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Destigmatizing Chamars

Narender Kumar

By Ramnarayan S. Rawat
Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 272 XIX, price not stated.


Chamars have emerged as an important political category capable of influencing larger electoral consequences in North Indian politics. It has been possible due to the ongoing struggle and movement in over a century inside the group. The present study looks into the historical records and points towards the less recognized alternative perspectives prevalent in Indian society. It successfully questions dominant historical narratives from the perspective of Chamars and dalit historical struggle against the domination of Hindu upper castes launched by the Adi-Hindu Mahasabha under the Leadership of Swami Achchutanand. Rawat provides a powerful critique of both colonial and nationalist historiography using the varied historical sources such as local vernacular press, ethnographic research, oral history, local archival sources and historical records etc. For instance, he has extensively studied the Chamars and dalit socio-political movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in colonial north India. While studying the conditions and varied experiences of achhuts (Untouchables), Rawat neatly explores the manner in which untouchables faced social and political exclusion in the wider public domain under colonial rule due to their alleged traditional filthy occupation, though a majority of them did not pursue such occupations i.e., leather work in the case of Chamars.   The Introductory chapter entitled ‘Untouchable Boundaries: Chamars and the Politics of Identity and History’ outlines the theoretical framework of this study and engages extensively with existing historiographies exposing the shortcomings from the standpoints of the achhuts and dalits in early twentieth century. He argues that the ‘dalit perspective’ on Indian history has little reverence for the framework of colonialism versus nationalism mapped by Hindu dominated mainstream Indian historiography (p. 4). While questioning the stereotypes of dominant narratives, Rawat writes that dalit groups in India are defined solely with reference to the supposedly impure occupations providing the basis for their untouchability and argues for writing a new history of untouchability by questioning this theoretical framework (p. 6). Further he points out that dalit writers, historians, and activists have consistently sought to confront colonial and postcolonial Hindu narrative by writing their own history and defining their own political agenda (p. 9).   Extracting evidences with the help of colonial reports and a wide range of other archival sources, Rawat demonstrates that the majority of Chamars employed in colonial leather factories actually came from agriculture/peasant backgrounds. However, the dominant discursive and administrative practices reinforced and stereotyped the position and status of Chamars in north Indian society ...

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