|Ginni Mahi, a 17-year old college-going singer in the northern state of Punjab.|
Now the younger generation in the community is embracing the word: “chamar.”
A peppy hit song called “Danger Chamar” by Ginni Mahi, a college student and singer in the northern state of Punjab, has become something of an anthem, and it is being shared widely on social media by the young people in India’s marginalized lower-caste communities.
Mahi is one of a handful of middle-class young Dalits, as members of that caste are known, who have sparked a movement by singing songs about caste and celebrating the heroes of the struggle against India’s centuries-old caste system.
“I am proud to be a chamar, there is no shame in admitting it,” said Mahi, who is 17. Soft-spoken and wearing traditional dress of glittery orange and green, she sat down for an interview this week at her family’s middle-class home near her all-girls college. “The time has come to shake off the historical baggage and restore respect to this word. How long will we dread the word which has only fallen into our ears as an insult?”
Most Dalits still struggle as landless farm laborers, live in segregated neighborhoods in villages and are too poor to afford smartphones or access the Internet. But decades of affirmative-action policies have given birth to a vocal Dalit middle class in the cities. With education and newfound affluence, the syntax of their protest against caste is changing.
In recent years, Dalit singers have taken back the word in the way African American rappers embraced the n-word.
Lower-caste slurs like chamar have become a badge of pride to be worn on T-shirts, caps, car stickers and tattoos. In Mahi’s song, she sings that chamars are more dangerous than weapons. Set to a folksy bhangra beat, it blares out of car stereos, wedding parties and Dalit pride events.
This new movement is a long way from the historic 1989 law that protects Dalits against abuse and violence. It carries jail sentences of up to six months for upper-caste people if they use slurs like chamar.