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Are Chamars teasing your daughters?

Ish Mishra shows a glimpse of the changing social equations and the breaking-down of the imposed ‘harmony’ in villages and their march towards equality

My village is about 200-250 years old but its socio-economic structure during my childhood (1950-70) was as it must have been a thousand years ago. Bullock-drawn ploughs were used in farms and water was drawn from wells and ponds using “charkhi” and “bedi”. Thanks to the sub-canals and branches from the dam built on Sharda River and government handpumps in the some villages, farming was comparatively developed. Like other traditional production techniques, “charkhi” and “bedi” are no longer seen and have become irrelevant. Most of the area had one crop a year. The fields where Rabi crops were grown were ploughed immediately after the rains. In the months of Kuar and Katik, when the soil was soft due to ploughing, boys played “jhawar” or “badi” in the fields after sunset. Water levels were maintained in paddy fields by building high “meds”. The water-filled fields were called “gadhi”. The water was so clean that we sometimes even drank it. Paddy cultivation was entirely dependent on monsoons. In the 1960s, the area experienced drought for two-three years. By then, bullock-driver Persian wheel had been introduced. This made irrigation easier. Chemical fertilizers revolutionized agriculture and most of the farmers started growing two crops a year. But here, we are not concerned about how the means of irrigation changed from “charkhi” to “Persian wheel” to tubewells and how, instead of bullocks, tractors started being used for ploughing. The changing means of production and production relations is not the subject matter of this article. Here, I want to dwell on the socio-economic structure of the village, as I saw it.

267119The social and production relations were based on Varnashram Dharma. All the families were joint. There were 7-8 Rajput and 17-18 Brahmin families. Two Rajput families had “six-plough” land, one had “four-plough” and the rest “three-plough”. In Panchayat elections, the entire village became divided into two camps, led by the two biggest landowners. All the Brahmin families had single-plough land. In my family, the land had not been divided for the past couple of generations, hence we also had two-plough land. Two Brahmin families were purohits. They were relatively well-off and were considered shrewd. The village was divided into caste-based settlements called “purvas”. Chamars had the biggest population. The Chamar families of two “purvas” worked the fields and were effectively bonded labourers. In the election, they supported their respective employers. Then there were Nai, Lohar, Badhai, Dharikar (bamboo workers), Dhobhi, Kahar and Dhunia families, too. There were 10-15 Muslim Dhunia families and some of the wealthier ones had started describing themselves as Shaikhs and Syeds. There were some Yadav and Pasi families, too. Some Yadavs had small landholdings while others were tenant-farmers, cattle-rearers and the musclemen of the Thakur families. Dhobhis and Chamars were considered untouchable. In the houses of savarnas, they were served food either in their own utensils or in pattals. The harwahas (farm labourers) of the Thakur and Brahmin families had been serving their masters for generations and, like ancient Greek slaves, were part of their households. They had “feudal attachment” with the families they served. Just as had happened in Europe after the end of slavery, some of the harwahas were given land to grow crops. Besides afternoon meals, they were given one or one-and-a-half “ser” food grains as daily wages. On festivals, they were given some gifts and “kharihani” [1-2 basket(s) of food grains]. All the members of the families of harwahas harvested crops and their total wages was one-twentieth of the produce. The “dais” (midwives) also came from these families. In 1977, when I presented an ordinary sari to my dai, she told the whole village about it. As most of the Muslims were from lower castes, for us, they too were just a caste, not a people of another religion. In our house, they were served tea in “kulhars” and the upper-caste Muslims from the neighbouring villages were given tea or water in bone china or glass cups.

There was perfect harmony in the village. There was never any casteist or communal tension or violence because domination by certain castes was considered God’s will. How could anyone challenge the Almighty? Those who provided services and artisans were not paid in cash immediately. Their clients were fixed and received payments at intervals, mostly in kind. Different castes had different cultural practices and celebrated different festivals but everyone had great reverence for Satyanarayan Katha and for Ram of Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas. During the recital of Ramcharitmanas, the lines “Dhol, ganwar, shudra, pashu, nari; ye sab tadan ke adhikari” were also sung. Marx has rightly pointed out that the level of social consciousness is in keeping with the specific stage of development. The Brahmin purohits did perform religious rituals in Chamar settlements but instead of tales of local deities like Kali Mai (who lives in Neem trees) or Kariya Dev (who lives in Peepal trees), they fed Satyanarayan Katha to them. As for the educational level, I was the first boy of the village to study in a university and my classmate Bhawati Dhobi was the first SC to pass high school.

People of all castes owed loyalty to one or the other rival Thakur families. I was told that until the 1952 Panchayat elections, political parties entering the fray here. Before reservation norms were put in place, the village chief (pradhan) was chosen alternately from the two families. Besides more people having access to education, aggressive electoral politics of the BSP also played a key role in developing identity-based consciousness among the Dalits of eastern Uttar Pradesh. When I was a kid, I could not understand why even elderly Dalits tolerated insults from the boys of upper castes, especially Brahmins and Thakurs. This, when their population was much bigger than of all savarnas, Yadavs and Pasis taken together, and given the fact that they did hard physical labour, they must have been stronger in body too. At that time, I was not aware of Marx’s analysis of zeitgeist and social consciousness and Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. Marx writes in Theses On Feuerbach that consciousness is the product of material circumstances and changed consciousness of changed material circumstances. But circumstances do not change on their own. Humans have to make a conscious effort to change them. The last 25 years have witnessed tremendous growth in awareness of education among the Dalits. Due to their numbers and more of them receiving an education, their clout in the village politics has grown. Now, they have started demanding just, cash wages and they resist caste-based humiliation. Many young boys and girls are educated and are in good jobs.

This was a long introduction to a short story. The story goes like this.

mayawati-kanshiramIt must have been 1997 or 1998. Mayawati, with the support of the BJP, had become the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. I remember this because a couple of days before this incident, I had had an heated argument with Chandrabhan Prasad, my JNU classmate and the new theoretician of “natural Brahmin-Dalit unity” to resist the “oppression” of the backward classes. But here, there is no scope for the history of the sociology and economics of villages. I was visiting my village during a summer vacation. On the way home, I happened to meet Shyambihari Singh, who belonged to my father’s generation. Our dialogue, in Bhojpuri, went like this:

“Son, take me along with you to Delhi and get me the job of a peon or a guard. It has become impossible to live in the village because of Chamars.”

“Are they taking away the crops from your field?”

“No. They dare not.”

“Then, they must be abusing you in public places.”

“No. They still don’t have the guts to do that.”

“Then, do they pass comments on your women?”

That was more than he could take. He lost his temper and began abusing me for lacking values and for giving a bad name to my family. Then, he began pouring scorn on communists in general. I told him, “Chacha, they are not taking away your crops, though you have been living off their hard work for ages. They are not abusing you, though they tolerated your abuses for ages. They are not eyeing your women even though you forgot about they being Untouchables when it came to their women. Then, how have they made life difficult for you? You think that extracting unpaid work from them, treating them like dirt is your right. When they refused to work for you without wages, when they started resisting your abuses, you say life has become difficult for you.” By this time, a crowd had gathered and I found myself involved in a one-versus-all debate. Thankfully, there was no danger of my being beaten up.

People are upset because of the assault on their right to exploitation. These assaults should continue till caste is annihilated.

About The Author

Ish Mishra

Ish Mishra is active in social movements and has taught political science in Hindu College, Delhi University.

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