Harijans (hârˈĭjănzˌ) [key] [children of God], in India, individuals who are at the bottom of or outside the Hindu caste 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 Gandhi, 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 Gandhi and was a leader of the Janata coalition that unseated her in 1977. K. R. Narayanan 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).