Below the Shudras, in what is now an informal caste hierarchy — the caste system being abolished after Indian independence in 1947 — are the Dalits or Untouchables. They are sometimes referred to as the filth and unclean sector of society. Untouchables now tend to be employed as sweepers, refuse removers, and leather workers.
The regard for Untouchables in the Indian caste system was so low that they were considering a polluting influence and were not allowed to touch any person of the upper classes. In certain parts of South India, the concept of Untouchables went as far as demanding certain people stay out of the sight of the upper castes.
The idea of Untouchables dates to the rise of Aryan cultural domination in India. Evidence suggests that some tribal groups and people last integrated into India became “outcastes” or “the fifth caste.” The Aryans had embraced a fourfold class system since antiquity.
Almost all of the freedom fighters in India who agitated for independence from Britain denounced the idea of caste and called for the permanent abolition of the Untouchable designation.
Chief among those abolitionists was Mohandas Gandhi. Instead of referring to people as Untouchables, he coined the term harijan(meaning “born of God”) to relieve the stigma of Untouchables. The constitution of India was written by an Untouchable, Dr. Babasaheb R. Ambedkar (1891–1956). When it came to setting up India's central and state governments, Untouchables were given designated quotas of positions, including parliamentary seats, to guarantee their advancement.
The word “caste” is a Portuguese derivative; casta means “race.” It has come to mean the multiple classes into which traditional Indian society has been divided. The Sanskrit word that Indians have traditionally accepted is jati or “birth.”
By now, India's Untouchables have taken an increasingly militant political stance. They prefer to call themselves Dalit, meaning “the oppressed.” Many of them have converted to Buddhism, following Dr. Ambedkar's conversion in later life. Buddhism was always opposed to caste notions and preached equal spirituality.