Indian society is divided into three communities - caste, outcaste (Dalit), and indigenous (Adivasi). First, the caste community consists of four castes that are hierarchically ordered) The Brahmins (priests) are the preservers and protectors of the eternal laws of the Universe (Dharma); the Ksatriyas (rulers and warriors) are the defenders and the guarantors of the safety and security of the community; the Vaisyas (business persons) are the conservers and distributors of wealth; and the Sudras (the laborers) are the working majority involved in the production of essential commodities. Although there is a clear separation between the first three castes, which are ritually pure and socio-economically dominant (referred to as the twice-born), and the fourth laboring caste, which is ritually suspect and socioeconomically dominated (referred to as the once-born), together they form the Hindu human community.
Second, related to, but outside of, these four segments of the Indian human society there exists a fifth outcaste community. Even though this populace consists of about 15-20 percent of the Indian community it is considered sub- or nonhuman; thus it is not included in the communityŐs composition. This large group has been ejected from the contours of Hindu society; it still lives outside the gates under the labels "outcaste," "untouchable," "exterior caste," "depressed class," and "Dalit."
I use the term "Dalit" in this paper for three reasons. First, this term has become an expression of self-representation, which Dalit activists and writers have chosen both in recovering their past identity and in projecting themselves as a collective whole? Second, "Dalit" comes from the root dal meaning "oppressed," "broken," and "crushed," which realistically describes the lives of members of this community. The Human Rights Watch report has the following to say on the situation of the Dalits:
More than one-sixth of India population, some 160 million people, live a precarious existence, shunned by much of society because of their rank as "untouchables" or Dalits -- literally meaning "broken" people -- at the bottom of IndiaŐs caste system. Dalits are discriminated against, denied access to land, forced to work in degrading conditions, and routinely abused at the hands or the police and of higher-caste groups that enjoy the StateŐs protection. . . . In what has been called "hidden apartheid" entire villages in many Indian states remain completely segregated by caste.3
The third community includes many more or less homogeneous indigenous communities, which are not obligated to the Indian caste system yet are marginalized by caste communities. These have been grouped under the term "Adivasis," and they are also referred to as Tribals or Schedule Tribes (ST). India has the largest concentration of such indigenous and tribal people. "India has 427 ÔscheduledŐ tribes -- each unique in its own right. As many as 400 tribes exist in India... they ostensibly are a major segment of the Indian social fabric, with a legitimate share in the subcontinentŐs unmatched pluralities."6 The numerous Adivasis of India can be classified under three major racial and linguistic groups, which are spread over the mountainous and the plateau regions of the country: the Austric Munda language family group; the Dravidian group; and the Tibeto-Burman Mongoloid group.7 "Adivasis" (meaning the ancient or original dwellers of the land) is utilized here to retain an awareness of their claim to being the original people of the land and to point to their cultural and religious relatedness to things of the earth. Further, according to a recent article entitled "Call us Adivasis, Please," Gail Omvedt suggests that this is the term by which they want to be known.8 The Adivasis "generally have lived through exploitative, oppressive and suppressive social and political structures in India." Mostly, they have been alienated from their land both by "greedy" caste communities and by overzealous governments, which take away tribal land for mining and big industries."9 Thus, poverty and estrangement from the means of their livelihood (the land) threaten Adivasi communities in India. Along with this, there is a serious threat to their traditional culture and worldview from the forces of modernization and Hinduization.