Multi-Faith Response to the Dalit Movement in India

Filed in Articles by on December 4, 2014


Indian social system is a very complex system which often perplexes people who are not familiar to it.  It is often considered to be an omnipresent system which has even penetrated into other systems which have never been part of it.  The tribes, and people who migrated into Indian sub-continent from other geographical areas, slowly and steadily sucked into it and became very much part of it.   An introductory discourse will be helpful in our context here, though some details may be found elsewhere in this volume.

  1. Indian Social Structure of Caste – Varnasrama System:

Caste System functions as a system of social stratification and social restriction to determine the destiny of those who are within, and also those who are outside, this system. It bestows privileges to some, and deprives others, benefits, based upon the person’s birth in a particular group. The one who is born in a higher caste rank family, by the privilege of the birth is entitled of various privileges while the one who is born in lower caste rank family is deprived of various social benefits. However, the caste system does not directly determine the class of the person. To be specific, the caste system is not a direct determinant of the economic status of the person. However, the privileges which come with the caste system can be used to uplift the economic status. There are poor people both in the higher caste and also among the lower caste groups.

 There are thousands of sub-castes existing in India which determines the dependence and interdependence of various groups. Each caste / sub-caste determine the occupational specialization of a person and thus link one group with other groups through complex network stretching across regions. Caste / sub-caste also play their role in marriages. Maintaining caste / sub-caste purity was considered mandatory and violation of this in marriage would result into excommunication of the family from the caste system.

 The caste system also determines the life-style of the people. Generally, the higher caste people would have a lucrative living where as people of the lower class would be directed to have a life-style different and often less preferred one the caste system also defines the level of purity. The purer caste is ranked on the top while the impure caste is ranked at the bottom. For instance, Brahmins are expected to conduct rituals and impart teaching which is considered purest occupation while the shudras whose occupation is scavenging is defined impure and thus put at the bottom of the level of hierarchy.

One should not fail to notice the racial aspect of caste, not only through the obvious social practices, but though the very fact of using the term.  Varna means both the colour (of the skin) as well as the sequence of words in alphabet, signifying the relative colour of the skin of the people as well their standing in the social hierarchy.

  1. Religious Foundation of Caste:

The history of the religious foundation of caste goes as long as three thousand years ago. Some consider that it was the Vedic literature which first provoked the crisis of culture.[1] James Massey too, while tracing the historical roots of Dalits began with Rig Veda.[2]  In the vast body of literatures, commonly known as Vedas, we find the expression of caste system. Though the written expression of caste system appereas three thousand years ago, it is possible that there must have been considerably long period of time where the norms of caste system was transmitted orally. The Rig Veda first attempts to define the caste system by the following sukta:

The Brahmin was his mouth, his two arms were made the Rajanya [Kshatriya, king and warrior], his two thighs [loins] the Vaishya, from his feet the  Sudra [servile class] was born.[3]

It is interesting to note that the Rig Veda defines not only the four categories based upon the qualities, but also determines their respective functions. Such an intelligent demarcation of groups, and also determination of their functions, enabled the caste system to survive for such a long period of time. Another interesting point, which Ekta Singh has also noted, is that, Vedas never mentions about the concept of untouchability.[4] It was the later development within the society itself.

It was the Manusmriti which defined in detailed the caste system. The law of Manu elaborately dealt with the rules pertaining to various social castes (2.25–11.266). The Manusmriti almost made Brahmins a divine class while making the life of the lowest class as difficult as possible through prescribing severest punishment if they violate the law of Manu. Manusmriti has been constantly used to justify the caste system, and also appeal for Brahmin’s supremacy. Following points may be noted:

  1. The origin of caste system can be traced to oral tradition which must have continued for a long period of time before being written in Vedas three thousand years ago. Rig Veda therefore becomes the first written document literature describing the nature of caste system.
  2.  Further, Rig Veda does not seem to be as harsh as Manusmriti towards Dalits. In other words, the Rig Veda makes a division of labour and does nothing to determine the social exclusion of Dalits. It was Manusmriti which brings this into practice.

iii. The concept of untouchability did not exist during the time of Veda. It was the later development in Hinduism which did not receive religious sanction from the sruti literatures.

  1. 1.      Response to Dalit Movement from Majority Religion Hinduism

Among majority religion there are multiple factions which retain varied degree of reactions towards Dalit movement. These multiple factions can broadly be categorized under two groups viz. conservative groups and liberal groups. The conservative groups comprises of orthodox and conservative Hindu sects, RSS, VHP, Bajarang Dal and the like. The liberal groups are diversely represented that includes Bhakti and reform movements, such as Ramakrishna Mission, Sri Sri Ravishankar Movement, Satya Shodhak Samaj etc.

  1. a.      Response from Conservative Groups:

RSS is a Hindu socio-religio-cultural volunteer association, often alleged as a Hindu militant organization. It claims to be founded upon the principles of selfless service to the nation. In understanding the response of RSS towards Dalit movement, some caution needs to be taken; this organization constantly keeps its intention concealed towards Dalit. Moreover, there is also some ambiguity in its response. This ambiguity is displayed by their varied reactions. For instance, RSS suggested that Dalits and other backward classes be trained, and appointed, as head priests at major temples in the country which raised eyebrows of several in the country. [5] Further, RSS severely condemned the barring of Dalits from Jagannath temple in Kerdagarh in Orissa.[6] Though, the above attitude of RSS may portray them as the messiah of Dalits, Raj Kumar would consider this as one of the strategies of Hindutva forces to co-opt Dalits into Hindu fold.[7] Making his point clear, he writes:

The Hinduisation of dalits by BJP, ABVP and R.S.S. combine operates at two level: at theoretical level BJP is trying to misinterpret. Ambedkar made of thinking and argues that his act of conversion was in conformity with Hinduism rather than its subversion. Also these neo-Hindu forces are attempting the comparison of Ambedkar with Hedgewar and Savarkar and are showing how all these tried to create common Hindu identity by over-Coming the bad practices of caste and untouchability. In the recent times, BJP is appealing to dalits to overcome their secondary differences based on Caste and untouchability and assimilate a common Hindu identity for fighting against the common enemy.[8]

Not only Raj Kumar, other writers, like Prem Kumar Shinde, also found attesting similar attitude of RSS. Shinde considers that the reconversion of Dalits to Hinduism is a part of RSS strategy to absorb Dalits into Hindu fold.[9] This is done with the intention to consolidate Hindu vote bank which has political implications.

Now the question is, Does RSS intends to retain caste system or has a plan to annihilate it for common good? Truly speaking, RSS does not seem to have a strategy to abolish caste system, it is simply trying to absorb Dalits into Hindu fold and attribute them an identity within caste system. In that case, the caste system would simply survive, and will be transported into new forms.  Thus the exploitation of the Dalit will continue further through the emergence of newer forms.

  1. b.      Response from liberal groups:

Liberal groups of Hinduism adopt a different approach towards Dalit. The conservative groups may appear to be sympathetic towards Dalits whereas the Liberal groups are empathetic to the sufferings of Dalit. However, this is not to say that they have done enough for the upliftment of the same. One such liberal group is ISKCON. In the assessment of ISKCON movement, Graham Dwyer and Richard J. Cole comments that, ISKCON is in total opposition to many aspects of modern Hinduism and in particular to caste Brahmanism.[10] Moreover, they mention that ISKCON is also against the principle of untouchability. Another organization which actively involved in the emancipation of Dalits right from their inception is Ramakrishna Mission founded by Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.[11] Sanjay Paswan notes the contribution of Ramkrishna Mission commenting that it tried to uplift socio-economic conditions on the basis of individual freedom and equality.[12]

  1. 2.      Response to Dalit Movement from Minority Religion

The Response from minority religion is truly blur and ambiguous. On the one hand the minority religion condemns Manu’s code, on the other hand, they also play role in the oppression of Dalits. For instance, In Christian hierarchy we can evidently see the domination of caste groups as against Dalit. This is also true for other faiths like Sikhism and Islam. Further, A Dalit’s opinion is not regarded in par with the caste person, is another evidence of the oppression which Dalit faces within minority religion.

However, particularly speaking about their attitude towards Dalit movement, The minority religions are more open to Dalits in comparison to Majority religion. Along with this, the minority religions are generating more funds for the support of Dalit movement. Following are to be noted with regards to the response of minority religion towards Dalit movement that recognizes the ambiguous nature of their response towards Dalit.

  1. a.      Minority religion identifies Dalit oppression:

Be it Islam, Christianity, Neo-Buddhism or Sikhism, all identify the plight of Dalits. They well comprehend the injustice Dalits have undergone throughout the centuries in the name of caste. Further, the minority religions not only recognize the agony of Dalit, but, to a certain extent, they are either sympathetic or empathetic to them. This has led many Dalits to embrace one of the minority religions in order to escape the social stigma attached with them by the caste hierarchy. However, this, in reality, has done little good to Dalits. P Surya Prakash, as a matter of fact, observed, in case of Christian converts, that Dalit Christians are Dalit first and then Christians.[13] James Massey would term this as “Christian faith has become a kind of appendix to their old faith.”[14] Further, Surya Prakash mentions that Dalit Christians continue to be exploited, discriminated and their rights are being ignored. This observation is again attested by the report present to the National Commission for Minority, Government of India. This report suggests that “whatever the nature and extent of the disabilities imposed by caste on Muslims and Christians, it is beyond debate that such disabilities are imposed most severely on Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians.” [15]  This might be true not only for Christianity but for Dalit converts to other minority religion as well. Thus to say that Dalit’s suffering though well recognized by the minority religion is not well addressed by the minority religion within itself. One more thing which comes clear is that, the minority religion shows seriousness in identifying Dalit’s oppression but does not show any seriousness in going beyond it.

  1. b.      Minority religion creates awareness about Dalit oppression:

Dalits oppression has continued in the Indian history from centuries unnoticed. It was thought of as natural phenomena which need not be addressed. However, from the time caste system came under criticism, Dalit oppression became a point of issue. In the twentieth century when rapid Dalit conversions to minority religions took place, the minority religion felt encouraged to highlight Dalit sufferings. As a result, there was flood of literatures highlighting Dalit suffering under caste system. Majority of the scholars who talked about this issue belonged to the minority religion. Further, minority religion also organized Dalit solidarity programmes in order to support Dalit in their struggle for liberation. This also helped in creating awareness about the Dalit issues, their situation and circumstances and the prevailing caste system. Further, such an attitude generated Dalit solidarity among caste siblings too. In this regard, it can be said that the minority religion worked steadily to empower Dalit with the tools which were needed to make their lives better. Minority religion also addressed the issues of caste and untouchability, and stood  strongly to favour the cause of the oppressed masses. Dalit solidarity programmes run by the minority religion created awareness regarding the social injustice Dalit face in the modern and contemporary India. Such an act promoted and encouraged Dalit movements and created means to generate resources to fight for their cause.

Now the question which puzzles most is: when minority religion are so actively involved in generating awareness towards the injustice done to the Dalits, then why do we still see Dalit oppression not only among caste Hindus but even within minority religion? This depicts the discrepancy. In fact, the minority religions, as a whole, do not seem to be working for the cause of the Dalit. There are segments within minority religion who are devoted for the cause of Dalit where as the majority are unconcerned about them. This is to say that, within Neo-Buddhism, Islam or Christianity, there are a few registered or unregistered organizations which are active to favour Dalit cause, while the large masses are either unaware, or tend to remain unaware about Dalit’s plight. If every segment of the minority religion becomes proactive to further the cause of Dalit, the change will be more evident, and inevitable.

  1. c.       Minority religion attempts to empower Dalits to eliminate oppression:

In the Indian scenario, particularly in the context of Dalits, empowerment need not be understood as something where we stand with power to protect Dalit, but it is to provide power to Dalits so that they can protect themselves. In the past, many segments within minority religion took the task to uplift Dalits without realising the fact that uplifting Dalit is not possible until Dalit posses the power to uplift themselves. However, in recent times, strategies to uplift Dalits have changed. Now organizations standing for the cause of Dalits are empowering them with the tools with which they can uplift themselves and their community. Education is one of the major tools which can radically change the Indian scenario launching a tidal wave of cultural revolution in favour of Dalits.

In the past, the Brahmin class was understood as the teacher class. Since, caste system excluded Dalits to be in contact with Brahmins, the Dalits remained uneducated.  In the present, when quality education became a costly affair, the socio-economic condition of the Dalit did not permit them to opt for education. Chinna Rao Yagati notes this dynamics in context of Dalit education, as he notes, “In addition to caste Hindu prejudices and non-cooperation with colonial policies, the socio-economic conditions of the Dalits were also responsible for the fall of their educational growth along with fear of oppression by the caste Hindus.[16] Thus, the educational growth among the majority Dalit mass remained very low in spite of the various efforts made to improve it.

One of the major contributions of minority religion is education. Several educational institutes were opened up in various parts of the country. Moreover, promotions for the Dalit education were also taken up aggressively in the past decades. This has not only helped Dalits to be educated but also brought up revolutionary and visionary Dalit leaders with potential to change Dalit situation in India.

We see an ambiguity in educational endeavour of the minority religions, particularly in relation to Dalit. The educational institute of minority religion have educated more upper caste people (which out numbers Dalits several times) some of whom are now opposing the cause to favour Dalits.[17] Further, the minority religions have also failed to recognize the right target group among Dalits. To be specific, the education facilities provided by the minority religion have been distributed unevenly among the subalterns.[18] Few well to do groups within Dalits are consuming the benefits which are meant for all Dalits particularly the not so privileged. This creates a Brahmin class within Dalits who are there to grab the benefits meant for all.[19] In this regard the minority religions have failed to identify the target group and missed their goal in empowering the weak. This has resulted in what we can call as empowering the powerful.

  1. d.      Minority religion and Dalit movement:

There are two dimensions of ongoing Dalit movement. One is social and another is political. The social Dalit movement attempts to uplift Dalit by attempting to eradicate the social stigma attached to them. It seeks to see Dalits at par with caste people at social level. Whereas the political Dalit movement attempts to keep political powers within Dalit fold. Minority religions play hide and seek between these two dimensions of Dalit Movements. They tend to support the social Dalit movement so as to uplift Dalits at social levels and project themselves as apolitical. However, at other occasions the minority religions tend to support political Dalit movement though not apparently in order to get political benefits. This jumping off between two dimensions of Dalit movement makes the response of minority religions more ambiguous. There are various reasons for this response towards Dalit movement. First of all, the minority religion supports Dalit movement because the Dalit movement apparently are unsatisfied with the dominant religious system. This gives the opportunity to minority religion to gain adherents from Dalit community which serves both the religious and political purpose of the minority religion. Secondly, the minority religions support Dalit movement in order to project that their religious system does not support untouchability and casteism. Such a projection helps minority religions to establish themselves as distinct from Hinduism. This can have positive implications as well. Around sixth century B.C. when Buddhism established itself as distinct religious tradition from Hinduism, it could impact the social situation in India. Similarly, the minority religion which intends to impact the social situation aims to project itself as distinct from Hinduism. Thirdly, minority religion supports Dalit movement because it feels empathetic to the sufferings of Dalit. The religious ethos of the minority religion gives room to them so as to work in favour of Dalits. Hinduism, on the other hand, restricts the welfare of Dalits simply because it believes that Dalits are suffering due to their sins, committed in the previous birth (Theory of Karma).

