History of the word Dalit

Ujjayanta Palace Agartala, Tripura

A petition by a Gwalior-based social worker Mohanlal Mahor in the Madhya Pradesh High Court stated that, "The word Dalit is derogatory and this term was coined by upper castes to insult the scheduled caste and scheduled tribe.” 

In response the court said, "we have no manner of doubt that the central government/state government and its functionaries would refrain from using the nomenclature 'Dalit' for the members belonging to SCs and STs as the same does not find a mention in the Constitution of India or any statute." Source


The nomenclature to describe those who are called Dalit today has gone through various iterations.



Dr Ambedkar used the word Depressed Classes. In 1928 statement before the Simon Commission Ambedkar said that the terms 'depressed classes' and 'untouchables' were synonymous. Also in 1931 Dr Ambedkar submitted a 'supplementary Memorandum on the Claims of the Depressed classes for Special Representation". 


In the early 1930's Gandhi coined the word Harijan or Children of God to describe untouchables.


The Government of India Act 1935 introduced the term 'Scheduled Caste' for the depressed classes. It is subsequent to such classification that Ambedkar formed a Scheduled Caste Federation that was almost routed in the election of 1946. 


The word Scheduled Tribe came into being around and after the Constitution was adopted


During the 1970's the Dalit Panther group was formed in Maharashtra. 


It is only since the 1990's that the word Dalit entered mainstream public discourse. 


Today the word Dalit is meant to include SC and ST's. Herein lies a paradox. 


One, the royal family of Tripura are, using constitutional terminology, scheduled tribes. So as to indicate they are ST their erstwhile residence, the Ujjayanta Palace in Agartala has a bust of Ambedkar at the entrance.


The palace is as magnificent as that of any Princely State.


To see pictures of Ujjayanta Palace 


Two, ace music directors S D Burman and Rahul D Burman were related to the royal family of Tripura and so are ST. 

Three, "many relatively well off communities managed to get into the ST schedule for e.g. Meenas in Rajasthan, Halba Koshtis in Maharashtra and most tribes in North East, which were the ruling tribes in past and today are well educated and westernized".


Four, Ahilya Bai Holkar ruler of region around modern day Indore belonged to the shepherd-dhangar community. The government considers the community to be a nomadic tribe today. The community is agitating for it to be declared a scheduled tribe. 

Five, declaration of communities as SC, ST, OBC is nowdays based on vote bank politics. For eg the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, "The petitioners have alleged that between 8 March 2010 and 24 September 2010, the Left Front gave 42 new communities reservations as other backward classes(OBC), of whom 41 were Muslim. Later, in March 2012, under the Trinamool Congress 35 more communities were declared as OBC, of which 30 were Muslim."

Neither are Northeast tribes, esp. the ST who converted to Christianity nor are Meenas (ST) considered Dalits today and followers of Dr Ambedkar. The followers of Dr Ambedkar in Maharashtra have adopted Buddhism and are called Neo-Buddhists.  


If all realized that what is common to every human being is a ATMA our country would be more at peace with itself. Economic backwardness has to be worked upon more than anything else.


India is a strange country. We have allowed foreign invaders to define who we are. Since independence we are trying to comply with these definitions. Not only that we spend hours arguing with fellow Indians who do not believe in these concepts.


Here are some examples -


Caste: The word ‘caste’ is of Spanish origin and fails to capture the meaning of the Indian term, “jati,” which more properly translated as “community.” 


Instead of realizing that, Jati in a traditional India promoted and preserved diversity and multiculturalism by allotting every jati a particular space and role in society so that no jati would be appropriated or dominated by another, Indians have accepted caste as intrinsic to society without being able to see through British intent.


Gandhian Dharampalji wrote in ‘Rediscovering India’, “For the British, as perhaps for some others before them, caste has been a great obstacle, in fact, an unmitigated evil not because the British believed in casteless ness or subscribed to non-hierarchical system but because it stood in the way of their breaking Indian society, hindered the process of atomization, and made the task of conquest and governance more difficult”. 


Minority: In the international sphere, a minority community is one whose identity, owing to war or similar circumstances, is under threat and should be preserved from ethnic extinction, by affording safeguards through international charters and the national Constitution. The constitution of Britain, whose governance model we follow, does not define who is a "minority". There, such division is based on skin color and race. 


Neither has the Constitution defined the word "minority" nor has it specified a population percentage beyond which a community ceases to be a minority. 


Read Why India must have no place for a religious Minority 


Secularism: The concept of secularism originated in Europe where the church, controlled education/ property etc, became so powerful that even the king felt oppressed. So secularism meant separation of the church and state with intent to curb the influence and power of the church.

The situation in India was different. Sanatan Dharma or Hinduism, as it is erroneously called, was neither governed by a monolith organisation like the church nor did it own property and control the state. Thus, the need for turning secular never arose.


Yet politicians, courts and media swear by secularism without the Constitution defining it.


Read Why Secularism is not an Indian Concept 


Rights: Courts receive petitions on non-fulfilment of fundamental rights as enshrined in the Constitution. Whilst none is questioning that, at a deeper level the concept of rights is alien to India.


Sri Aurobindo wrote, "Dharma is the Indian conception in which rights and duties loose the artificial antagonism created by a view of the world, which makes selfishness the root of action, and regain their deep and eternal unity. Dharma is the basis of democracy which Asia must recognize, for in this lies the distinction between the soul of Asia and the soul of Europe”.


Hindustan: People and politicians repeatedly use the word Hindustan in lieu of India without realizing the word means 'Urdu speaking areas of the Indian sub-continent'. Thus it excludes a substantial part of India and includes Urdu speaking areas of Pakistan. 


One of the reasons why India has been unable to realize potential is because many commonly referred to concepts go against its culture and thinking. This is not to say that all foreign concepts are bad.


Unless India and Indians realize to live by and think the Indian way our progress would be limited and we would perpetually be in a state of conflict. 


Author is an Independent Columnist and founder www.esamskriti.com.


Also read

1. When Caste was not a bad word?

2. PIL puts spotlight on quota politics of Left, TMC in West Bengal

3 Why Ahilyabai Holkar was a great woman 

Receive Site Updates