Ramnarayan S. Rawat, assistant professor of history at UD, is a historian of South Asia, with research interests in colonial and postcolonial India. He received his bachelor of arts degree with honors and doctorate from the University of Delhi in India. His research has been supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, a Harry Frank Guggenheim Dissertation Fellowship, and a SEPHIS Doctoral Fellowship from the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. India's prestigious academic press, Permanent Black, will publish a South Asian edition of his award-winning Reconsidering Untouchability in hardback and paperback this summer.
When a Dalit political party achieved unprecedented electoral success over the last two decades in northern India — even generating talk about its leader becoming the nation's prime minister someday — Ramnarayan Rawat wondered how a group once considered “untouchable” had gained such power.
In researching the subject, Rawat, assistant professor of history and the University's first specialist in Indian history, discovered that much of what had been assumed about the Dalit society and history was not entirely accurate. He sets the record straight in Reconsidering Untouchability: Chamars and Dalit History in North India (Indiana University Press). The 298-page book has been described as “path-breaking” and “revisionist” and has won the Joseph W. Elder Prize in the Indian Social Sciences from the American Institute of Indian Studies.
“Mainstream scholars and journalists have found it difficult to explain how this important political party developed and how Mayawati [chief minister of the Uttar Pradesh state in northern India, who was first elected in 1993] became the first Dalit to rise to such a position of political leadership,” Rawat said. “My book provides a history that traces the development of Dalit political consciousness in the 20th century.”
The book examines the long-held belief that the Dalit groups, such as Chamars in the northern part of the country, were labeled untouchable under Hindu religious and theological beliefs because they worked with leather or other occupations considered unclean by religious Hindus.
Instead, Rawat said, historical records show that the majority of Dalits have been peasants and farmers, often for generations. He also found that this group has had a long history of political struggles and involvement. Today, Dalits constitute 170 million, or 17 percent, of India's population. They make up nearly 22 percent of the population of Uttar Pradesh, and Chamars are more than half of this group.
After India gained independence in 1947, its constitution abolished discrimination against untouchables, but Dalits are still stigmatized in some parts of the country, Rawat said.
In some rural areas, they still live in separate villages
and so are readily recognized as
However, thanks to the legal system and a policy of affirmative action in government employment, Dalits today are often educated, socially mobile and have their own distinctive middle class, Rawat said, adding that marriages between castes also are now common.
“It has changed, and it's still changing,” he said. “And that is the power of democracy — the beauty of democracy — that people can, through political action, really change things.”