Fair Cut

Caste tensions flare over access to barbers in two Karnataka villages

Barber shops in Koliwad village started serving Dalits last year. Vikram Gopal
Barber shops in Koliwad village started serving Dalits last year. Vikram Gopal
01 January, 2015

THE JOURNEY to Markumbi village’s Dalit colony takes a series of successively narrower tracks through Koppal district, the rice bowl of Karnataka. You travel fifteen kilometres north from Gangavathi town on State Highway 29 to Kesarhatti village, the headquarters of the area’s gram panchayat. There you turn right, and follow a road about three kilometres to Markumbi itself. Another right onto a cement path leads to the village’s only barber shop. Further down the same way live Markumbi’s Dalit residents.

On 29 August 2014, three Dalit houses in this village of 342 households were set on fire, and 27 people were injured, in a case of caste-related violence—the result, it appeared, of a conflict in which the barber shop took centrestage. Markumbi’s Dalit men had always had to travel to Gangavathi to get haircuts, since the village’s non-Dalits, effectively practicing untouchability, prohibited them from using the local barber. But this summer, a group of Dalits formally demanded to be served at the barber shop, and complained to the district administration. Government officials descended on Markumbi in July, and forced the village barber to serve five young Dalit men, threatening to cancel his license if he continued to flout laws against caste discrimination. Over a month later, the non-Dalits attacked, apparently in anger over the issue.

This was not an isolated instance. In July, about 160 kilometres from Markumbi, Dalits in Koliwad, a village in the Hubli taluk of Dharwad district, also demanded the right to use local barber shops. They met severe resistance from non-Dalit villagers, and from the barbers themselves, who shut down their five shops in protest. But panchayat intervention, coupled with pressure from the district administration, resulted in victory for Koliwad’s Dalits, and the eventual reopening of the shops.

“We were tired of going to Hubli for a haircut,” Anand, a 23-year-old from Koliwad’s Harijan community told me. “We can’t keep quiet like our elders. We are educated as well. We studied in the same government school in the village as everybody else.”

Reports of caste violence are on the rise in Karnataka, as they are across India. The National Crime Records Bureau lists 2,566 atrocities against members of the Scheduled Castes in the state in 2013, as against 1,643 such cases in 2004. In November, Karnataka made national headlines when parents in Kuppegala village in Mysuru district kept their children home after the local government school appointed a Dalit woman to help cook midday meals. Caste discrimination and beliefs in ritual purity are closely linked in everyday Indian life. Food and clothing become particularly important in upper-caste assumptions about social cleanliness—and so do haircuts.

Increasingly, however, violence ignited by such seemingly mundane matters indicates that the opposition to personal freedoms is rooted in a broader resistance to an improvement in Dalits’ social and economic status. According to several people I spoke to, this was the case in Markumbi. Sitting in his chamber at Gangavathi’s police station, the inspector who led the investigation, Hanumareddy, told me in a conspiratorial tone that “the whole problem is the demand for land.”

“We need land at least for housing,” Nagappa Pujari, a fifty-year-old man whose house was one of the three partially gutted in the attack, told me late last year. “We have small houses and there are at least six or seven in each house.” He pointed to the row of Dalit houses behind him as we spoke: some had been recently reconstructed, and television antennae perched serenely on their roofs again.

“For us, haircuts were never the main issue,” M Basavaraj, a resident of the Dalit colony and a political organiser, who is a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said. “We have been demanding that we be given land. That is the reason the landowners are angry. They feel if they give in to the demand for haircuts we’ll renew our demands for land.”

Several homes in Markumbi’s Dalit colony needed repairs after the August attack. Vikram Gopal

In Koliwad, the issue played out quite differently. “We held a meeting of all communities in the village and told them to arrive at an amicable solution,” Shankarappa Channabasappa Kanavi, the president of the local gram panchayat, said. “The barbers were reluctant at first. But we told them we would have to cancel their licences if they refused to cooperate. They agreed on the condition that they get paid the same rate as barbers in the city.” Following this, senior officials from the police and the district administration came to Koliwad on 15 August to preside over an event at which Dalits were given haircuts.

Koliwad’s barbers, who belong to the OBC Savita community, were not forthcoming when I asked them about the issue. “We give them haircuts,” Gajanan, a barber, said. “Now the matter is over. Don’t ask about what happened earlier.” Anand, the young Koliwad Dalit, acknowledged that the situation had improved. “We don’t have to travel for an hour for a haircut anymore,” he said.

By comparison, the official response in Markumbi proved inadequate. On the night of the attack on the Dalit colony, which involved at least a hundred upper-caste men, only four policemen responded to the Dalits’ pleas for help, according to Pujari. “They couldn’t handle the crowd,” he said. Some of the attackers “sneaked up from behind and set the houses on fire.”

The difference in outcomes between the Markumbi and Koliwad incidents seems to have owed to the pressure, or lack of it, applied on the respective panchayats by each area’s district administrations, politicians and community leaders. The Kesarhatti gram panchayat, which has power over Markumbi, decided not to allow Dalits the right to a haircut at the village’s barber shop. When I telephoned Lakshmi Devi, the panchayat’s development officer, she pointed out that the group agreed instead to allow a barber from Gangavathi to come to Markumbi to serve its Dalits.

But S Marisamy, a retired director-general of police in Karnataka, pointed out that despite the success of social and political intervention in the Koliwad case, “nobody has come out and said publicly that these incidents are bad and will not be tolerated.” Instead, he said, “they are giving an impression that these matters are negotiable. There is nothing different in calling the panchayat and trying to settle the matter locally than what used to happen a thousand years ago. The state should have set an example by punishing those guilty.”

Mavalli Shankar, the state secretary of the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti, a Dalit rights organisation, also highlighted the futility of trying to settle such disputes without enforcing the law. “There is a law, but it doesn’t prevent atrocities,” he said. “There have been many instances where officials and politicians go to villages and apparently solve the problems. However, they go there only once and don’t realise that such solutions lead to further polarisation.”

Back in Gangavathi, Hanumareddy, the police inspector, told me that after the Markumbi attack 96 persons were booked under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. (Of them, 51 were arrested, and subsequently released on bail.) “There is no trouble now. Everything is under control,” he said. “We have policemen on the rounds in that village around the clock.” Months after the incident, in October, I saw a police van parked prominently in the middle of the village—a reminder that the situation could quickly deteriorate again in the absence of the state.