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 recipients.
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 resources.
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 cheap.
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.