Dalits – the fight against discrimination

By Abhinav Yadav

Editor’s note:

There has existed a millennia old institution of prejudice against certain sections of society which led to the classes in the lowest strata of hierarchy being suppressed oppressively With a rise in awareness, a need to empower the marginalized sections by giving them political powers was felt. This paper deal with the Dalit movements in post-independent India and the various legal reforms that have been brought for the upliftment of Dalits or, as they are now called, Scheduled Castes. It also deals with the caste based discrimination outside India.


The issue of Dalit movement is not a new issue. In fact, the divide which is created by the caste system itself brings conflicts and these conflicts have been generating movements whether on a large scale or small scale. Though this millennia old institution of prejudice against certain sections of society did not generated a large scale organised movement for a long time as the classes which were there in the lowest strata of hierarchy were suppressed so oppressively that they did not dared to raise their voice. In fact, the divine sanction by the Shastras led them to believe that they were suppressed because of the evil karmas of their past birth. However, with the advent of the British in India and introduction of western education and notions such as ‘all men are equal’ there started a debate for equal rights for Dalits. This demand for equal rights and removal of caste based practices though not a new demand truly came of age under the leadership of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar. He realised that to empower the marginalised sections of society they must be given political powers. Therefore, he demanded separate electorate for Dalits which was accepted by the then British government. However, due to Poona Pact signed between Gandhiji and Ambedkar, the demand for separate electorate was withdrawn and instead of that increased representation to Scheduled Castes was given for a period of 10 years. This pact marked start of movement against untouchability within Indian nationalist movement.[1] Later, when the Indian Constitution was enacted these marginalised sections were given various rights to enable them to live a life with dignity and self-respect. However, in spite of constitutional provisions for equality and social justice, the caste based discrimination practices are still operative. This has led to various movements; some of them are discussed below.

Dalit Panthers

While most of the dalit movements in pre-independent India were largely non-violent, this movement advocated violence as a mean to achieve its objective of equality against upper caste. This movement got inspired from the Black Panthers Party of USA. They called themselves “Panthers” because they were supposed to fight for their rights like panthers. This comparison with panther also led to a feeling of self-esteem among them.

The 1972 manifesto of Dalit panthers proclaimed that- “We don’t want a little place in the Brahman gulli, we want the rule of the whole land…..our revolution will flash like lightning”.[2] This movement gathered support from the Dalits throughout the country. This movement grew along with the Naxal movement which led to jeopardizing the cause of Dalits as Naxalites never allowed a real Dalit vision to fertilize.

This movement created a sense of self-esteem among dalits but beyond that this movement failed to achieve anything substantially and fizzled out with the largely symbolic issue of renaming the Marathwada University.

Dalit Buddhist Movement

This movement basically saw conversion of Dalits from Hinduism to Buddhism.  This was not an attempt for individual salvation but more of a revolt against caste-based discrimination.[3] This act of conversion was seen as emancipation from the deep rooted caste system prevailing in the Indian society. Baba Saheb Ambedkar was the pioneer of this movement, he made a call for the conversion of Dalits to Buddhism.

Ambedkar himself converted to Buddhism in October 1956 along with 365,000 of his followers at Nagpur.[4] Since then,  an anuual mass gathering of converted Dalits is held at Nagpur to refresh their Buddhist faith and also thousands of Dalits convert to Buddhism to seek emancipation from the Hindu caste system. As per a latest report of Indian Express around 300 Dalits of the Seshasamuthiram Colony converted to Buddhism as they were banned from entering the temples and were also not allowed to use the local crematorium.[5]

Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati announced her plans to convert to Buddhism after forming an absolute majority at the Centre.[6] It is important in this context as Bahujan Samaj Party is based on the ideology of ‘social transformation and economic emancipation’ of the Bahujan Samaj which comprises of the Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes.[7] Also, the cremation ceremonies of Kanshiram(the man who founded BSP) were performed according to Buddhist rituals.

However, this movement is not a unified movement under the leadership of any particular person. This movement did not received as much mass support among the Dalits as it was hoped by Dr. Ambedkar.

Dalit Movement Today

Dalit movement which raged and revolted against oppression and provided a new paradigm of development and social order[8] has now been restricted as a pressure group and is been used by various political parties for their political interests. The issue of social democracy is side-lined under the larger consensus on political democracy.[9] The movement has largely been turned into a caste-based political issue and the real issues of creating an egalitarian society is being ignored or rather used for political purposes. Certainly, there have been various positive changes in this regard and various legal reforms have took place post-independence which needs to be looked upon for a better understanding of the status of Dalits today.

Legal reforms

Apart from the various constitutional provisions which abolish untouchability, provides equal opportunity to all, prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste and various other affirmative policies providing reservation in various fields, there have been several legislations enacted for protection of Dalit rights.

The Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 was enacted with the primary objective of enforcing the Article 17 of the Constitution of India by achieving the eradication of untouchability.[10] The practice has been abolished to a great extent in urban areas but not so in rural areas. Further, social and economic change of the former untouchables has met with stiffed resistance from the upper castes power holders. The rise of the dalits in the political and economic sphere led to various kinds of atrocities against them. In order to prevent the same Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes( Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 was enacted to prevent the commission of offences against the members of the SCs and STs and to provide for special courts for trial of such offences. Apart from this, various bills have been passed to prevent practices related to untouchability and caste based discrimination. For example, the state has enacted the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Bill, 2013, the Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act, 1976, the Minimum Wages Act and various other legislations for abolition of practices relating to untouchability and to create equality.

However, all these legal reforms have their limitations and drawbacks which needs to be addressed. Also mere enactment of law never leads to any real change, their implementation and social awareness and change is necessary to throw away the age old discrimination practices against the Dalits.

Caste discrimination globally

As opposed to popular misconceptions that caste based discrimination is a problem only in India, the European Parliament has recognised caste based discrimination as a global evil and has recognised it as human rights violation.[11] Outside India, caste based discrimination is a problem in various countries like Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Yemen and to a considerable extent in United Kingdom also.

The House of Lords in UK has voted twice for legal protection to be given to the estimated 400,000 Dalits who are regarded as being beneath the caste system, living in the UK.[12] There has been persistent demand in UK for adding caste discrimination to the Equality Act. However, MPs in the House of Commons voted against adding caste discrimination to the Equality Act saying that legislation could further increase the stigma.[13] However, the demand is still going on and the government has set up various committees and has asked commissions to submit reports as what could be the best course of action on this issue.


Dalit movement was envisaged as a transformative social revolution to grant basic human rights such as liberty, equality and justice to the marginalised sections of society. These demands took the shape of various protests and movements. Dr B.R Ambedkar championed the cause of Dalits and they were granted various fundamental and other legal rights in the Constitution of India. However, only constitutional provisions did not proved sufficient in uprooting the age-old practice of discrimination. In the post-independent India these demands took a violent shape in the Dalit Panthers movement. The movement proved successful in gathering support and providing much needed self-esteem to the Dalits but failed in delivering any real change. Dalits also took the alternative method of converting to Buddhism to emancipate from the caste based discrimination in Hinduism. Presently, the movement has taken the shape of political interests and the real issue is being ignored. Various legislations as discussed above were enacted to abolish practices relating to untouchability and atrocities against Dalits. This project also looked upon the caste based discrimination outside India and the continuous demand for rights which are put forward in various countries. To conclude, it can be said that to abolish such social stigmas broad social changes and respect for basic human rights for all is required.

Edited by Neerja Gurnani

[1] Maren Godberg, ‘Poona Pact’ (britanicca.com e.g. 2005) <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/469892/Poona-Pact> accessed 20 March 14

[2] Barbara R. Joshi, Untouchable! Voices of the Dalit Liberation Movement(1st, Zed Books, London 1986) 86

[3] Ghanshyam Shah, Dalit Identity & Politics (Sage Publications, 2001)

[4] (MapsofIndia.com ) <http://www.mapsofindia.com/on-this-day/14th-october-1956-b.r.-ambedkar-converts-to-buddhism-along-with-365000-followers> accessed 20 March 14

[5] Karl Marx L, ‘Harassed 300 Dalits Embrace Buddhism’ (newindianexpress.com 2014) <http://www.newindianexpress.com/states/tamil_nadu/Harassed-300-Dalits-Embrace-Buddhism/2014/01/07/article1986967.ece> accessed 20 March 14

[6] ‘Mayawati to embrace buddhism’ (thehindu.com 2006) <http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/mayawati-to-embrace-buddhism/article3062177.ece> accessed 20 March 14

[7] ‘About the Bahujan Samaj Party’ (bspindia.org ) <http://www.bspindia.org/about-bsp.php> accessed 20 March 14

[8] Ghanshyam Shah, Dalit Identity & Politics (Sage Publications, 2001)

[9] Harish S Wankhede, ‘the political and the Social in the Dalit Movement today ‘ (epw.in 2008) accessed 20 March 14

[10] ‘EVALUATION OF THE PROTECTION OF CIVIL RIGHTS ACT, 1955 AND ITS IMPACT ON THE ERADICATION OF UNTOUCHABILITY ‘ (nls.ac.in ) <https://www.nls.ac.in/csseip/Files/Material%20for%20uploading/PCRA_report_II_from_intro%5B1%5D.pdf> accessed 20 March 14

[11] Divya Trivedi, ‘Caste discrimination a global evil, says European Parliament’ (thehindu.com 2013) <http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/caste-discrimination-a-global-evil-says-european-parliament/article5234387.ece> accessed 20 March 14

[12] Justin Parkinson, ‘Caste discrimination law faces appalling delays, say campaigners’ (bbc.com 2013) <http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-23501389> accessed 20 March 14

[13] Dil Neiyyar, ‘Caste discrimination: Campaigners vow to fight for legislation’ (bbc.com 2013) <http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-22163269> accessed 20 March 14

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *