But to understand the plight of the Dalits, I should first introduce them. The Dalits are the people group often known as "untouchables." They are the lowest in Indian cultural hierarchy, as a group, and the most vulnerable to abuses such as:
- Slavery or bonded servanthood.
- Punitive punishment and abuse for trying to worship.
- Unequal treatment before the law.
- Sexism and illiteracy.
The Dalits are one of the largest oppressed people groups, IMO, on earth. It is estimated that Dalits make up 20-25% of India's population, which at just over 1 billion people would number the Dalits at more than 200 million1.
They usually work in the dirtiest jobs, and have the fewest opportunities for advancement. Dalit children often have to work, and are far less educated than other Indian children.
In short, the Dalits are the downtrodden, the "least of these" of whom Jesus speaks.
But of course this isn't the whole story. Society can keep a group down; we did it in this country for many years, and still deal somewhat with the residue of slavery. But society can't control everything. There have been many Dalits who have risen above their station to become key figures in Indian history. B. R. Ambedkar chaired the committee that drafted the Indian constitution. Kocheril Raman Narayanan was a president in India. Chandra Prasad has become the first Dalit news columnist in a major English language Indian newspaper. While these are the exceptions (and there are more; but out of 200+ million, even a million such examples would be fewer than 1% of the total) they are proof that when given a chance anyone can flourish. It is my prayer that someday all Dalits are given that chance.
1 - I've seen estimates from 160M (from the early 1990s) to 260M Dalits in India. 200+ million seems an appropriate number for the purpose of this series.