They pick cotton, dig graves, scavenge, beg, cobble, bang the drum at weddings, live on other people's land, and clean up other people's messes.
Now they are learning to vote.
For the first time in India's quite ancient history, the lowest of its low - the untouchables - are becoming a political force to reckon with.
As India's national elections get under way this week, the future of this recent member of the nuclear club will partly be shaped by new blocks of restless and assertive lower-caste voters. The untouchable caste, or Dalits as they now prefer to be called, are 20 percent of India's 1 billion people - and in 1999, prompted by a new breed of savvy (and some say opportunistic) leaders, Dalits can swing or decide elections in five large states, including the most crucial state of Uttar Pradesh in the northern Hindu "cowbelt."
Mohandas Gandhi called them Harijans, or "the children of God," and offered Dalits his sympathy and protection despite a rigid caste system that for eons literally treated them as subhuman - not fit to mix or even stand in the same room with members of upper castes.
Yet 52 years after Indian independence, Dalits are still largely denied the jobs, education, and land ownership they say are their right under India's Constitution - written by B.R. Ambedkar, himself a Dalit - which technically reserves about 15 percent of state jobs and money for Dalits.
Since 1947, Dalits were mainly content to be lumped with other lower- and backward-caste and minority groups who lobbied together for a greater share of the public pie. But with the end of the one-party Congress-led dynasty in the 1990s, with a small but growing core of educated Dalits, and with a constant and often violent struggle between Dalits and the other "backward castes" who competed with them for power and money - the long oppressed Dalits are breaking old political alliances and quietly forming a plethora of caste-based parties.
Yet whether these parties represent a step toward ending injustices, or whether they will further disempower Dalits by fragmenting the mainstream lower-caste lobby - is still an unwritten story. For now, they are on the rise.
"The changing temperament of the Dalit community in our times is perhaps the most explosive and the most heartening development in the society," says Ravinder Kumar, former director of the Nehru Memorial Museum in New Delhi.
No national political movement of Dalits yet exists in India. So far, the clout of these "scheduled castes," their official designation, is felt at the state level.
Here in balmy Tamil Nadu in South India, a state with a long history of lower-caste uprisings, Dalits this summer formed an alliance of four smaller Dalit parties that control as many as 40 percent of the voters in some districts. For two weeks a charismatic Dalit medical doctor named K. Krishnasamy hit the hustings in south Tamil Nadu - and is expected to win a seat there. So is R. Thirumiavalavan, creator of something called the "Dalit Panthers," whose motto is, "We will not be quiet, we will retaliate."
Partly, the Panther sentiment for separation is stoked by tensions and riots between Dalits and other backward classes in the villages. Translated, this could be called the "uppity Dalits" syndrome. For years now, Tamil Dalits have found offshore work in the Gulf states, where they earn money and get an education; also, a small core get public jobs in Tamil Nadu. Their children learn to read and write, learn about human rights, and how to use a computer. The pattern then follows: They try to find work in the cities, and don't. When they go back to the villages, they are treated badly, often by lazy or illiterate locals who taunt them either out of jealousy or anger that those inferior to them are putting on airs.
Last November, for example, three Tamil Dalit men were tortured for marrying outside their caste, which means up. They were arrested, hauled before a local village Hindu oor panchayat, or council - then tied to a tree, beaten for a night, and asked to leave. The council found the marriages a dangerous precedent that would promote more Dalits to marry up.
Such incidents are changing local dynamics, causing Dalits to fight back.
"Dalits in Tamil Nadu for the first time are finding they can lead a life not tied to other castes, and this realization is bringing a separate Dalit leadership," says M.S. Pandian of the Madras Institute for Development Studies.
An Indian world away, in the crowded northern Ganga plains of Uttar Pradesh, a different Dalit party has already reached critical mass. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has been organized and run by Dalits for 12 years, and is so successful that it has attracted other lower castes to join. Its brain trust is a Dalit named Kanshi Ram, and its chief politician, a first generation woman Dalit college graduate named Mayawati, has twice served as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh - a state, like California or Illinois in American politics, that is a key to electoral victory, and a place where potential prime ministers of India, Sonia Gandhi and Atal Behari Vajpayee, are both contesting. BSP holds 20 percent of the votes in 53 districts in UP.
This week, Mr. Ram stated he preferred an "Italian putri" (daughter) to an "Aryan putra" (son). This refers to Mrs. Gandhi's tolerant stand on minorities and lower castes - in contrast to a Dalit view that the leaders of acting Prime Minister Vajpayee's BJP party hold to Brahmanical beliefs of the supremacy of the Aryan races that populated northern India in ancient times.
Historically, Dalits say, their first benefactors were the British in the 19th century. British colonial rule broke with Hindu caste tradition by giving Dalits land, jobs in the armed forces, as butlers in homes, and by sending them to school. Later, men like Gandhi and Dr. Ambedkar, their main guiding light, urged Dalits to rise. Currently, K.R. Narayanan is the first Dalit President of India - though he does not make his caste an issue, much to the dismay of some Dalits.
Some Dalit leaders wonder if caste-based parties are even a good idea. In Tamil Nadu some worry that caste politics is simply a new way for Brahmans to divide and conquer them - and that the answer is to quickly realign with other lower caste and minority groups.
Coalition politics are the name of the game in India. No party can score enough votes to win, so they seek alliance with others. Dalit politics for years has been channeled through the Republican Party - whose leaders advocate a strictly secular agenda brought by consensus building.
Yet the failure of consensus, the breakdown of liberal ideals, and an overall climate of grabbing of spoils by every party in India - has led some Dalits to align with political forces they never would have earlier companioned with.
"This story does not yet have a happy ending," says one Dalit intellectual in Madras. "The fragmenting of politics and of organizations that at least in theory were supposed to help Dalits is not a good sign."
P. Chandragesan, leader of the Dalit Sena in Tamil Nadu, a nonpolitical social service organization with some 22,000 members who work in the villages, says that the romance of Dalit politics is easier than dealing with the difficult challenges of "finding teachers for schools and improving the village communities."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society