Tuesday, July 5, 2011

[ZESTCaste] The First Law: Sing My Name


Society: Punjab
The First Law: Sing My Name
Chamars assert their identity through songs, T-shirt slogans, upward mobility
Chander Suta Dogra

Explosive Macho...

Some of the lyrics from the album 'The Fighter Chamaar'

"Hath leke hathiyar
Jad nikale Chamaar
Pher vekheyo pataka kiven paoo mitro
Aj dekhde panga keda layoo mitro"

(When Chamars walk out with weapons in their hands,
Friends, watch how there will be fireworks,
Let's see who can cross our path)


"Jadon da liya une Chandigarh dakhla
Rakhda bana ke hun saade kolon faasla
Hummer gadi vich aunda nee putt Chamaaran da
Hun nahin ankh milaanda putt Chamaaran da"

(Ever since he took admission in a Chandigarh college,
He has begun keeping me at a distance,
This son of a Chamar who comes in a Hummer vehicle
Does not meet my eyes any more.)

—from the pop song 'Hummer Chamar'

Calling someone a 'Chamar' is an offence for which the SC/ST
Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989, prescribes a jail term. So when
activists, singers and preachers of the community in Punjab's Doaba
belt insist we address them as 'Chamars', it is with some trepidation
that we do so.

"It's our identity and it's a caste like any other, with a rich past,"
some of them tell us. "Far from being ashamed, we are proud of being
Chamars." The rest of the nation—including Chamars from other
states—may cringe at the use of the word, used for those associated
with the making of leather, and therefore considered "unclean" in the
Hindu caste system, but in Punjab, they are all saying, "Garv se kaho
ham Chamar hain."

This is not easy in a society conditioned by centuries of prejudice.
Dalits still change surnames to escape the caste label, and in rural
Punjab, domination by upper-caste Jat Sikhs is common. But now,
Jalandhar, in Punjab's Doaba region, is being called the capital of
Chamars. It's from here that a new narrative has emerged for the
community. Perhaps not surprising, considering that Kanshi Ram, the
fountainhead of modern Dalit politics in the north and Mayawati's
mentor, was a Chamar from Ropar, just off what is officially called
the Doaba region. Encouraged and funded by NRI Chamars and executed by
increasingly committed groups of activists, 'Mission Chamar', as it is
being called, is the talk of the region. It's visible in slogans on
T-shirts, on car stickers and with spectacular effect in the Punjab
music industry, which has been inundated with a huge demand for Chamar

       The cry of resurgence and pride is most loudly heard in the numerous
music albums brought out by Chamar singers.

About two years ago, Punjabi singers like S.S. Azad and Roop Lal Dhir
began singing songs that glorify the Chamar community. Songs like
Ankhi putt Chamaran de (These self-respecting sons of Chamars) and
Hummer Chamar became instant hits with the community's youth. But Azad
recalls the difficulties he had to face while producing Ankhi putt.
"Even though I'd got a good response to some of the songs while
performing them on local stages, no one was prepared to produce the
album or even feature in the music video. We did it all by ourselves,
with some funding from our NRI brethren. I and my brother featured in
the videos," he says. Popular music channels like MH1 initially
refused to air the songs or even the advertisement for these songs.
But the songs became a rage online, with thousands of hits on YouTube
and countless downloads. Incredibly, now even Jat Sikh singers are
rushing to sing Chamar songs and cash in on the demand for them, says
Roop Lal Dhir. But the state government is yet to wake up to this new
trend—Jalandhar Doordarshan still won't air their songs. "When I
approached Doordarshan for my Chamar songs, I was told I should
replace the word Chamar with sardar. They have no problem airing Jat
songs, so why this discrimination?" he asks.

What really delights the young about these songs is the videos, which
feature burly, well-built Chamar boys, displaying menacing biceps,
wielding swords and guns. The macho portrayal is a clear attempt to
bring themselves on par with Jat Sikhs, stereotypically thought of as
strong and vigorous. Pamma Sunar, a singer from Phagwara, brought out
Fighter Chamaar in January this year with daring visuals and
provocative lyrics. "Our songs are a retaliation to the rash of
Bhindranwale songs which came into the market two years ago, and the
pictures of him on car stickers. It is a fight for equality and
self-respect and already we are feeling the heat," he says. Sunar,
like other Chamar singers, is getting used to threats and abusive
phone calls, allegedly from Jat Sikhs.

Bold Pride: A T-shirt assertion. (Photograph by Jitender Gupta)

The assertion by Dalits in the Doaba region is not new: 'Mission
Chamar' actually gained traction after the attack on Dalit guru Sant
Niranjan Dass in Vienna in 2009, in which his deputy Sant Ramanand was
killed by radical Sikhs. They belong to the formidable Dera Sachkhand
Ballan on the outskirts of Jalandhar, widely considered the mecca of
Chamars. The Vienna attack set off violent riots in Punjab and
Haryana. "This incident shook the dominant Jat Sikhs and emboldened
the Chamars, who till then were unaware of their own strength and
capacity to dominate," says Des Raj Kali, a prominent Dalit writer and
editor of Lakeer, a Punjabi literary magazine. Punjab has the highest
percentage of Dalits in the country: 28.9 per cent according to the
2001 census. In the Doaba, they have the largest concentration—almost
35 per cent of the population. In the last 50 years, they have pulled
themselves up economically by getting educated and going abroad for
work. Their houses here are grand and places of worship even grander.
When Dhir went to Greece to get visuals of a Hummer for his video, the
Chamar community there was so delighted at his songs that they offered
to buy a Hummer to take to his village. "I thought it was an
unnecessary extravagance, so they presented me with a car instead," he

Most Chamars of Punjab are affiliated to the Ravidasi sect, which
follows the teachings of Guru Ravidas, a 14th century Bhakti saint and
a Chamar. Before the Vienna incident, they used to worship the Sikh
holy book Guru Granth Sahib, which has some 40 shabads and one shloka
of Guru Ravidas. Though Sikh gurus preached a casteless society, in
practice Dalit Sikhs are not permitted to enter Jat Sikh gurudwaras or
use their cremation grounds. In 2004, there was a violent clash in
Talhan near Jalandhar when Dalits were stopped from entering the
village gurudwara. Trouble also arose when the portrait of Guru
Ravidas began to be placed at the same level as the Sikh holy book at
Dera Sachkhand and other affiliated deras in India and abroad. Radical
Sikhs objected and the Vienna attack on Sant Niranjan Dass is
indicative of this unease within the Sikh community. This incident has
been a watershed in the history of the community: soon after, Dera
Sachkhand propounded a new religion, Ravidasi Dharam, for Chamars.
Their holy book was called the Amrit Bani, which has Ravidas shabads
and shlokas culled from the Guru Granth Sahib. With the dera providing
religious leadership, many Ravidasis have severed links with
mainstream Sikhism. "There was no place for us either in Hinduism or
Sikhism, so we have formed our own religion, which revolves around the
philosophy of Guru Ravidas. But we are for social harmony and do not
want confrontation with anyone," says S.R. Heer, the dera's general
secretary. He says there is no harm in extolling oneself as long as
they don't hit out at anyone, referring to the Chamar songs. "If
official media like Jalandhar Doordarshan can broadcast Punjabi songs
which sings praises of Jat Sikhs, the heavens won't fall if Chamars
talk of a separate identity for themselves."

Some Dalit thinkers see 'Mission Chamaar' as risky politics. They say
it alienates other marginalised groups.

And this Dalit resurgence in the Doaba is already taking on political
colours. Paramjeet Kainth quit the BSP after 20 years to form the
Chamaar Mahaan Sabha (CMS) last year. His group is busy educating
people about Chamar heroes, who took part in the freedom struggle,
played a stellar role in Sikh history and even in the Ramayana and
Mahabharata. One of its demand is a Chamar regiment in the army. "It
is our duty to educate our own youth about the glorious past of their
ancestors so that they are never again ashamed of their identity,"
says Kainth.

But some Dalit thinkers are apprehensive of this in-your-face
muscle-flexing by their brethren. Kali sees the present trend as an
attempt to divide the marginalised communities that includes Valmikis,
Ramgarhias and Mazhabi Sikhs too. "If they are working towards a
casteless society, then why do Chamars consider themselves superior to
Valmikis? I am worried about what will happen if the marginalised rise
against each other. Why don't they work towards more education in the
community instead?" he asks. S.L. Virdi, an advocate and Dalit writer,
warns the ongoing Chamarvaad could spell trouble. "If Akalis lose the
assembly elections next year, they will surely revive their agenda of
asserting Sikh identity, which is bound to clash with that of
Chamars," he says.

But so euphoric is the mood within the community that few are willing
to listen to the likes of Virdi and Kali. Leaders like Kainth, for
instance, call them "fear-mongers" who do not want to change. "We are
against words like Dalit, Scheduled Caste or Harijans, which are
denigrating or condescending labels. We want everybody to just call us
Chamars. Let us get on with our lives without the baggage of the past
and that is that," says Kainth. The popular call in Doaba right now
is, 'Bole so nirbhay, Guru Ravidas ki jai (Be fearless, hail Guru


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