In the Indian caste system, a dalit is someone who is without caste. There are several other terms for dalits, including untouchables, outcastes, kanjjar, bhangi, harijan, and chura. “Dalit” is the more socially acceptable term, adopted to express the systemic impression which people without caste have endured over thousands of years of Indian culture. Numerous organizations have lobbied to change the way that dalits are treated in Indian society, and a number of laws have been passed in attempts to outlaw discrimination.
The Indian caste system is quite complex, and based in the Hindu religion although people of all religions are divided into castes in India, along with several other nations. For thousands of years, caste was a crucial determining factor in where someone fit into society, and the rigid system did not have room for social climbing or efforts against discrimination. There are four castes in India, also known as varnas; people who do not fall into any caste are considered dalits, and their lack of caste turns them into social pariahs.
Because a dalit essentially lacks divinity, he or she may be assigned to menial labor which higher castes believe is polluting. Dalits have traditionally participated in animal slaughter, garbage collection, sewage handling, and dealing with cadavers. These polluting vocations only enforce the status of dalits, with upper castes forcing them to use different facilities, and to avoid handling or touching people of caste. In some parts of India, dalits were not even allowed to cast a shadow onto upper class members of Indian society.
In the twentieth century, Indian society underwent numerous reforms, including a formal rejection of the caste system. In practice, this rejection has been difficult to enforce in some regions of India, as the social roles dictated by caste are so embedded into Indian society. However, legislation against the caste system has allowed dalits more civil rights, providing access to education, healthcare, and social services. Many dalits unfortunately continue to perform menial work, and some are bonded laborers, essentially slaves who must work to pay off debts.
Many social justice organizations advocate for people with a dalit status. Their efforts have made life as a dalit much easier in modern India, and they have laid the groundwork for progressive antidiscrimination legislation. While the caste system in India is unlikely to disappear altogether, changes in Indian society allow people to move around more freely in society, pursuing personal hopes and dreams in addition to living in accordance with religious and cultural values.