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Chamar Regiment

During the Second World War, the British raised two regiments that were exclusively from Scheduled Castes - the Chamar Regiment and the Mahar Regiment. The former had to be disbanded during the War, as they could not meet their recruitment quotas. The latter had to be converted into an all India, open class Regiment, as they were not able to get enough recruits from the Mahars alone to meet the recruitment quotas.

The Chamar had a history of military service. Many Chamar families are descended from Kshatriya communities, and share common family names, for example Bhatti, Chauhan or Toor. Many Chamars were recruited in British Indian Army during World War I and II on various ranks. Their contribution in these great wars was exempelary. They received many medals and stars in recognition of their bravery and honest contribution in these wars after being recruited in various regiments of Brish India Army. The Ist Chamar Regiment was awarded the 'BATTLE HONOUR OF KOHIMA' for its distinguished role in the 2nd World War. Former Pakistani Leader Ayub Khan was an officer of the Chamar Regiment.

The Chamar were the tanner and leather-worker of North-Western India, and in the western parts of the Punjab he was called Moohi, whenever he is, as he generally is, a Muslim, the caste being one and the same. The name Chamar is derived from the Sanskrit Chamarkara or "worker in hides." But in the east of the province he is far more than a leather-worker. He is the general coolie and field laborer of the villages ; and a Chamar, if asked his caste by an Englishman at any rate, will answer "Coolie" as often as "Chamar." They do all the legar, or such work as cutting grass, carrying wood and bundles, acting as watchmen, and the like ; and they plaster the houses with mud when they need it. They take the hides of all dead cattle and the flesh of all cloven-footed animals, that of such as do not divide the hoof going to Chúhras. They make and mend shoes, thongs for the cart, and whips and other leather work ; and above all they do an immense deal of hard work in the fields, each family supplying each cultivating association with the continuous labour of a certain number of hands. All this they do as village menials, receiving fixed customary dues in the shape of a share of the produce of the fields. In the east and south-east of the Punjab the village Chamare also do a great deal of weaving, which however is paid for separately. The Chamars stood far above the Chúhras in social position, and some of their tribes were almost accepted as Hindus. They are generally dark in colour, and are almost certainly of Aboriginal origin, though here again their numbers have perhaps been swollen by members of other and higher castes who have fallen or been degraded. The people say : "Do not cross the ferry with a Black Bráham or a fair Chamar," one being as unusual as the other. Their women are celebrated for beauty, and loss of caste is often attributed to too great partiality for a Chamárni. The Chamar caste appeared to be much more extensive and to include much more varied tribes in Hindustan than in the Punjab.

This is one of the most numerous of the inferior castes. Many of its members are menial servants, especially those of the first or Jaiswara subdivision. They are willing, obedient, patient, and capable of great endurance ; yet are apt to be light-fingered and deceitful. It is a singular phenomenon, and hard to be explained, that, although they come so much in contact with foreign residents in India, they should, nevertheless, have been so little improved by such intercourse. I believe that of all the Hindus who have been brought extensively under European influence, they have profited the least. This may partly be accounted for, but not wholly, by the degraded condition which they have held for many generations, whereby the caste intellect has become permanently blunted and enfeebled. This inability to assimilate new ideas and to advance beyond the old deteriorated mental standard of the caste, is apparent not merely among the Chamars, but also among the inferior castes generally. There is a marked difference of intellectal power between them and all the superior castes, especially the Brahmanical. The vis inertice of the former is immeasurably greater than of the latter; and after the most persistent efforts to educate him, the low caste man seldom or never rises to even the mediocrity of ability exhibited by the better castes.

