In Moradabad’s Peepalsana village, Valmiki community continued to face untouchability, decades after it was abolished. No barber would give them haircuts. They complained. The state administration acted. The barbers fell in line.
But now customers are deserting the barbers who are attending to Valmikis.
As soon as media picked up the news of Muslim barbers refusing to give haircuts to people from the Valmiki community in Moradabad’s overwhelmingly Muslim-majority Peepalsana village, the Uttar Pradesh state administration sprung into action. The police initially tried to mediate between the two groups unofficially but to no avail as the former shut their shops to avoid serving Valmikis.
Then, the police filed an FIR against three persons — Riyaz Alam, Ishaq and Jahid — under section 504 of Indian Penal code (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace). The trio were also booked under section 3(1)(za)(D) and 3(1)(zc) of the SC/ST act. The former is related to entering any public place/using any utensils or articles meant for public use in any place open to the public and the latter deals with cases relating to social or economic boycott.
“In the beginning, the police called all of us to the station. They issued a warning that if we don’t give haircuts to Valmikis, case will be filed against us. At the time, everyone agreed to not refuse service to them and we all came back but then most barbers decided to shut their shops for a few days. The idea behind it was to let the situation cool down so that things could return to old normal. But an FIR was filed against us. Police forced us to open shops and serve Valmikis.” soft-spoken Ishaq tells Swarajya.
After the case was lodged, not only Riyaz, Ishaq, Jahid but all the 20 odd barbers in the village fell in line. They opened their shops on Sunday, gave haircuts to members of the Valmiki community and also went to the local court yesterday (15 July) for their hearing.
However, these barbers now have another problem on their hands: their Muslim customers have deserted them resulting in severe loss of income. “Sir, earlier I used to make Rs 800-900 a day, now getting even Rs 100 is an uphill task. Customers pass by my shop, they peep inside and just move on,” Ishaq tells me. A Muslim customer who sees a Valmiki getting a haircut at a shop is unlikely to visit it.
“We will have no choice but to shut shops. Three barbers have already lost all their customers. You tell me, will you be okay if we use the same towel for you that we use to clean their (Valmikis) face? It’s not a Hindu-Muslim issue. Even some upper caste Hindus in the village say they won’t come to us if we give haircuts to Valmikis,” 22-year old Naved Abbasia, another barber in the area tells me.
Near the village temple, I visit Amaresh Gupta’s shop where he is frying samosas and pakodas with his son Sumit. I ask them if they would have any problem going to the same barber shop visited by Valmikis. After beating around the bush a lot, both gave disappointing replies. They would happily go to a Muslim barber for a haircut but won’t tolerate their own co-religionist (who they deem low-born) getting one at the same shop, I wondered.
“Nahi pata ho to chale jaayenge, pata chal jaaye to parhez karenge. If we don’t know that they (Valmikis) are getting their hair cut at a barber shop, we have no problem visiting it. But will try to avoid going to a shop if we know they are also visiting it,” says a Muslim father-son duo describing their ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. “Most of the time, we are in Himachal due to work. There, we don’t know who belongs to which caste. We get our haircuts anywhere without looking at these things. But here in the village, it’s hard to ignore,” they say. They refuse to share their names with us.
“Jo Namazi hai wo to aur bhi parhez karega aisi dukaan pe jaane mein,” the elder says. Namazis are extra conscious of hygiene and they usually shave and cut their hair at home, he explains.
Three Muslim youth, who also don’t want to reveal their names, and who are neighbours of Valmikis, say that they won’t go to the shops Valmikis are getting their haircuts at. “It’s not acceptable to us. How can you let the barber use same instruments on their body and then yours?” they wonder. One of them tells me how his friend called a barber to his home for his haircut rather than going himself to the shop.
“We are paak (pure) people. They have different caste. How can they be paak? We even wash our hands and legs before going to the mosque,” a woman shopkeeper Fazilat says. On being asked if she has read the Quran, she replies in the negative.
Abdul Nayab, another shopkeeper, says he has no problem in going to barber shops where Valmikis also visit but many of his neighbours don’t like it. “Earlier, Valmikis used to go to Bhojpur for getting their hair done. There also, barbers are Muslims but since they don’t know their caste, they wouldn’t have a problem in serving them. Par jab chai mein makhi dikh jaati hai, to log nikaal ke he piyenge,” he explains, employing a disturbing analogy.
The barbers feel that they will have to shut shops sooner than later. “What’s the option? If there are no customers, we will have to pack up in a matter of days,” says Naved Abbassi.
Those who have cases slapped against them have much more to worry than just losing customers. “I am really terrified. I hadn’t been to a police thana or a court in my life,” Ishaq tells me.
Ishaq says he never refused service to Valimiki customers. Riyaz Alam, another barber named in the FIR and whose shop is a stone’s throw away from Ishaq’s, also assures the same. “I don’t know where this case has come up from. Just a month back, we were playing cricket with them. Question of refusing them haircuts doesn’t arise,” he tells me while showing a photo of him cutting the hair of a few Valmikis. He sent the photos to the police and district officials as a proof that he is complying with their directions.
Ishaq, Riyaz and other barbers told us that Valmikis never came to them as customers earlier and that they used to go to nearby town Bhojpur for haircuts. However, Valmikis say that they used to go to another town precisely because Muslim barbers in Peepalsana wouldn’t entertain them. It wasn’t out of choice.
“On 6 July, our children went to shops of Riyaz, Ishaq and Jahid for a haircut but they turned them away because of their caste. One child was our relative’s who were visiting us from another town,” Anil Kumar says, directly refuting Riyaz’s claim. “He used to play cricket with me. He was my good friend. Then, shouldn’t he have cut my hair? He refused to do so outright,” Kumar adds.
“Our relatives mock us saying we have to go out of the village for even a haircut. People from our caste living in other areas hesitate to marry their daughter in Peepalsana. Such is our condition,” Sonu Kumar rues. “Earlier generation wasn’t so educated and aware but today’s youth don’t tolerate this discrimination. It’s a free country. How long can one endure such mistreatment,” he asks.
“These people don’t have any problem in getting their haircuts from the same barbers who cut even the hair of sheep. Are we even lower than animals, then? Hindustan is our country. We will fight for our rights even if we have to give up our lives in exchange,” says an assertive Mukesh Kumar.
Navin Kumar, a police officer at Bhojpur thana, told Swarajya that the matter is now settled. “Those who have cases filed against them will have to comply with the court’s orders regarding its directives and regularly attend hearings. Other barbers have also been instructed to not refuse customers based on caste.”
Some elders in village believe that things will be same as before in a matter of few days. “Abhi thoda garam chal raha hai. Kuch din mein purane jaisa mahaul ho jaayega (tensions are on higher side at present but it will soon be like it used to). They also don’t have the time to persist with this,” one the elder says confidently. “They work out of the village that’s why they used to get haircuts done there. Wonder where this new thing came from,” he adds.
But Valmikis are in no mood to relent. “No barber is refusing us now. Agar koi mana karega to phir pitaji ke paas pahunch jaayenge (if someone refuses, we will go back to our ‘father’,” Mukesh Kumar says, referring to the administration.
One Muslims youth tells me that a similar situation had arisen a few years back but was managed by local politicians. “They had persuaded Valmikis not to persist with it and the latter agreed. Par ab ye kehte hain ki sarkar inki hai (Now they say it’s their government),” he says, almost complaining.