The Indian society is segmentally divided on the basis of caste. The status of person is dependent on the caste in which he is born. In traditional caste system, the lowest castes were at the bottom of the social ladder. They were subjected to various caste disabilities. The Dalits were also not allowed to change their caste occupation. The extent of disabilities was such that they were made to live on the outskirts of villages and towns. The downtrodden Dalits raised various struggles to fight their social exploitation in all forms. Two factors had made deep impact on caste system which also brought social upheaval and an awakening among Dalits, First, the western impact with its ideas and values of liberality of thought, individual freedom and equality started making inroads into the traditional matrix of the Hindu social system and the caste and other institutions. Second, the British administration with equality before law and introduction of modem technology created the necessary intellectual and psychological climate for the emergence of social reforms movements.
Mahatma Jyotiba Phule formed the Sayta Shodak Mandal in 1873 with the aim of liberating non-Brahmins from the clutches of Brahminism. Shahu Maharaj of Kolhapur started Satya Shodak Mandal in 1912 and carried forward the movement started by Phule. In the pre- independence period, the Dalit movements comprised of a strong non-Brahman movement against Brahmanism in Maharashtra. The Adi Dravidas movement in Tamil Nadu, Shri Narayan Dharma Paripalan movement in Kerala, Adi Andhras, movement in Coastal Andhra and the like. Phule tried to formulate a new theistic religion.
The religious reformers of the 19th century were influenced by the work of Christian missionaries in India. The Brahmo Samaj (1828), the Prarthana Samaj (1867), the Ramkrishna Mission, and the Arya Samaj (1875) are the examples of such institutions founded with a view to fight against social evils practiced by the caste Hindus. Dr. Ambedkar, on his part turned to Buddhism. In Tamil Nadu, non- Brahmin movement tried to claim Saivism as an independent religion although both Ayyapan proclaimed no religion, no caste and no god for mankind. All the above movements led to, some extent, the social upliftment of Dalits.