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Arguing History, Deciphering Untouchability

Book Review Dr.Narendra K. Arya

29 November, 2012

Book Reviewed: Reconsidering Untouchability: Chamars and Dalit History in North India
Author: Ramnarayan S. Rawat , University of Delaware, USA
Publisher: Permanent Black, Mall Road, Ranikhet, (Uttrakhand), 2012, Rs.695 (HB)
Marketed by Orient Blackswan, India

“History is after all nothing but a pack of tricks which we play upon the dead” and we transform the past to suit our wishes to future and in upshot “history proves that anything can be proved by history”. Voltaire, ‘father of modern historical science’

History navigates the societies in future and if that is unfounded, the crises and catastrophes it raises seem natural. Indian history has been an easy victim of all such efforts from the times of Islamic traveller-cum-historians, Imperial historians, National historians, Hindu historians, Marxist historians to very recent Subaltern brand of historians. They created historical narratives, documentaries and myths to further their ideological and intellectual persuits, assert dominance and continue privileged malpractices; others simply followed them and referred mindlessly to substantiate their follies. Dalit life and people were most of the times missing altogether from such mysteries of historical nature or if any how they come to find some place, it was usually ridden with colour of castiest perversion and even colonial historians and ethnographers were easy trap to such fallacies and also because it was strategically beneficial to their interests, served best that way. The great attributes of a great civilization- systematically deprive and conspire to keep a great part of its population away from literacy and accessing so-call great pieces of knowledge–also helped in maintaining non-interference of Dalit and Shudra communities from actively engage in and to authenticate the various spectres of Indian History. But history is amazing phenomenon it has its own splendid ways of maintaining memory and amnesia and for apt eyes and brain provides immense insights to unravel the suppressed past. “Reconsidering Untouchability: Chamars and Dalit History in North India” is one such book which seeks to explore and establish through vast terrains of history. “Reconsidering Untouchability” has potential to unleash paradigmatic shift in caste discourses spanning disciplines of History, Sociology, Anthroplogy and Politics along with public domains of inquiry and debate. On one hand, it effortlessly refutes the grossest of myths created about the untouchable castes ,Chamars in particulars who are amongst the three most numerous casts demographically in Northern India; on the other ,it compels the conventionist to look deeper in historical realities still unearthed. The notion of wide spread prevalent and common wisdom of ‘argumentative Indians’ is shown in bright light its dark beliefs and stereotypes about social truth, bereft of any real ground or reasoning.

“Reconsidering Untouchability: Chamars and Dalit History in North India” is authored by Ramnarayan S.Rawat ,faculty at University of Delaware,USA who has sourced his research-material and findings mostly from the inconsistencies of imperial interdepartmental records achieved at local/district level archives and vernacular and Dalit narratives self-produced but looked down-upon by the so-called mainstream secular Indian intelligentsia and intellectuals. The book reviewed contains five chapters besides an introduction to the project and very brief conclusion.

Rawat believes that given their unique ‘exclusive’ status Dalits have sharply different view of Indian Society and History , with no sympathies either for much haunted Nationalist nor colonial historiography. The mainstream Indian history hardly has any prominent Dalit historian at its core which bereaves it from Dalit perspective, insight or protest against offending serious stereotypes, and prejudices against Dalit-Bahujan voices and alternative histories. Rawat assesses that imposition of a favourable image and stereotype of untouchability is itself a major source of persistent assault on ,violence against and exploitation of deliberate creation of ‘impure’ and ‘dirty’ profession based untouchability, “....without a historical understanding of how these assumptions and stereotypes have been created and more importantly sustained, they not only will continue to be used to exploit and oppress Dalit communities, but also will form an obstacle to inadequately explaining phenomenon like the dramatic electoral success of the Dalit-led Bahujan Samaj Party.”

One of the major feature of the book is its questioning ‘dominant narratives of colonial historiographies and ethnographies likes of G.W.Briggs’ ‘The Chamars’ and census reports of 19th-20th century which assertively link to Chamars to their ‘untouchable’ past based on their ‘untouchable occupations’ importantly leather work. The work has beautifully dismantled the colonial ‘neutral’ mindset who while depicting or studying lower castes of India were equally inclined to think in a way a caste Hindu would ; therefore their work illustrates them as ethnically inferior communities - professing inferior religiosity, deities and animism- unconsciously or consciously comparing them to Brahminical benchmarks. Colonial and Hindu historians share the same outlook when it comes to deal with Dalit issues and history “because the ideas, struggles and movements of Dalit writers and activists do not necessarily help to advance the historiography of colonialism versus nationalism”, from Jawaharlal Nehru ,The Discoverer of India, to the prominent historians of recent times who (who accidently (?) all happen to be Marxist) due to their caste-blinded Marxism did not find it a crucial material force, while simultaneously they equally engaged casteism in their professional or social life. Both are the splendid victims of parochial interest-imbued ideological traps.

The first chapter ‘Making Chamars Criminal’, underlies the fact that Chamars were regarded as criminal castes throughout 19th century which was based on colonial logic of their being leatherworkers and leather traders who got benefited by killing of cattle; therefore they were accused of poisoning of cattle , by using Arsenic. This doctrine was substantiated by devices of ‘genetic traits’, ‘peripatetic life style’, and ‘low position’ in Hindu system. This theory is very brilliantly argued with help of hitherto unexplored primary sources cross-examined .Many of the colonial reports related to death were incidents of drought and famines which colonial government did not wanted to take responsibility of and thus manipulated the reports and appeared to help implicitly ‘cow-protection’ movements who viewed Dalits and Muslim equally inimical. Revenue and trade reports portray Untouchables of Northern India prominently as agriculturist which is antithetical to theory of Crimininalisation of colonial Chamars.

