The cases of recent violent caste-related attacks on dalit youth for sporting moustaches in Gujarat’s Gandhinagar district are an indicator of simmering tensions and discontent in a State that has until recently been presented as a model of development. One of these cases, an alleged razor blade attack reported from village Limbodra in the Mansa taluka of Gujarat’s capital, was subsequently denied by police. But the reports and incidents taken together fanned fires and led to a social media campaign by dalits showcasing their moustaches, which are seen as a sign of power, control and upper caste pride. They tell us of a divide that is deep. It is also a village-level indicator of forces that are being unleashed in the Gujarat of today.

I met about 40 dalit men in the village, young and old, and most had a moustache, although not big and twirled. Everyone had grown one (and had beards) because the village barber does not give them a shave or a haircut. They have to therefore travel about four kilometers to the next point where a barber service is available. But never before has a moustache been a problem to the kshatriyas, who form the majority population in village Limbodra.

Untouchability is nothing new to the village dalits. Elderly dalits often have to address the kshatriya children too as ‘bapu’ and children tend to address dalit elders in a derogatory way. About a year-and-a-half ago, a dalit family for the first time tried to hire a horse for their bridegroom son but he was unable to get a ride. Some dalit elders have internalised this act of forced prohibition on mounting a horse, a symbol of kshatriya-clan pride, as good advice from the latter not to spend lavishly on marriages.

The social media campaign on dalits showcasing their love for moustaches was a result of dalits organising swiftly and in a manner they have not done before, a novel resistance that quickly travelled well beyond Gujarat’s borders and brought new attention to the villages. The reaction was kshatriyas (otherwise politically divided) coming together in the face of what was perceived as a threat from the now organised dailt groups.

With photographs, videos and challenging messages from dalit youth across the State, the kshatriya youth in the village are nervous, helpless as they seem to have been deprived of their superiority over the village dalit youth which was real, tangible, on-the-ground force and power. In the virtual world of social media, and the speed with which these messages travel, the equation is upturned.

It’s clear that the moustache flaunting is only a sign of unrest, humiliation, and frustration of the dalit youth. Unlike their parents, they are better educated entering into the studies of law and commerce, better clothed and can be seen in the most fashionable of attire, ride motorcycles and have access to the same internet that any youth have.

Visiting the village and studying the prevalent tensions, my mind raced back to memories of working in the villages of Bhal region in the 1980s. The same untouchability practices and social prohibitions which I had witnessed facing dalits at the hands of kshatriyas were present unbelievably in Limbodra, barely 20 kilometres away from the State Capital of Gujarat which has decorated itself in the colors of ‘samrasta’, the message of social integration with equality.

Back then in 1980, we had witnessed in Bhal villages, kshatriya men entering dalit homes at any time of the day, misbehaving with dalit women and there was no protest. Dalits, except for a few farmers, were landless agricultural laborers, were paid only Rs.1 as wages against the stipulated Rs.7. Dalits were prohibited from riding a cycle, leave aside the horse, and they buried their dead on the road sides.

Today, dalit labourers in Limbodra are paid Rs. 140 per day as farm labour, half the amount than what is stipulated by the State. The only difference I saw in Limbodra as compared to Bhal villages between a time span of 37 years is that the dalits have much better homes, lack of total economic dependence on the kshatriya community, the educated and employed youth and the women carry a spark of anger in their eyes. Why then has the practice of untouchability not changed in village Limbodra?

Over the years, the older generation of dalits have found employment in the textile mills of Ahmedabad, where they not only earned better but escaped the humiliation of the kshatriya in the farms. With the closing of the mills, many took up self-employment activities, like selling chappals etc. About 50 dalit youth today have found employment in a company in Gandhinagar where some can earn about Rs. 15,000 per month. With their income rising, their houses have become better and visually more prosperous than some of the kshatriya homes.

Since ‘development’ has favored those who have laboured hard, even if in a small way, the kshatriya youth have probably found themselves lagging behind. Their parents had learnt to adjust with the mismatch of ‘higher’ social status and ‘lower’ economic status and therefore had no shame in working at tea shops. The kshatriya youth cannot follow their parents and have taken to petty issues like “moustache pride” which actually does not help them overcome their social and psychological backwardness.

As I sat with 50 people in the village to discuss the issues troubling them, an elderly woman spoke up. As she put it: Our enemy is not the kshatriya, but fear. Many women nodded. Their eyes were focused, angry and determined. They cannot sport a moustache. I learnt that the moustache may be a symbol of manhood for the male but for the women it will be a symbol of humiliation, subjugation and exploitation, both of their mind and body.

The author is an activist and the founder of Navsarjan, a grassroots dalit organsiation fighting for human rights since the 1970s.

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