The Vattavada panchayat in Idukki district woke up to a unique hairdressing salon on Sunday — one that would simultaneously snip at hair and the more overgrown and obnoxious caste system of literate Kerala. (With 96.2 per cent literacy, Kerala is the most literate state in India.)
S Rajendran, CPM leader and MLA of Devikulam constituency under which Vattavada falls, inaugurated the salon set up by the Vattavada panchayat on the request of the Chakkiliyan community. The two hairdressing salons or barbershops in the locality had not been allowing the members of the community to use the facility.
The opening of the salon, probably for the first time by a panchayat in the history of the state, is seen as ‘affirmative action’ by the panchayat and the elected representatives of the place to fight the discrimination being meted out to the community even during these times. The discriminatory practice comes to light at a time when Kerala just celebrated the birth anniversary of Sri Narayana Guru (August 28) who prolifically fought caste and advocated universal brotherhood.
Usually, the members of the community, including children, hire a vehicle to travel to Munnar, 42 km away, to get a haircut. The barbershops which deny them entry are run by members of a scheduled caste community.
It all started when Vattavada-native Balamurugan raised the issue at an Independence Day function organised recently. Later, more youths from the community sent a signed memorandum to the grama panchayat seeking its intervention.
“My forefathers and I have been silently enduring this humiliation. When it came to my children, I felt it was time to stop this. I could not afford to take my 12-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter to Munnar for a haircut, especially during the COVID time,” Balamurugan, a daily-wage labourer, said.
Closure notice served
Panchayat secretary R Nandakumar said the local body had served closure notice on the two barbershops as soon as the issue was brought to his notice. “Later, a meeting was convened on August 26 where the owners of the barbershops sought 10 days to take a decision in consultation with their community leaders. Meanwhile, we decided to look for an alternate location for a shop which is open to all communities,” he said.
The CPM-ruled Vattavada panchayat provided its building to set up the salon. Panchayat president P Ramarajan said Vattavada lagged by a 100 years in terms of social progress.
“Till the ’90s, the Chakkiliyan community (a dalit community) members were served tea in coconut shells. It ended following a series of protests held in 1995, which I too was part of as a DYFI leader. However, the practice of using separate glasses for the community continued till 2005,” he said.
The members of the community are descendants of 13 families which migrated from Tamil Nadu, he said, adding they still valued the words of community heads and ‘naatukoottams’ over that of the government.
There are 400 families as part of the community now.
Ramarajan said the panchayat had to find a barber who would fit their scheme of things. “We had invited people from all communities to attend the inauguration ceremony,” he said.
Some members of the Chakkiliyan community, especially youngsters, are still sceptical. “When we raised questions over discrimination, the panchayat should have taken steps to make those two shops open for all. Now, when they open a new barbershop, I fear it will end up as a facility for one community. We don’t want that tag. So, we did not go for the inauguration,” said Mayil P, a member of the community.
Mayil said he had raised the issue of discrimination at least six years ago while working as a Scheduled Caste promoter. “Our children have faced humiliation from their teachers for not grooming their hair properly. A single haircut costs much, as we have to hire a vehicle to Munnar. This issue was raised several times in the past, but all political parties ignored it,” he said.
“It may be a minority, but there are people who won’t let us inside their house. We don’t want to go either. But that is not the case with a public space,” Mayil said.
He said no police cases were registered as their parents had gotten used to the system and they thought that was the norm. “Our parents lived in this system for a long time. They still think it is incorrect to question the customs of society. However, we are not ready to bear the insult any longer,” he said.
The sub-inspector of police, Devikulam, said he had not received any complaint regarding caste discrimination from Vattavada.
Ramarajan said he wanted to usher in change through legally permissible means and by creating awareness. “We are organizing awareness campaigns against caste discrimination through self-help groups like Kudumbashree,” he said.
Vattavada is on the Western Ghats and is well endowed by nature. Its climate supports vegetable farming.
History of Chakkiliyans
The Chakkiliyans get a detailed mention in Edgar Thurston’s book ‘Castes and Tribes of Southern India'. He was the then Superintendent of the Madras Government Museum, in early 1900s, and the book was published in India in 1901. He describes the community as immigrants from the Telugu or Canarese districts. On Page 2 of the book, he describes them as 'nominal Saivites'.
However, on closer reading of the book, it could be learned that the women of the community had a streak of independence. The author says the girls were never married off before puberty and the widows could remarry — traits and practices that could be deemed advanced for a community considered lowest in the social order.
Vattavada shot to limelight when Abhimanyu, a 20-year-old student of Maharaja’s College in Ernakulam, who hailed from the place, was stabbed to death by miscreants on July 2, 2018.
Incidentally, Abhimanyu had his fingers on the pulse of Vattavada and yearned for its progress. He had dreamt of a library in his native village. After his death, this dream was realized by volunteers who donated books for the cause. Probably, Abhimanyu knew that only the light of knowledge could drive out the devil from the societal dens of ignorance.
(Jisha Surya is an independent journalist based in Thiruvananthapuram)