Casteism in Gujarat: Dalits across hundreds of villages can't get a haircut due to years of oppression

Getting a haircut is a routine affair for most men, but it’s not so for lakhs of Dalit men in hundreds of villages in Gujarat. Since before Independence, Dalit men have been denied a haircut by barbers in villages of Gujarat. Even though this fact is well-known to authorities and social activists, it has remained unchanged despite The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989.

This practice is so common that it’s not even being raised as a discriminatory practice by the Dalits themselves. It was only in mid-2018 that some Dalit youths from Trent village in Mandal block of Ahmedabad district decided to complain to the block panchayat about this form of discrimination. But despite the authorities asking them, the barbers refused to cut the hair of the Dalit youth. In fact, they preferred to close shop instead of cutting the hair of Dalit youth. Since then, four barber shops of Trent village have been closed by the police and the Dalit men from the village continue to get their hair cut in nearby either Viramgam or Mandal, both nearby towns.

A massive study done by Navsarjan Trust of 1,589 villages of Gujarat about various discriminatory practices against Dalits in 2010 revealed that in 73 percent of the villages surveyed, barbers didn’t cut the hair of Dalit men. This means that 1,160 villages had this practice in place since before Independence and no amount of social reform has changed the situation.

If this percentage is extrapolated to all the 18,676 villages of Gujarat, the figure comes to 13,633 villages where this practice continues to exist. That is a huge figure and a shameful statistic for Gujarat, where Mahatma Gandhi took up several campaigns to end social boycott and discrimination of Dalits and tribals.

 Casteism in Gujarat: Dalits across hundreds of villages cant get a haircut due to years of oppression

Dalit youths approach police over the issue of barbers denying them haircuts in Gujarat's Mandal block. Image courtesy: Sonal Kellogg

Instead of going down, the cases of atrocities have been increasing in Gujarat. In the last 15 years, cases of atrocities registered in Gujarat have increased by 70 percent and the conviction rate is dismal at below five percent.

In April and May, there have been several conflicts where Dalit grooms — who had decided to ride mares for their marriage processions — have been opposed by upper caste communities. In several villages, upper castes have boycotted the Dalit community or have also thrashed the grooms. Various other aspirations of Dalit youth have also been opposed by upper caste communities, like riding a bike, putting colourful stickers on their bikes, and also sporting stylish haircuts. Many such steps have angered dominant castes who have attacked Dalits on several instances in Gujarat in recent months.

One of the men who was part of the protest at Trent village against the barbers for their refusals to cut Dalit men’s hair, Ashok Parmar, 26, said, “The barber shops in our village are still closed. The barbers now are cutting the hair of OBCs and other general castes men either in their homes or in his own house. We are forced to get a haircut in neighbhouring towns. We faced massive pressure not just from the other dominant castes in the village but also from our own parents and elders. They didn’t want any trouble."

"You have to understand that most Dalits in our village are very poor and are daily wagers. They can’t afford to take up a fight with the dominant castes of the village. We, 20-25 Dalit youths, all educated, decided to take up this fight, but it was not easy. However, we decided to not file an official complaint as we are facing tremendous pressure both from other dominant communities and also from our own community leaders and family members."

Kiritbhai Rathod, working in Navrasjan, an NGO working for Dalit rights which also conducted the study of discrimination in 1,589 Gujarat villages in 2010, said, “The study might be nine years old but the situation in the villages has remained the same. So many forms of discrimination continue to be practised in the villages in Gujarat. Dalits are not able to draw water from same wells, aren’t served tea in same vessels in tea stalls, not allowed to sit in chairs in Panchayats, refused entry to religious places or participation in community religious events, etc. There are so many forms of discrimination which continue to be in practice in Gujarat."

File image of Kirit Rathod. Image courtesy: Sonal Kellogg

File image of Kirit Rathod. Image courtesy: Sonal Kellogg

About the barber shops which were shut down, Kiritbhai said, “After the Dalit young men of Trent village took up the issue, we tried to reason with the panchayat of the village and also appealed to the Sarpanch but he remained adamant. He said, 'Do what you want but the barbers will not cut the hair of Dalit men.' The state government says that caste-based discrimination doesn’t exist in Gujarat. Earlier, state governments undertook programmes to abolish discrimination at village level, taluka level etc but now it isn’t happening.”

Kiritbhai further said, “Panchayats should organise events where upper castes and Dalits are encouraged to drink tea together, draw water from the same wells and sit together to study. Such programmes were undertaken earlier but now, the state government is in denial.” As far as steps to abolish discrimination are concerned, Kiritbhai felt that the onus is on the dominant castes to take steps in their villages. The Dalits who are being discriminated against are not the people who can end discrimination, it should be done by the Patels, Brahmins, Kshatriyas and other castes, said Kiritbhai.

Jignesh Mevani, a well-known Dalit leader from Gujarat who is also MLA from Vadgam in Gujarat, spoke about the discrimination still existing in the state. He said, “Article 17 of the Indian Constitution has abolished untouchability long back and the practice of it is an offence under Protection of Civil Rights Act. But despite this, untouchability is being practised in more than 1,500 villages of Gujarat and there is not a single case where an offence has been registered. When I raised the issue in the Gujarat Assembly, the entire BJP kept silent. They did not give any assurance to put an end to this casteist practice. This shows not just indifference and callousness on the part of the BJP government but it also shows how openly they stand for so called upper caste people.”

It remains to be seen if the situation changes in these villages. It is pertinent to remember that hundreds of men and women have gone abroad to study or have immigrated to the USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand and several other western countries from many villages of Gujarat. Thousands of Patels from Gujarati villages live in the USA and other countries. So, it’s fair to say that they are aware that caste-based discrimination is against human rights and is definitely something which our society should be ashamed of. Yet this practice continues in Gujarat and the state still claims to be a modern and progressive state in India.

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Updated Date: Jun 15, 2019 20:00:23 IST