Chamar is a large caste among the Scheduled Castes in North India.
The word ' chamar ' comes from the word ' chamda ' ( चमड़ा ) i,e, leather. Chamars were those who did leather work i.e. making shoes, leather bags,etc in feudal society.
As i mentioned in my blog 'Caste System' ( see justicekatju.blogspot.in ), though caste in India appears to have originally had a racial origin ( the word 'varna' literally means colour ), subsequently caste system developed into the feudal, occupational division of labour in feudal society. In other .words, every vocation,e.g. potter ( kumhar ), carpenter ( badhai ), iron smith ( lohar ), barber ( nai ), etc became a caste.. So leather workers also became a caste called 'chamar'.
Upto the coming of the British in the 18th century, chamars were a respectable caste because chamars earned their livelihood, and in fact were indispensable, in feudal society.
It was after the British conquered India in the 18th and early 19th centuries and destroyed the massive handicraft industry in India, thus making tens of millions of Indians unemployed and driven to destitution, beggary, crime and starvation, ( see my blog ' Dinner at the German Embassy' ) that chamars, along with many other castes, were driven down the social ladder, because they lost their livelihood as their hand made products were driven out of the market. by factory products e.g. Bata shoes. When a person becomes unemployed and cannot earn his livelihood he becomes indigent and goes down the social ladder, and is looked down upon. And this is what happened to chamars.
In my decision in the Supreme Court ( in a bench along with Justice Alatamas Kabir ) in Swaran Singh vs. State through Standing Counsel ( 2008 ) I traced the history of chamars and observed :
" The question in this case is whether calling a person `Chamar' amounts to intentionally insulting with intent to humiliate a member of the Scheduled Caste.
It is true that Chamar is the name of a caste among Hindus who were traditionally persons who made leather goods by handicraft [vide the People of India by Watson Kaye, the Tribes & Castes of the North-Western Provinces and Oudh by W.Crooke, The Chamars of Uttar Pradesh by A.B Mukerji, The Chamar Artisans by Satish Kumar Sharma, The Tribes and Castes of the North-Western India by W. Crooke etc.]. The word `chamar' is derived from the Hindi word `chamda' which means leather.
Before the coming of the British into India, the Chamars were a stable socio-economic group who were engaged in manufacturing leather goods by handicraft. As is well-known, feudal society was characterized by the feudal occupational division of labour in society. In other words, every vocation or occupation in India became a caste e.g. Dhobi (washerman), Badhai (carpenter), Lohar (blacksmith), Kumbhar (potter) etc. The same was the position in other countries also during feudal times. Thus, even now many Britishers have the surname Baker, Butcher, Taylor, Smith, Carpenter, Gardener, Mason, Turner, etc. which shows that their ancestors belonged to these professions.
It is estimated that before the coming of the British into India about 40% of the population of India was engaged in industry while the rest of the population was engaged in agriculture. This industry was no doubt handicraft industry, and not mill industry. Nevertheless, there was a very high level production of goods in India by these handicraft industries before the coming of the British, and many of these goods were exported often up to Europe, the Middle East, China, etc. e.g. Dacca Muslin, Murshidabad silk, and other kind of textiles, etc.
A rough and ready test of the level of economic development of a country is to find out how much percentage of the population is engaged in industry, and how much in agriculture. The greater the percentage of population in industry and lesser in agriculture the more prosperous the country. Thus, the U.S.A., the most prosperous country in the world today has only about 2 or 3% of its population in agriculture, while the rest is in industry or services.
India was a relatively prosperous country before the coming of the British because a high percentage of the people (which could be up to 40%) was engaged at that time in industry (though no doubt this was handicraft industry, not mill industry). Thus, Lord Clive around 1757 (when the battle of Plassey was fought) described Murshidabad (which was then the capital of Bengal) as a city more prosperous than London, vide `Glimpses of World History' by Jawaharlal Nehru (Third Impression p.416, chapter entitled `The Indian Artisan goes to the wall').
When the British conquered India they introduced the products of their mill industry into India, and exorbitantly raised the export duties on the Indian handicraft products. Thereby they practically destroyed the handicraft industry in India. The result was that by the end of the British rule hardly 10% or even less of the population of India was still in the handicraft industry, and the rest of those who were earlier engaged in the handicraft industry were made unemployed. In this way about 30% of the population of India who were employed in handicraft industry became unemployed, and were driven to starvation, destitution, beggary or crime (the thugs and `criminal' tribes were really these unemployed sections of society). As an English Governor General wrote in 1834, `the bones of the cotton weavers are bleaching the plains of India'
In this connection it may be noted that in the revenue records in many states in our country one often finds recorded : `A son of B, caste lohar (smith), vocation agriculture'; or `C son of D, caste badhai (carpenter), vocation agriculture', or `E son of H, caste kumhar (potter), vocation agriculture', etc. This indicates that the ancestors of these persons were in those professions, but later they became unemployed as British mill industry destroyed their handicraft. Some people think that if the British had not come into India an indigenous mill industry would have developed in India, and India would have become an Industrial State by the 19th Century, like North America or Europe, but it is not necessary to go into this here.
The Chamars also suffered terribly during this period. The British industries e.g. Bata almost completely destroyed the vocation of the Chamars, with the result that while they were a relatively respectable section of society before the coming of British rule (because they could earn their livelihood through manufacture of leather goods) subsequently they sank in the social ladder and went down to the lowest strata in society, because they lost their livelihood and became unemployed.
Today the word `Chamar' is often used by people belonging to the so-called upper castes or even by OBCs as a word of insult, abuse and derision. Calling a person `Chamar' today is nowadays an abusive language and is highly offensive. In fact, the word `Chamar' when used today is not normally used to denote a caste but to intentionally insult and humiliate someone.
It may be mentioned that when we interpret section 3(1)(x) of the Act we have to see the purpose for which the Act was enacted. It was obviously made to prevent indignities, humiliation and harassment to the members of SC/ST community, as is evident from the Statement of Objects & Reasons of the Act. Hence, while interpreting section 3(1)(x) of the Act, we have to take into account the popular meaning of the word `Chamar' which it has acquired by usage, and not the etymological meaning. If we go by the etymological meaning, we may frustrate the very object of the Act, and hence that would not be a correct manner of interpretation.
This is the age of democracy and equality. No people or community should be today insulted or looked down upon, and nobody's feelings should be hurt. This is also the spirit of our Constitution and is part of its basic features. Hence, in our opinion, the so-called upper castes and OBCs should not use the word `Chamar' when addressing a member of the Scheduled Caste, even if that person in fact belongs to the `Chamar' caste, because use of such a word will hurt his feelings. In such a country like ours with so much diversity - so many religions, castes, ethnic and lingual groups, etc. - all communities and groups must be treated with respect, and no one should be looked down upon as an inferior. That is the only way we can keep our country united.
In our opinion, calling a member of the Scheduled Caste `Chamar' with intent to insult or humiliate him in a place within public view is certainly an offence under section 3(1)(x) of the Act. Whether there was intent to insult or humiliate by using the word `Chamar' will of course depend on the context in which it was used."
This judgment was followed in Arumugam Serrvai vs. State of Tamilnadu, 2011 by a bench of the Supreme Court consisting of myself and Justice Gyansudha Misra, vide para 13 of the judgment ( see online ).