Reconsidering Untouchability

Reconsidering Untouchability

Chamars and Dalit History in North India
Ramnarayan S. Rawat
Distribution: World excluding South Asia
Publication date: 3/16/2011
Format: paper 298 pages, 11 b&w illus., 1 map
6 x 9
ISBN: 978-0-253-22262-6
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Winner of the Joseph W. Elder Prize in the Indian Social Sciences, American Institute of Indian Studies
Honorable Mention, Association for Asian Studies, Bernard S. Cohn Prize
Often identified as leatherworkers or characterized as a criminal caste, Chamars of North India have long been stigmatized as untouchables. In this pathbreaking study, Ramnarayan S. Rawat shows that in fact the majority of Chamars have always been agriculturalists, and their association with the ritually impure occupation of leatherworking has largely been constructed through Hindu, colonial, and postcolonial representations of untouchability. Rawat undertakes a comprehensive reconsideration of the history, identity, and politics of this important Dalit group. Using Dalit vernacular literature, local-level archival sources, and interviews in Dalit neighborhoods, he reveals a previously unrecognized Dalit movement which has flourished in North India from the earliest decades of the 20th century and which has recently achieved major political successes.
Published in association with the American Institute of Indian Studies

Author Bio

Ramnarayan S. Rawat is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Delaware.


"A timely and important contribution to the study of modern India. Rawat’s excellent and revisionist piece of Dalit history successfully overturns the stereotypical image of Chamars as leather-workers. It also helps us to understand why the ex-untouchables of north India came to invest in a politics of identity that challenged both nationalists and socialists alike." —Dipesh Chakrabarty, University of Chicago

"Challenges and revises our understanding of the historical and contemporary role of dalits in Indian society. A pathbreaking book that rightfully restores the historical agency of and gives voice to dalits in north India." —Anand A. Yang, University of Washington

Reconsidering Untouchability is a valuable addition to [the] recent tradition of caste interpretation . . . [He] elicits from the history of the Chamars of . . . Uttar Pradesh a historiographical and sociological position which is both viable and distinctive, identifies new departures for a history of 'untouchability' itself, and defends the position from challenges." —Ssheej Hegde , Central University Hyderabad , H-Asia, H-Net Reviews , April 2012

"Awarded the Joseph W. Elder Prize in the Indian Social Sciences, Ramnarayan Rawat's
Reconsidering Untouchability charts a new trajectory for scholarship on Dalitis in North India." —The Journal of Asian Studies

"Reconsidering Untouchability overall stands as an authoritative challenge to conventional accounts of Dalit history." —American Historical Review

"This engaging historiography of Dalit identity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in northern India is a significant contribution to understanding the situation of the “untouchables” in Indian society as a whole." —Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Untouchable Boundaries: Chamars and the Politics of Identity and History
1. Making Chamars Criminal: The Crime of Cattle Poisoning
2. Investigating the Stereotype: Chamar Peasants and Agricultural Laborers
3. Is the Leather Industry a Chamar Enterprise? The Making of Leatherworkers
4. Struggle for Identities: Chamar Histories and Politics
5. From Chamars to Dalits: The Making of an Achhut Identity and Politics, 1927—56
Conclusion: Overcoming Domination: The Emergence of a New Achhut Identity

Appendix: Statistical Tables
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