The Dalits are a large group of people in India who face serious and widespread discrimination. They form around 25% of South India’s population – over 36 million people.
Dalits were once known as ‘untouchables’ because they performed jobs that were considered dirty and unpleasant, like leather tanning. This placed them outside of the Caste System, and at the very lowest place in society. Although the Caste System was abolished in 1947, Dalits remain among the most discriminated-against of all people in India.
The word ‘dalit’ means ‘broken’ or ‘down-trodden’. But it is actually a term that Dalit people prefer to ‘untouchable’, which is offensive. Dalits can belong to any of India’s major religions, including Islam and Christianity.
There are approximately 170 million Dalits in India - around 17% of the total population. The Indian government has introduced policies to improve life for Dalits, such as job reservations in public office. However, Dalits are still widely discriminated against. Dalit households have among the lowest incomes in India, earning just Rs 22,800 ($US 360 or EUR270) a year. Poverty, illiteracy and social exclusion are serious problems, and violence against Dalit, perpetrated by Caste Hindus and the police, is common.
Tribal peoplemake up about 8.1% of India’s population. There are 697 tribal groups in the country, with the Todas, Badagas, Kotas and Irulas among those living in the mountainous regions of South India today. Often living in remote or forested areas, they face a range of challenges including loss of traditional lands and livelihoods, poverty and exploitation. Literacy rates are also low – just 11% in Andhra Pradesh.
Many of South India’s traditional fishing communitieslive below the poverty line. At just 56.50%, literacy rates are below average, incomes are low, and their land is under threat from rising sea levels caused by climate change.
The situation for South India’s religious minorities– predominantly Christians and Muslims – varies from state to state. In Tamil Nadu, Muslims form 5.4% of the population. But 76% live below the poverty line, and fewer than average Muslim young people graduate from high school. The majority of South Indian Christians are descended from Dalit Hindu converts. But in India as a whole, Dalit Christians and Muslims are not eligible for schemes, such as job reservations, that aim to develop Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh Dalits.
In South India, women from oppressed communities suffer more greatly than any other group. They face social discrimination from the higher castes. They are also victims of India’s patriarchal society, in which women are often treated as second class citizens. And as Dalits and members of other oppressed communities, they belong to the poorest and most marginalised communities. For this reason, they are the most downtrodden of India’s oppressed peoples.
Women from oppressed communities are subjected to widespread violence.
Sexual and physical violence is often inflicted on them by caste Hindu landlords and by the police, as a form of social control. For this reason, the majority of rapes and other attacks are unreported. 5,000 to 15,000 Dalit girls aged between six and eight are sold to temples to become Devadasis or forced prostitutes, to be raped by priests and other upper caste men.
Domestic violence is extremely prevalent. Wife-beating is, unfortunately, considered acceptable by the majority of women and men in southern states. However, it also often stems from alcohol abuse. Women from oppressed communities often lack the finances, confidence and knowledge to seek justice through the legal system.
The preference for boys in families creates high levels of female foeticide and in some cases, infanticide. This is leading to a declining Child Sex Ratio (the number of girls born for every 1000 boys, and the number of girls for every 100 boys at five years of age). This means that South India’s female population is declining. A lack of education and economic opportunity among oppressed communities make women particularly vulnerable.