Condition of the Untouchables or the Dalits

Despite the fact that "untouchability" was abolished under India's constitution in 1950,5 the practice of "untouchability"—the imposition of social disabilities on persons by reason of their birth in certain castes— remains very much a part of rural India. "Untouchables" may not cross the line dividing their part of the village from that occupied by higher castes. They may not use the same wells, visit the same temples, drink from the same cups in tea stalls, or lay claim to land that is legally theirs. Dalit children are frequently made to sit in the back of classrooms, and communities as a whole are made to perform degrading rituals in the name of caste.

Most Dalits continue to live in extreme poverty, without land or opportunities for better employment or education. With the exception of a minority who have benefited from India’s policy of quotas in education and government jobs, Dalits are relegated to the most menial of tasks, as manual scavengers, removers of human waste and dead animals, leather workers, street sweepers, and cobblers. Dalit children make up the majority of those sold into bondage to pay off debts to upper-caste creditors. Dalit men, women, and children numbering in the tens of millions work as agricultural laborers for a few kilograms of rice or Rs. 15 to Rs. 35 (US$0.38 to $0.88) a day.

Even in these modern times, all over India the Dalits are still treated as Untouchables in the eyes of  the elite and even of the ordinary people. Having undergone three thousand years of slavery and discrimination, the Dalits find it nearly impossible to get out of this terrible trauma. The general  situation of Untouchables  is miserable but it is all the more wretched in the case of  those Untouchables who have become  Christians because they now suffer severe  discrimination in two ways - in society and in the Church.  We identify them as  the Dalit Christians. They bear the stigma of untouchability,  a  nightmare in every-day life.


The Dalit community is a deeply wounded one,  a community that, with the sanction of the prevailing religion, has for centuries been systematically robbed and reduced to a state of empty powerlessness. The caste people on the other hand have risen to power at the cost of the Dalits. The conversion of  some Dalits to Christianity has served as a motive for the Government of India to deprive them of those  constitutional rights and privileges which are enjoyed by Dalits who are Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist.Even within the Church, the Dalit Christians are robbed by the upper caste Christians in matters of  church-related jobs and benefits. 

Most of the key positions in the Church are occupied  by the Christians of the upper caste. Therefore, the Dalit Christians have actually become refugees in their own homeland and in their home church.  Dalit Christians represent the victimized masses, completely denied social justice. Against social and economic exploiters, they have no protection. Dalit Christians are the most exploited and oppressed community in India.


Centuries of oppression have inflicted on the Dalit people deep psychological wounds, the trauma of low self-esteem.

The Dalit Christians are still carrying the cross of humiliation, exploitation, oppression and subjugation. For example, the Dalit cannot go to the village pump or well to draw water as the other villagers do. A Dalit cannot send his boy or girl to the village school where the other boys and girls of the village go. The Dalit cannot set foot in the temple. Dalit men and women or children may not walk in a street where caste people live. In a village restuarant, a Dalit cannot use the same cup as the caste people. Such constant inhuman treatment has a devastating impact on the psyche. This psychic wound has been inflicted on the Dalits by others.

The cruelty of the caste system is that one is born into that caste - or non-caste, in the case of the Dalit, - and from this there is no escape, ever, no matter what one does or achieves.

In the eyes of the majority people of India, a Dalit, by the fact of  birth alone, is forever condemned as an agent of pollution.


Deprived of the constitutional protection that they ought to have received from a Government which  in fact is carrying out  atrocious discriminatory policies, the Dalit Christians suffer from severe economic disabilities. They cannot aim at higher studies, or aspire to the Government scholarships that might lead thereto. Even if, by way of exception, some Dalit Christians have managed to acquire the necessary qualifications, they do not get the job: this in a country where job opportunities are extremely scarce and highly competitive.

Even within the church-run institutions, schools and hospitals and such like, the jobs  go in favor of the upper caste people, acting in collusion with the clergy. The share of  job opportunities held by the upper caste people in church-related institutions is grossly disproportionate to their numbers. Even among the rural population, who are poor indeed,   the Dalits are cut off from the majority  community, and are more poor than the poor themselves.

Caste gives no scope for Dalit Christians to change their destiny.  They are the people of the soil, yet in a so-called democratic system,  they have no hope of owning their share of that soil, condemned day after day to grief and despair, to  poverty as  their immutable condition.

