Subhas Chandra Pattanayak
It is a matter of shock that Orissa, homeland of the most tolerant people, has a social custom that keeps the members of a particular caste as social slaves. Barbers comprise this caste.
We have in these pages highlighted how they are being compelled by the upper caste Hindus to wash the feet of hundreds of their guests in social functions like marriage and funeral ceremonies and to clean up their orts in feasts on these occasions and to carry out other odd jobs to the detriment of their human rights.
Since many years, the barber caste people have been protesting against this oppressive custom. But it does not relent.
It is a fact that the barbers are an abysmally small minority group. There may be hardly one or two families of barbers in a village or in a cluster of villages. So they are powerless before the massive majority belonging to other castes.
A family in a village cannot live all alone by itself. It is to depend on the village for water, fire, food, road, residence, education and safety. Therefore, one who goes against traditional customs is disciplined by the majority that usually forbids him or her to use the wells, ponds and roads of the village and is boycotted in every other respect. Hence it is impossible on part of a village dweller to disobey the majority or the influential in the village. Barbers are under this turmoil in Orissa.
Traditionally the village barber was washing the feet of every visiting guest of an upper caste Hindu and cleaning up his orts. But as the new generation got educated they expressed reluctance to perform such offending and embarrassing jobs. Therefore they have been subjected to the above said methods of punishment.
This having given birth to a tussle, particularly in Puri district where Brahminism rules the roost under umbrage of the ‘Mukti Mandapa’, the Collector of the district had to intervene to bring out a compromise. But in its guise he acted as a collaborator of the social slavery. He got several resolutions passed on May 19, 2003 in a gathering of upper caste Hindus and barbers and used choicest words to coin the resolutions in such a manner that the slavery remains perpetual. When no barber can be compelled to wash feet of the masters or clean orbs, no body can be allowed to dissuade any barber from doing such jobs if the said barber volunteers his services, two of the resolutions said. The later one was clearly designed against human rights activists who were supporting the rebels against the system of slavery. It is more shocking than surprising that Chief Minister Naveen Pattnaik tacitly supported it while replying in the proximate session of the Assembly to a question on ongoing atrocities on barbers. This opened up floodgates of “trafficking in barbers for servitude” alleged human rights workers.
Orissa Bonded Labor Liberation Movement, styled as Odisha Gotimukti Andolana, raised alert protests against this nefarious administrative mischief and demanded immediate complete abolition of social ownership over the barbers. A sitting in strike agitation continued at Puri for long 271 days, which compelled the present Collector, Aswini Kumar Das, to initiate fresh conciliatory steps. He issued orders on November 05, 2004 to the effect that action under section 108 Cr.P.C. would be taken against anybody who boycotts a barber in his village for his refusal to wash anybody’s feet or to clean the orbs. But his later views in the media that these customs being societal, law alone cannot stop “trafficking in willing barbers” has rendered his earlier orders inconsequential in the field.
Therefore the activists have sharpened their action. They have held two “liberation” rallies so far. The first one was on April 05, 2005 at the Collectorate of Puri. The last one was held at the same place on August 23, “on the occasion of the International Day for the Remembrance of Abolition of Slave Trade”.
Thousands of barbers and their sympathizers as well as human rights activists under the leadership of Baghambar Pattanaik, Sarada Charan Mohanty and the convener of the Movement, Ms. Swati Sucharita, formed a human chain, which was “dragged” by a “masker” of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik on the streets of Puri to the Collectorate , where they submitted a Memorandum to the President of India through the Collector demanding immediate abolition of the custom of use of Barbers in feet washing and orb cleaning, as that reduce the dignity of man, referred to in the Supplementary Convention as “practices similar to slavery”.