The higher castes look contemptuously on the Chamars, and regard them as an unclean race. This is owing chiefly, perhaps, to the fact that they are traders in leather, an impure substance, in the estimation of Hindus. A Brahman or other Hindu of any strictness will touch nothing made of leather. Hence, books bound with this material, are very obnoxious to such a man. This feeling, though still very strong in some parts of the country, is becoming much enfeebled among Hindus, of all castes, who associate with Europeans, or receive instruction in their schools. The word Chamar comes from Cham, leather ; and the members of the caste are tanners, leather-sellers, leather- cutters, leather-dyers, shoemakers, shoemenders, curriers, and harness-makers. There is, however, another reason for this supercilious disdain on the part of the better castes towards the Chamars. It is commonly thought that they do not belong to the Hindu race, except by a very remote relationship ; that, in short, they are properly out-castes, and have no right to be regarded as Hindus. Who the Chamars and other inferior castes originally were, has been for some time a puzzling question to ethnologists. From their appearance, complexion, and social position, it has been concluded, that some of them partially, and others entirely, are descended from aboriginal tribes.

Trade industries are carried on and are accepted in India as the ordinary means of livelihood of certain castes, tribes, or clans. The fact of a man belonging to a particular caste does not, however, necessarily imply that he gains his living by the special calling of his class. Men of various castes are thus found as domestic servants, laborers, Government employes, and in various callings other than the specified ro1e of their caste.

One of these numerous castes, a very degraded one, is known as the Chamar caste. Their ordinary business is the curing of raw hides, and working generally in leather as shoemakers, saddlers, &c. In every village, or group of villages, there is a family of this caste, the senior male member of which holds the position of chief or Sirdar Chamar. Throughout the particular village, or group of villages, to which this right extends the Sirdar Chamar has a recognized claim to the skins of all cattle dying within his circle, and this is fully acknowledged by every one. When, therefore, any animal dies, notice is at once given to the family of the Sirdar Chamar of the circle, who arrange to remove the carcass and appropriate the skin.

This privilege is burdened with certain conditions, which vary in different places. Some of these conditions are, the necessity to supply gratis one or two pairs of shoes yearly to the landed proprietor and certain servants connected with the management of the estate, the provision of all the leather thongs used for yoking the plough cattle of the village, and attendance as drum beaters and porters to carry burthens in the wedding processions of the family of their landlords. With the sole exception of the Chamar, no native be he of what caste or religion soever, will have anything to do with the carcase of any animal that dies in his possession.

Contact with a dead body is looked upon, even by the lower castes, as pollution, and one so polluted would only again be received into caste by incurring a considerable expenditure of money. No one else then, but the Sirdar Chamar and his family have any direct interest in the death of cattle, and it follows that such deaths ultimately benefit the Sirdar Chamar and his family alone, except the dealers in hides who purchase from the Chamars.

Such even would be the result where one neighbour fron in spite or enmity might destroy the cattle of another, and where the Chamar himself was perfectly innocent of any act or part in the transaction. Therefore, whenever there is reason to suspect that poison or other improper means have been employed to cause the death of cattle, the Sirdar Chamar and his family, rightly or wrongly, almost invariably fall under suspicion of being the direct or indirect authors of the offence. From long and at times painful experience, the Sirdar Chamar and his people are quite alive to this fact, and when contemplating the commission of such a crime, exercise every care to avoid detection. To carry out such a design is, for the Chamars, comparatively easy ; to bring suspicion home in the shape of proof against the suspected parties causes an immense amount of trouble to the Police, and is very often impossible. The Chamars may^ be vilified and assaulted by the indignant villagers ; still the result is the same, the Chamar gets the skin, and this after all is what he wants. The Chamar has often a powerful ally in his landlord, who, from interested motives interposes to prevent his maltreatment, because ill-usage of the Chamar may mean considerable inconvenience to himself, as both he and his household might be deprived of the articles of leather, which from time immemorial it has been the custom of the Chamars to supply. As each skin possesses a money value, it can be readily understood that the income of a chief or Sirdar Chamar must be materially affected after he has supplied gratis the needs of his landlord, by the number of animals which die within the limits of his particular circle.

This fact explains why the death of cattle should be compassed, viz., to meet either the necessities or the cupidity of the Sirdar Chamar and his family.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:43:37 ZULU