  1. 3.      An Assessment of the General attitude of Indian society at large towards Dalit Movement

The general public in India are an easy going class. It includes farmer, labourers, unskilled workers, business person, house wives, working women, school or college goers, scientist, engineers, medical doctors, nurses, other professional workers, and a large number of unemployed people. Majority of general public are concerned with their own survival in midst of rapid changing globalized world. In light of this, it is often evident that the general public tends to remain introvert and shows little or no awareness of Dalit Movement.

  1. a.      Assessment from a religious perspective:

Majority of the Indian mass are considered to be religious/spiritual. However, their religious orientation is not society centred; it is rather individual/family centred. Indian spirituality does not lead people to be inter-personal rather intra-personal.[20] Intra-personalism of Indian spirituality orients people with other worldly attitude. Hence, everything that goes on in the world is either considered to be vain (the conclusion of Solomon, The King) or perceived as Maya (the Illusion or unreal). This is the reason for majority of Indian masses to remain unconcerned about Dalit movement. Further, the general public are ritual centred. Rituals lead people to a routine and monotonous way of life where everything is predetermined by the religious functionaries. Though rituals are monotonous and routine, they are considered essential part of life. The life of general public is occupied with number of rituals. There are different opinions with regards to the actual number of rituals in Hinduism. Gautamsmriti[21] mentions of forty rituals, whereas later smriti literatures enumerates like Vyasa-Smriti[22] sixteen as main rituals.[23] The general public still remains entangled with these rituals, leaving hardly any time for them to concentrate on the movements meant for the welfare of Dalits.

The Indian general masses, though unconcerned towards Dalit movement, are not ignorant about the religious laws which determine the social status of the people under caste system. They are aware of the clear demarcation of the social status of the people based upon the religious code. This demarcation involves the social, cultural and economic rights of the members based upon their birth in a particular family (Jati). These rights and privileges are hereditary. They are also aware of the unequal distribution of the power and privileges across caste groups. The lower caste groups, though unhappy, are forced to remain silent on the ground that these divisions are religiously sanctioned (Vidhi-lekha) and culturally practiced through time immemorial (Samaj-dharma).

  1. b.      Assessment from a Political and economic perspective:

As mentioned earlier, the majority of the Indian public comprises of those groups who aspire to see political and economic growth. They are those people who struggle for their daily survival. In such a context where their complete concentration is on their own survival, it is obvious that they would not tend to bother about the Dalit movement. Largely, Dalit community too comprises of people who are political and economically deprived. In the time when inflation, unemployment prevails, how can one people group who themselves are poor (the majority Indian public) can contribute to the other suffering group (the Dalits).

From a political and economic perspective, the issue of reservation becomes significant both for larger Indian public and Dalit community. The larger Indian public are politically and economically deprived which is also the case of Dalit community. Now when Dalit community gets the privilege of reservation it becomes the matter of jealousy for the general public who also feel to share the privilege. In such a context where jealousy prevails the Indian public do not feel motivated to participate proactively in Dalit movement. Further, this only contributes to create a gap between both the communities who hope to see political and economic growth.

Further, the Indian public also seem to remain a bit away from the Dalit movement because of the prevailing and increasing feeling that the Dalit movement does not intend to do any good to the suffering Dalit community but is for the benefit of the select few. Moreover, the Indian public get an impression that the leaders of Dalit movement are not working for the common welfare but they are there for their own self-interest. Such an impression again demotivates the general public to participate in Dalit movement.


