Toothpaste, hair oil, and democracy

A recent survey says that Dalits of Uttar Pradesh have started using toothpaste and hair oil more regularly. Will it have an impact on democracy?

Economic and Political Weekly recently carried the report of the survey by Devesh Kapur and others (Kapur et al. 2010). The paper argued that there have been important changes in grooming, eating practices and ceremonial consumption patterns of Dalits, and in general a rapid erosion of discriminatory practices that stigmatised the Dalits of Uttar Pradesh. This interesting survey draws attention to perceived discrimination, and how it has changed since the 1990s.

The authors draw attention to cognitive and social aspects of inequality such as self-respect, servility, and the extent to which people can participate fully in social and political life. In a caste-ridden context where drastic unfreedoms are imposed on people just on the basis of their birth, the use of toothpaste or bottled hair oil are not merely a matter of personal hygiene; it is a way of assertion, and a part of a parcel of measures to gain self-respect.

Similar issues came up during my fieldwork in Tamil Nadu. During one of my discussions, a Dalit activist recalled an incident that put him in the path of assertiveness. He said, a Dalit lawyer came to our village wearing a tie, neat clothes and shoes. Dalits do not dress like that, and we were all awed just at that sight. He had come to take up the case of discrimination against a Dalit, and when he walked into the police station all of us looked at it amazed. Even the police did not know how to deal with him, after all, Dalits did not get into police stations to negotiate with them. After discussing with them, he came out and went to a tea stall next to the police station which served Dalits in a separate teacup. After having the tea, he got up and smashed the teacup on the road and told the shopkeeper never to serve Dalits in separate teacup ever again. He was tip-top.

Being tiptop was associated with the ability to walk into police station or other government offices. It was associated with the ability to assert oneself in the society, and to participate in determining what the order of life should be. Without self-respect, it is impossible to gain the confidence that is required to deal with intimidating spaces that we have to constantly cross in contemporary life.

Wearing trousers or other ways of presenting oneself is not just a matter of individual choice. Many of my older Dalit discussants were ridiculed when they started wearing trousers first. Look at him, he’s trying to wear pants and shirts. Is he the son of the guy who used to work for our Padayachi? One of my discussants was ridiculed thus, by a caste Hindu. Nadars of southern Tamil Nadu had to wage an extensive campaign for the upper caste Hindus to allow the Nadar women to cover the upper parts of the body. Covering their body and wearing clothes in the style of higher caste women thus became a way of asserting themselves, and communicating insubordination.

The results of the survey in UP is something to be glad about. I believe that there can be no true democracy when one section of the population is condemned to a life without dignity and self-respect. Self-respect and dignity in the community are essential to participate in the society, to stand up for one’s aspirations and to contribute ideas for collective decisions. Without equal respect for all, there will never be equal participation in collective governance, and thus no democracy. Hair oil and toothpaste are expressions of Dalit self-assertion, and I hope that these mass attempts at gaining self-respect will lead to deepening democracy in Uttar Pradesh.

Kapur, Devesh, Chandra Bhan Prasad, Lant Prichett, and Shyam Babu. 2010. Rethinking Inequality: Dalits in Uttar Pradesh in the Market Reform Era. Economic & Political Weekly XLV, no. 35 (August 28): 39-49.

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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