In second chapter, “Investigating the stereotype: Chamar Peasants and Agriculture Labourer”, Rawat has convincingly displayed that popularised myth of Chamars and other untouchable castes being involved in impure occupations is neither evident nor documented fact but creation of a connived conscience of Hindu society based on the exploitation and oppression of its own people like nowhere else, but pure beasts, devoid of humanity for centuries. The quotation of J.C.Donaldson, a Director of Industries tells things very clearly, “The Chamar is largely an agriculturist like others , holding land between ranging 2 to 9 bighas, paying rupees 9 to rupees 51 rental , and having as assets the grain he raises and proceeds he obtains from sale thereof.” In UP in 1911 , out of 34,67,317 Chamars 80% were dependent on agriculture ,9% in unspecified labour,3% as milkman and livestock owner and only 4% in ‘traditional’ occupations, author claims. In Western UP‘s Moradabad district given to their demographic strength and agriculturist lifestyle this community was the largest land revenue paying community standing at Rs.30,21,394 against the much popularised agriculturist castes of the Sheikhs 3,13,733, Jats Rs 2,81,268,the Thakurs 1,64,419etc. , cultivating some 1, 07,529 acres of land. They were amongst top three rent payer in most of the district of UP. Even Briggs comments despite his stubborn style of thinking Chamars as bearer of traditional occupation that The largest segment of this caste did involve in agriculture and some of them were well-to-do.(To add my personal narrative as case history, it reminds me of my father who is in seventies used to say that his grandfather commanded some 250-300 bighas of land but due to high rent and connivance of upper caste zamindars with the Company officials it was snatched away; and now it seems convincing that such other stories could also exist.) the myth of Chamar –the leatherworker or skinner of hides is thrashed apart with sharp attacks on historical narratives of leading subalternists like Shahid Amin,Gyan Pandey who have relied on conventional wisdom in Indian history and almost negligible argumentative society.

The third chapter sees the implicit contrivance of Britishers of developing ‘the Chamarisation of Leather Industry’ and choice of Kanpur as centre of leather industry, but because of cheap labour of Chamars. The Government Harness and Saddlery Factory, the first modern leather factory in India was deliberately opened in a Kanpur Chamar neighbourhood; But the author establishes at the end that Muslims were not only the manufacturers of shoes but also primary producers of hides and Chamar identity was built by ethnographers influenced by the Jajmani System and ritualistic dimensions, not the social reality prevalent at the time. This led to resistance on part of Chamar ideologues and activities to dissociate from socially-imposed image of Chamar the tanner, the leatherworker, skinner and other similar occupations of assumed impurity and filth-grandest source of untouchability.

Later the book debates nationalist, Hindu and Hindi histories in struggle to establish proper identity. “Chamar histories were not produced in isolation, but were rather a part of the larger corpus of caste histories, or Vamsabalis, written around the time. The first batch of Chamar writes appeared in form of UBS Raghubanshi, Pandit Sundarlal Sagar, Ramanarayan Yadvendra whose works were later cited by colonial administrators as “authoritative explanations of Chamar history.” It led to development of Adi-Dharam Movement under leadership of Swami Achhutanand with All India Adi Hindu conference in 1927, Chamar intellectual and activists emerged like Chandrika Prasad Jijyansu, Mahant Bhodanand Mahathavir etc.Swami Achchhutanand was first to claim separate electorate for transformation of identity , along with consciousness, leads Chamar intelligentsia to refute and disown untouchability, claim kshatriya status and be particularly assertive , as to demand maximum political rights to boost their socio-economic conditions while other castes are already in it.

It has been contrasted with adequate strength that emergence of political awakening in northern Dalits could be credited to Congress. As late as 2003, a renowned Scholar on caste politics Christophe Jaffrelot says “Congress was the sole political force among the Dalits in north India.” (Dr. Ambedkar and Untouchability: Fighting the Indian Caste System, Christophe Jaffrelot, 2005, Columbia University Press , Pg.26) It is because no authentic historical study has been conducted on Dalit struggle in North India whereas in vernacular such efforts have been made partially. “The idea of a united Achcchut (Untouched=pure) identity and politics acquired dramatic support among various Dalit castes groups beginning with the Adi-Dharma Movement in the 1920s and 1930s and it continued to gain popularity as the Scheduled Castes Federation emerged in 1940s and the Republican Party Of India in 1950s . “The Achchhut identity has refused to bow down to the more powerful and dominant national and nationalism , or to the politics of Hindutva ,or to the class based formulations.”Dalit politics in 1960s onwards has become stronger with arrival of Bahujan Samaj Party it has been able to desist ‘domination’. They have disintegrated colonial and national identity misfit, construed framework ,moulds and emerged as the active subjects. Author opines that “the persistence of the stereotypes of Chamar untouchability has resulted in the absence of Dalit histories in India whereas Brahmin, Kshatriya, Kshatriya, Bhumihar and Muslim persist and are taken as authorised books of the facts and actualities on the canvas of time.

Dr.Narendra K. Arya, Born and raised in Varanasi, India, educated at Banaras Hindu University and Patna University with Masters in Political Scientist and Business Management and Doctorate on issues of Globalization and Sovereignty of States. Worked as Senior Lecturer ,Assistant Regional Director, IGNOU and presently working at managerial capacity in Government of India Public Undertaking .Several Poems, articles and published in reputed Hindi and English magzaines and Journals and online journals 'Hans', 'Vaak', Yudharat Aam Aadami', Apeksha',Byaan', ‘Janpath’ 'Deliquent (USA),'Tether'(India)', Everydaypoem'(USA), Rabbit (Australia) etc online journals, besides in academic journals. Also, a few poetry recitations on Doordarshan Patna.




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