Dalit facts for kids

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Dalit (from Sanskrit ‘dal’ which means to split, to crack, to break) is the name given to a group of people who have been historically considered outcasts in societies from South Asia (India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh) and Eastern Africa (Somalia). Today, the Dalits, former known as “Untouchables”, have increasingly adopted the term “Dalit” as their way out of the social segregation imposed by the caste system.

Dalit girl (34549307)
Dalit girl

What is untouchability?

Untouchability, is an ancient form of discrimination based upon caste. It is not merely the inability to touch a human being but also an attitude towards a minority group translated into various physical acts, norms and practices.

Social status

The Dalit status carries with it the stigma of “untouchability” because it is associated with menial, degrading tasks immediately connected with their traditional occupations which include unclogging sewers, disposing of dead bodies and cleaning latrines.

Types of discrimination

The discrimination against the Dalits takes various forms such as:

  • In rural areas, Dalits are often not allowed to engage in cultural and social activities with the rest of the community, including entering temples, sitting in the main spaces of villages, taking part in religious programs, and eating with the rest of the community during village ceremonies;
  • Dalits are also not allowed to use the same items as non-Dalits in the communities; they are not allowed to rent or even enter homes of non-Dalits, use the same wells, eat and drink from the same dishes;
  • In schools, Dalit children are often forced to sit separately from the rest of the students during the midday meal and are the only ones asked to clean latrines in the schools.
  • The prohibition of marrying with members of other castes;
  • The prohibition of contesting in elections and exercising their right to vote;
  • The prohibition of hoisting the national flag during Independence or Republic days;
  • They are forced to vote or not to vote for certain candidates during the elections;
  • Facing social boycotts by dominant castes for refusing to perform their “duties”.
A school of untouchables near Bangalore by Lady Ottoline Morrell 2
A school of untouchables near Bangalore

Literacy and education

The rate of literacy among the Dalits, as per 1991 census, was 37.41% as compared to 57.69% for non-Dalits. Untouchability in schools has contributed to drop-out and illiteracy levels for Dalit children. The 1991 census of India reported that Dalit communities were one of the least literate social groups in the country, with only 30% of Dalit children recognized to have basic reading and writing skills.

Poor health

Half of India's Dalit children are undernourished, 21% are 'severely underweight', and 12% die before their 5th birthday. Between 1998-1999 at least 50% of Dalit women suffered from anemia. High morbidity and child mortality are firmly linked to their low quality of life imposed by poverty, educational status and discrimination.

Social reform in India

There have been many attempts to neutralize the caste-based discrimination. In the 1930s, the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi began to change attitudes towards the Dalit minority. In 1949 ‘Untouchability’ was outlawed by the Indian constitution and Indian law does not permit the practice of a caste system. Discrimination against the Dalit minority has become an important human rights and political issue. Even so, in rural areas the Dalits are still facing the consequences of the slow and steady decline of discrimination.

President Clinton and Ambassador Dick Celeste introduce President Narayanan to the US delegation. Arrival Ceremony, Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi
President Clinton and Ambassador Dick Celeste introduce President Narayanan to the US delegation. Arrival Ceremony, Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi

Social progress

Today, the Dalit movements (The Dalit Panther Movement, the Dalit Mahasabha and the Dalit Sangharsh Samithi) which have emerged during the 20th century continue to struggle for equality and implementation of Communal Award. The progress of the past few decades shows hope for an improved level of equality within Indian society. In 1997, Kocheril Raman Narayanan, became the first Dalit to have been elected President on India. Another important political figure was Mayawati Kumari, the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) which represents the Dalits. She has been elected four times as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state.

Non-governmental organisations

The National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) established in 1998 by Dalit human rights activists, is one of many organisations committed to the elimination of caste discrimination. It's main objectives are “to hold the State accountable for all Human Rights violations committed against Dalits; to sensitize civil society by raising visibility of the Dalit problem; and to render justice to Dalit victims of discrimination and violence.” The International Dalit Solidarity Network, which was established in 2000, is another organisation concerned about caste discrimination and similar forms of discrimination based on work and descent. It has emerged as a network of national solidarity groups from affected countries such as those in South Asia and even West Africa.

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