The Dalit Identity

Oeishi Saha


Editor’s Note: The paper deals with the dalit identity from the sociological perspective. The history of the dalit identity is traced back to the history of India and the work of Ambedkar in converting the group to Buddhism.”


The year 2007 is established as a landmark in Dalit history as it witnessed a new assertion of Dalit identity in the spheres of politics and religion. The resounding victory of Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh established dalit political activism in national politics. At the same time, the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism saw several dalit communities converting to Buddhism.[1]

This proved to be essential in moving towards the goal of establishing a dignified social and political identity carved by the ‘dalit self’ while rejecting the ‘given identities’ based on parochialism, militant Hinduism and the Hindu concept of caste based hierarchy.


 When discussing issues pertaining to Dalit rights and politics, the primary question that comes to the fore is regarding the identity of the dalit. In this regard it must be established that ‘Dalit’ is not a caste that one is born into and does not feature in the Hindu caste system, but is a constructed identity.[2] Several subaltern communities that have been subject to discrimination for centuries identify themselves as dalits and form a new identity by coming together with the perspective that ‘dalit is dignified’,[3] thereby doing away with the subhuman status imposed upon them by the Hindu social order, by way of their birth.

The term ‘Dalit’ expands to all those considered to be either similarly placed or as being ‘natural allies’ as victims of exploitation and discrimination, be it political, social or religious. It implies those who have been crushed and broken by those above them in the Hindu social hierarchy, in a deliberate & active way. The word in itself is a denial of justified caste hierarchy.[4] As per Gangadhar Pantawane, a ‘Dalit’ is a person who has been exploited by the socio-economic traditions of his country, and the term inherently symbolises change and revolution.[5] According to Nandu Ram, though the term Dalit represents a broader social category of people, in recent times it has become a national phenomenon and is used as a symbol of social identity and asserting unity.[6]


The social movements of India’s disadvantaged castes are based on the following tenets: the social movement first identifies the basis of discrimination by identifying the two categories of the exploiter and the exploited. Caste categorization in India is based on the concept of ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ births. Then in the struggle against the oppressive social system, the authority of the dominant group is challenged in all spheres. Finally, the social model imagines an alternative model of social structure. Ambedkar envisioned an equal and libertarian society, committed to end the oppressive social order.[7]

Prior to the reform movement initiated by Ambedkar, the question of caste was considered to be an internal affair of Hinduism and its solution was restricted in the scope of social movements.[8] Recognizing that caste injustice and Hinduism were inseparable and believing that any kind of a social transformation was impossible  within the scope of Hinduism, Ambedkar sought to construct a new social identity and converted to Buddhism in an attempt to do the same.[9] Buddhism had been one of the earliest critics and alternatives to orthodox Brahmanism, wherein the social institutions were constructed on the notion of socio-political and spiritual inferiority of the lower castes and women.[10] The Ambedkarite Buddhist identity challenged the regressive mode of social systems and sought to build a new social system based on the ideals of equality, this alternative conceptualisation of religious identity provided the dalits with the means to escape their degraded cultural representation while linking them with the legacy of Buddhism and enabling them to imagine and create new cultural selves.[11]

Ambedkar was not interested in merely bringing a modicum of respect to the Dalits, nor was he interested in assigning new nomenclature to the ‘Untouchables’ (hence his disagreement with Gandhi). Ambedkar was aiming to bring about a social revolution whereby the very institution of caste itself would be annihilated and social and egalitarian values would be available to all. He had hoped that in the political sphere, conversion to Buddhism would enable the creation of a non communal political philosophy against other violent political ideologies which existed at the time. In the social sphere, Ambedkar had hoped that conversion would dramatically change in the socio-cultural relationships of Indian society. Conversion to Buddhism would de caste the Dalits and would counter the orthodox religiosity of Hinduism.[12]

Historically, the Maharashtra bhakti movement in the 13th Century was one of the earliest instances of low caste protests against the notion of socio-political and spiritual superiority of Brahmans. Brahman authority and supremacy was undermined by translating the Vedas from Sanskrit to the native Marathi to make it available to the common people, the position of Brahmans as the spiritual guides of society was sought to be done away with by propagating personal devotion rather than performance of rituals and dissemination of esoteric knowledge.[13]

