All of the papers in the recently published collection of essays titled Life as a Dalit: Views from the Bottom on Caste and India (edited by Subhadra Mitra Channa and Joan P. Mencher) range from the distant past to the present and recent past, all of them in one way or another look at the role played by caste and caste oppression, and the ways in which human beings have suffered from being treated as less than human. While this is a characteristic of all highly stratified societies, it has been especially developed and elaborated on in the sub-continent for more than 2500 years. The rise of Buddhism in the 5th century BC can even be thought of as an anti-caste movement, though initiated by a high-caste person. Treating some human beings as less than human has also been associated with slavery, and in some ways ”untouchability” and all it entailed was, and still is in some places, a form of slavery. Furthermore, it has been perpetuated by  attitudes toward the so-called “untouchables”, who now call themselves Dalits (which means oppressed in Sanskrit) a term inspired by the Dalit Panthers who saw in the Black Panther movement in the 1960s in the United States a powerful inspiration, along with their admiration for Dr. Martin Luther King.

In this essay, I want to focus on the situation in the present and projections for the near future in order to understand how policies, programs and prejudices are affecting Dalits in India, and even in the diaspora.

As India’s elite, along with the upper middle classes, become more prosperous and begin to live truly luxurious lifestyles, they are becoming more and more aloof from the poor, including the Dalits, other poor and backward castes. (See “The Feel Good Factory” by P. Sainath.) Thus it becomes easier and easier for them to fail to see the kinds of discrimination in everyday life that continues to go on in rural areas–where even in the 21st century Dalits are denied access to wells, to common resources (such as still remain in villages), to certain paths, to many temples, and in  urban areas as well. Dr. Channa, the co-editor of this book, has pointed out to me how even many of her Anthropology students, who are mainly from high-caste urban backgrounds, are simply unaware of caste attitudes in their everyday lives.

One-seventh of India’s population belonging to Dalit communities includes a wide range of castes, sub-castes, and regional groupings.  While varying in size, level of economic success, and education, their situations also vary greatly depending on state and local regional alignments.  Many educated Dalits have in one way or another benefitted from reservations both in their educational process and in obtaining employment. But even they are acutely aware of the difficulties they still face. I remember being told by several friends in Delhi that when Jagjivan Ram was in Parliament, he was willing to go to state banquets, but would make one excuse or another to avoid his colleagues’ childrens’ weddings, to avoid having to deal with the question of where he would sit at the dinner following the marriage ceremony–with whom he would be allowed to sit, if he were not seated completely in splendor but alone.

Caste Reservations

It is useful here to discuss the importance of reservations, and the reasons why they must be continued, from the point of view of educated Dalits.

…it is fair to say that reservations have ensured the first step towards equality– access. This is most visible in the political arena, where legislators from reserved constituencies and panchayats are immediately able to access the layers of state power (, April 2004)

On the other hand, as I noted above in two of my articles, because Dr. Ambedkar was forced to give up his quest for separate constituencies or voting blocs for Dalits in order to stop a fast by Gandhi, the Dalit politicians must make commitments to non-Dalit voters when they run for state and national posts.

Many higher-caste Hindus make an automatic assumption that when a Dalit obtains any sort of high position, it is exclusively the result of caste reservations, never a combination of reservations and ability.  The usual way of phrasing it is: “He only got there because of reservation.”  Rarely does anyone care to note that a high-caste person may have obtained a position because of “family connections”, which is in effect another form of reservation, though never called by that name. In a recent conversation with a high-caste professor and administrator at a major Indian university (February 2015), the professor derided Dalit Ph.D students as poorly prepared and a waste of faculty time and university resources.

Routinely today, millions of our citizens whose upliftment is sought by affirmative action must endure reservations of another kind.  They cannot drink water from the common wells, because those are reserved for others. Their children cannot sit alongside others in government-run schools; benches at the front of the class are reserved for others, while they must sit in the back. . . Their landlords can claim sexual rights over their women and bondage for generations, because even their bodies are not their own.  Their dead cannot be cremated or buried at the same grounds as others, because even in death some things are reserved for others (ibid.)

Not surprisingly, this ongoing situation gives rise to another argument used in favour of dismantling reservations, i.e. “efficacy”: It is often argued by higher caste people that reservations are not working, so why not get rid of them?

