OPINION: It is myth that dalits were always disrespected in India

Leather workshop rep Representational image of a leather workshop

Dalits constitute about 20 per cent of the population of India. I had written an article The Caste System in India, which was published on my blog Satyam Bruyat, but thought it necessary to develop my ideas here, with particular reference to dalits. These are:

  • The caste system is a curse on our country, and unless it is destroyed, India can never progress. In my article Sixteenth Address to the Indian Nation:A House divided in itself published in indianreunificationassociation.co.in, I have explained this in detail, and so am not elaborating it here.

  • Today, even 71 years after independence, dalits are looked down upon as inferior, often insulted and physically attacked and discriminated against. A dalit boy wanting to marry a non-dalit girl is often inviting a death sentence (honour killing). Even so-called educated people have casteist mindsets and look down on dalits.

  • It is a myth that dalits were always disrespected in India, and the truth is that it is only after the coming of British rule, that they went down the social ladder.

  • Reservations have done much more harm than good to dalits.

In this article, I will deal only with the third and fourth points mentioned above.

Dalits were once a respected community in India

In feudal society, while the majority of people were engaged in agriculture, there was also a sizeable section of people engaged in industry. This industry was no doubt not mill industry but handicrafts.

In my article Dinner at the German Embassy (see on my blog Satyam Bruyat), I have mentioned that before the British came to India, we had a massive handicraft industry in India, many of whose products (cotton textiles, silk, etc.) were exported right up to Europe (via the Middle East). We had up to 30 per cent of the world's trade (which figure went down to about 2-3 per cent by the time of independence). India was a prosperous country before the coming of the British, which is illustrated by Lord Clive's statement after the Battle of Plassey in 1757 that he found Murshidabad (then capital of Bengal) to be richer than London.

To capture the Indian market, the British destroyed this massive handicraft industry by imposing exorbitant export duties on Indian-made products, and flooding India with British mill products on which practically no import duty was levied.

Before the coming of the British, the ancestors of the present dalits were engaged in handicraft industries, and were treated with respect in Indian society. For instance, the Chamaars, who made shoes and other articles of leather (the word Chamaar literally means one who does leather or chamra work), were at one time a respectable caste. That was because everyone needed shoes to wear, and so Chamaars were gainfully employed.

It was only when mill products of companies like Bata destroyed the local handicraft shoe industry that the Chamaars became unemployed and lost their livelihood. They fell back upon agriculture, which was already overburdened, and went down the social ladder. An unemployed person does not get respect, and so the word Chamaar began to be used as a derogatory term.

Similarly, Kumbhaar (potter), Badhai (carpenter), Lohaar (smith) and so forth were all respected castes before the coming of the British and the flooding of India with British-made mill industry products. For instance, everyone in feudal India needed earthen pots to store water for drinking. One could not rush to a well every time he wanted to quench his thirst. These earthen pots were made by Kumbhaars, and hence they were gainfully engaged, until they lost their livelihood due to arrival of mill products and went down the social ladder.

So it is a myth that for thousands of years, dalits were looked down upon in Indian society. The truth is that before the coming of the British, they held a respectable position.

Even today, in revenue records, one often finds entries mentioned about dalits such as A, son of B; jaat (caste): Kumbhaar; pesha (occupation): kheti (agriculture) or X, son of Y, jaat: Lohaar, pesha: kheti.

This indicates that the ancestors of these dalits were engaged in these handicrafts, but lost their vocations due to the coming of the British mill industry, and were driven to agriculture, which was already overburdened.

In feudal India, the peasant farmers were the ancestors of the present OBCs like Yadavas and Kurmis.

Since agriculture continued even after the coming of the British, the OBCs did not lose their livelihoods, though, no doubt, they too suffered as the dalits were also driven to rely on land. Probably before the coming of the British, the dalits had a higher position in the social ladder than OBCs, but this situation was then reversed, and today, OBCs are regarded higher socially than SCs.


Perhaps for some time after independence, reservations for dalits in educational institutions and jobs were necessary to uplift them. But, today, such reservations are doing great harm to dalits, and they should themselves demand an end to caste-based reservations.

Such reservations would be benefiting hardly 0.1 per cent dalits, for there are very few jobs in India. But the illusion created is that all dalits will benefited by reservations. Thus, reservations are only a means of befooling dalits, who are used as vote banks by unscrupulous politicians for their own ends.

Reservations are crutches supplied to dalits, but it is time for them now to throw away these crutches, and tell the non-dalits that they are not intellectually inferior to them, and will manfully compete with them by studying and working hard and show that they can succeed on their own merit.

Reservations also harm dalits by isolating them from the rest of society. Upper caste youth often have a grievance that even if they get 90 per cent marks, they do not get educational admission or a job, while dalits securing 40 per cent are able to avail of both. This naturally creates heartburn for upper caste youth. Dalits must realise that to improve their social position, they must not remain isolated, but must unite with the enlightened section of the upper castes and OBCs in a mighty historic, united people's struggle, which alone will sweep away the filth of feudalism and destroy the monster of caste in India.

Justice Markandey Katju retired from the Supreme Court in 2011

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of THE WEEK