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The word dalit is commonly used especially by the English media to refer to people belonging to Scheduled Castes. Groups that are at the lowest rung of the caste system have been categorized as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, as per the Indian Constitution.  The oppressed, the suppressed, the untouchables, panchamars and Harijan are some other terms used to be describe the groups. These terms have various meanings. In north India, the people referred to in the terms are often called dalits.

Those who are categorized as Backward Classes and Scheduled Castes & Tribes are called dalit in Marathi. Mahatma Jyotibha Phule introduced the word with this meaning.

At the Congress conference in Kashmir in 1920, Swami Shraddhanand put forward demands for the upliftment of the people affected by the practice of untouchability. He demanded that Congress should take them up with the government and find solutions. The outfit that Swami Shraddhanand was running was called Dalit Brothers. Swami Shraddhanand was the one who tried to make the term dalit into one referring to those affected untouchability. The word dalit also referred to the idea of original inhabitants, son of the soil.

The word dalit has since then become widely recognized word. It is used across the world.

In Tamil Nadu, the Scheduled Castes have been termed Adi Dravidar as per a government order. The department that looks after their welfare uses the word, Adi Dravidar.

The Information & Broadcasting ministry of India has asked the media to stop using the word dalit. This was in response to a petition in court by Buddhists in Maharashtra. The ministry said that the word dalit is humiliating and the term Scheduled Caste given by the Constitution should be used. A reader wrote to taking objection to the use of the word dalit in the article, “In this festival of mud horses, dalit man is divine being.”

Many leaders of Scheduled Castes in Tamil Nadu have also weighed in on this issue. There was strident opposition to the use of the word Harijan that Mahatma Gandhi promoted.

Debates over using the word dalit to refer to those who are socially and economically backward have raged in the state. Many organizations that work for the welfare of Scheduled Castes and marginalized groups have said that while the word is important, the debate over it should not overshadow the issues concerning the people.

In the 1990s, a survey was conducted regarding what term should be used or is preferable. The survey was conducted on behalf the magazine Kudisai Kural (The Voice of the Hut) that was run by an organization dedicated to the welfare of those living in huts in Chennai. In that, some 30 people who were actively working for the progress of Scheduled Castes and Tribes were asked what term they preferred.

The survey tried to enumerate things that would help people belonging to the Scheduled Castes lead better lives. In that, the name that should be used was also discussed. The survey was conducted by activist Bodhi Devavaram.

“The word dalit cannot be used to describe all the oppressed people”: Bodhi Devavaram, activist and social worker

Speaking to, Bodhi Devavaram said the survey was conducted in 1994 in an attempt to bring together all the oppressed people under one umbrella. Political leaders, senior IAS officer holding positions in the government and social leaders were among the more than 30 people surveyed. A questionnaire containing 64 questions was circulated to them and they were asked for their responses. The answers were compiled and presented at a meeting at the Memorial Hall. Those surveyed were also invited to the meeting. But that effort to give one name to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and one leadership did not succeed, says Bodhi Devavaram.

Devavaram cited an example. Vanniars as well as narikuravars are classified as Most Backward Classes. But these two groups are not at the same level socially and economically. The narikkuravars are at the bottom and are highly marginalized. It is hard to imagine that narikuravars are classified as Most Backward. “Similarly, the word dalit cannot be used to describe all the oppressed people,” he adds.

Words have meanings which may not always refer to one thing. To assume that a word like dalit has the same meaning in all contexts would not help in progress. And it also stands to question if the government should give meanings to words. It may best be that we should be free to ponder and ascribe meanings to words based on the context.

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