This argument misses the premise of affirmative action. Affirmative actions by state policy are intended to ensure that access to public opportunities is not hijacked by the same prejudices that may prevail in the private relations of civil society. . . . Anger at reservations is common, but such anger may be better channeled when it is targeted at the real problem. . . [the] reservation of opportunities by custom are [a] larger phenomenon [than reservations for a limited number of official positions]. (ibid.)

Dr. Narendra Jadhav, Principal Advisor and Chief Economist of the Reserve Bank of India, in an interview in 2005, made a number of important points that are relevant here. Noting that many people claim that Dalits are being pampered too much, he discusses the “devious” ways in which data is manipulated to show that

…reservations are being met even though they are not…In the annual reports of public institutions we are supposed to give a statement, how many vacancies are there,  and how many were filled by reservations. The organizations rarely give the breakup of class I, class II and class III and class IV vacancies. So you will see that in the class IV category [peons and low level clerks] more than 100% are filled, while in class I jobs, 10% or less are filled.  But the average looks all right, when you don’t give this breakup. (Interview by Subranamiam Vincent, conducted in Ithaca, New York, 15 October 2005,

Dr. Jadhav pointed out  that even if existing regulations were implemented in the way that they are supposed to be, that itself would do a lot of good.  He noted:

or the first time Dalit MPs of various persuasions from different parties all came together and 100 of them went to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently to tell him to implement reservations. And I was happy that Manmohan Singh has given them a promise that reservation provisions would be implemented up to 80% by the end of the year(2006

It is clear that the problem still exists, and there are still few Dalits in class I positions in the near future. Dr. Jadhav went on to ask:

Why should reservations be denied to people in the private sector?… Dalits feel that this whole privatization thing is being /done to deny them jobs in the future. . . I am severely criticized because on the one hand I am defending globalization and privatization, but I am also defending reservations. . . the notion that efficiency is more among Brahmins and less among SCs and STs is itself seriously flawed. . . I am saying that talent is independently distributed and you just need to be open minded to recognize that if a person has a Brahmin name and is inefficient, that person is seen as an inefficient individual, but if a Dalit is inefficient they blame the caste (Ibid).

According to Dr. Jadhav, this situation is improving with globalization, though other people I have spoken to informally do not see this happening, especially for the vast majority of Dalits. Whether this will really happen remains to be seen.  The words of Dr. Jadhav tell us a great deal about the contemporary situation for Dalits, even those who are well educated and well placed.

Caste and the Indian Diaspora

Though the situation for Dalits among the Indian Diaspora vary greatly from one country to another, on the whole the attitude towards those of lower castes tends to remain a significant one. I was told a story recently by a young Muslim woman from the gulf about a Pakistani friend who was pushing another student around asking him to do all kinds of errands etc. When she had asked her friend why he was treating the other young man that way he replied, “Oh, he is from an Dalit background.”  (Note, the attitude towards Dalits has permeated Muslim and Christian converts as well as remaining among Hindus. This was something I had noted many years ago in the south of India but had not been aware of its continuing in the US until I was told this story.

The ways in which Dalits are treated and looked upon by other Indians in the diaspora show considerable continuity with the situation in the subcontinent.  While Dr. Ambedkar’s birthday is celebrated annually at the Indian Consulate in New York, the only time I ever saw higher-caste Hindus attending this function was when Dr. Narayanan (who belonged to an untouchable community from Kerala) was the Indian Ambassador, and he himself attended the function.  While a number of higher-caste Indians attended Dr. Narayanan’s talk, I noted that many disappeared afterwards when an informal reception with food that had been brought by the Ambedkar’s followers was held.

