Dhangar (scavenging cleaner) a low caste socially and religiously designated for handling dead bodies and other odd cleaning jobs. Locally, they are also called methar (scavenger), bhuimali (sweeper) or jhadudar (dustman). Dhangar literally means farmer or raiser of livestock. The two components of the word are dhan (paddy) and gad (husking hole). Initially, dhangars lived in the wide grazing land along the Karha valley in the Deccan, South India. Their chief livelihood was farming and rearing livestock. Later, they left South India and spread to different parts of the subcontinent. With migration, their profession also changed. Eventually, they left farming and livestock breeding and took up the jobs of cleaning dirt and rubbish.
In the caste system based on the Hindu religion, there were certain very depressed lower group professionals who lived in different parts of ancient India and Bengal and continued to survive in later periods. Such groups include leatherworkers, blacksmiths, potters, fishermen, hunters, weavers, cremators, and gypsies. Dhangars were placed as the pancham (fifth) class after the top four classes of brahman, ksatriya, vaishya and shudra. They were regarded as 'low-born' and were treated as untouchables. Despite the fact that in the early twentieth century, Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) renamed low-born people, including dhangars, as Harijans (children of God), the situation had not changed much. Veteran political leader B R Ambedkar (1891-1956), himself a low-born, could not succeed either, despite his efforts to improve the social condition of the Harijans.
Ancestors of the present day dhangar were brought in Dhaka as professional scavengers in 1624-26 AD to clean up human corpses following a brutal massacre done by Mahg pirates. After the formation of the Dhaka Committee in 1830 and the Dhaka Municipality in 1864, the city authorities undertook the work of cleaning along with various other responsibilities of city life. As part of this arrangement, dhangars got the job of cleaning night soil and dirt on the basis of daily wages or as salaried labourers. At later stages, dhangars or methars were employed in other towns of Bangladesh too.
Dhangars settled in Bangladesh came from different parts of India. They can be divided into three categories: Madrasi, Kanpuri and Nagpuri and each category has different lifestyle and social system. The spoken language of the Madrasis is either Telegu or Tamil. The Nagpuris and Kanpuris speak Hindi or a mixture of Hindi and Urdu. The traditional dresses of dhangar men include dhutis, turbans and sleeveless coats. But nowadays they put on lungis, trousers, and shirts. Women wear saris and blouses. As ornaments, they use earrings, girdles, necklaces, bangles, crescent necklaces, nose-pins, chains, heavy metal rings etc. Male dhangars draw tattoos of snakes, bears, lions, tigers and bulls on their bodies as symbols of bravery. Women, on the other hand, draw tattoos of flowers of various kinds on their bodies. Dhangars are fond of pork and wine. Many dhangars rear pigs for profit.
Dhangars are not very concerned about education, development and welfare. Some conscious and sympathetic persons formed some welfare organisations for them. In 1873, the Satyasadhak Samaj (Association of Truth Seekers) was formed in Maharashtra, India. In 1892, the Madras Adi Dravid Janasabha (Madras People's Society of Aborigine Dravidians) was founded. The All India Anti-Untouchables League was established in 1932 at Mahatma Gandhi's initiative. This organisation came to be known as the Harijan Sebak Sangha (Association for serving Harijans). At the initiative of B R Ambedkar, a labour organisation for dhangars was formed in 1936. The Scheduled Castes Federation was founded in 1942. In Dhaka, the Dhaka District Dhangar Union was formed in 1936 and the Harijan Sebak Samiti in 1941. [Anupam Hayat]