Central to the tension between Dalits and “upper” castes in Kundagathur in Tumakuru – over the former’s right to have a haircut in the village barber shop – is the fact that young and educated within the “lower” castes are now standing up for their right to be treated equally in all public spaces.
Indeed, the case of Dalits being denied a haircut in Kadagathur village is not an isolated one. While a similar case was reported in Panjiganahalli in the same district recently, Tulur in Bellary district and Koliwad village in Hubli saw such incidents last year.
Traditionally, Dalits in most of these villages have been getting their hair cut within the community. More recently, however, educated youth of the community are questioning this norm, which is resented by the traditional powers in the village. Barbers in most cases deny the right, fearing that “upper” caste villagers would either punish them or stop giving them business.
Mavalli Shankar of Dalit Sangharsha Samiti says that caste prejudices are often dormant and “ignite at the slightest provocation”, which could be a college-going Dalit boy walking into a barber shop demanding a haircut.
Such instances occur in many villages “when the untouchables try to assert their legal rights as equal citizens claiming status and treatment on par with the rest of the Hindus,” says Manohar Yadav, professor at Institute for Social and Economic Change, in ‘A comprehensive study of the status of Scheduled Castes in Karnataka’ , released in December 2014.
In some cases, denying a haircut becomes symbolic of an age-old hierarchical practice, even when old structures are not intact in other spheres. For instance, in Koliwad, Dalits demanded to know why they were being denied entry to salons, when they operated the water supply system in the village and ran the flour mills.
Comparing two caste-related studies in Karnataka set twenty years apart, Sukhdev Thorat and Harsh Mandar argue in Untouchability in Rural India that not much had changed in terms of “social mixing or relations across caste barriers” in the State.