In 2004-6, there was a well-publicized debate in California on the issue of how Hinduism should be depicted in school history textbooks. According to the Wall Street Journal:

History books are the biggest battlegrounds and groups vie for changes in elementary and secondary schools that cast their faith in a better light… Hindu groups, in particular, have swamped California authorities with proposed revisions, which would delete or soften references to polytheism, the caste system and the inferior status of women in ancient India…But then a strong objection to such changes arrived from a group of U.S. scholars, led by a Harvard Professor, Michael Witzel…According to Madhav Deshpande, a Sanskrit professor at the University of Michigan who is Hindu, Hinduism is polytheistic and linked to the caste system…The [Hindu Education] Foundation’s contention that the caste system developed separately from Hinduism is incorrect because “in ancient texts there is no distinction between the religious and nonreligious domains of life.”…Other Hindu groups– including members of the “untouchable” castes–entered the fray on Dr. Witzel’s behalf. The Dalit Freedom Network, an advocacy group for untouchables, wrote to the [California] education board that “the proposed Vedic and Hindu Education Foundation changes reflect a view of Indian history that softens…the violent truth of caste-based discrimination in India…Do not allow politically-minded revisionists to change Indian history.” (Article by Daniel Golden in The Wall Street Journal of January 25, 2006, page A1)1

While the California Department of Education ultimately accepted the U.S. scholars recommendations, rejecting the changes proposed by the Hindu fundamentalist groups, that decision is now (April 2006) being challenged in a court case in the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of California, brought by the Hindu American Foundation as well as a brand-new organization known as California Parents for the Equalization of  Educational Materials (CAPEEM). While a large number of scholars in the United States, of Indian and other ancestry, have submitted an amicus curiae letter supporting the California Education Department’s  decision, it is clear that such issues will continue to come up elsewhere, including other states (such as Texas) in the United States. Most of this results from the fall-out of the RSS and BJP influence among the Indian diaspora.

Space does not permit a long discussion of the role of caste outside of the sub-continent, but clearly it tends to persist, though when it is not relevant (i.e. when no Dalits are present) the majority of Indians tend to deny having any prejudice, and often will name a few important Indian leaders who came from Dalit communities, to show how they personally have given up prejudicial practices. In some cases people belonging to high-caste, traditionally vegetarian communities, might even mention that they eat beef in the United States, even though they may be vegetarians when in India. Yet that is beside the point. Obviously they do not want to expose their politically incorrect beliefs to non-Hindu Americans. And it would be hard to prove that they still exhibit caste attitudes. Though many affluent Indians in the United States and elsewhere are suspected to have provided considerable economic support for Hindu rightest organizations and still continue to do so.

There were numerous papers on the transnational issue of Dalit(untouchable) movements in International fora such as the United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001, and more recently in connection with international mobilization in support of Dalits at a wide variety of Conferences both in the United States and elsewhere. There has also been a recognition that the internet could serve as a media through which dalits all over the globe could communicate.  Thirumai and Robins for example at a meeting in Canada in 2008 have posited that there can be a re-imagining of Dalits as a pan-national community.  Others have written about the importance of taking the dalit movement to a global fight against castism and as part of the fight for Dalit Human Rights.

The Government of India has insisted in international fora that ‘caste’ cannot be equated with race. “India’s reluctance to consider the issue seriously is clear from the ways it has treated its responsibilities . . . When this report [a GOI report for C#RD due every two years] came up for review at the . . . in Geneva in February-March 2007, many activists were hoping there would be a chance. . . [however the GOI] insisted that the constitution did not consider caste and race to be the same (Article 15 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race and caste and lists them as separate categories) [thus they argued that the two cannot be conflated].

Thus, oppression of Dalits is allowed to continue to exist both in rural and urban setting.  In rural settings, they are often landless or own only tiny pieces of land insufficient to provide a decent livelihood for their household. When land is confiscated in the name of “development” it is far more likely to be the land of Dalits than of higher caste people. This is also true in urban areas as we can see from the demolition of “Dharavi” the world’s largest slum in Mumbai to give rise to upper middle class “modern” housing complexes.

While legally “the notion of untouchables and discrimination against Dalits are prohibited by the Indian Constitution under a 1955 civil rights act and the 1989 Prevention of Atrocities, or POA act. The act was written explicitly to outlaw physical and verbal abuse against Dalit, but hasn’t had the desired effect.”

