The term ‘scheduled caste’ was coined by the Simon Commission (1927). The expressions, ‘Depressed Class,’ ‘Exterior Caste’ and ‘Untouchables’ were commonly used for the scheduled castes during the colonial period. Gandhiji called them ‘Harijans’. Generally they are referred to as Scheduled Castes.
The scheduled castes along with scheduled tribes constitute about 24 percent of the total population in India.
The Constitution of India made a provision that the President may specify the castes, races or tribes which shall be deemed to be Scheduled Castes. The President of India has passed orders from time to time specifying the names of scheduled castes in the country.
The criteria adopted for inclusion in the scheduled castes list are social, educational and economic backwardness arising out of the stigma of untouchability. The better known scheduled castes include Chamar and Bhangi, (UP, Bihar, Punjab), Bagdi and Rajbansi (West Bengal), Mahar (Maharashtra), Mala and Madiga (Andhra), Cheruman and Pulayan (Kerala), Palla and Paraiya (Tamil Nadu). There are numerous other groups.
The scheduled castes are found in every state. The chief features of Scheduled Castes reflect their problems.
- The scheduled castes constitute the lowest strata of Indian society.
- They had been subjected to a variety of disabilities, deprivations and oppression under the traditional system.
- They were placed outside and down below in social and ritual hierarchy under the varna model of society.
- They were engaged in manual tasks which were considered impure and unclean. They were considered untouchables.
- They were denied entry into temples and to houses of the upper castes.
- Like the Shudras, they had no access to the study of religious texts.
- Generally they lived at the outskirts of the village in poor housing condition.
Besides this segregation, the scheduled castes formed an integral part of social life. At the village level, a large proportion of them worked as agricultural laborers for land owners belonging to high castes. Moreover, they provided a variety of specialized services. They worked as servants, scavengers, sweepers, drummers etc.
Also read: Welfare of Scheduled castes, Scheduled tribes and Backward classes in India
In spite of their common deprivations and disabilities, the scheduled castes did not constitute a ritually homogeneous category. The various castes belonging to this category form a ritual hierarchy somewhat similar to the varna model. They do not practice intermarriage and sometimes do not interdine. The leather-working chamar in UP considers himself superior to the Bhangi, a sweeper.
Suggested external resource: Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (wikipedia)