Etymology and usage
The word dalit is a vernacular form of the Sanskrit दलित (dalita). In Classical Sanskrit, this means "divided, split, broken, scattered". This word was repurposed in 19th-century Sanskrit to mean "(a person) not belonging to one of the four Brahminic castes". It was perhaps first used in this sense by Pune-based social reformer Jyotirao Phule, in the context of the oppression faced by the erstwhile "untouchable" castes from other Hindus.
Dalit is mostly used to describe communities that have been subjected to untouchability. Such people were excluded from the four-fold varna system of Hinduism and thought of themselves as forming a fifth varna, describing themselves as Panchama.
The term was in use as a translation for the British Raj census classification of Depressed Classes prior to 1935. It was popularised by the economist and reformer B. R. Ambedkar (1891–1956), himself a Dalit, and in the 1970s its use was invigorated when it was adopted by the Dalit Panthers activist group.
Dalit has become a political identity, similar to how the LGBTQ community reclaimed queer from its pejorative use as a neutral or positive self-identifier and as a political identity. Socio-legal scholar Oliver Mendelsohn and political economist Marika Vicziany wrote in 1998 that the term had become "intensely political ... While use of the term might seem to express an appropriate solidarity with the contemporary face of Untouchable politics, there remain major problems in adopting it as a generic term. Although the word is now quite widespread, it still has deep roots in a tradition of political radicalism inspired by the figure of B. R. Ambedkar." They suggested its use risked erroneously labelling the entire population of untouchables in India as being united by a radical politics. Anand Teltumbde also detects a trend towards denial of the politicised identity, for example among educated middle-class people who have converted to Buddhism and argue that, as Buddhists, they cannot be Dalits. This may be due to their improved circumstances giving rise to a desire not to be associated with the what they perceive to be the demeaning Dalit masses.
Scheduled Castes is the official term for Dalits in the opinion of India's National Commissions for Scheduled Castes (NCSC), who took legal advice that indicated modern legislation does not refer to Dalit and that therefore, it says, it is "unconstitutional" for official documents to do so. In 2004, the NCSC noted that some state governments used Dalits rather than Scheduled Castes in documentation and asked them to desist.
Some sources say that Dalit encompasses a broader range of communities than the official Scheduled Caste definition. It can include nomadic tribes and another official classification that also originated with the British Raj positive discrimination efforts in 1935, being the Scheduled Tribes. It is also sometimes used to refer to the entirety of India's oppressed peoples, which is the context that applies to its use in Nepalese society. An example of the limitations of the Scheduled Caste category is that, under Indian law, such people can only be followers of Buddhism, Hinduism or Sikhism, yet there are communities who claim to be Dalit Christians and Muslims, and the tribal communities often practise folk religions.
Mahatma Gandhi coined the word Harijan, translated roughly as people of God, to identify untouchables in 1933. The name was disliked by Ambedkar as it emphasised the Dalits as belonging to the Greater Hindu Nation rather than being an independent community like Muslims. In addition, many Dalits saw the term to be patronizing and derogatory. Some have even claimed that the term really refers to children of devadasis, South Indian girls who were married to a temple and served as concubines and prostitutes for upper-caste Hindus, but this claim cannot be verified.. When untouchability was outlawed after Indian independence, the use of the word Harijan to describe the ex-untouchables was more common among other castes than the Dalits themselves.
Harijan (Hindustani: हरिजन (Devanagari), ہریجن (Nastaleeq); translation: "person of Hari/Vishnu") was a term popularized by Indian political leader Mohandas Gandhi for referring communities traditionally considered so-called "Untouchable" (formerly called "acchoot" अछूत in Hindi ). The term was later considered derogatory and patronising; hence the term Harijan is no longer used by people belonging to the castes that were kept back in medieval and modern India.
They are now called Dalits, though even this term is banned in some states of India such as Kerala. The term Harijan is regarded as condescending by many, with some Dalit activists calling it insulting. As a result, the Government of India and several state governments forbid or discourage its use for official purposes.
Though Gandhi popularized the term harijan, which literally meant children of god, some contested that as per certain religious texts, brahmins are said to be children of God. The term may have been suggested to Gandhi based on the term used in the works by the Gujarati Bhakti era poet-saint Narsi Mehta. It has been claimed that in Narsi's work, the term refers to the children of Devadasis. Others state that the claim cannot be verified. According to other source the medieval devotional poet Gangasati used the term to refer to herself during the Bhakti movement, a period in India that gave greater status and voice to women while challenging the legitimacy of caste. Gangasati lived around the 12th-14th centuries and wrote in the Gujarati language.
- Mohandas Gandhi's publication
Gandhi started publishing a weekly journal called "Harijan" on 11 February 1933 from Yerwada Jail during British rule. He created three publications: Harijan in English (from 1933 to 1948), Harijan Bandu in Gujarati, and Harijan Sevak in Hindi. These newspapers found Gandhi concentrating on social and economic problems, much as his earlier English newspaper, Young India, had done from 1919 to 1932.
In Southern India, Dalits are sometimes known as Adi Dravida, Adi Karnataka, and Adi Andhra. This practice began around 1917, when the Adi- prefix was appropriated by Southern Dalit leaders, who believed that they were the indigenous inhabitants of India. The terms are used in the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh respectively, to identify Dalits in official documents.
In the Indian state of Maharashtra, according to historian and women's studies academic Shailaja Paik, Dalit is a term mostly used by members of the Mahar caste, into which Ambedkar was born. Most other communities prefer to use their own caste name.
In Nepal, aside from Harijan and, most commonly, Dalit, terms such as Haris (among Muslims), Achhoot, outcastes and neech jati are used.