JALANDHAR, India — For centuries in India, the hateful slur was hurled at the lower caste community of leather tanners, regarded as “untouchables.”
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.
But such pride songs did not come out of the blue, says Dalit novelist Desraj Kali. In the past century, Dalit groups have staged several uprisings in Punjab, built their own temples and moved out of traditional occupations to start small businesses, join the army and serve in the government. During street protests against discrimination in 2006 and 2009, they became aware of their own strength, Kali said, setting the stage for a new era of community pride.
“They began aggressively displaying the words ‘Son of a chamar’ on their cars and motorcycles,” Kali said.
Mahi is the most famous and the newest entrant in this growing universe. She wears a tough leather jacket in her hit video, and she’s backed up by men flaunting muscles and tattoos and breaking bottles.
In recent weeks, Dalit groups have protested across India against the beating of four men by a self-styled Hindu cow-protection squad on the suspicion that they had killed a cow — an act many believe to be forbidden in the Hindu faith.
The men, who were Dalits, said they were carrying a dead cow for skinning, as would be expected among traditional leather tanners.
“When people swing to my music, I want them to think about the abuse we continue to face,” said S.S. Azad, apioneering singer in the genre.
Mahi said she has not personally experienced abuse. But her most famous song was inspired when a high school classmate asked her, “What is your caste?”
“That’s the most common question in India,” she says. When Mahi replied, her classmate said, “Oh, but chamars are dangerous.”
The Dalit pop singers often praise the revered leader of the modern Dalit movement, Bhimrao Ambedkar, a scholar who headed the panel that drafted the nation’s constitution.
“We are here today due to his efforts. But his life stories are missing from our school textbooks,” Mahi said. She wrote a hit song this year called “I Am a Fan of Ambedkar,” hoping to draw India’s “attention deficit” youth to Ambedkar’s ideals of social equity.
Growing up, Mahi was a quiet and shy child, her father says.
“We used to mockingly call her ‘voiceless,’ ” said Rakesh Mahi, a travel agent and activist. “Her teachers frequently complained to me about her silence in the classroom.”
Music opened her up, she said.
Mahi sang at the daily prayer sessions and competitions at school, becoming a teachers’ favorite. Her father sent her to sing at Dalit community events and taught her about Ambedkar at a young age.
Now, her trophies compete for space with Ambedkar portraits on a wall in her home, where she lives in a joint family of 20 people, a tradition she says she cherishes.
She began recording four years ago, but since the release of “Danger Chamar” and another hit song in February, Mahi has become a mini-celebrity. She now juggles college studies, recording studio visits, calls for stage shows and media interviews. Three months ago, she got her first eye makeup kit and a new iPhone. Her ambition is to sing in Bollywood movies, she says, in an industry notoriously low on Dalit representation.
She’s in a business where Dalit performers often command lower fees than their upper-caste peers.
“The event managers feel Dalit singers don’t have to be wooed and pampered,” singer Hemant Kumar Bauddh said.
And not all Dalit singers are comfortable embracing caste identity.
“My music says, ‘Enough now, end this disease called caste system,’ ” said Kabeer Shakya, the founder of the Dalit rock band Dhamma Wings in Mumbai.
Mahi says caste pride is the first step toward that: “First you should be proud of who you are, then you rise up to destroy all caste identities.”