The Chamars: Do they have a history?

Dalits have been continuously pinned by telling that they have no history and they are born leather-workers. It is their ‘impure’ occupation i.e. stereotype, that provides the basis for their untouchability. This was the traditional system under which Chamars possessed the skins of dead animals.

Going to the ethnographic roots, the word ‘Chamar’ comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Charmakara’ meaning ‘leather-worker’. Colonial anthropologists have stated that there was a separate Chamar religious world independent from Hinduism, with spirits, ghosts and magic contrasting with the pantheon of deities with the Hindu Society.

The earliest Chamar histories of 1910 and 1920, claimed a status equal to caste Hindus. Chamars were continuously accused of cattle poisoning. The interrogators failed to understand that Chamar life was closely associated with cattle not because of hides or leather, but through a wide range of agricultural activities.

The presence of Chamars in the hide trade was seen as an evidence of their crimes against the ‘holy cow’. A disgraceful attitude toward the Chamars was possibly by the values ingrained within the Hindu religion and culture, which regarded Chamars impure by birth, fitted not for equal treatment but only for unpaid labour.

Even today, we come across reports of Chamars, or Dalits in general being harassed, beaten or even murdered by the majority or people in power, for messing with the ‘caste rules’. To fight against injustice, it will be beneficial if we could study and look up the root of this social problem.

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