Dalits can be found across India (as well as elsewhere in south Asia, and in south Asian communities across the world).
Many have felt marginalised, excluded or even oppressed. Some have found their access to education, healthcare and justice restricted or denied. As a result many live in extreme poverty. This makes them very vulnerable to human trafficking, modern slavery and other kinds of exploitation.
'Dalit' comes from an ancient word meaning ‘broken’, ‘crushed’ or ‘ground’. In some areas, Dalits are still viewed as subhuman and are treated like dirt: it would have been better if they had never been born. Although there are more and more exceptions, many still have the most degrading, menial jobs because of their position in society. For example, some still work as manual scavengers – removing human excretia by hand – a particularly demeaning job, despite such employment being banned.
Such inequality is one of the legacies of the caste system, around which Indian society has traditionally been structured. In effect it creates a hierarchy. Brahmins – the priests - are the highest caste, then Kshatriyass, Vaishyas, and finally Shudras – unskilled labourers. Within each caste (varna) there are many subcastes. Historically, caste determined your ritual purity, your work or role, as well as who you can marry, and those with whom you associate.
The 300 million outcastes, who fall outside the caste system and are sometimes referred to generically as Dalits, have been designated as scheduled tribes (indigenous tribespeople or Adivasis) and scheduled castes (Dalits) by the Indian government.
Traditionally, Dalits were considered so unclean in ritual terms that some people feared being contaminated and made unclean through direct or even indirect contact. Hence Dalits were once known as Untouchables.
Discrimination on the basis of caste is outlawed, but it still persists particularly in some rural areas. For example, Dalits may still be prevented from entering particular public parks, restaurants and temples. Some are attacked or abused simply because they are Dalits.
The Indian government has sought to address these issues through initiatives such as Education for All and a system that reserves a proportion of civil service jobs and higher education places for scheduled castes (reservation). They also introduced a law to prevent atrocities against Dalits and Adivasis. There is some evidence of change particularly among the younger generation in cities, but there is still a long way to go.
There are many organisations and inspirational individuals who are working among Dalits in India. Dalit Freedom Network UK works with their Indian partners to prevent the human trafficking and modern slavery of Dalits.