Dalit Movements

Dalit movements advocate for the rights and dignity of Dalit communities, challenging caste-based discrimination and advocating for social, economic, and political equality.

Dalit Movements


To put it differently, the term “Dalits’ ‘ refers to the marginalized communities commonly known as Untouchables and Tribals, officially categorized as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes respectively. Originating from the ancient Marathi language, “Dalit” can be interpreted as ‘ground’ or ‘broken’ into ‘pieces’. According to Eleanor Zelliot, “Dalit” signifies individuals who have been systematically oppressed and subdued by those of higher social status. The term inherent challenges notions of pollution, karma, and the legitimacy of caste hierarchy. The Dalit movement denotes the collective efforts or organized actions of lower caste groups against the dominance of upper caste individuals and the Brahmanical ideology, aiming at achieving equality and empowerment.

Works of Scholars 

  • Rajni Kothari – Article on ‘Rise of Dalits and the Renewed Debate on Caste’ 
  • Parth Chatterjee – Book ‘State and Politics in India’ 
  • M.S.A Rao – Book, ‘Social Movements and Social Transformation: A Study of Two Backward Classes Movements’ 
  • The Bhopal Document: Changing a New Course for Dalits for the 21st Century

Types of Dalit Movements

In his book “Social Movements in India,” Ghanshyam Shah (1980) delineates the Dalit Movement into two main categories:

  1. Reformative Movement: This movement aims to address the issues faced by untouchables by reforming the caste system. It seeks to bring about change by advocating for the separation of religion (specifically Hinduism) as a distinct sect. Within this category, the reformative movement is further divided into:
  • Bhakti Movements
  • Neo-Vedantic Movements
  • Sanskritization Movements
  1. Alternative Movement: This involves efforts to establish an alternative socio-cultural structure by either converting to another religion or by attaining education, economic status, and political power to achieve equality in society. The alternative movement can be classified into:
  • Conversion Movement
  • Religious or Secular Movement

Dalit Movements in India 

The Dalit movement represents a concerted effort to challenge the socio-cultural dominance of the upper castes and to restore dignity to the oppressed sections of society.

  • Dalits began resisting oppression and discrimination through two main avenues: peaceful protest and armed struggle.
  • Dr. B. R. Ambedkar advocated for a constitutional or legal approach to secure fundamental rights for Dalits.
  • Initially, movements aimed at uplifting Dalits were predominantly reformative in nature.
  • Subsequently, there emerged transformative movements that sought more profound societal change.
  • The Dalit movement gained momentum under the leadership of prominent figures such as Jyotiba Phule and Dr. B. R. Ambedkar.

Socio-religious movements and Dalits 

The roots of the Dalit movement can be traced back to various socio-religious movements:

  • These movements served as foundational pillars for subsequent movements, consistently organizing socio-religious reform efforts over time.
  • In 1873, Jyotiba Phule, belonging to the Mali caste, initiated the “Satyashodhak Samaj” to advocate for the intrinsic worth of every individual regardless of caste.
  • The Sri Narayana Dharma Paripalana Movement in Kerala played a significant role in empowering the Izhavas community, fostering self-respect, and instigating a protest ideology to challenge the religious, economic, educational, and political dominance of the upper castes.

Issues and Types of Dalit Movements

In both the colonial and post-colonial periods, the primary focus of Dalit movements has revolved around several key issues:

  • The problem of untouchability has been a central concern, persisting as a deeply rooted social injustice.
  • Another significant issue has been the advocacy for the continuation or expansion of reservations in electoral representation, government employment, and welfare programs to ensure the socio-economic upliftment of Dalits.

Rajni Kothari (1994) has contended that the dominant strategies of the Dalit movement in India have primarily revolved around issues of education, employment, and securing special rights.

Dalit movements have undergone significant developments over time:

  • Dalit Buddhist Movement: Initiated by B. R. Ambedkar in 1956, this movement reinterpreted Buddhism and established a new school called Navayana, aiming at both religious and socio-political transformation.
  • Dalit Panther Movement: Inspired by the Black Panther Party in the United States, the Dalit Panthers were founded in Maharashtra in 1972 to combat caste discrimination. This movement gained prominence in the 1970s and 1980s.
  • Dalit Panthers Iyakkam: Originating in Tamil Nadu in 1982, this movement, also known as the Liberation Panther Party, emerged to fight caste-based discrimination and uplift economically weaker sections of society.

B. R. Ambedkar played a pivotal role in shaping the Dalit movement:

  • Ambedkar advocated for an anti-Hindu and anti-Gandhian perspective, seeking the liberation of Dalits from oppressive social structures.
  • Notable events such as the Mahad Satyagraha in 1927 and the Temple Entry Campaign in 1930 highlighted Ambedkar’s efforts to challenge caste-based discrimination.
  • The establishment of the Independent Labour Party (IPL) in 1936 marked the beginning of an autonomous Dalit movement.

Post-Ambedkar, various Dalit movements emerged:

  • The formation of the Republican Party of India and the Dalit Panther Movement, among others, signified the continuation of efforts for Dalit empowerment.
  • The Dalit Panther Movement, founded in 1972, aimed to unite diverse Dalit groups across the country to advocate for civil rights and justice.
  • Leaders like Namdev Dhasal and Raj Dhale played prominent roles in the Dalit Panther Movement, which encompassed not only Dalits but also other marginalized sections of society.
  • Global recognition of Dalit rights increased with endorsements from organizations such as the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and Human Rights Watch.
  • In 1998, the formation of ‘The National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights’ further emphasized the ongoing struggle for Dalit empowerment and justice.


In conclusion, the Dalit movement, with its core objective of instigating a radical societal shift, remains a journey of substantial length. As Gail Omvedt suggests, it requires a comprehensive agenda, envisioning transformation and development, articulating its purpose and contributions.

In essence, the Dalit Movement must evolve into a force for authentic emancipation, collaborating with various social action groups committed to transformative politics, mobilizing collective efforts to fundamentally challenge the entrenched Brahmanic social hierarchy, as articulated by P.N. Benjamin in the article “Dalits as NGOs”. This vision underscores the necessity for a unified and concerted effort towards dismantling oppressive structures and fostering genuine equality and justice.

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