Scheduled Castes of India

Alternative names: “Untouchables”, “Harijans”, various caste names, “Dalits”
Location: throughout India, also Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh
Population: 110 million (1989 est.)
% of population: 14.5%
Religion: Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity

The “Scheduled Castes” is the legal and constitutional name collectively given to the groups which have traditionally occupied the lowest status in Indian society and the Hindu religion which provides the religious and ideological basis for an “untouchable” group, which was outside the caste system and inferior to all other castes. Today, untouchability is outlawed, and these groups are recognized by the Indian Constitution to be especially disadvantaged because of their past history of inferior treatment, and are therefore entitled to certain rights and preferential treatment.

The Scheduled Castes are not an homogenous group and are divided into many castes and sub-castes, as well as by language and geography. Collectively they are best known outside India as “Untouchables” but this term is not used in official Indian terminology where the word harijan is more likely to be favoured. Politically-aware members of the Scheduled Castes are likely to use the term dalit. At an everyday level specific caste names are more likely to be used. Some derogatory names have been banned by law; in practice they are commonly used. Members of the Scheduled Castes are found all over India in some areas rising to over 25% of the population. With total numbers of over 100 million, they are the largest minority group in the world — indeed one person in 40 is born “untouchable”.

Background and history

There is controversy on the origin of untouchability with some accounts stating that it was a feature of ancient Indian society and others that it was introduced with the Aryan invaders in the third century BC. The philosophy of caste is contained in the Manusmiriti, a sacred Hindu text dating from the second century BC and is related to the theory of transmigration of the soul and of karma (rebirth) and dharma (duty). “Untouchable” outcast communities were forbidden to join in the religious and social life of the community and were confined to menial “polluting” tasks such as slaughtering animals and leatherworking. The introduction of Islam from the thirteenth century AD led to widespread conversions by many low caste and “untouchable” groups and by the mid-nineteenth century about one quarter of the population was Muslim.

The period of British rule from the late eighteenth century brought little change and attempts to ensure that public facilities, such as government schools, would be open to all castes

had little impact. During the first half of the twentieth century the British Indian government began to take an interest in the condition of “untouchable groups” and “depressed classes” and their special position was recognized under the term “Scheduled Castes”. Among Indian politicians two main approaches emerged, typified by two political and religious leaders who have by their ideas and actions made most impact on “Untouchable” advancement.

M. K. (Mahatma) Gandhi, whose chief aim was liberation from colonial rule within a distinctive philosophical system based upon amhinsa (non-violence), believed in raising the status of “Untouchables” while retaining elements of the traditional caste system but removing the degrading stigma and manifestations of untouchability, and coined the term harijan (Children of God) to describe them. This term is still used widely today by the non-Scheduled Caste communities although many Scheduled Caste members have now rejected it. The other approach came from Dr B. R. Ambedkar, a brilliant “Untouchable” lawyer, who believed that only by destroying the caste system could untouchability be destroyed. Ambedkar became the chief spokesperson for Scheduled Castes who demanded recognition as a separate entity similar in status to Muslims, Sikhs and Christians. Ambedkar was forced to drop this demand after Gandhi threatened a hunger strike, but as a consequence Scheduled Castes were granted increased electoral representation and a guarantee of special protection and rights for them. Ambedkar also rejected Hindu values and in 1956 converted to Buddhism, later followed by about three million converts.

Constitution and law

After Independence for a partitioned India in 1947, Ambedkar became Law Minister in the government of Jawaharlal Nehru and the drafter of the Indian Constitution of 1950. The Constitution states that no citizen should be discriminated against because of religion, race, or caste among other attributes, and should not be denied access to and the use of public services. Article 341 authorizes the President of India to specify “castes, races or tribes which shall for the purposes of this constitution be deemed to be Scheduled Castes”. The First Amendment to the Constitution passed in 1951 allowed the state to make special provision for advancement of socially and educationally backward classes of citizens of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

The Untouchability Offences Act of 1955 outlaws discrimination on “the ground of untouchability” in regard to public facilities, eating places, temples, residential choice etc. and provides for fines and imprisonment of offenders. However, relatively small numbers of convictions were made under the Act. In 1976 the Act was strengthened by the Protection of Civil Rights Act which increases punishment and allows for collective fines to be imposed on the offending community and for punishment of civil servants who neglect to investigate the offence. State governments were directed to introduce new measures such as providing officers, police stations and special courts to deal with offenders, to provide legal aid to victims and to identify special areas where there is a high incidence of untouchability. The central government has a special Commission for Scheduled Castes and Tribes which issues an Annual Report outlining processes, problems and violations of the law as regards the Scheduled Castes. However, despite these measures, there is still evidence that the law is often ignored and that untouchability continues, especially in rural areas.

