There is a legend associated with the origin of low caste leather workers in India.
Four brothers belonging to a high caste agricultural family once found a body of a dead cow inside their yard. After much debate on who would remove the carcass, the three elder brothers agreed to pass on the job to the youngest one. Despite the youngest brother protesting, he was forced to carry out the job. However, once the carcass was removed, the three elder brothers refused to live with him. He was kept at a distance and was instructed to henceforth carry out the task of skinning dead animals and making leather objects out of them
The authenticity of the legend is highly questionable, but it does point out to a hard reality about the social structure in India that has been in existence for centuries. The specific way in which castes are ranked and treated in India would point to how we treat necessary work with contempt.
In what is being termed as the largest Dalit uprising in Gujarat, violent protests have broken out on the streets of Ahmedabad and surrounding cities over the lashing of four Dalit men by self proclaimed gaurakshaks (cow protectors) who saw them skinning cow carcasses. As a show of protest, seven Dalit men attempted suicide, and a number of them have dumped cow carcasses in front of government offices, asking the so-called cow protectors to do the job that Dalits have been forced into for centuries.
Skinning of cows for the sake of obtaining leather is hardly a new phenomenon in our society. The process of tanning (process of producing leather from raw skin) has been mentioned in the Rig Veda. The Sanskrit word for leather, Charman, charma has been mentioned on several occasions in later portions of Rig Veda, Atharva Veda and in the books of the Yajur Vedic schools. These ancient Hindu texts also cite the leather workers as carmakara, charmakrit, padukara and padukrit. Use of leather products are also mentioned in Manusmriti, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.
Broadly, the group of Dalits associated with leather work in India are known as Chamars. Over time, however, several local groups, that are involved in skinning and processing skins of dead animals have sprung up and carry the same social status as the Chamars.
In a study on Chamars conducted by George W. Briggs in 1920, he had elucidated upon how the social ranking of castes and clans changed over time, in keeping with new waves of conquests and reconstruction of society. Therefore, it was not specifically the nature of the job of dealing with cow carcasses that was unclean, rather it was the way groups doing the job that were ranked and given an unclean status.
The leather industry in India at present employs about 2.5 million people. Most of them belong to scheduled castes. As reported by Brinda Karat in an article published by the Hindu, about 8 lakh Dalits are dependent upon the job of skinning dead cows for the sake of earning a living. Data from 2013-2014 shows that the industry earned foreign exchange worth Euro 5.25 billion making the Indian leather industry the sixth largest in the world.
The importance of the industry for the sake of India’s economic growth does not need any further emphasis. The fact that a large portion of the work for this sector is carried out by Dalits is enough evidence of their importance in society. But when a group of ‘cow protectors’ decide to publicly beat up those who were doing their bit of adding to the country’s prosperity, we need to start questioning why we as a society have consistently looked down upon work that is after all necessary.