When a community can be called names, and when it cannot

The use of the word "chamar" in a judgment by the Supreme Court while referring to the rights of the oppressed has triggered a controversy and surprised many.

The word, referring to the most populous Scheduled Caste category in northern India, that works with leather or chamra, is banned from public discourse and decreed unparliamentary and "unconstitutional".

The Supreme Court used the word in the Delhi Jal Board versus National Campaign for Dignity and Rights of Sewerage and Allied Workers & Others case.

US-based Ramnarayan Rawat's Ph D on the social history of Dalits in UP could not be registered in Delhi University for a year because of the word "chamar" in its title. It was only this year that his research, entitled Reconsidering Untouchability; Chamars and Dalit History in Northern India, was published.

Earlier, the chairman of the Board of Research Committee at the university had told him that legal opinion said researchers could not use the word. Rawat's supervisor persisted and collected published books in state libraries with titles having caste names like bhangi and ahir in them as evidence to finally force them to change their mind.

Hesitant to come on record in a matter over which passions routinely run high, several Dalit politicians fear that with the Supreme Court having used the word, it would become "the standard" now.

They point out that the word is used as a jati-soochak or caste marker for a set of people who have suffered unimaginable indignities over thousands of years. A BSP leader said he was "surprised that the Supreme Court had used it".

While careful not to tread on the Supreme Court's toes, Lok Janshakti Party leader Ram Vilas Paswan pointed out that "chamar, chura, even Harijan are not used any more, and are unparliamentary".

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