Monday, February 20, 2012

[ZESTCaste] Aspirations of Chamars in North India

February 20, 2012
Aspirations of Chamars in North India
Bhupendra Yadav

Dalits is a catch-all term for people variously called 'Untouchables',
'Harijans' and the 'Scheduled Castes'. Chamars, the caste to which the
Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati, belongs, are the most
prominent among the Dalits. In Uttar Pradesh, Dalits constitute more
than two-fifths of the State population, and two-thirds of them are
Chamars. This community has had a difficult and chequered history. By
convention, its occupation was to skin dead animals, tan the leather,
and make articles out of it. An interesting aspect is that the
proportion of Chamars engaged in leather-related occupation has been
declining over decades — what was four per cent in 1931 came down to
0.6 per cent in 1961. Yet, the occupational stereotype of the Chamar
being a leather worker persists.

Agents of history

The book under review breaks this and also challenges the assumption
of colonial and nationalist historians that Chamars poisoned animals
so as to flay their skin and eke out a living. Above all, it seeks to
establish them as 'agents' of history, instead of being just passive

The Annales School of France wanted historians to study problems of
the present. Oliver Mendelsohn and Marika Vicziany in their book, The
Untouchables (1998), said the Dalits face three problems — poverty,
discrimination, and low self-esteem. They did not mention
'untouchability', as such, as an acute problem of the Dalits. In this
book, Ramnarayan Rawat, explores untouchability. Untouchability may
not have been totally eradicated. But it does not strike the scholars
as the acutest problem of the Dalits now.

Reconsidering Untouchability, which looks into the life, history and
aspirations of the Chamars in U.P., is noteworthy for three reasons.
First, it brings new facts to light. Rawat has culled out data that
show that more than 80 per cent of them are agriculturists, peasants,
and farm workers.

Secondly, the book has some new methodological insights. The
credibility of material available with government archives is always
open to question. Nationalist historiography based itself on oral
interviews and memoirs. Subalterns insisted that we read the colonial
archives against their grain. Rawat found that the narrations based on
information hubs like London and Delhi were less accurate. He prefers
to draw on regional archives and information contained in local

Thirdly, it is refreshingly devoid of any jargon (about subordination)
and post-modern mumbo-jumbo regarding difference. It's a historian's
expedition to familiar territory. Rawat questions, among others, the
assertions of Gyanendra Pandey that Chamars did not participate in
peasant struggles and that they poisoned animals to get their skins

I do have a couple of bones to pick with the author. First, it is
fashionable to be equidistant from colonial and nationalist
scholarship. But, in doing so, Rawat seems cavalier about the ravages
of colonialism. We know that colonialism was propelled by greed, and
the debate about its consequence rages on. The question is whether
colonialism was rape or murder? Rawat approvingly quotes Chandra Bhan
Prasad who thinks "the British came too late and left too early." He
seems to imply that colonialism was like some philanthropic enterprise
for the Dalits. Secondly, Rawat, while using Hindi sources, has
mistranslated a few critical words. He calls murdamans beef; it
actually means carrion. Worse is the use of achut. Rawat believes that
the Dalits consider themselves achut or uncontaminated/pure. The word
achut actually means 'untouchable'. The correct word for
uncontaminated is achuta or unchuaa. 'Untouched' is like Nature at
some pristine point. 'Pure' is like orthodox Chitpavan Brahmins, who
consider no one else eligible to touch them.

On the other hand, in the case of the Dalits, it is social convention
that makes them unworthy of being touched, and the orthodox cultural
practice that forbids others from mixing with them. They are condemned
to be achut or untouchable. A scholar who gets this wrong, risks the
validity of his (or her) theoretical assertions.


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