Dalit Movements in India
By: Davendra Sharma
Literally, Dalit means ‘oppressed’, ‘ground’ or ‘crushed. The term is used to denote social groups who were not considered to be a part of the ‘varna’ system in the Hindu society. This category mainly covers the castes coming under the category of scheduled castes. In earlier times, these people were made to live outside villages and cities and their touch or even shadow was considered polluting. These groups were made to perform lowly functions and were not entitled to education or any position of status and authority. This treatment was resented by these groups, which has been reflected in a number of movements throughout history. However, the tone of these movements has differed from time to time.
Orthodox Hindu society did not provide any opportunities to the dalits. However, situation changed with the advent of Muslim rule. A number of lower class people converted to Islam to avoid discrimination and oppression and for better opportunities. This period also witnessed the growth of bhakti cult. Most of these bhakti cult saints were non-Brahmin and many were from lower castes. Kabir, Raidas, Namdeo and Tukaram were some famous saints of this category. They rejected Vedic religion, disapproved caste system and used vernaculars as their language. However, these movements failed to challenge the caste system primarily because of socio-political conditions of the time. However, these movements provided a philosophical base for the movements that were to come up in the future.
Movements during colonial Period
However, situation changed with the advent of Europeans, who considered the caste system as discriminatory and unjustified. The colonial period saw widespread changes in socio-political scenario of the country. After coming into contact with the idea of equality, a section of caste Hindus started opposing the discrimination against dalit communities. Arya Samaj, Brahma Samaj and Ramakrishna Mission were some such organizations. These organizations condemned caste based discriminations and started some activcities for betterment of dalits. However, after initial attachments, the dalits moved away from these organizations mainly because these movements failed to create a radical anti caste unity between the dalits and the middle caste hindus. An important reason for this was that these organizations did never really challenge the ‘varna’ system which was the basis of caste system. In the meanwhile things were slowly changing for dalits. British started recruiting some of these men in the army which improved their economic condition and instilled some measure of confidence in them. The education policy adopted by the British government was also favorable for social change. While state took over the task of providing education, it also ensured that education was secular and was provided without any discrimination of caste or creed. This opened up educational avenues for these groups. With education arose consciousness about their status which resulted in a number of movements in different parts of the country. Some of these movements were:
First prominent movement of this kind was led by Jyotiba Phule who was an important social reformer. He laid stress on education and stated that lack of education was at the root of all problems of dalits. In 1848, he started a school for untouchables and another one exclusively for women. In 1873, he founded the Satya Sodhak Samaj whose main aim was to liberate the lower castes from discrimination and oppression
Sree Narayan Guru, was a spiritual leader from the Ezahava community of Kerala. He rejected caste system and the superiority of brahmins. Subsequently, movement by Ezahavas led to Travancore Proclamation which allowed entry of all Hindus in all the temples of Travancore in 1936.
Adi Dharm movment started in Punjab in 1926. These people claimed that the untouchables were the real inhabitants of India and upper caste people came from outside and enslaved the original people. They believed in non-theistic notion of divinity and believed in equality of men. The movement was active from 1926 to 1946. It worked to bring awareness among the depressed classes in Punjab Due to the efforts of the movement, some of the untouchables were listed in 1931 census as Adi-dharmis and not Hindus.
Adi Andhra Mahajan Sabha was formed in 1917. It resolved to call untouchables of the region as ‘Adi-Andhras’ and took up the cause of nominating these people to statutory bodies, to admit their children to common schools and to dig separate wells for drinking water to these classes. The nomenclature of Adi Andhra was accepted by the government and some of its members were nominated to the Madras Legislative Assembly. The sabha was active till 1940.
Paraiyar Mahajan Sabha was formed in 1891 by Rettamalai Srinivasan. It became Adi Dravida Mahajan Sabha in 1893. The Sabha took up matters for upliftment of the dalits including reserving posts for them in the public services.
All Bengal Namsudra Association was formed in 1912. It demanded increasing of franchise by including the depressed classes and reservation of seats in Legislature. The association was instrumental in bringing awareness among untouchables in Bengal.
