Will grow moustache and twirl it too: Gujarat Dalit youth protest ‘atrocities’
Minutes after the attack on a teenager, Digant Mehariya, hundreds of Dalit youth across Gujarat started posting selfies with moustaches, with many also changing their display photos to a twirling moustache and the text: Mr Dalit.india Updated: Oct 05, 2017 11:22 IST
Brushing a light patch of hair on his upper lip, 17-year-old Digant Mehariya appears shaken but resolute. “I will grow a moustache long enough to proudly twirl it. And, I will maintain that look,” the teenager said, sitting in the orthopedic ward of a hospital in Gandhinagar, his family smiling around him.
Just 24 hours ago, a group of unidentified men attacked him and slashed his back with a blade. Mehariya says he was targeted because he is a witness in a case of alleged assault on his cousin, Piyush Parmar.
Parmar was thrashed allegedly by a group of dominant-caste men in their village of Limbodara, around 30 kilometres from the state capital of Gandhinagar, for sporting a moustache on September 25. Three days later, his friend Kurnal Rohit was also attacked and his leg broken.
But this has not deterred Mehariya from growing a moustache even if it triggered more violence. “I already have a wound on my back with 15 stitches. I do not fear anyone anymore,” Mehariya told Hindustan Times on Wednesday.
For decades, Gujarat’s Dalits have tolerated atrocities and violence — exemplified last year in Una where a group of scheduled caste men were thrashed by alleged cow vigilantes, sparking nationwide outrage. They make up just 7% of the state’s six crore population and say their plight has never been taken seriously by politicians.
But now, things seem to be changing. Mehariya, Parmar and others are part of an assertive generation of Dalit youth, who say they cannot take attacks lying down and are devising novel ways of protesting caste atrocities.
Minutes after the attack on Mehariya, hundreds of Dalit youth across the state starting posting selfies with moustaches, with many also changing their display photos to a twirling moustache and the text: Mr Dalit.
The campaign has been closely coordinated on social media platform such as WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook with hashtags such as #RightToMoustache and groups such as ‘Moonch To Rakhenge’.
“We use social media to tell our community that they should not get oppressed,” said Ketan Solanki, an Ahmedabad resident who started Moonch To Rakhenge.
“In my new group, I asked every member of my community to change their display picture in Facebook to one with moustache prominently seen. If any caste thinks only they can sport this symbol of masculinity, then they are wrong”, said Bhavin Ambubhai, who is a part of several such groups.
There are offline protests too.
On Wednesday, hundreds of Dalits led by activists Jignesh Mewani and Subodh Parmar were detained in Gandhinagar. With four atrocities cases in less than two weeks — three from Limbodar over moustache and one from Anand where a Dalit man was lynched for watching garba — the protesters demanded the resignation of minister of state for home Pradeepsinh Jadeja. Several such demonstrations are planned in the coming days.
Back at the village of Limbodara where three of the atrocities took place, anger is simmering.
The dusty village of around 10,000 has a clear caste divide — the cluster of 85-odd Dalit households is separated by a narrow lane from the dominant castes of Darbars and Chaudharys. Outside a local temple, two policemen have been deployed since Tuesday night to avoid any further attacks. Most of the men in the village were out for protests when Hindustan Times visited the spot on Wednesday.
Gujarat goes to the polls later this year and the administration was prompt to contain the tension. By Tuesday, Gandhinagar collector Satish Patel had arrived in Limbodara and held an all-community meeting before posting security outside the Dalit colony.
Amrut Dudhapara, an elderly Dalit man, said this was the first time in 25 years that an atrocity case had been registered in the area — but hinted that the low numbers were because many scheduled castes were afraid to complain.
“Discrimination is not uncommon…many upper castes religiously practise untouchability,” he told Hindustan Times.
Others lamented how the Dalit colony hadn’t seen a wedding procession in years as dominant castes allegedly insisted that Dalits didn’t ride horses.
The administration rubbished these claims. The village chief Ranjitsinh Vaghela, himself a dominant-caste Darbar, said, “All communities live peacefully.” The collector echoed him.
But the Dalits aren’t backing down. Mehariya’s father, Vasant, insisted that they decided to complain for the first because they didn’t want to stay silent anymore.
“They (dominant castes) neither eat with us nor share a cup of tea for years now. While elders have accepted this way of life, this young generation do not like if they are forced to change their lifestyle or even looks,” Vasant told Hindustan Times.
“I have never shaved my moustache. Why should my son do that?”