'We Are All Chamars': From Anger and Impotence to a New Assertiveness

The first stage of their protest having been a huge success, Dalits in Gujarat now plan on taking their agitation to the next level.

Ahmedabad:Ham log sab Chamar hai,” (We are all Chamars) announced Hirabhai, his weather-beaten face beaming with apparent pride. I did a double take, used as I was, to carefully avoiding terms that have become synonymous with dominant caste abuse.

Hirabhai and the gang of young men who entered the Navsarjan office, in Ahmedabad, were the heroes of the hour in Dalit Gujarat. They were upbeat and optimistic. Apparently, fear had fled.

“We are used to being beaten up,” Hirabhai, older and more experienced, says. “Our fathers and grandfathers have seen much suffering. But the big halla of beating us up for skinning cows is the most unfair thing that could happen. This has been our work, for centuries. Who else will skin a dead cow or buffalo? Who else is called when a buffalo or goat, or even a dog or cat dies in the village. Every sarpanch (village headman) has our mobile numbers to summon us to remove carrion. All these years, if we refused to do this work they would beat us. I’ve heard of a Dalit man who was a headmaster in the city but when he came to the village, the durbars threatened him. ‘You can become a teacher or headmaster in the city. But here you are a Chamar. And if we tell you to pick up a dead dog, you will obey.”

“So if we didn’t pick up dead animals they would beat us. Now, they order us to pick up dead cows and buffaloes. And the gau rakshaks stop us and beat us up.”

“Everything is about money. They try to squeeze money out of us. If you can pay as much as they demand, they will let you go. But if we constantly pay the bribes, how can we survive?  Jains, Hindus, OBC shepherds all call us. When we take the animal they say ‘dharm dhan ke liya kooch do‘ (give us something for wealth and prosperity). We have to put our hands in our pockets and give them money. They will sprinkle water on it to avoid pollution from us Chamars, but they will take our money.”

Hirabhai has been stopped and attacked twice in recent years. “Once I was stopped in Limdi because I was carrying chamda (leather) and another time in Wadhwan because I was transporting a few carcasses. They overturned my pick-up. Smashed the glass. Hit the car with iron rods. Ever since the gau rakshak movement has received the PMs blessings we suffer here.”

“Gujarat has over 200 panjrapoles where cows are sheltered. The owners call us to take the dead cows. But they do this through tenders. We have to pay Rs 8 lakh per year to get the  deal through, to receive the dead animals. There’s big competition. The panjarapole owners put forward two or three Dalit parties to get the highest price.

“Obviously, local Dalits try to pay a lower price. Then the owners will call some Muslim businessmen and get a higher price. So there’s always anger and tension around the deals. Muslims, Patels and Brahmins vie for the tenders.  They’ll find the poorest, most drunk Chamars and give them ;iquor and a little money to skin the animal. We do the labour, they skim off the profits. But they don’t want us to grab the big business of dead animals. We are fed up of the hypocrisy.”


They continue to educate me. “Some cows have a certain stone in the gall bladder, I think.  We call it ‘gorochana‘. It fetches five to seven thousand rupees. It’s used in ayurvedic medicine…” They laugh. “Ask Baba Ramdev, perhaps he uses it in his medicines. One dead cow fetches thousands of rupees. They use the chamda for shoes, bags, belts, upholstery of expensive car seats, leather sofas etc. The horns are used for ornamental purposes. The hair is used to make expensive brushes. The hooves are exported. The bones are powdered and exported for bone china abroad and to vegetarian Rajasthan for expensive pottery.”

“Sister, the boiled flesh is shredded for chicken feed. In Anand they make gelatin for pharmaceutical and edible uses. Gelatin is made in Sterling, Vadodara. All vegetarians consume these products in medicines or food. They pretend not to know.” Slightly doubtful, I google Sterling, Vadodara and sure enough, they were spot on.

“Ben,” they said patiently, as though to a child, “all animal bones end up in these factories for different purposes. Everyone uses them.”

​Nattubhai​ giving a memorandum with the demands of the leather workers union to the  district collector. Credit: Mari Marcel Thekaekara

​Nattubhai​ giving a memorandum with the demands of the leather workers union to the district collector. Credit: Mari Marcel Thekaekara

Nattubhai intervenes. I’ve known Nattu since 1997 when he took me around Gujarat to cover manual scavenging in the state. His life story is fascinating. When he was 8-years-old, he started jumping on local trains to earn money polishing shoes. Then he sat outside cinema halls in Sarkhej as he made more polishing there.

He soon started helping his father to tie dead cows to a pole to carry them from farms to the skinning centres. Then leather tanning work when he was about 10 years old. He joined Navsarjan Trust in 1997 and began working for Dalit rights.

“In 2014,” Nattubhai says, “we Chamars, raised the issue about cows dying from consuming plastic at garbage heaps.”

“What was the outcome?” I asked. “Oh, the collector sent letters  to the Nagarpalika. For two days, we collected a lot of plastic and organised an anti-plastic pollution drive. But nothing actually  happened.”

Nattu has gained confidence from fighting numerous battles for his people and has now assumed a leadership role in his community. “We were all sitting around watching the video of the four boys being thrashed in Una. Feeling angry and impotent, we thought we must do something. Then the idea came. We must teach them a lesson. Give them back their mothers. Let them start their own funerals. So we put three to four cow carcasses in pick ups and threw them in front of the collectorate. Here’s your mother. Now you deal with it.”

It’s the single, most simple and effective protest gesture coming from Dalits. And the impact is huge.

Other areas followed suit. They have made history.

Now the group is bringing together more people from their community. They will form a leather workers sanghatan (collective) and present the following charter of demands to the government

  1. The Gujarat leather industry development board which has been closed, should be reopened and a special budget allocated to provide economic support to leather tanners with necessary equipment to run their business.
  2. In rural areas, land should be allocated for removal of carcasses with high walls to protect workers from vigilantes.
  3. Vehicles like auto rickshaws and pick-up trucks and loans with relief from vehicle tax should be provided.
  4. Identity cards and permission letters should be provided so we cannot be obstructed by police or cow vigilantes and be physically abused or beaten up.
  5. Government must increase scholarships and loans for higher education for our children.
  6. Government should do a survey of these families and provide lands for people stopping leather tanning work. It should give them assistance for rehabilitation.
  7. Panjrapoles are animal shelters related to our work. Give us the responsibility to take care of panjrapoles in accordance with our livelihoods as we are the true cow sevaks (caretakers). The current people get subsidies but do not look after the cows and neglect them.

Whether they will get their land or their panjrapoles is a huge question mark.

One thing is certain though. For the Dalits of Gujarat, they’ve inspired a movement. And there can be no going back.