Barbers continue their fight for dignity in Orissa

By Rifat Mumtaz

On October 4, human rights activist Baghambar Patnaik was arrested by the Orissa government for leading over 300 lower caste Bariks (barbers) in a silent protest against inhuman treatment by the upper castes

The forced parading of a woman, stripped naked, in September this year by members of the upper caste community in a coastal village in Orissa underlined the fact that the caste system in Orissa is alive and well. The government's claim that "mostly the caste system is functional and not rigid in Orissa as in the south, and that by and large untouchability has been wiped out in the post-Independence period," comes as a surprise in the wake of repeated protests by the barber community against caste repression in the state.

On October 4, 2005, the state government arrested human rights activist Baghambar Patnaik for leading a silent rally of over 300 lower caste Bariks, called 'sevaks' or 'sons', in Puri, Orissa. Patnaik has been protesting the government's inaction on the issue of declaring barbers bonded labourers; he has also been protesting the non-implementation of the Bonded Labour Act, 1976, in the state.

The October 4 rally, organised by the Orissa Goti Mukti Andolan (Campaign for Barbers' Rights), was a reaction to an incident on September 19 where several women belonging to the barber community were dragged by the hair by the upper caste Khandayats, called 'fathers', after their husbands refused to wash the feet of the groom and guests at a marriage ceremony held in March this year. The incident took place in the coastal village of Bhubanapati, in Puri district; members of the community have since left their homes and are scared to return, fearing another attack by the Khandayats. Four women were beaten and another was paraded naked. The women were locked in a room and their homes looted while their men were away.

Close on the heels of this incident, 82 barber families in 17 villages in Puri have been socially and economically ostracised by the upper castes. They are denied access to water sources and other common assets. With the police and local administration showing little interest in the matter, the victims are now knocking on the doors of the state governor.

Younger-generation barbers see no reason why they should be forced to continue the age-old custom of washing the feet of upper caste men, announcing upper caste marriages by beating drums, clearing up leftovers and cleaning utensils after a marriage feast. They do all this for a paltry 15 kg of paddy annually, around Holi, as wages given to them by the Khandayats under an ancient oral agreement (known as the 'bartan system'). In the recent past, awareness and increasing levels of education have sparked protests among young members of the barber community who feel such activities undermine their dignity. The protests have now taken the shape of a campaign for the rights of barbers.

The Orissa Goti Mukti Andolan is demanding a ban on the inhuman treatment of barbers. It also wants the government to declare barbers bonded labourers. A number of protests, dharnas and meetings have been organised over the past five years to unite the barbers in their fight, and to bring the issue to the notice of the state. But, it would seem, the protests have only resulted in further oppression of the community by both society and the state.

Prior to the October 4 rally, in May 2004, activists working on the issue filed appeals with the Orissa Human Rights Commission referring to Sections 11, 12 and 13 of the Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act 1976. They asserted that they (the barbers) were being forced to carry out certain activities only by virtue of being born into a particular caste. The activists even approached the Puri district magistrate, but their complaints have not been registered as instances of bonded labour.

The barbers allege that despite five years of struggle nothing has changed at the ground level. This, they say, is "because the sympathies of the district administration and the police lie with the upper caste perpetrators of injustice".

On Thursday, October 20, 2005, barbers wearing black cloths over their mouths and carrying placards protesting their alleged ill-treatment took out a march, under the banner of the Orissa Goti Mukti Andolan, the Ambedkar-Lohia Vichar Manch and the Nikhil Utkal Barik Samiti. They staged a dharna in front of the Orissa secretariat demanding the end of injustice to the community.

Meanwhile, Patnaik is still in jail and has resolved not to accept bail until the barbers are declared bonded labourers and are freed from the clutches of the upper castes.

(Rifat Mumtaz works with the campaign support unit, National Centre for Advocacy Studies)

InfoChange News and Features, November 2005