all Dalits embrace their past and to have integrity.
Nirmal’s idea of uniting all Dalits built a foundation for Dalit theology, but modern Dalit theology is inclusive of all people, not just Dalits. Deenabandhu Manchala is the first of many Dalit theologians who urge this movement to open up Dalit theology to others. (Aleaz 2012) Manchala argues that the horizons need to be expanded to include allies, which will help draw comparisons of the suffering of Dalits to wider and more universal realities along with parallel instances of oppression.
He also argues that it is important to escape the victim mindset. (Aleaz 2012) This is especially important if Dalits want to make any real progress towards change. Since they are a minority of 15 percent of the population of India, they can’t create any change without the help of others. Change takes the efforts of many groups of people banded together.
If Nirmal’s approach of Dalit versus non-Dalit was used, tensions would still remain between two groups of people, and solutions may not be created because of this. The more modern ideas of Dalit theology try to put everyone on one side. When everyone is on the same side, solutions will be created more easily. While Dalit theology is still in its developmental stages, it will hopefully build upon the idea of being more inclusive to all people to create the highest possibility of change and ending the oppression of Dalits.
From the beginnings of the caste system in India to the British rule of India to the Indian Independence movement, Dalits have struggled economically, politically, and socially for a long period of time. Even when laws were written to compensate for past discrimination against Dalits, it seemed as if nothing changed, and today there is still struggle. With newer technology, our world is speeding up and not allowing everyone to catch up. Ending all forms of oppression faced by Dalits will be extremely difficult, if not impossible.
However, Dalit theology is beginning to address some of these issues and slowly create a pattern of change in favor of Dalits. As the ideas of Dalit theologians become more clear and precise, this will have an impact on not only Indian society, but all societies that are dominated by wealth and political power. Our societies will not be viewed as a hierarchy of elites, middle-class, and lower class, but we will rather view it as one large group of people contributing equally for themselves and for their neighbors.