The term “Dalit” was originally applied to individuals considered of lower status than the lowest class of Indian society’s caste system, a four-tiered hierarchy determined by birth.

The Caste System

Construed from the Vedas, an ancient series of Hindu spiritual texts, the caste system became prevalent following the Aryan tribal invasion of the Indian subcontinent. The highest caste, or varna, known as the Brahmans, was reserved for priests and scholars. Political and military figures made up the second class, called the Kshatriyas. The Vaishyas, or third-tier citizens, were involved in commerce, while the fourth-tier Shudras were composed of peasants, servants and outcasts. Below these people were the Dalits, considered so low that they did not technically rank within the caste system and were not allowed to come in contact with upper caste members, earning them the alternate name of “untouchables.”

Dalits in Contemporary Culture

Dalits’ treatment improved in the second half of the 20th century. The term “untouchable,” for example, was outlawed with the Indian Constitution’s Article 17, enacted in 1950, and a 2008 study revealed that educational opportunities for Dalit children was nearly equal that of other Indian populations.