Beyond politics, the Bihar caste survey is a revolutionary document.
A public document, the first ever after 1931, allowing for people to stand up and be counted.
We go down to the wire, on what each of the numbers unveiled mean.
Who are the people referred to by percentages in the survey?
Today we look at Chamar (6,869,664 people).
There are some communities which are spread in every corner of the country. One such community is the Chamar caste. According to the caste-based survey report 2022 released by the Bihar government, there are 6,869,664 people belonging to this caste in Bihar, which is about 5.255 % of the total population.
The political presence of the caste group has also been quite significant and it is no surprise that Jagjivan Ram, who hailed from this caste group, was at one point so influential that former prime minister Indira Gandhi used to address him as “Babu ji”. In 1977, when a non-Congress government was formed, he was made the deputy Prime Minister. In Bihar itself, a place where ‘upper’ castes have remained dominant, Ramsundar Das, of the community, was chief minister from April 21, 1979 to February 17, 1980. Notably, this was at a time when Kanshi Ram’s Bahujan movement had not yet reached Bihar.
However, there is a huge difference between political and social consciousness. To understand why the people of the Chamar caste group are mistreated even today, there is need for deep sociological reflection.
The development of human civilisation is a continuous process. None of its phases were completed immediately after they began. For example, in their course of development, humans adopted farming after hunting which was a great achievement for the human race ever since its origin. But since it was a collective achievement, it can be said that the primitive ancestors of all the people who have ever lived on this earth were farmers. In India, the remains of the Indus Valley civilisation indicate that agriculture was the most important activity. People carried out farming but they were also craftsmen who moulded urban civilisation in their own respective ways.
Then how were castes created? How did someone become a cobbler from a farmer when everybody’s main occupation was farming? This is a question which has not been discussed in academia enough.
Chamars are historically a caste group which has maintained their hold on both farming and craftsmanship as occupations. In this regard, they are similar to carpenters (badhai) or blacksmiths (lohar). Potters (kumhar) can also be included in this category; they made utensils, pitchers and tiles from clay. Like all these crafts, the craft of the chamar or cobbler is also fascinating. The people of this caste group ares also cattle herder, but they did not leave the corpses of dead animals to rot. They rendered even their mortal remains useful and it was owing to them that humans were able to protect themselves in the cold season by covering themselves with skins the Chamar people removed from dead animals.
Strangely, the deity Shankar who is depicted as wearing the skin of a dead animal is worshiped by people of this country but the very people who have removed that skin from the animal and turned it into a piece of clothing for even the gods to adorn were deemed ‘untouchable’. Even today, this caste group is mistreated.
If one considers unrecorded history, the contribution of Chamars in farming has been no less than that of blacksmiths and carpenters. The people of the carpenter community made the wooden plough, and the blacksmiths smelted iron to make the plow which penetrates the ground and turns the soil. But none of this would be possible if the people of the Chamar caste had not made the leather bag which is used in the bellows, to collect air and thereby heat the coal of the furnace so that it melts even iron. It was an amazing invention about which nothing has been recorded, anywhere. The people of Chamar caste appear to have been the first to use valves. They learned from experience that there is no place in the world without air. Thus they made a big leather bag and fitted a valve in it so that when the bellow was lifted, air would rush in through the valve and when it was pressed, the valve would close and the air would come out through a fixed path and increase the temperature of the burning coal.
In terms of public health as well, the people of Chamar caste have made a significant contribution by saving humanity from various epidemics. They carried the dead bodies of animals out of the village area, a practice which continues even today. Had they not been doing so, village after village would fall victim to various contagious diseases.
The caste system can be said to have destroyed the syncretic culture of India in which there was no distinction between blacksmiths, carpenters, potters, cobblers and other farmer groups. Whatever skill a person had was used and it laid the foundation of a developed society.
Currently, the most persecuted among the Dalits are people of the Chamar caste. Be it Rajasthan or Uttar Pradesh, they are beaten, tortured and killed for trivial reasons like riding horses or donning a moustache. Even today, the stigma of untouchability is such that if they drink water from an ‘upper’ caste person’s pitcher, they are killed as punishment.
In terms of political consciousness, the people of Chamar caste are enlightened. As a result no political party is in a position to ignore them today. People of this caste no longer support a party out of fear. Today they have their own ideology which was inspired by the ideology of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.
Famous mystic poet and saint Raidas’s message of breaking the caste barrier is an inspiration. Raidas was born in Kashi, Uttar Pradesh, but his message reached far and wide, including Bihar. The same Raidas, who had dreamed of Begumpura and had said – “Said Raidas Khalas Chamara, the one who hails from that city is a friend of ours.”
Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman. Read the Hindi original here.