5 December 2007

Caste Divide

The subject of caste is a strong one upon which people hold varying opinions. As Tiruvannamalai is a friendly, peaceful town it is easy to forget the exclusion of various castes in certain situations. My most recent experience of caste discrimination was when I rented a large lorry to move large, heavy potted plants to a new location. Along with the rented lorry I also hired a group of about 10 Dalit workers to help load and unload the gigantic pots. After several hours of dedicated and careful work, I decided to treat the tired workers to coca cola and sticky buns. As funny as that sounds, it’s in fact a real treat as a day-labourer would generally never buy themselves such items, as the cost comes to a kg of rice – thus assigning pop and sweet buns to a frivolous ‘luxury item’ classification.

The shop I selected was located on Chengam Road near the Ashrams, so positioned in a busy and well populated area – not exactly an isolated Indian village. As I neared the shop with my workers following close by, the owner of the store came out and harshly told me that he didn’t want the day-labourers near his shop and asked me to send them off. After a certain amount of manoeuvering it was finally agreed that the shop owner would sell me what I wanted for the men as long as they ate and drank the purchases far away from the shop front.

A very tiny victory in terms of social progress but the workers at least got to enjoy their treats. But probably the saddest part of the encounter was that the workers didn’t seem to notice the discrimination or harsh words – it was almost as if it was the normal thing for them to endure.

Further to the subject of caste divide, an interesting article by N. Ravikumar appeared in an Indian paper yesterday regarding caste and the generation gap:


Caste divide widens the generation gap

Tiruvannamalai Dec. 3: “Young Dalits in a village here are outraged for being denied a hair cut of their choice in the salons meant for upper castes, but the older generation thinks it is a trivial issue to pick a quarrel with them. In the village of Velunganandhal, haircut is seen as a symbol of revolt by elders, while the same had become a symbol of dignity and equality for Dalit youths.

Dalits in a village here are considered untouchables who are not allowed to enter the salons used by upper caste people. Getting a haircut is a costly affair as it involves travelling to the town which is about 50 km away.

Most of the 1,500 families who live in the village of Velunganandhal belong to the backward communities. Dalits, belonging to the Arundhadhiyar community, here live in separate areas earmarked for them, far away from the main road and the village temple.

Every government office including the panchayat office is situated in areas where upper caste Gounders live and hence could not be accessed by Dalits. All the shops for consumables are also situated near the residence of upper caste people. Though the Gounders, a section of Vanniyars, are considered backward by Brahmins, the Gounders consider Dalits untouchables. The Gounders wield political clout in the village and they own most of the agricultural land.

But, above everything, what has hurt the feelings of Dalit youths is the untouchability practised in salons. For these youngsters, who want to follow the hair style of their matinee idols, haircut is a big issue. “When upper caste youths can trim their hair once a week, in the latest fashion, an ordinary haircut for us is a very expensive and time consuming process”, they complained. “See how we look. Will any girl look at us”, complained Kathiravan, a Dalit in his early twenties.

“We are youths. We want to appear fashionable and trendy. Why should we be forced to go to the town for a haircut. Why are we inferior?” asked Natarajan, who had just joined a diploma course in polytechnic in Tiruvannamalai town.

However, old people did not take it seriously. For Kaayaamboo, a 70-year old Dalit, who is living in the village since his birth, not being allowed to enter salons seems natural. He even justified it saying “how can we sit in the same chair and use the same scissors and blade used by Gounders?”.

“You see how the Gounders treat the Brahmins, who are superior to them. When Gounders treat Brahmins with reverence and respect, is it not a lesson for us how to behave with Gounders”, he said. “If everyone violated the age old customs, there will be no peace and discipline in the village”, he reasoned.

“Is haircut a very big issue, so as to pick a quarrel with upper caste people and earn their wrath?”, he said. “Cinema has spoiled our youth very much”, he lamented, however, the zeal for cinema and the craving to imitate film stars had really made the Dalit youths take a serious view of their condition and think of their dignity and self-respect. For them, not allowing them to have a haircut in their village has become the crudest form of oppression.”

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