Dalit means all those people of different castes and sub-castes among the depressed classes who were traditionally subjected to invidious discriminations on grounds of untouchability, and categorized as the untouchables, downtrodden, exterior classes, depressed classes or Scheduled Castes.
“The organizational or institutional efforts made by Dalit leaders for the liberation of the downtrodden masses could be termed as Dalit movement. It is a movement of protest against untouchability, casteism and superstitions. It aims at the uplift of the Dalits to the level of non -Dalits.”
“Negatively speaking, it stands for rejection of the old traditional Hindu social order based on untouchability, socioeconomic inequality casteism, unscientific and irrational religious beliefs and customary servitude.
Positively speaking, it stands for acceptance of a new social order based on equality, liberty, and social justice, scientific and rational religious or moral principles; and social, economic, cultural and political development of the Dalit.” It is the movement to regain self-respect and equal human status in the society.
It is the result of the consciousness of Dalits of their own identity as human beings, equally equipped with physical and mental capacities as other human beings, and equally entitled to enjoy all the human rights “without any infringement, abridgement or limitations.”
Untouchability and its Eradication:
Untouchability, as indicated above, has always been considered as social evil. Since long efforts had been made to eradicate it. Religious and social, reformers like Buddha, Ramanuja, Ramanand, Chitanya, Kabir, Nank, Tukaram and others, made great efforts to eradicate it as far as possible.
The Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj, and other social organizations by propaganda, education, and practical measures, did much to secure the social, religious and cultural equality to them.
The establishment and consolidation of the British Raj gradually but radically changed the political, administrative, economic and social fabric of India. The new set up in theory decried the caste, color and creed prejudices and attempted to re-mould the Indian society on the principles of competition and individualism, liberty and equality. It encouraged the dissemination of the rational, liberal and humane ideas of the West.
The new polity, the new administrative framework, the new judicial system, the new forms of land tenure and taxation, the new patterns of trade, the new education system, and the network of communications stressed the spirit of equality. A new environment emerged in the society where the process of westernization and sanskritization got brewed up; the consciousness for positive rights was created, the general awareness took a new turn cultimating in farreaching political and sociological changes.
Among the depressed classes also rose intellectuals, distinguished of whom was Dr.Ambedkar, who struggled to secure for them the social recognition and human rights. The all India Depressed Association and the All India Depressed Classes Federation, the principal organizations of these classes, initiated a movement to improve their conditions.
They aimed at improving their miserable economic conditions, and to spread education among them. They worked to secure for them the rights to draw water from public wells, admission to the schools, and to the use of roads; and enter the public temples. The Mahad Satyagrah for the right of water led by Dr. Ambedkar was one of the outstanding movements of the untouchables to win equal social rights.
All India Harijans Sevak Sangh founded by Gandhi in 1923 started numerous schools for the Harijan including residential vocational schools. The Congress Government after came in power in various States under the Government of India Act. 1935 did useful work for restoring to the depressed classes their rightful place. The Congress Government in Bombay passed, the Bombay Harijan Temple Worship (Removal of Disabilities) Act enabling the trustees to admit the Harijans to the temples.
Free education of the Harijans, from the primary class to the university level was introduced by the C.R and Bihar and Congress Governments in their respective Provinces. The rulers of states like Travancore, Indore, Aundh and Devas, took the initiative in throwing open all state temples by proclamation to the untouchables.
To enforce the provisions of law more strictly, the Untouchability (Offences) Act (1955) was passed to fix penalties for not observing the law. Besides, to enable the Harijans to overcome their backwardness, they were provided with special educational facilities. The Union and the State Governments now spend huge sums of money on their advancement and on projects to remove untouchability. In consequence of these provisions; there has come about a distinct change in the status of Harijans. There are now thousands of Harijans working in the central and State Governments.
They hold high positions in the administration. At selection levels too, special consideration is shown to the Harijan candidates. They now actively take to the profession of Law, Medicine and Engineering.
In politics too they have gained a balancing position. They have the benefit of the reservations of seats in all elected bodies from the village panchayat to Union Parliament. They are now, not only in a position of sway the local balance of power one way or the other but also affect the political developments, at the centre.
Dynamics of Dalit Movement:
The strategies, ideologies, approaches of Dalit movement varied from leader to leader, place to place and time to time. The ‘Dalit consciousness’ came to the fore in different forms and shades. Thus, some Dalit leaders followed the process of’ Sanskritization’ to elevate themselves to the higher position in caste hierarchy.
They adopted Brahman manners, including vegetarianism, putting sandalwood paste on forehead, wearing sacred thread, etc. Thus Dalit leaders like Swami Thykkad (Kerala), Pandi Sunder Lai Sagar (UP), Muldas Vaishya (Gujarat), Moon Vithoba Raoji Pande (Maharashtra) and others tried to adopt established cultural norms and practices of the higher castes.
Imitation of the high caste manners by Dalits was an assertion of their right to equality. Treating Dalits as outside the fourfold Varna system, and describing them as ‘outcastes’ or ‘Panchama’ gave rise to a movement called Adi-Hindu movement. Thus, certain section of Dalit leadership believed that Dalits were the original inhabitants of India and they were not Hindus. That Aryans or Brahmins who invaded this country forcibly imposed untouchability on the original inhabitants of this land.
They believed that if Hinduism was discarded, untouchability would automatically come to an end. That Dalits began to call themselves Adi-Andhras in Andhra, Adi- Karnataka in Karnataka, Adi-Dravidas in Tamil Nadu, Adi-Hindus in Uttar Pradesh and Adi-Dharmis in Punjab. Dalits also followed the route of conversion with a purpose of getting rid of untouchability and to develop their moral and financial conditions. A good number of Dalits were converted to Christianity, especially in Kerala. Some of the Dalits, especially in Punjab were converted to Sikhism.
They are known as Mazhabis, Namdharis, Kabir Panthis etc. Dalits also got converted to Buddhism. Dr. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism along with his millions of followers at Nagpur in 1956. As a protest against Hinduism some of the Dalit leaders founded their own sects or religions. Guru Ghasi Das (MP) founded Satnami Sect. Gurtichand Thakur (Bengal) founded Matua Sect. Ayyan Kali (kerala) founded SJPY (Sadha Jana Paripalan Yogam) and Mangu Ram (Panjab) founded Adi Dharam.
Attempts were also made to organize Dalits politically in order to fight against socioeconomic problems. Dr. Ambedkar formed the independent Labour Party in 1936. He tried to abolish the exploitative Khoti system prevailing in Kokan part of Maharashtra, and Vetti or Maharaki system a wage free hereditary service to the caste Hindus in the local administration. He tried to convince the Government to recruit the Mahars in Military. Ultimately he became successful in 1941 when the first Mahar Regiment was formed.
With the growing process of democratization. Dr. Ambedkar demanded adequate representation for Dalits in the legislatures and in the administration. Government of India Act, 1919, provided for one seat to the depressed classes in the central Legislative Assembly. In 1932, British Government headed by Ramsoy Macdonald announced the ‘Communal Award’.
The award envisaged separate electorate for the Depressed Classes. Mahatma Gandhi went on a historic fast in protest against Communal Award especially in respect of depressed classes. The issue was settled by famous Poona Pact, September 1932. It provided for reservation of seats for depressed classes out of general electorates sets. The Constitution of India now provides ‘for reservation of seats for Scheduled Castes in proportion to their population in Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha under Article 330 and 332.