Dr.Baba Saheb Ambedkar
Dr. Ambedkar was the most important dalit leader in India. He was born on 14th April, 1891 in a mahar family which was considered untouchable. He completed his education in India though during it he was faced with discrimination at every stage. In 1913 he went to United States under a scholarship granted by the Maharaja of Baroda for post graduation at Columbia University. Later he also studied in London School of Economics and also at Gray’s Inn for study of law. After his return to India in 1923 he actively involved himself in the works relating to the welfare of depressed classes. He was supported in his activities by Shahuji IV, the rule of Kolhapur. In 1924, he founded Bahishkrat Hitkarini Sabha with the aim of promoting education and culture among the depressed classes and to work for their upliftment. In 1927, he led the famous Mahad Tank Satyagraha for right of untouchables to take water from the main tank. The movement resulted in burning of manusmriti. In 1930, he led a protest for entry of untouchables at Kalaram temple at Nasik.
Due to his prominence as a dalit leader he was invited to the second round table conference wherein he advocated separate electorate for untouchables. The Government announced the Communal Award on these lines. However, this was opposed by Mahatma Gandhi who went on fast in Yerwada jail. Meetings were then arranged between Dr.Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi which culminated in the Poona Pact, as per which the depressed classes will not claim separate electorate but will be granted reserved seats in the legislature. He founded the Independent Labour Party in 1936 and All India Schedule Caste Federation in 1942 to contest elections. However, these parties could not taste much electoral success.
The movement led by Dr.Ambedkar was somewhat different from the earlier movements. While many of the earlier movements were reformative in the sense that they demanded equality within Hindu religion, his movement rejected the Hindu religion altogether and searched for alternatives. In accordance with these views he adopted Buddhism. Second difference was his stress on sharing of power, both economic and political. It was this thought that he demanded separate electorate for untouchables and despite all the odds was able to obtain reserved seats in the legislature.
Sanskritization, de-Sanskritization and reservation
Prof M.N Srinivas introduced the term sanskritization in context to Indian society. The term refers to a process whereby people of lower castes collectively try to adopt upper caste practices and beliefs to acquire higher status. It indicates a process of cultural mobility that was taking place in the traditional social system of India.
Through this process, Srinivas found that lower castes in order to raise their position in the caste hierarchy adopted some customs and practices of the Brahmins and gave up some of their own which were considered to be impure by the higher castes.
Sanskritization has occurred usually in groups who have enjoyed political and economic power but were not ranked high in ritual ranking. Thus after gaining political and/or economic strength these groups tried to imitate certain rights, practices and rituals to gain upward social mobility.
However off late because of reservation and political mobilization correlated with the caste identities, the trend has reversed. This trend is exactly opposite to sanskritization, thus can be termed as de-sanskritization. In the recent past, there has been a increasing tendency among various social groups to project themselves as “backward” in order to accrue the benefits of the reservation. The agitation by Gujjars in Rajasthan to claim the status of Schedule Tribe and by Jats in north western part of the country to include them in the list of backward class truly exemplifies this novel trend.
After independence, Untouchability was abolished and equality of all citizens was established by law. Positive discrimination was also started in favor in these castes in the form of reservations in legislature as well as government jobs. Dalits continued their movements against caste discriminations which were supported by the law of the land. Due to these efforts, caste system has been considerably eroded in urban areas. In rural areas, despite considerable improvement, still there are areas where these communities are still discriminated against.
On the political front, success is more evident. Most of the political parties have prominent dalit leaders. An important step in this direction was formation of Bahujan Samaj Party in 1984. The party got varying amount of electoral success in Uttar Pradesh and became the largest party in 2007 and formed the Government. However, this success on the political front has resulted in more stress being laid on the political front for which ideological concessions are also made. Social aspect has receded to the background. As a result, social changes have been painfully slow and despite improvement in the lot of dalits, casteism still survives as a social as well as an important political phenomenon.