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Historically, Hindu society in India has been characterized by a high degree of social stratification and institutional inequality governed by the caste system. The caste system as a societal order of social, economic, and religious governance for Hindus is based on the principle of inequality and unequal rights. The dalits or the untouchables (known as scheduled castes in government parlance) stand at the bottom of the caste hierarchy, and were historically denied equal rights to property, education, and business, as well as civil, cultural, and religious rights. They were also considered to be polluting, and they suffered from social and physical segregation and isolation. The result was a high level of deprivation and poverty.
Past religious and cultural movements, such as Buddhism, opposed Brahmanic Hinduism and attempted to construct Indian society on principles of equality and fraternity. The dalits themselves initiated social movements against the denial of equal rights and oppression in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, notably the social-political movement of the Indian reformer and politician Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891–1956). During the 1970s and the 1980s, collective action emerged among the dalits in the form of the Dalit Panther movement in Maharashtra State and the Dalit Sangarsh Samiti in Karnataka, and the rise of such political parties as the Bahujan Samaj Party in the north, and similar efforts throughout the country. A strong nongovernmental organization movement also emerged, particularly in south India. In 1998 these groups formed a coalition of civil society organizations and activists: the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights. This coalition facilitated the establishment of an International Dalit Solidarity Network in Europe and the United States.
By 2006, dalit assertion has transcended national boundaries with the dalit diaspora organizing itself into the Ambedkar Mission Society, the Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organization, the Voice of Dalit International in the United Kingdom, Volunteers in Service to India’s Oppressed and Neglected in the United States, and similar organizations in Canada. These organizations generate and disseminate literature about problems of the dalits, undertake advocacy, and use modern information and communication tools to generate discussion and build solidarity.
Constitutional Provisions and Strategies of Schedule Caste Empowerment
The constitution of India (1950) guarantees equality before the law (Article 14); prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth (Article 15); and abolished untouchability (Article 17). It further assigned responsibility to the state for the promotion of the educational and economic interests of the dalits (Article 46). On this basis, legal safeguards have been provided, including the Anti-Untouchability Act of 1955, and affirmative action policies in public employment, educational institutions, and the legislature, and other measures for the general economic empowerment of the dalit community. Government policies thus aim to overcome the multiple deprivations that dalits have inherited from exclusion in the past, and provide protection against exclusion and discrimination in the present.
Affirmative action policies are confined to the public sector. In the absence of such policies for the private sector, the state has developed programs for the economic, educational, and social empowerment of the dalits with a focus on improving the private ownership of fixed capital assets, human resource capabilities, and access to basic civil amenities, among other things.
Change and the Status of Dalits in the Twenty-First Century
Government policies from 1950 to 2000 indicate both positive change and continuity in deprivation. There has indeed been some improvement. In 2000 about 17 percent of dalits cultivated land, and about 12 percent of dalits in rural areas and 28 percent in urban areas owned small businesses. Literacy rates among dalits have risen from 10.27 percent in 1960 to 54.69 percent in 2001. The unemployment rate in rural areas has been reduced from 6.77 percent in 1978 to 5 percent in 2000, and from 7.37 percent to 5.20 percent in urban areas for the same periods. Lingering limitations in access to assets are the residue of a similar denial in the past.
Affirmative action policies have seen limited, yet positive, gains. The number of dalits employed in central government jobs increased in 2002, along with the number of dalit employees in public sector undertakings. The number of dalits employed in government banks also rose in 2004. In education, about a third of dalit students enrolled in universities and colleges were pursuing higher education in desirable programs because of reservation policies. As a consequence of such positive changes, poverty among dalits declined from 58 percent in 1984 to 37 percent in 2000 in rural areas, and from 56 percent in 1983 to 38 percent in 2000 in urban areas. Furthermore, caste discrimination against dalits in civil, cultural, and religious spheres has been reduced in some public spheres, although more so in urban than in rural areas.
Notwithstanding these gains, India’s dalits continue to suffer in terms of absolute levels of deprivation and indicators of human development. About 70 percent of dalits inhabit rural areas; in 2000 about two-thirds of dalit rural households were landless or near landless (the figure is one-third for nondalits). Less than one-third of the dalit population had access to capital assets (40% for nondalits); 60 percent of dalits were dependent upon wage labor (25% for nondalits); and the dalit unemployment and literacy rate was 5.5 percent and 54.69 percent respectively, compared to 3 percent and 58 percent for nondalits. In addition, the prevalence of anemia among dalit women and mortality among children was high.
Various studies indicate that dalits continue to face discrimination in market and nonmarket transactions, in social services (education, health, and housing), and in political participation. Thus, there remains a long way to go before India’s dalits can imagine a reasonable degree of dignity in their lives and livelihoods.
In 1992 the Indian government withdrew from some public spheres under an overall policy of liberalization. This development weakened the possibility of public sector employment for dalits. The government has made efforts to establish affirmative action policies that apply to the private sector; these efforts have seen response from India’s corporate sector in 2006, but they have not yet taken any shape in terms of policy. However, other initiatives include reserved spots for dalits in private educational institutions, as well as scholarships for research and technical education. In addition, in 2005 India passed the Employment Guarantee Act, which ensures minimum employment for rural laborers. Such initiatives are likely to enhance the status of the dalits.
During 2006, the Indian government has taken new initiative by extending reservation to Other Backward Castes in public educational institutions and proposed to extend the same to private educational institutions. The reservation in private education institutions would also benefit the Schedule Castes. The progressive extensions of reservation to Other Backward Castes has widened and strengthened the safeguards against the hierarchal discrimination faced by different sections of lower castes. This has encouraged solidarity among Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Castes.
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