Origin of the Word "Dalit"

The term ‘Dalit' has roots in Sanskrit where the root 'dal' means 'to split, crack, open'. ( This Indo-European root appears in German and English in the form of 'dal' or 'tal', meaning  'cut'. In English, 'dale' is a valley, a cut in the ground; in German, 'thal': a tailor is one who cuts;  'to tell a tale'  is the same as  'to cut a tally', the cut-marks made by the shepherd on his staff when counting sheep.

'Dalit' has come to mean things or persons who are cut, split, broken or torn asunder, scattered or crushed and destroyed. By coincidence, there is in  Hebrew a root 'dal' meaning low, weak, poor.  In the Bible, different forms of this term have been used to describe people who have been reduced to nothingness or helplessness.The present usage of the term Dalit goes back to the nineteenth century, when a Marathi social reformer and revolutionary , Mahatma Jyotirao Phule (1826-1890), used it to describe the Outcastes and Untouchables as the oppressed and the broken victims of our caste-ridden society. Under the charismatic leadership of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956), this term gained greater importance and popularity.  During the 1970s, the followers of the Dalit Panther Movement of Maharastra gave currency to the term 'Dalit' as a constant reminder of their age-old oppression, denoting both their state of deprivation and the people who are oppressed. This term for them is not a mere name or title: for them it has become an expression of hope, the hope of recovering their past self-identity. The term has gained a new connotation with a more positive meaning.            It must be remembered that Dalit does not mean Caste or low-Caste  or poor ; it refers to the deplorable state or condition to which a large group of people has been reduced by social convention and in which they are now living.

Names of the Dalits

The Dalits are called by different names in different parts of the country. These names were given by the Caste people as expressions of contempt. They include: Dasa, Dasysa, Raksasa, Asura, Avarna, Nisada, Panchama, Chandala,  Harijan, Untouchable. Each of these names has a history and background. Besides these names, there are a number of other titles or names which have been given to them at the level of the regional language. For example, Chura in Punjab (North West India), Bhangi or Lal Beghi in Hindi (North India), Mahar in Marathi (Central India), Mala in Telugu, Paraiya in Tamil and Pulayan in Malayalam (South India). These names carry within them the two-term contrast of   "we-the pure" and "you-the impure". In response to these insulting labels, the Untouchables have chosen to give  themselves a name and this  is 'Dalit',  which refers to the hardship of their  condition of life. This name is a constant reminder of the age-old oppression.  The term is also an expression of their hope to recover their past self-identity. If today the Dalits are reduced to a life of abject poverty and treated as polluted human beings, it is the non-dalit that must be seen as the agent of their dehumanisation. By the British, the Dalits were named 'the Depressed Classes' and  'the Scheduled Castes', in the Scheduled Caste  Act of India, 1935.   Mahatma Gandhi named them  'Harijans'  which means 'children of God' :  but this term was not welcomed  by the Dalits because it did not adequately describe their condition.