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Dalit: The Word and the Sentiment I search for God, whom should I hear? I made stone temples, carved God out of stone But priests are like stone, They imprison God. Whom shall I hear? We were born Untouchables Because of our deeds. —Dalit devotional song (Franco, Macwan, and Ramanathan, 2000: 191) THE dalit or “Untouchable” is a government servant, the teacher in a state school, a politician. He is generally never a member of the higher judiciary, an eminent lawyer, industrialist or journalist. His freedom operates in designated enclaves: in politics and in the administrative posts he acquires because of state policy. But in areas of contemporary social exchange and culture, his “Untouchability” becomes his only definition. The right to pray to a Hindu god has always been a high caste privilege. Intricacy of religious ritual is directly proportionate to social status. The dalit has been formally excluded from religion, from education, and is a pariah in the entire sanctified universe of the “dvija.”1 Unlike racial minorities, the dalit is physically indistinguishable from upper castes, yet metaphorically and literally, the dalit has been a “shit bearer” for three millennia, toiling at the very bottom of the Hindu caste hierarchy. The word “pariah” itself comes from SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 70, No. 1 (Spring 2003) The Dalit in India SAGARIKA GHOSE a dalit caste of southern India, the paRaiyar, “those of the drum” (paRai) or the “leather people” (Dumont, 1980: 54). At 150 million, dalits or “scheduled castes” and “scheduled tribes,” form about 20 percent of India’s population (Census of India, 1991). Backward castes as a whole, taking dalits, tribes, and Other Backward Castes (OBCs) into consideration, form about 52 percent of India’s population.2 Today, wide-ranging policies on affirmative action have opened up government service and state education to dalits. But areas of freedom are limited, largely to sectors that are under the aegis of the state, such as the civil service or state-owned enterprises. Exclusion from cultural and social networks emerges from the dalit’s crucial exclusion from the system of castes (Mendelsohn and Vicziany, 1998: 39). The dalit’s pariah status derives its strength and justification from religious texts. In the Manusmriti,3 the dalit is described as “polluted,” in the same way as a menstruating woman, a widow, or a person who has recently been bereaved is polluted. The dalit is “unclean” from birth. He violates, by his very existence, the brahminical obsession with hygiene (Dumont, 1980: 131). While the “untouchability” of the menstruating woman or the bereaved is temporary and he or she can escape the Untouchable condition after the period of “pollution” is past, the dalit can never escape his status: he is perpetually filthy. In a hymn from the Purusasukta of the Rg Veda,4 the dvija are said to have been born from elevated parts of the body of the supreme being. The dalit is the “unborn,” with no physical link with the supreme being. According to this hymn, from the body of Brahma come the four main categories of Hindu society, namely the four varnas (colors or castes):5 brahmins (priests), kshatriyas (warriors), vaishyas (businessmen), and shudras (servants ). The priest is born from the mouth of the Creator, the warrior from the arm, the businessman from the stomach, and the servant from the foot. Untouchables are born from outside the body of the Creator, almost a different species from Brahma’s 84 SOCIAL RESEARCH children. Their entry into the divine body would be as unthinkable as the entry of an animal. Today, the literary and scholarly efflorescence among dalits is set apart from caste Hindu society as a particularly dalit development . Dalit critiques of nation and society barely impinge on upper-caste notions of the social order, of the nation-state, and of modernity in general. The reasons for this are often attributed to the grafting of traditional caste networks onto modern state institutions —for example, the upper-caste seizures of Western education and the higher bureaucracy. The slide of the independent Indian nation-state into a landscape dominated by the brahminical upper castes has meant that new ways have been found to effectively seal the dalit...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 83-109
Launched on MUSE
2015-04-01
Open Access
No
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