Is Dalit a derogatory word to describe a class of people who do not belong to the four Brahminic castes?
Officially, these people belong to the term Scheduled Castes. But at its roots is a distinct identity of the millions of lower-caste Indians oppressed through the centuries.
The nomenclature carries historical, cultural, and political significance since its introduction by Pune-based social reformer Jyotirao Phule in late 1880.
Dalit is a Marathi word meaning oppressed and broken. It does not mean untouchable.
Dr. Ambedkar used Dalit to refer to a large class of people at the bottom of the caste hierarchy.
Under the backdrop of caste atrocity and lack of political representation, Dalit as a term began to acquire a political meaning.
Moreover, Dalit literature began to use the term for people of all castes and communities who historically faced oppression.
Dalit became a self-chosen term in 1972 when a group of Bombay youths organized the ‘Dalit Panthers’ to align themselves with the militancy of the American Black Panthers. Like the word ‘black’ in the USA, they used it proudly.
Being applied similarly to ‘Blacks’ in the US, Dalit is a symbolic reassertion of identity and struggle against an oppressive, caste-ridden society.
A more vigorous and assertive identity must be required for those who suffer the realities of caste oppression. Dalit, with its historical connotations, offers that identity.
by Promod Puri