Challenge to the established notion of Brahmanical superiority saw the reprise of orthodox Brahmanism.[14] This is evidenced in the works of Ramdas, the 17th century Brahman saint and advisor to Shivaji. He argued the necessity of a return to Brahmanical supremacy in both religious and administrative capacities in order to prevent a breakdown of social order. He propagated that a return to the glory days of Hinduism and the establishment of a Hindu nation or a ‘Ram Rajya’ was in the best interest of the nation.[15]

Present day manifestation of Ramdas’ beliefs is found in the ideology of Vinayak Damodar Sarvarkar, who coined the term ‘Hindutva’. The principal features of his ideology are treatment of Hindus as victims, the need to achieve Hindu unity to combat the privileges.[16]

As per his views, religions such as Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism, are among the enemies of the Hindu state as they were seen as minorities dividing and weakening the Hindu community.[17] Modern militant Hinduism thus represents a synthesis of Sarvakar’s ideas of Hindu nationalism, with conservative Brahmanical notions of caste.

The conflict between the Dalits and caste Hindus is not simply one between a dominating upper-caste and a downtrodden lower-caste, but a constant “dialectic of hegemony and resistance”.[18]Not only does each community define itself according to their own strengths and beliefs – whereas wealth and political power is usually concentrated in the hands of the Hindus, the Dalits communities lay a greater stress on being better educated and having a greater understanding of practical knowledge, as well as governmental laws and practises – they also define themselves in opposition to the other.[19]

Thus, there is a conflict in the world-views of the Buddhist Dalits and the Hindu militants – whereas the former was founded on a forward-thinking philosophy that aimed to leave behind the past and stride into a new social democracy, the latter is based on a deep connection with the past coupled with orthodox authoritarian practises. It is unsurprising then to consider the brutal onslaught of violence and devastation that is faced by the Dalit Buddhist communities at the hands of Hindu nationalists. “Practices through which the powerful attempt to appropriate culture are countered by those [practises] through which the weak refuse the realities and identities imposed upon them.”[20]

Politically, the cause of militant Hinduism has been taken up by outfits such as the Rahtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Patit Pawan,[21] which have taken up the challenge to establish a Hindu Rajya and have instituted a form of practice by which they hope to achieve the same.[22]

The dalit cause of establishing a political identity has found its champion in the Bahujan Samaj Party which has brought the dalit into the limelight of mainstream national politics. In the post-Ambedkar era, the most prominent figure in the Dalit emancipatory movement was Kanshi Ram, the Dalit politician who would go on to found the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in 1984. Under his leadership, the BSP would come to power in 1995 in Uttar Pradesh. However, whereas Kanshi Ram and the BSP were resoundingly successful on the political front, their efforts in the social restructuring of the Dalit’s place in society were not as successful.[23]


The conflict between Militant Hinduism and the Dalit has been present in our country since before Independence, there is already many pieces of legislation present that theoretically should prevent caste-based discrimination from taking place – “…Between 1943 and 1950, 17 laws were enacted by different Indian states to end caste-based disabilities. However, no national legislation was passed until the Untouchability (Offenses) Act, 1955, which was amended in 1976 to make its provisions more stringent and renamed the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 (PCR Act). To deal with the atrocities committed against SCs, another law – the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 (POA Act) – came into effect in January 1990.”[24] However, even as the rate of crimes being committed increased exponentially, the rate of conviction actually began dropping, especially when compared to the conviction rate of regular IPC cases – according to a Human Rights Watch report[25], more and more cases were either dismissed out-of-hand as lies, or were undertaken with a lack of professional impartiality and a biased mentality.


Socially, the Dalit- Buddhist movement created and represents a new religious identity replete with new forms of rituals and forms of public culture and festivals, crafted around the iconography of Ambedkar and the Buddha. Psychologically, the conversion movement has been able to free the lower castes from feelings of inferiority to some extent. This may seem like the conversion movement has been the harbinger of a form of socio-cultural revolution among the dalits, but the movement is not without its limitations.

It is necessary to evaluate a social movement in terms of social, cultural, economic and political change that it brings into effect. While the conversion movement has been able to bring some semblance of reform in the first three spheres, this movement has been unable to assert the political identity of the dalits, especially in the post Ambedkar period. The Republican Party of India that had been established by Ambedkar had started out as a voice for all disadvantaged sections of society, but was soon seized by self interested leadership and soon gave way to factionalism. Emphasis on the needs of dalit Buddhist by parties such as Dalit Panthers led to the creation of a alienation of non Buddhist and non convert Dalits.

