A Barbershop in India Is Taking on Centuries of Caste Discrimination

Members of a scheduled caste were barred from entering barbershops in a village in the southern Indian state of Kerala. A government-run salon is changing that.
SJ
Mumbai, IN
September 15, 2020, 4:53pm
A Barbershop in India Is Taking on Centuries of Caste Discrimination 1
The launch of the inclusive barber shop that is battling caste bias and discrimination in Kerala on September 13, 2020. Photo courtesy of S Rajendran 

For as long as they remember, members of the Chakkiliyan community in the southern Indian state of Kerala either cut their own hair or traveled more than 40 kilometres (24 miles) to neighbouring villages. They were not allowed to access the two barbershops within the Vattavada village because they belong to scheduled caste.

A government-run barbershop opened on Sunday, September 13, has made things easy for the community. “People belonging to all social segments are visiting the barbershop and no one is abstaining from its services,”
VM Mariyappam, a local politician, told the news website The News Minute.

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The village body had cancelled the license of the two barbershops for denying entry to members of the Chakkiliyan community.

“It [discrimination] is based on a 400-year old culture set by Tipu Sultan [18th century ruler of the kingdom of Mysore in south India]. If a barber was cutting the hair of the king or his ministers, he were prohibited from cutting anyone else's hair,” S Rajendran, the lawmaker who inaugurated the salon, told VICE News.

Chakkiliyan community brought the issue to Rajendran’s notice three years ago. To counter the discrimination, the local administration decided to launch a government-run community barbershop whose services could be availed by anyone, regardless of their caste. “We shut down two other barber shops in the area that were resisting the change. I think now the community will not face these issues,” he said.

The centuries-old Hindu caste system is a hierarchical ranking that classifies people into thousands of castes determined by birth. Scheduled castes (commonly known as Dalits) and tribes are at the bottom of the hierarchy.

In 2017 alone, there were more than 5,000 offences against Dalits across the country.

A crime is committed against a Dalit every 15 minutes, and six Dalit women are raped every day.

Dalits have traditionally based various forms of discrimination including social ostracisation, insulation and violence. They have been barred from places of worship water wells, farms and kitchens. “Children are conditioned from a young age to keep separate glasses or utensils for Dalits. Those who don’t question this practice, end up propagating it,” Ashok Das, editor of Dalit Dastak, a magazine and YouTube channel covering Dalit oppression and struggles, told VICE News. Das added that the bias is more prevalent in rural India due to close-knit communities.

In 2016, five men in the western Indian state of Gujarat brutally attacked and killed a Dalit man. A video of this incident went viral, triggering a Dalit uprising that shifted the spotlight to caste-based atrocities..

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Rohit Vemula, a PhD scholar at southern India’s University of Hyderabad, died by suicide in 2016 due to caste discrimination. His death sparked outrage and drew attention to discrimination against Dalits at elite universities in India.

Advocacy groups and activists have stated that violence against Dalits has only gotten worse during the pandemic. A mob of 13 people brutally thrashed a Dalit man in July for touching a scooter.

“The caste system is still pervasive because it doesn’t get mainstream media coverage,” the administrator of Our Dirty Underwear, an Instagram page that amplifies caste violence and discrimination, told VICE News, requesting anonymity.

The other problem is that people from the upper caste don’t acknowledge discrimination.

“You will see mainly upper caste individuals denying the existence of casteism because they have never had to suffer it,” said Das.

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