Who are the Dalits?
The Dalits, also called the “untouchables,” “outcastes,” and most recently “slumdogs,” comprise nearly one quarter of India’s society, with population estimates of 250 million people. The term “Dalit” means “those who have been broken and ground down deliberately by those above them in the social hierarchy.” Dalits live at risk of discrimination, dehumanization, violence, and enslavement through human trafficking every day. By all global research and reports, the Dalits constitute the largest number of people categorized as victims of modern-day slavery.
Dalits and contemporary Indian politics
In urban areas and some villages the old concepts of a rigid caste system and untouchability usually no longer exist, though most Indians still voluntarily hold on to their caste origins, which is intended to reflect that their ancestors belonged to their castes with a sense of pride in the duties and responsibilities as required by the caste rules. In matrimonial matters, whether the wed couple is Dalit or non-Dalit, caste identity is a practical near-must, although this also is changing. Inter-caste couples may ignore the ignorance of caste prejudices due to an attraction on the basis of education, economic status, or, of course, romantic love.
While the Indian Constitution has duly made special provisions for the social and economic uplift of the Dalits, comprising the so-called scheduled castes and tribes in order to enable them to achieve upward social mobility, these concessions are limited to only those Dalits who remain Hindu. There is a demand among the Dalits who have converted to other religions that the statutory benefits should be extended to them as well, to "overcome" and bring closure to historical injustices.
Another major politically charged issue with the rise of Hindutva's role in Indian politics is that of religious conversion. This political movement alleges that conversions of Dalits are due not to any social or theological motivation but to allurements like education and jobs. Critics argue that the inverse is true with laws banning conversion, and the limiting of social relief for these backward sections of Indian society being revoked for those who convert. Bangaru Laxman, a Dalit politician, was a prominent member of the Hindutva movement.
Another political issue is over the affirmative action measures taken by the government towards the uplift of the Dalits by implementation of quotas in government jobs and university admissions aimed at improving Dalit representation. About 8% of the seats in the National and State Parliaments are reserved for Scheduled Caste and Tribe candidates, a measure sought by B.R. Ambedkar and other Dalit activists in order to ensure that Dalits would obtain a proportionate political voice.
Anti-Dalit prejudices exist in fringe groups, such as extremist far-right militia Ranvir Sena, largely run by upper-caste landlords in backward areas of the Indian state of Bihar. They oppose equal treatment of Dalits and have resorted to violent means to suppress them. The Ranvir Sena is considered a terrorist organization.
On the other side, extremist groups run by small minority of Dalits such as the "Dalit Panthers Movement" have committed violent acts against Brahmins and middle-caste people.