Note: The use of the words “Chamar”, “Untouchables”, and “Untouchability” in this article is in a historical context of the self-identified terminology pertaining to the time when these events took place.
“Where there is no affliction or suffering
Neither anxiety nor fear, taxes nor capital
No menace, no terror, no humiliation…
Says Ravidas the emancipated Chamar:
One who shares with me that city is my friend.”
– Guru Ravidas
(This unpublished translation by Joel Lee appears in Arundhati Roy’s “The Doctor and The Saint”)
When Guru Ravidas envisioned this utopian un-segregated land of Be-gham-pura (the city without sorrow), he spoke with the collective voice of the Untouchable community.
Guru Ravidas was one of the most prominent poets of the Bhakti Movement in 15th-16th century. Born into an Untouchable Chamar caste family, he retained his caste occupation as a cobbler and inspired social reform through his Bhakti poetry, using it as a middle path of social protest against caste based exclusion and oppression. His protest was novel, understated, yet dangerous, as he challenged upper caste Hindus even in the way he dressed- wearing dhoti, janeu, and tilak-which were forbidden for the Untouchables.
It was under the influence of great mystic saints like Guru Ravidas himself, Maharishi Balmiki Ji, Satguru Namdev Ji and Bhagat Kabir Ji, that a new religion- Ad Dharm was conceptualized in Pre-Independence India. The Ad Dharm Mandal was founded on 11th -12th June 1926 A.D. at village Muggowal of District Hoshiarpur in Punjab. It was founded by Babu Mangoo Ram of village Muggowal along with Master Gurbanta Singh and sought to separate the Achhut Panth (Untouchable community) from the Hindus and remedy the generational impacts of caste atrocities and trauma. The Ad Dharm Mandal called for free primary education for their children and separate representation in all public bodies and legislature.
The context of this radical movement came as a consequence of a series of events set off by the British occupation of Punjab in the early 20th century. Once the British established cantonments and started developing urban centers, new employment opportunities arose for the Chamar caste who worked primarily with leather and supplying raw animal hide. Many of them started manufacturing leather goods for the British army and started to move into towns. The ones who made the most of these opportunities also migrated to abroad to England, USA and Canada. The resulting social and economic upward mobility enabled education and exposure which fuelled political awareness and uprising.
The British administrative structure also deployed governance based on categorizing the population of India in terms of religious communities for the purposes of colonial Census. This led to distinctions and differentiations of identity along sharp lines, prompting anxiety among major religions to consolidate their numbers.
“Reform” movements from both Hindu and Sikh organizations started targeting the Dalit community. While the “Shuddhi Movement” encouraged Untouchables to “purify” themselves and be embraced (figuratively) in mainstream Hinduism, Sikh reformers expostulated that since the tenets of Sikhism rejected caste altogether, the Untouchable community would be able to shed off caste identity altogether. Both approaches had their problematic stances and failings, and this created the neccesity and space for the Ad Dharm movement.
The Ad Dharam movement did succeed in mobilizing the Chamars of Doaba region and in instilling a new sense of confidence in them. They made petitions, speeches, led marches, and called for the abolishment of “Untouchability”. The Ad Dharmis are today among the most prosperous and educated of the Dalit communities of the country. But by 1931, as the movement founders started occupying political posts and eventually accepted the classification of Ad Dharmis as a scheduled caste under Hinduism in the Census, the movement lost its momentum and an evolution of Ad Dharmis into Ravidasis (followers of Guru Ravidas) began.
Nationally, as the Dalit movement took hold under Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the Ad Dharmis alligned and merged with the national movement. The Ad Dharam Mandal began to see itself as a social and religious organization and in 1946 decided to change its name to the Ravi Das Mandal, ‘entrusting the political work to All India Scheduled Castes Federation in conformity with rest of India’.
This Republic Day, as we honour the day our Indian Constitution came into force, we also honour Dr. Ambedkar, who drafted it. On this day, we also honour the long standing struggle of the Dalit community and the various organizations, leaders, and movements that have challenged the draconian caste system. Each of these movements has had its own struggles, obstacles, and successes and they all deserve to be remembered and placed in historical context, as we are still, as a country working at the uphill task of annihilating caste.
1. Dalit activists who have been fighting the good fight
2. Rising Dalit voices against CAA
3. Let Us Strengthen the Idea of India and Defend Our Secular Constitution
4. Do Dalits & Adivasis not suffer religious persecution, asks anti-CAA meet