Bhubaneswar, Feb. 8: Baghambar Patnaik is as old as free India. And he thinks the best way to free the barbers in Puri district from the ignominy of washing the feet of upper caste grooms and guests at weddings is good old satyagraha.
That he had to spend over 100 days in a mosquito-infested cell at Bhubaneswar’s Jharpada jail alongside ganja-smoking undertrials failed to deter the 58-year-old.
On October 4 last year, the schoolteacher-turned-human rights activist was arrested for leading a silent rally of lower caste barbers here.
Patnaik had been protesting against the government’s inaction on the issue of declaring barbers as bonded labourers so that they can be freed from oppression, which is the order of the day in several Puri villages.
The rally, organised by Patnaik’s Orissa Goti Mukti Andolan, was a reaction to atrocities on members of the barber community on September 19.
A group of upper caste Khandayats had allegedly dragged several women of Bhubanapati village by the hair after their husbands refused to wash the feet of the groom and guests at a marriage ceremony held in March last year.
As Patnaik was marching towards the secretariat to submit a set of demands to chief minister Naveen Patnaik, he was arrested for allegedly violating Section 144 clamped around the area.
While police expected him to apply for bail on a personal remand bond as is the practice, the human rights activist stuck to his guns and instead asked for his release without any conditions attached.
“I did not commit any crime. Did I? And how can the demand of meeting the chief minister turn into a case of breach of peace and violence which the police presented in court?” asked Patnaik, who resolved not to apply for bail until the barbers got “justice”.
The Bhubaneswar district judge and the superintendent of police tried to reason with Patnaik to get released on a personal bond as no charges could be framed against him.
But Patnaik would have none of it and finally an executive magistrate released him without a bond on January 21 this year citing that “there was no apprehension of breach of peace and disturbance” from him.
Being a barber in Puri’s Brahmagiri block means getting trapped in a time warp of traditions. His status requires him, among other indignities, to wash the feet of the upper caste grooms and guests at marriages and to do the dishes after wedding ceremonies and religious feasts.
Over the past two decades, the barber families of Brahmagiri have tried to put a stop to the practice, but in vain.
“If a young barber refuses to follow the custom, his upper caste neighbours stop talking to him and the local shopkeepers refuse to sell him anything. They can neither walk down the main road nor bathe in the village pond,” said Patnaik.
The rights activist had first come to know of the custom in 1986 when Bhramarbar Barik, a barber, was forced to drink urine and crawl down the village road for his refusal to comply with the demands of some upper caste men.
Then a Sanskrit teacher with Balunkeswar Vidyapitha in Brahmagiri’s Khajuria village, Patnaik rebelled against the practice and led several rallies.
“It is a question of principle. I will continue to fight and go to jail to end this inhuman practice,” declared Patnaik, who shuttles between Puri and Bhubaneswar for work. He has a couple of sons and a daughter.