Moradabad: In a shocking development, the members of Salmani community of Muslims in Bhojpur area of Moradabad, situated at about 20 km from the district headquarters, have refused to cut hair of the people belonging to the Balmiki community. The Balmikis are Dalits, most of whom still follow their ‘traditional’ vocation and work as sweepers and manual scavengers. They are considered the lowliest in the caste hierarchy and usually face brutal discrimination in social life.
The leaders of the Balmiki community on last Tuesday organised a panchayat in Pipalsana village, at about 2 km from Bhojpur, where it was decided that police action will be sought if the Salmani community continues to decline haircuts to the Balmiki community members.
This is a clear case of practice of untouchability, which has been technically abolished in India, but is still being practised in many parts of the country. Article 17 of the Indian Constitution abolishes untouchability; its practice in any form is forbidden and is punishable offence in accordance with law.
However, a NewsClick investigation reveals that there are wheels within wheels as far as the strange case of Bhojpur’s barbers is concerned.
It was found that the Salmani barbers had been practicing their vocation for decades in the area and had never been patronised by the Balmiki community.
Kallan (71), an elderly member of the Balmiki community says, “Ever since my birth and the time I remember, these barbers have never given a haircut to us. We used to walk a couple of kilometres to Bhojpur for shaving and other saloon things. These people treat us as untouchables.”
“Because they never gave us haircuts, we do not go to them. But the younger generation and kids from the village suffer due to this. So, now this has to come to an end. Otherwise, the problem is set to become grave with each passing day.”
The district administration had about five days ago registered an FIR against barbers Riyaz Alam, Ishaaq and Zahid on the complaint of one Maheshchandra, a resident of Pipalsana. The police case was registered under Section 504 and Section 3 (1) (za) (D) of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act, 1989.
The complainant alleged that his friend, who is a Balmiki, and other members of the Balmiki community are not being given the saloon services by the barbers of the Salmani community.
According to the Census 2011, population of the village Pipalsana Mustahkam is 15,602. According to the records available with the gram panchayat, there are over 80 families belonging to the Balmiki community. There are more than 30 saloons or small barber shops in the area, says Ghulam Gaus, the husband of the village pradhan.
Fear of Upper Caste backlash
The barbers revealed that one of the biggest reasons for them not to accept Balmikis as customers was that it would invoke a backlash from the local upper caste community.
Mohsin (31), a barber from the village said, “The barbers have never entertained people from the Balmiki community as people from the upper castes then do not come to the shops where Balmikis have had a haircut.”
“I know that the people from the Balmiki community will give money to us, but it will result in killing our business as the upper-caste people will not come to us, and then our children will starve,” he said.
Mohsin was one of the barbers who was ordered to give a haircut to the people from Balmiki community in front of the highly posted administrative officers on Sunday and now he fears that his shop will be boycotted by the upper caste members including Muslims of the village, as the village has more Muslim population.
The district administration, taking note of the local media news, had swung into action and tried to end this untouchability by getting Balmikis’ hair cut in the presence of senior officials. However, the Salmani community has kept their shops closed ever since that.
Gaus told NewsClick, “Forcing the barbers to give haircuts can disrupt the communal harmony and peace of the village. The administration should think about it and also its impact on the lives of the barber community. I am also against untouchability and other social evils, but to maintain harmony, administration should take proper steps.”
“The condition as of now is under control and there is no tension. But the barbers have kept their shops closed. They are receiving flak from both the sides. Also, we have treated the Balmikis like equals, but I smell a social, political conspiracy behind this step,” he added.
Moradabad SSP Amit Pathak claimed that the situation was now normal in the village, and the people have got back to their work.
Conversations with villagers and members of the Balmiki community revealed that everything was fine in the village until last year. Communal tensions started rising after, all of a sudden, prohibited flesh was found outside a temple in the village. Later, the issue of burial land of Muslims was raised by the Balmiki community.
Mohammad Jaleesh, a local stringer working with various regional media outlets, told NewsClick, “All this is being done in the run-up to the panchayat polls which are due next year. There is no communal or untouchability history in the village. There are people in the Muslim community who are close to RSS and are ticket aspirants. They are doing it to divide the Muslim vote, as Muslims are in majority here.”
Casteism Within Muslim Community
According to Anil Balmiki, a resident of Pipalsana, his mother was shooed away by a barber when she took her grandsons to get haircuts. This irked the members of the Balmiki community.
“The barber should have at least showed some respect, considering her age. But they did not, and shooed her away saying ‘Hum bh**ginyon ke baal nahi kaatenge (We will not give haircut to people from your caste)’. We have now decided to protest against this discrimination and we will not tolerate any kind of insult. This was enough,” said Anil.
Meerut-based Dalit activist Dr Satish Prakash says, “There is no doubt that untouchability is being practised in many remote parts of the country and the problem lies in the root of caste system.”
“See, you can change your religion, but you cannot change your caste. Indian Muslims are mostly converted and that is why they believe in the caste system. Otherwise, there is no caste system in the Islam. The caste system in India is very much like the skin attached to a body, which will go away only after death,” said the Dalit activist, demanding proper action by the district administration.