The central and state governments have from time to time appointed Commissions of Enquiry to investigate the situation of the Scheduled Castes, especially after riots and violent incidents. After a series of attacks against Scheduled Caste communities which resulted in many deaths in Tamil Nadu in 1968, Scheduled Caste MPs compiled the Elaperumal Report, which detailed continuing untouchability in villages across India. Incidents of violence and discrimination, especially from the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh, continue to be regularly reported in the national press.

In Bihar during the 1980s many Scheduled Caste landless labourers in the central plains supported left-wing trade union and peasant groups, some of which used armed opposition to the state government and advocated land reform and standard wages. (Most of these demands were actually already on the Statute Book but had never been enforced.) As a result, landlord armies or senas have organized and used counter-violence against the lal senas or “red armies”. Some estimates give a total of 2,000 deaths each year in land disputes in Bihar, most of the victims being landless labourers or small farmers. Landlord senas have been responsible for violent attacks on Scheduled Caste communities and there have been allegations that these attacks have been implicitly supported by police and leading politicians in the state government. After the most publicized of these incidents, politicians descend upon the village and many promises are made of compensation and justice. Yet few of the perpetrators of violence against Scheduled Caste communities are prosecuted by the government, and even fewer are convicted or sentenced.


The Congress Party has dominated Indian politics from before independence and has been out of office at the centre only once — from 1977 to the beginning of 1980. However, from the mid-1980s, it has lost power in many of the states to regionally-based parties, while the Communist Party (Marxist) is the dominant party in the states of West Bengal and Kerala. Almost all political parties actively pursue their Scheduled Caste voters, and in some states there is reported to be widespread ballot-rigging. There is no one Scheduled Caste “vote bank”, as was once thought to have existed in relation to the Congress Party, and there are Scheduled Caste voters for all parties, with probably the largest number of votes going to the Congress Party. Congress was reported to have lost much of its traditional Scheduled Caste support during the Emergency of 1975-77. Almost all parties have had Scheduled Caste politicians among their leading figures although few have gained real power. To date there have been no Scheduled Caste Prime Ministers, but the late Jagivan Ram served as Deputy Prime Minister in the brief Janata government of 1977-79 and at least three Chief Ministers in northern India have been from the Scheduled Castes.

There are also reservations for the Scheduled Castes in legislatures in the centre and the states. In the two houses of Parliament, the Lok Sabha and the Raiya Sabha, 15% of the seats are reserved for Scheduled Caste members and similar representation occurs in the state assemblies in proportion to the percentage of Scheduled Castes in the state’s population. However, since the Scheduled Caste voters are always a minority in the reserved constituencies and in the assemblies as a whole, favourable legislation has been often blocked by vested interests. Furthermore, the system does not encourage Scheduled Caste organization by separate parties but facilitates organization and representation of Scheduled Castes by the major parties, especially the Congress Party, which has been in a dominant position since independence. On some occasions, however, Scheduled Caste legislators have been able to act and influence policies across party lines.

There have been several attempts to found distinctive Scheduled Caste political parties, among them the Republican Party of Ambedkar, which still exists but which has little political significance. In the early 1970s a new radical political movement in Maharashtra took the form of the Dalit Panther Party, which was inspired by the American civil rights movement and “black power”. Dalit means the “oppressed ones” and the movement embraces not only Scheduled Castes but also Adivasis (Tribal peoples), low caste groups, Muslims, workers and women. The party later splintered and has since had only sporadic success. More durable was the accompanying literary and cultural movement which has spanned poetry, theatre, music and film, and the sense of pride and identity brought about by the Dalit movement. The Dalit movement has been concentrated in the Western states of Maharashtra and Gujarat and some of the larger Indian cities. Buddhism has also been a major influence in forming a new sense of identity, once again mainly in the western states. In the southern states there have recently been attempts by Christian groups, who have come from traditionally untouchable communities but who are not recognized as Scheduled Castes by the government, to organize within and outside the Christian community.