The mass media in India has tended to ignore the issue except for seeing protests by Dalits as constituting what Sainath refers to as a “traffic problem”, not a major issue or a fight for fundamental human rights.  Yet, the Dalit Diaspora in many parts of the world continues to condemn the various kinds of atrocities being committed against Dalits such as rapes and massacres. They have formed an International Forum for Prevention of Atrocities Against Dalits and have held demonstrations wherever they possibly could. Dalits who had converted to Christianity have recently been a major target of attack. It is interesting that the US press focused on the issue of religion, in talking about what happened in Orissa but in fact, the issue of caste is as important as that of religion. Some Dalits had converted to Christianity because it offered them a better opportunity to educate their children. Yet, the entire focus of criticism for the attacks has tended to ignore the issue of caste and Dalits both in Karnataka and in Orissa and has focused solely on the issue of religion.

According to an article published in 2005, “caste discrimination in Diaspora communities in the West has become worse in the last few years; as communities have grown larger, caste distinctions become more pronounced. In addition, the rise of Hindu Fundamentalism has promoted the “be proud of your culture” (read caste) syndrome, leading to greater segregation, separate temples and gurdwaras, and ugly divisions. . . . P Sainath. . . who has covered atrocities against dalits for many years, observes” ‘We are witnessing the single greatest struggle for human dignity on Planet Earth by some 250 million people. I have no doubt that the outcome of this great struggle will be in favour of the Dalits. The only question is, which side will you and I be on?’ “ (New Internationalist magazine, M.M. Thekarkara, July 2005).

Occasionally one sees an advertisement for a bride or bridegroom in India Abroad or other Indian weekly papers that say “caste/religion no bar”.  Many higher-caste people take such advertisements to mean that the advertiser is either a low-caste or SC person, or someone who is otherwise not desirable, such as a divorcee. Clearly this question would require further research.

Globalization and rural life

There is considerable regional and state-wise variation in the ways in which public policies are affecting small, marginal, semi-landless and landless households in rural areas. This also differs by cropping pattern, internal migration patterns, local political history, and state government policies. My own work, looking at small-scale cultivators doing sustainable agriculture in south India, makes it abundantly clear that official policy is in many ways working against these groups. Most of the NGOs I have been working with focus on alternatives to the official agricultural policies of the Government of India, which is deeply influenced by the United States model of agriculture as promulgated by the United States’ agricultural universities –which incidentally were instrumental in setting up almost all of the existing agricultural universities in India.  While agriculture is a state issue, not that of the central Government, Chief Ministers and in many places Agricultural Ministers in states have gone along with the US model as well.  Even though the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh (prior to its separation from Telengana) lost an election because he wanted to get rid of 10,000 small farmers to create “modern farms”; that state is still largely supporting the better-off farmers – despite the fact that Andhra has some of the most exciting NGO programmes for poor and Dalit women in all of India (for example, the Deccan Development Society and several other groups with headquarters in Hyderabad).

“Even in Kerala, where the left has a history of great militancy on issues of land reform, and (in the past) on health care, the present emphasis in agriculture is on growing crops for the export market, and not on increasing people’s food security and self-sufficiency” I was told by members of a Kerala NGO as well as many other people in the state that most of the middle-size farmers have given up planting rice. This has not only created severe ecological problems, such as lowering the water table, but because the women (especially in Wayanad) have lost their work in paddy cultivation, many of the women have been forced to sell themselves into prostitution or take work in the pornographic film industry in order to support themselves and their families. Since most of the scheduled caste and tribal population figure among the poorest of the poor, they are especially vulnerable to government policies. The focus on tourism by the State Government in Kerala does not provide any kind of autonomy for the Dalits, but relegates them to casual low-level employment” (Mencher 2013,p. 412. Life as a Dalit: Views from the Bottom in Caste in India) while educated outsiders are often hired at the higher level.

“Several Dalit academics have spoken about how in Kerala (considered to be a more radical state), problems of Dalits and Scheduled Tribals have been ignored by all of the political parties, ranging from Congress in its various forms to the CPI-M (personal correspondence Dr. P. Sivanandan, CDS, Trivandrum; see also E.M. Salimkumar,  T.M. Yasudasan, and others). The role of the upper castes in the CPI-M and CPI have historical precedents which continue into the 21st century with leaders bearing the savarna (high-caste) names (Salimkumar). Even the SNDP movement of the Ezhava or Tiyya community did not much help the lower-ranking Dalit communities, though it led to their being allowed to wear better clothes. I still remember talking to a group of Tiyya women about the Sri Narayanan Guru movement. They were quite proud of the fact that they were finally able to move among Nayars and Namboodiri Brahman women at meetings, etc. However, when I asked them about Pulayas and Cheruman, I drew a blank. Their idea of improvement was their moving up, but did not include those under them (the really low Scheduled Castes) being treated as human beings” (Mencher 2013,p. 413. Life as a Dalit: Views from the Bottom in Caste in India).

