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.