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Harijans(hâr`ĭjănz') [children of God], in India, individuals who are at the bottom of or outside the Hindu castecaste
[Port., casta=basket], ranked groups based on heredity within rigid systems of social stratification, especially those that constitute Hindu India. Some scholars, in fact, deny that true caste systems are found outside India.
..... Click the link for more information. system. They were traditionally sweepers, washers of clothes, leatherworkers, and those whose occupation it was to kill animals. The term is also sometimes applied to the hill tribes of India, who are considered unclean by some because they eat beef. Originally called untouchables or pariahs, they were given the name Harijans by the Indian political and religious leader Mahatma GandhiGandhi, Mohandas Karamchand
, 1869–1948, Indian political and spiritual leader, b. Porbandar. In South Africa
Educated in India and in London, he was admitted to the English bar in 1889 and practiced law unsuccessfully in India for two years.
..... Click the link for more information. , who worked for many years to improve their lives. Many now refer to themselves as Dalits [Marathi,=broken] to indicate their oppressed position outside Hindu society; legally the Indian government groups them as "scheduled castes."
Until the Indian constitution of 1949, Harijans, who constitute 15% to 20% of India's population, were subject to discrimination and social restrictions because of their "polluting" effect on those with whom they came into contact. Under the constitution, the Harijans were recognized as scheduled castes and tribes entitled to educational and vocational opportunities, as well as representation in parliament; however, widespread discrimination still exists.
Some Harijan leaders have become powerful in Indian politics. Jagjivan Ram, one of the first of his caste to receive a formal education, held several cabinet posts under Indira GandhiGandhi, Indira
, 1917–84, Indian political leader; daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru. She served as an aide to her father, who was prime minister (1947–64), and as minister of information in the government of Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri (1964–66).
..... Click the link for more information. and was a leader of the Janata coalition that unseated her in 1977. K. R. NarayananNarayanan, K. R.
(Raman Kocheril Narayanan) , 1921–2005, Indian government official. An "untouchable" or Dalit (see Harijans), he nonetheless graduated from the Univ. of Travancore (now Kerala, 1943) with high honors.
..... Click the link for more information. was a government minister and served as India's president (1997–2002), and Meira Kumar was the first woman to be elected (2009) speaker of the Lok Sabha, India's lower house of parliament. Others have obtained a strong voice in state politics, particularly in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. Militant untouchables formed the Dalit Panthers in Mumbai, while many have sought to escape the stigma of their birth by conversion to Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam.
See B. R. Ambedkar, The Untouchables (1948); J. M. Mahar, The Untouchables in Contemporary India (1972); D. Hiro, The Untouchables of India (1982).