Issues of Gender

Over the past two decades (from around the mid-1960s) more and more material about and by Dalit women has been published. In Re-searching Indian Women edited by Vijaya Ramaswamy, Uma Chakravarthy has presented an excellent description of narratives about Dalit women including her summary of two short stories and two life histories, one of which (Viruamma) is discussed more below.  A number of relatively contemporary (1990s) case studies of Dalit women are discussed in Joghdand’s edited book Dalit Women in India: Issues and Perspectves which was published in 1995.  Both historical perspectives and the contemporary situation are discussed along with the role of education. Yet in Kerala where most of the younger Dalit women are literate they still number among the poorest and are treated extremely badly by higher caste males.

In 1999 when the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (see National Campaign Manifesto, Dalit Human Rights published in Secunderabad in 1998) was launched one of the issues raised was the treatment of Dalit women. To a large extent this was a direct result of the protests raised by them at the Beijing Conference in 1995.  It was extremely exciting to see the march for equal rights for Dalit women at that Conference in 1995 (see article by Ruth Manorama) and to recognize that this was the first International Conference where this issue was being raised. I was at that time rooming with a Prof. Faye Harrison, who had worked primarily in the United States. She saw that march as the beginning of a movement against oppression. The issues raised by the protesting women, the varied fictional and real-life stories, life histories, articles by and about Dalit women are beginning to raise political awareness about their situation and deserve considerably more research and publicity.

More and more literature about Dalit women is beginning to appear written by educated Dalits, foreign scholars, and Indian social scientists. Perhaps one of the most interesting of these writings is a life-history of an elderly Tamil Dalit woman which was written by Viruamma, Josiane Racine(a higher caste Tamil woman), and Jean-Luc Racine, originally in French, later translated into English, which clearly shows the sources of self-esteem, knowledge of the environment, of rituals, ceremonies, and of people, and how despite not being their own masters they had a kind of strength that their daughters and daughters-in-law have given up.  The following passage is illustrative:

In Viramma’s generation, Paraiyar culture was totally shared by men and women alike. Today, the quest for a better economic fate and a less degraded social status calls for abandoning the very cultural practices which enriched Viramma’s character and wit and gave her freedom of speech. . . . But women engaged elsewhere in Dalit militant groups (or who have established themselves in the mainstream), combine the quest for emancipation with a renovated freedom of speech, perhaps more socio-political in character than cultural in content. (p. 318) 2

There have been numerous articles and books about Dalit women which cannot be reviewed in detail  here, but which deserve careful attention by scholars and activists alike. Human Rights Watch International has produced an excellent study called Broken People: Caste Violence against India’s Untouchables”. Going from state to state they have shown that women were still being raped by police, rich landlords, and government officials. The book makes a rather strong case about the failure of state and central governments to meet domestic and international obligations to protect Dalits, especially women. For example, in 1995 there was an attempt in Maharashtra to repeal the atrocities act, which was perceived as a serious threat to upper-caste dominance. (p. 196) They conclude by noting:

. . . more than 160 million people in the “world’s largest democracy” remain at risk of systematic human rights violations on the basis of the caste into which they are born.

Perhaps one of the benefits of globalization rests here, in the ability of organizations like this to make public the problems such as those faced by the majority of Dalits today.

I have documented elsewhere the traditional difficulties faced by Dalits and other such groups. Within their own hamlets, within their own settings, even when badly treated, they had a place where they belonged. Except where they were sold into debt bondage, they were able to give one another solace and support when needed, at times of grave illness, death, childbirth, etc. And even in the traditional setup, some landlords were less repressive than others.

I remember visiting the Dalit area in one Tamil village after the drought of 1967.  All of the older people had starved themselves so that the younger ones would have a chance to work and bring in money. I was struck by their pride in recounting how they had sacrificed for their working age sons and daughters.

