Who are they?
One of the largest communities of India, they are a Scheduled Caste that has a single generic name. The name Chamar is derived from the Sanskrit charmakar (leather worker). They work with leather, making hides and shoes and bags. They were relegated to living on the outer edges of villages due to the small of rotting hides and chemicals that they were steeped in. The name Dalit (Marathi for the broken or oppressed people) is a preferred name for this community.
They are known by various names in each state and are listed along with other synonyms and subgroups. In Uttar Pradesh they are known as Raidas; in Bihar as Charmkar, Mochi or Ravidas; in Chandigarh as Jatia Chamar or Ramdasi; in Himachal Pradesh as Arya or Mochi; in Punjab as Ramdasi or Raigar; and in Haryana as Jatav or Jatia. Some of these subgroups, such as the Satnami of Madhya Pradesh, prefer not to identified with Chamars and maintain a separate identity.
They belong to a caste group of heterogeneous people who are not racially or socially homogenous. They are a conglomeration of a large number of people groups from the lowest caste regarded as untouchable according to Hindu social and religious belief. The Indian Constitution abolished the Chamar’s untouchable status and was listed in a schedule with all other lower castes (from which the term Scheduled Caste is derived) and made them eligible to receive special benefits from the government’s developmental schemes. In spite of this legislation, social stigma remains and higher castes still do not drink or eat food and water from Chamars, especially in rural areas. UP has the largest percentage (21%) and number (37 million) of the Oppressed Dalits (a collective term used for people groups considered untouchables by Hindus). The Chamar live in almost all the states of northern, central and western India.
What Are Their Lives Like?
The Chamar are partly urban and partly rural community, mostly living in the plains. In the past, the Chamar have been landless and known for their work in skin and hide work and agricultural labour. However, under the government’s post-independence land allotment programs, seven of the twenty-nine Chamar communities have become landholders. The Reservation policies for Scheduled Castes have enabled many Chamar to become government employees. Some other occupations include unskilled labour for daily wages or contract basis, masonry, basketry and self employment.
The Chamar play an important part in politics. In an attempt to rid themselves of caste bias and exploitation, they have united with other Dalits to form a national political party called the Bahujan Samaj Party which has takes an offensive position towards higher castes. The Party has been quite successful. One of its Chamar leaders, Ms. Mayawati, was elected Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh in 1995. This was a milestone in conservative Uttar Pradesh which is traditionally ruled by the higher castes.
Although education is important to the Chamars, boys are sent to school only for a short time and leave to find work in order to support the family. Girls are generally kept home as it is socially unacceptable to extend opportunities to them that are traditionally reserved for boys. The Chamar are a dynamic community and are more likely to make use of the opportunities offered by development programs in comparison to other Dalits. Family planning is increasingly acceptable to them.
The Chamar are non-vegetarians who eat mostly pork; beef is eaten in Gujarat though it is not permitted by Hindus. Some eat carrion. Goan Chamar have a diet of fish curry and rice. Other staples are wheat, rice, barley, millet and maize.
The Chamar marry within their community but maintain exogamy at village or clan level. In Uttar Pradesh, marriages between cousins are acceptable, preferably with the daughter of a mother’s brother. Marriage is arranged by negotiation between families. Child marriages are becoming less common. Marriage symbols are vermilion on the forehead, bangles and toe-rings. A dowry is given by the bride’s family though a few Chamar pay a cash bride price. Divorce is permitted on grounds of maladjustment, adultery or cruelty. Widows and divorced women are allowed to remarry.
Chamar’s live apart from their parents and in joint families. A son is entitled to an equal share of inheritance; the oldest succeeds his father as head of the family. Daughters receive no inheritance and have a low status. In villages, the women tend domestic animals, collect cow dung and make ‘pats’ that is used as fuel and sometimes also work as laborers to contribute to the family’s income. They participate in social and religious events that relate to family and community.
Community councils exercise social control. Sentencing for includes social boycott, excommunication and cash fines. The community is rich in oral tradition and has a vast repertoire of folk-songs, sung to the accompaniment of percussion instruments.
What Are Their Beliefs?
Chamar communities are mainly Hindu but some are Buddhist and Sikh. In North India, most Hindu Chamar belong to the Raidasi sect and worship guru Ravidas, a disciple of Ramananda, who is known as a champion for promoting change for the oppressed Chamar. Other gods, family and village deities are also worshipped.
The Jatav, a subgroup of the Chamar famous for leather craftsmanship, live in the districts of Agra and Mathura and disassociate their community from other Chamar. The Jatav continue mass conversions to Buddhism since 1956, when Dr. Ambedkar, a champion for India’s disadvantaged people, embraced Buddhism. Festivals for his birth and death anniversaries are held in his honor.
In Haryana, some Chamar, influenced by Dr. Ambedkar, converted to Buddhism, while others are Christian and Sikh. Sociologists have found that despite calling themselves Buddhists, old Hindu beliefs are so ingrained that they coexist with their belief in Ambedkar and Buddha. Some Chamar communities also believe in spirits and the ‘evil eye’ and consult sorcerers. Bihari deities include Sati, and Sitala Mata, while in Goa, Ganesh and Shiva are worshipped. Most Chamar in Punjab and Chandigarh are Sikh and are called Ramdasi after Guru Ramdas the fifth Sikh Guru. They bow down before the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs. The Nirankari and Radhasaomi sects advocate worship to an omnipresent Supreme Being who is without form, does away with rituals and idolatry and provides close fellowship within equals.
What Are Their Needs?
The basic needs of the Chamar are financial security and literacy. A greater need is for equal opportunity, dignity and freedom from discrimination. .