Dalits live at the bottom of the Indian social order known as the caste system. About 1/6th of India’s population or over 166 million people are Dalits. Dalits means “broken people.” Dalits were formerly known as untouchables. Dalits suffer discrimination in education, health care, housing, employment, and religion. They are forced to work in degrading conditions and are routinely abused by the police and upper caste members. They also suffer caste-motivated killings rapes and other violations of their human rights through state-sponsored or sanctioned acts of violence, including torture. In 2005, the government reported that crimes are committed against a Dalit every 20 minutes. Most of India’s bonded and child laborers are Dalits.

What is the caste system?

Caste is determined by birth
Caste originated around 7 A.D.
Caste is based upon the Hindu belief that a person’s position in life is based upon the good and bad deeds of their past life.

There are four major castes, and hundreds of minor castes. Even today, caste often determines your spouse, your occupation, your residence and your friends.  Each has specific duties and privileges:

  • Brahmins – were originally the priests and intellectuals.
  • Kshatriyas – soldiers
  • Vaishya - traders
  • Sudras – performed menial tasks.


Dalits were the fifth group created to perform tasks considered too menial and degrading for caste members: the manual scavengers, the removers of human waste and dead animals, the cobblers and the washers.
Dalits are so low in the social hierarchy that they are considered outsiders and are not part of the caste system.
The touch of a Dalit was considered polluting to a caste member thereby creating the concept of “untouchability”.

India’s Apartheid

No Indian law has been passed abolishing untouchability.Although the practice of untouchability is a punishable offense, it’s rarely enforced. The preamble to the Indian Constitution proclaims the goals of social justice and equality but does not set forth a casteless society as a national goal.

Former Indian Prime Minister Mannohan Singh was the first Indian leader to recognize the parallel between untouchability and the crime of apartheid. Singh described untouchability as a “blot on humanity” and acknowledged that caste discrimination still exists throughout much of India.

Affirmative Action

There are two main affirmative action programs: The Civil Rights Act of 1955 and the Scheduled Castes and Tribes Act of 1989.

The National Commission of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes was formed to protect Dalit interests and integrate them in to society but has failed to produce substantive change.

Today's Dalits

  • 70% of Dalits live in rural villages.
  • 77% of all Indians live on less than $.50 a day and most of them are Dalits.
  • Almost half of all Dalits are illiterate and women are 20% more likely to be illiterate than men.

The International Community

  • 2/1/2007 — The European Union passed a resolution that found India's enforcement of laws to protect Dalits "grossly inadequate." It also found that "atrocities, untouchability, illiteracy and inequality of opportunity, continue to blight the lives of India's Dalits." The resolution called on the Indian government to end caste-based discrimination.
  • 2/13/2007 — Human Rights Watch and the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice and the NYU School of Law published a 113 page joint report entitled "Hidden Apartheid Caste Discrimination Against Indian's Untouchables." The Report found that India systematically failed to uphold its international legal obligations to ensure the fundamental human rights of Dalits, despite laws and policies against caste discrimination.
  • 3/9/2007 — The United Nations Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) found de facto segregation of Dalits, systematic abuse against Dalits including torture and extrajudicial killings, and an "alarming" extent of sexual violence against Dalit women and caste discrimination in post-tsunami relief.
  • 7/24/2007 — The US House of Representatives passed a concurrent resolution condemning the caste system and untouchability in India.