This sense of belonging, or community, is being challenged as people struggle to survive when their water is being stolen to give to urban areas, or polluted by factories that provide barely minimal wages for young people, etc. While numerous NGOs are working with Dalits to help them create a situation where they can have economically viable and personally satisfying lives in their villages, they are fighting uphill struggles against tremendous mainstream forces. To examine this in detail would require a long essay in itself, but clearly these issues must be dealt with. I was told by one NGO network leader from Tamil Nadu that, while visiting Pune, he had met a group of young Tamil men who were working there. He discovered that they did not earn enough to bring their wives or children to live with them, and were living 6-8 to a room. Their only entertainment was the local cinema or occasionally visiting local prostitutes. When they visited their villages they would come in clean white shirts and pants, but could not bring much to their families except for HIV/AIDS which they had picked up from prostitutes. Is this the kind of globalization that people want?

While globalization has led to a very small elite cadre of Dalits getting highly educated and obtaining important positions, for the vast majority it has not helped at all.  In the villages I have described back in the 1960s and 1970s, today things are worse rather than better for most of the Dalits. For example, an NGO working with the Dalits from a group of neighboring villages had started to help them grow organic vegetables on what was called government waste land (what social scientists and government documents call “common lands or waste lands”). In 2 or 3 villages, the women’s self-help group had invested in pump-sets to water their fields, and had started to plant food-producing trees that would protect the water table. However, the Chief Minister of the State decided that all this “common land” should be given to companies, rather than allowing the poor women to use it.  In a few of the villages they managed to obtain some land to rent, but clearly they were not willing to invest anything in rented land.

On the whole, globalization has worked for those with money and/or education, but only as individuals, not as members of a community. And for the poor, it has only made things worse. Where their daughters work for low wages in factories, they are often subject to sexual harassment.  And once they lose their work for any small infraction, or are morally compromised, they often have no choice but to turn to prostitution. Obviously, changes today vary by group, by place, and a large number of other factors, but it is obvious that the loss of community has hurt the women more than men, though the men are also suffering.

It is hard to conclude this loose discussion of the present and future. It would be nice to imagine a turnaround with a real focus on the poor and the SCs and STs especially. Some of the NGOs working with them are trying hard to develop alternatives within the rural communities, alternatives that will provide the amenities of urban life with fewer of the penalties. In a few rare places they have succeeded, such as Tilonia in Rajasthan, Navdanya in Uttar Anchal, Navsargan in Gujarat, and other NGOs I know in Tamil Nadu.  But these are tiny islands in a large sea.

Only a policy that helps the poor to help themselves can make a difference. Only a real change of heart and mind, or a large upheaval from the bottom up, or perhaps an ecological disaster larger than any we have yet experienced, will improve the lives of those at the bottom. (This could only happen if those with the skills and knowledge to survive under very difficult situations which include knowledge about medicinal plants, which wild plants and trees and shrubs are edible, in other ways a massive disruption of the food chain and urban chaos.) The 10-15% of educated well-to-do Indians (maybe 100 to 150 million people) do not worry about this happening or that this will happen.  There is a growing tendency to “blame the victims” for their situation. What will happen is anyone’s guess. A great deal depends on things that could happen on the planet as a whole.  What will global warming do to India?  And especially what will it do for the Dalits at the bottom of the social network chains?

2 Viramma, Josiane Racine & Jean-Lic Racine 2000 Viramma : Life of a Dalit publ. In Delhi, (english translation first published in paperback by Social Science press, 2005.  (Originally p;ublished in  French .)

1. On February 27th, a subcommittee of the California State Board of Education voted 5 to zero to adopt without any changes the recommendations of the Department of Education, rejecting all the Aahistorical and sectarian edits  of the two Hindutva foundations, as recommended by a letter from 50 scholars and a panel discussion involving the Indological scholars Heitzman, Wolpert, and Witzel. AThus, the position of women is correctly stated in the edits as suppressed, the caste system and suppression of Dalits are back, polytheism (not >God ) is back, and the Aryan migration is back.  This decision was ratified by the full State Board of Education on March 9, 2006. (Email letters from Michael Witzel, 27 February and 9 March 2006)