This paper has attempted to sketch a general view about the varied and complex response of multi-faith people group in India towards Dalit movement. Following points can be stated as conclusion. Firstly, the response of multi-faith people towards Dalit movement is ambiguous. On the one hand there are several programmes which in operation for the welfare of Dalits, yet on the other hand they seem to show little commitment on actually uplifting the Dalit community as a whole. Secondly, the response of multi-faith people towards Dalit movement is complex. It is complex primarily because it involves self-interest. Particularly speaking in the context of minority religion, they tend to support the cause of Dalit movement so as attract adherents from Dalits. The majority religion Hinduism also tends to support Dalit movement so as to co-opt Dalits among their fold. However, when the self-interest is fulfilled, the Dalits continue to remain Dalits. It is the inter-play between the self-interest and the religious ethos of common good which makes their response complex. Thirdly, the multi-faith response to Dalit movement is determined by social, economic and political factors. The majority of Indian public who are adherents of various faiths are primarily poor and politically deprived. They are therefore concerned for their own survival than to be bothered about the Dalit movement. Finally the multi-faith response to Dalit movement is determined by their respective religious ethos. The theory of karma in Hinduism restricts operations meant for the welfare of Dalits. It would consider that the Dalits should continue to suffer because they are suffering because of their sins of the previous birth. However, other religious traditions which would disagree with theory of karma may still find their own religious theory which could prevent their involvement in Dalit movement. For instance, the other worldly attitude which is found in many religious traditions would claim the present suffering as momentarily and would exhort people to wait for the heavenly intervention which would resolve all sufferings and problems.

[1] Himansu Charan Sadangi, Dalit: The Downtrodden Of India (Delhi: Gyan Publishing House, 2008), 42.

[2] See. James Massey, Dalits in India: Religion as a Source of Bondage or Liberation with Special Reference to Christians, reprint (New Delhi: Manohar Publishers, 2009), 24-30.

[3] Rg Veda X.90.12, This, though, is considered by some, as the late interpolation.  This, however, does not take the validity of the charge.

[4] Ekta Singh, Caste System in India: A Historical Perspective (Delhi: Gyan Books, 2005), 22.

[5] Times of India, Oct 30, 2006.

[6] Times of India, Jan 3, 2007.

[7] Raj Kumar, Essays on Dalits (Dalit: Discovery Publishing House, 2003), 153.

[8] Raj Kumar, 153.

[9] Prem Kumar Shinde, Dalits and Human Rights: Dalits and Racial Justice (Delhi: Isha Books, 2005), 142.

[10] Graham Dwyer and Richard J. Cole, The Hare Krishna Movement: Forty Years of Chant and Change (London: I.B.Tauris, 2007), 201.

[11] Cf. Himansu Charan Sadangi, Dalit: The Downtrodden of India (Delhi: Gyan Publishing House, 2008), 147.

[12] Sanjay Paswan, Encyclopaedia of Dalits in India: Emancipation and Empowerment, edited by Sanjay Paswan, Pramanshi Jaideva (Delhi: Gyan Publishing House, 2002), 200.

[13]  P. Surya Prakash, “Christianity in India. A Promised Land for Dalits?” Online-Texte der Evangelischen Akademie Bad Boll, fileadmin/res/otg/ doku/641010-Prakash.pdf&t=1286117305&hash=9d1b149718eb52599bd12ea5f993f785 (22 March, 2012).

[14] James Massey, Dalits in India,108.

[15] Satish Deshpande, “Dalits in the Muslim and Christian Communities: A Status Report on Current Social Scientific Knowledge,” National Commission for Minorities Government of India, 20%20 reservation.pdf (22 March, 2012), 12.

[16] Chinna Rao Yagati, “Education and Identity Formation Among Dalits in Colonial Andhra,” in Education and the Disprivileged: Nineteenth and Twentieth Century India, ed. by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya (Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, 2002), 102.

[17] Cf. Vishal Mangalwadi, “An Indian Constantine?” International Journal of Frontier Mission 18/1 (Spring, 2001), 21.

[18] Cf. Bharat Singh, Dalit Education (New Delhi: Anmol Publications, 2004), 11.

[19] Cf. Himansu Charan Sadangi, Dalit : The Downtrodden Of India, 200.

[20] A generalization of this may seems to be exaggeration.  However, an observation of this phenomena may reveal that Indian spirituality prefers mysticism than community centrism.

[21] See, 8:2

[22] 1:13-15.

[23] See, Raj Bali Pandey, Hindu Samskaras: Socio-Religious Study of the Hindu Sacraments, second revised edition (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1969), 22.

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