Currently, the post Ambedkar Buddhist movement seems to be severely restricted in its appeal and operation and has resulted in the monopolisation of the symbols and benefits that accrued from the Dalit Buddhist movement by some elite members of the converted community, for their personal interest.

While managing to create an alternative to the identity conferred upon the oppressed castes by the Hindu social order, this movement has failed to create an alternative socio- cultural identity that could voice the aspirations of all the oppressed castes. The ideology of Dalit Buddhism failed to develop into a political philosophy and failed drastically in forming alliances with non Buddhist communities and creating a political identity in secular politics.

The separation of the importance of political representation from the social restructuring of society has ultimately served to work against those fighting for Dalit emancipation. Whereas Ambedkar called for a social revolution that would have enabled Dalits to break free from the hierarchy of caste, the preoccupations of the modern Dalit parties with reservation and political representation while still within the mainstream Hindu hierarchy ultimately does nothing to deconstruct it. Rather than attempting to bring about the annihilation of caste as Ambedkar had predicted, there is an increasing reliance on ‘caste-identity-politics’ that only unfortunately reinforces these divisions.

Edited By Amoolya Khurana

[1] H. S. Wankhede, The Political and the Social in the Dalit Movement Today, 43(6) Economic and Political Weekly 50-57, (2008), available at, last seen on 19/03/2014.

[2] S. R. Bharati, ‘Dalit’: A Term Asserting Unity, 37(42) Economic and Political Weekly 4339-4340, (2002), available at,  last seen on 19/03/2014.

[3] Omvedt,Gail (1995): Dalit Visions: The Anti Caste Movement and the Construction of an Indian Identity, Orient Longman, New Delhi.

[4] Zelliot, E (2001): From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on Ambedkar Movement, pp. 267, Manohar Publishers and Distributors, New Delhi.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ram, Nandu (1995): Beyond Ambedkar: Essays on Dalits in India, Har Anand Publications, New Delhi.

[7] H. S. Wankhede, The Political and the Social in the Dalit Movement Today, 43(6) Economic and Political Weekly 50-57, (2008), available at,  last seen on 19/03/2014.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Zelliot, E (1996): From Untouchable to Dalit, Essays on Ambedkar Movement, pp. 11-13, Manohar Publishers,Delhi.

[10] J. A. Contursi, Militant Hindus and Buddhist Dalits: Hegemony and Resistance in an Indian Slum, 16(3) American Ethnologist 441-457, (1989), available at, last seen on 19/03/2014.

[11] H. S. Wankhede, The Political and the Social in the Dalit Movement Today, 43(6) Economic and Political Weekly 50-57, (2008), available at, last seen on 19/03/2014

[12] Ibid.

[13] M. Bellwinkel-Schempp, From Bhakti to Buddhism: Ravidas and Ambedkar, 42(23) Economic and Political Weekly 2177-2183, (2007),  available at,  last seen on 19/03/2014

[14]Ranade, R. D. (1983): Mysticism in India: The Poet-Saints of Maharashtra. Albany: State University of New York Press.

[15] Joshi, T. D.(1970): Social and Political Thoughts of Ramdas,  Vora & Co., Bombay.

[16] Savarkar [1971 (1925)]: Hindu-Pad-Padshahi or A Review of the Hindu Empire of Maharashtra, pp. 21, Bharati Sahitya Sadan, New Delhi.

[17] Savarkar [1969 (1923)]: Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? Veer Savarkar Prakashan, Bombay.

[18] Contursi, p. 441

[19] Shah, Ghanshyam (ed) (2003):Dalits and the State, CBC, New Delhi

[20] Ibid, p. 453

[21] Organized in 1969, RSS, Patit Pawan was established to recruit low caste militant following for the RSS.

[22] Jondhale, Surendra (1987 ):Resurgence of Militant Hindu Nationalism. Mainstream, August 8.

[23] Harish S. Wankhede, The Political and the Social in the Dalit Movement Today, 43(6) Economic and Political Weekly 50-57, (2008), available at, last seen on 19/03/2014

[24] A. Ramaiah, Growing crimes against Dalits in India despite special laws, 3(9) Journal of Law and Conflict Resolution 151-168, (2011) available at, last seen on 19/03/2014.

[25] “Broken People: Caste Violence Against India’s Untouchables”, Human Rights Watch, accessed March 19, 2014,

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