Economic factors

Almost 90% of the Scheduled Castes still live in rural areas and economic exploitation remains their most acute problem. They are overwhelmingly marginal farmers or landless labourers. Large numbers migrate to cities or labour-scarce rural areas such as Punjab. Many are in debt and are obliged to work off their debts through debt-bonded labour despite the fact that this practice was abolished by law in 1976. In these cases a labourer takes a loan from a landlord or moneylender and in return agrees to work for that person until the debt is repaid. In practice it is difficult to repay the debt as interest payments are high and cumulative, and poverty forces the labourer deeper into debt. The debt can be passed onto the next generation and thus it is impossible to escape the cycle. In some areas many high-caste landlords pay their Scheduled Caste labourers minimum wages in cash or food, or nothing at all, and any resistance is frequently met by violence, sometimes resulting in the death or injury of the victim. Sexual harassment against Scheduled Caste women is frequent. Mob violence against Scheduled Caste communities is frequently reported, sometimes led by landlords or community leaders, and has been especially noticeable in situations where Scheduled Caste workers have joined labour unions or made progress in gaining education and economic mobility.

Many Scheduled Caste families have left rural areas and come to live in slums and on the pavements in the rapidly growing cities. Here also they tend to do the worst jobs for the lowest wages. However in some cities, traditional occupations such as sweepers have been organized in municipal unions and have the advantage of regular work and wages. Most Scheduled Caste workers are casual day labourers, in small factories, quarries and brick kilns or on construction sites, or work as cycle rickshaw drivers or in petty trade. Women and children as well as men work in such jobs but at lower wages. In the large textile mills of Bombay, Scheduled Caste workers have been generally confined to less skilled and less well-paid work. There are, however, growing numbers of Scheduled Castes in relatively secure areas such as the public service, banking and railways and sometimes in private industry. Those resident in the cities have greater access to secondary and higher education and a growing middle class has evolved within the Scheduled Caste community. Discrimination is less evident in the urban areas but residential patterns, particularly in poorer areas, are often on a caste basis.

As a result of the official policy of “positive discrimination” in favour of the Scheduled Castes in the civil service there have been growing numbers of Scheduled Caste public servants. To date there has been some improvement in the levels of Scheduled Caste recruitment in the central civil service. From 1949 to 1979 this rose from 0.71% to 4.5% in Class I posts, from 2.01% to 7.3% in Class II posts, and from 7.03% to 12.35% in Class III posts. There has been a similar slow process in public-sector and nationalized industry posts, where positive discrimination did not begin until the 1970s. In private business and industry, however, there are no positive discrimination provisions and, therefore, progress has been limited. Members of the Scheduled Castes, however, are frequently over-represented in the lower Class IV posts and occupy almost all Class V posts (i.e sweepers — a traditional “Untouchable” occupation).

There has also been positive discrimination in education, but the poverty of many Scheduled Caste families often prevents utilization of education facilities. In 1977-78 only 75% of Scheduled Caste children in the age group six to eleven attended school, compared to 88% for other children, and the disparity becomes greater at older ages with the respective figures for the 11 to 14 age group as 26% to 42%. Places for Scheduled Castes in higher education, and especially for post-graduate posts, are sometimes not filled, either because of lack of qualified candidates or prejudice against qualified candidates. In 1981 there were riots in the state of Gujarat by high-caste students protesting against the system of reservation in education institutions, in which 42 people died.

However, despite the overwhelming odds against them, former “Untouchables” are gaining increasing access to education and their expectations and aspirations are rising. Increasingly they are refusing to accept their former degraded and subservient position and, if they are able to organize across barriers of language and sub-caste, should present a formidable challenge to government.

(See also Adivasis of India; Burakumin of Japan in East Asia)