With little land of their own to cultivate, Dalit men, women, and children numbering in the tens of millions work as agricultural laborers for a few kilograms of rice or Rs. 15 to Rs. 35 (US$0.38 to $0.88) a day. Most live on the brink of destitution, barely able to feed their families and unable to send their children to school or break away from cycles of debt bondage that are passed on from generation to generation. At the end of day they return to a hut in their Dalit colony with no electricity, kilometers away from the nearest water source, and segregated from all non-Dalits, known as caste Hindus. They are forbidden by caste Hindus to enter places of worship, to draw water from public wells, or to wear shoes in caste Hindu presence. They are made to dig the village graves, dispose of dead animals, clean human waste with their bare hands, and to wash and use separate tea tumblers at neighborhood tea stalls, all because—due to their caste status—they are deemed polluting and therefore "untouchable." Any attempt to defy the social order is met with violence or economic retaliation. ("Broken People, p.23)


Most Dalits in rural areas live in segregated colonies, away from the caste Hindus. According to an activist working with Dalit communities in 120 villages in Villapuram district, Tamil Nadu, all 120 villages have segregated Dalit colonies. Basic supplies such as water are also segregated, and medical facilities and the better, thatched-roof houses exist exclusively in the caste Hindu colony. Untouchability" is further reinforced by s tate allocation of facilities; separate facilities are provided for separate colonies. Dalits often receive the poorer of the two, if they receive any at all.

As part of village custom, Dalits are made to render free services in times of death, marriage, or any village function. During the Marama village festival in Karnataka state, caste Hindus force Dalits to sacrifice buffalos and drink their blood. They then have to mix the blood with cooked rice and run into the village fields without their chappals (slippers). The cleaning of the whole village, the digging of graves, the carrying of firewood, and the disposal of dead animals are all tasks that Dalits are made to perform.

In villages where Dalits are a minority, the practice of "untouchability" is even more severely enforced. Individual attempts to defy the social order are frequently punished through social boycotts and acts of retaliatory violence further described below.

Activists in Tamil Nadu explained that large-scale clashes between caste communities in the state’s southern districts have often been triggered by Dalits’ efforts to draw water from a "forbidden" well or by their refusal to perform a delegated task. Dalits have responded to ill-treatment by converting, en masse, to Buddhism, Christianity, and sometimes Islam. Once converted, however, many lose access to their scheduled-caste status and the few government privileges assigned to it. Many also find that they are ultimately unable to escape treatment as "untouchables."

Landless labourers

Most Dalit victims of abuse are landless agricultural laborers.28 According to the 1991 census, 77 percent of the Dalit workforce is in the primary (agricultural) sector of the economy. Those who own land often fall into the category of marginal landowners.29 Land is the prime asset in rural areas that determines an individual’s standard of living and social status.  Lack of access to land makes Dalits economically vulnerable; their dependency is exploited by upper- and middle-caste landlords and allows for many abuses to go unpunished.


No one practices untouchability when it comes to sex.  Rape is a common phenomenon in rural areas. Women are raped as part of caste custom or village tradition. Dalit girls have been forced to have sex with the village landlord.  In rural areas, "women are induced into prostitution (Devadasi system)..., which [is] forced on them in the name of religion." The prevalence of rape in villages contributes to the greater incidence of child marriage in those areas. Early marriage between the ages of ten years and sixteen years persists in large part because of Dalit girls’ vulnerability to sexual assault by upper-caste men; once a girl is raped, she becomes unmarriageable. An early marriage also gives parents greater control over the caste into which their children are married.

Dalit women are also raped as a form of retaliation. Women of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes are raped as part of an effort by upper-caste leaders to suppress movements to demand payment of minimum wages, to settle sharecropping disputes, or to reclaim lost land. They are raped by members of the upper caste, by landlords, and by the police in pursuit of their male relatives.

Dalit women face the triple burden of caste, class, and gender. Dalit girls have been forced to become prostitutes for upper-caste patrons and village priests. Sexual abuse and other forms of violence against women are used by landlords and the police to inflict political "lessons" and crush dissent within the community.

"No one practices untouchability when it comes to sex."