Opinion

From twirling moustaches to riding horses: How social patents preserve the joys of being upper caste

On October 3, a 17-year-old was stabbed in Gujarat for sporting a moustache – a social patent claimed by upper caste Darbars.

Call it the phenomenon of social patents. India is arguably the only country in the world where it persists with all its ferocity.

A social patent is a phenomenon in which dominant groups lay claim to exclusive enactments of social conduct, even of the most universal kind, apart from appropriating sartorial choices and facial hair styles for themselves. Their replication is then proscribed for the lower castes, who violate these social patents at their own peril.

A social patent is as restrictive as a manufacturing patent. Unlike products that are copyrighted, though, a social patent is a right that belongs to a group, not an individual. Social patents reward a social group not for its inventiveness but for ensuring that the inequality of status between its members and the downtrodden stays undiminished.

A social patent determines who can sport a moustache, particularly of the sort that can be twirled. It decides who can hold a wedding procession, ride a horse to the bride’s house, hire a music band to strike notes of celebration. A social patent can debar a person from watching a dance performance, or riding a bicycle, or even wearing a white shirt. Social patents could include in their ambit any human activity likely to inject a sense of worth and joy among the lower castes.

Deciding who can ride a horse

Social patents are claimed suddenly, without warning, and executed with hatred. Thus, on October 3, two masked men stabbed 17-year-old schoolboy Digant Maheira in a village in Gujarat’s Gandhinagar district. The provocation was Maheria’s moustache. His assailants presumably thought he would have shaved it off because he had seen his cousin being beaten up a week ago for, yes, having a moustache. It was the same for 30-year-old Krunal Maheria, also of the same village. All three were punished for violating the social patent to the moustache that the Darbars, a Kshatriya caste, claim to possess.

There exists a social patent that determines who can watch garba, a traditional dance widely popular in Gujarat. Jayesh Solanki learned of its existence the hard way. On October 1, the 21-year-old watched the dance being performed in a temple from a nearby house in Anand district. He was beaten up by a group of eight men, who were furious that he had violated the proscription on Dalits to watch garba, and died of his injuries.

In April, a wedding procession was merrily wending its way through Jhalo Ka Dhana village in Udaipur, Rajasthan, when a band of men forced the groom, Kailash Meghwal, off his horse. He was dragged to the roadside and attacked with beer bottles and steel rods, having been deemed guilty of violating the social patent that restricts the right to ride a mare only to Rajputs, or so they claim.

At times, social patents are allowed to be transgressed through negotiations and police intervention. But there is always a group that takes umbrage at such compromises. In Bhusthala, a village in Haryana’s Kurukshetra district, Sandeep Kumar, a Dalit, was permitted last year to ride a horse-driven carriage to his wedding venue after his family agreed not to have the marriage solemnised in a temple frequented by upper castes.

Yet, Sandeep Kumar and his guests were attacked. The police had to be summoned to escort them to the Valmiki temple, the wedding venue. In the same village in 2003, a police constable – a veritable symbol of power in rural India – was not allowed to ride a horse on his wedding day. He threatened to commit suicide, prompting senior police officers to intercede on his behalf.

Two men wear caps with the slogan The Great Chamar at a rally in Delhi in May. Chamars are one of the largest Dalit castes in India.  Photo: Shoaib Daniyal
Two men wear caps with the slogan The Great Chamar at a rally in Delhi in May. Chamars are one of the largest Dalit castes in India. Photo: Shoaib Daniyal

Similarly in 2015, the police worked out a compromise between the upper castes of Negrun village in Ratlam district of Madhya Pradesh and the family of Pawan Malviya so that he could fulfil his wish to ride a horse, sport a necklace, and hold a sword during his wedding procession. The upper caste residents agreed to shut the doors of their homes to save themselves the ignominy of watching a Dalit violate the social patent they thought they owned.

But here too, the wedding procession was stoned. Malviya swapped his turban for a helmet to protect himself from the flying missiles. A picture of him in a helmet, astride a horse, went viral. In the same district the following year, policemen donned pink turbans and dressed up as members of a wedding party to protect it from upper castes angered by the groom’s temerity to ride a horse.

Wearing a white shirt, riding a cycle

Privileged groups also claim to have words that signify their qualities. Before the self-proclaimed army of Dalits, the Bhim Sena, grabbed headlines earlier this year with their retaliation against the violence of Rajputs in Saharanpur district of Uttar Pradesh, tension between the two communities had been brewing over a signboard that read, “The Great Chamar Village Gharkoli welcomes you.” The Rajputs wanted either the word Great or Chamar or both dropped. Why?

Some Rajputs claimed the word great implied that the Chamars were better than the rest. In riposte, the Dalits suggested that since the signboard was erected on private property, the Rajput could do the same on their plots of land to hail their greatness. The Dalits of Saharanpur forgot that the patent on greatness as an idea, as a quality, and as a word, is claimed to belong exclusively to the Rajputs.

Bhim Sena leader Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan poses with the signboard in Gharkholi village.
Bhim Sena leader Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan poses with the signboard in Gharkholi village.

Examples of social patents abound. S Ramadoss, the founder of the Tamil Nadu political party Pattali Makkal Katchi, once declared, “They [Dalits] wear jeans, T-shirts and fancy sunglasses to lure girls from other communities.” The logical corollary is: if they did not look stylish, girls would not be attracted to them. So, Dalits must not appear attractive, just as they must not celebrate.

In a village in Haryana’s Ambala district in 2012, a Dalit was beaten because he wore a white shirt. Nearly a decade ago, Mamata Nayak became the first girl from the Bauri community to matriculate, but the upper caste residents of Narasinghapaur village in Odisha warned her family of dire consequences if she continued to ride a cycle to her college, which was 7 km away. The conclusion: the social patent for cycling did not belong to Dalit women.

Even proximity to a chief minister does not save one from the wrath of upper caste communities when a social patent is violated. In Madhya Pradesh’s Maada village, Chander Meghwal held a grand wedding for his daughter. The groom came on a motorbike, in a procession in which a band played music. The village’s upper castes had warned Meghwal that only they held the patent to organise ostentatious festivities. Meghwal did not take their claims to exclusivity seriously. After all, the wedding had the blessings of Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and the procession had even been provided an armed police escort. The wedding was not disrupted. But a few days later, the 500 Dalit residents of the village found that kerosene had been dumped into their well, their only source of water.

Dynamics behind social patents

No doubt, the roots of social patents lie in the caste system. Yet, these are also distinct from acts traditionally clubbed under the practice of untouchability. The social conduct patented by the upper castes does not threaten to pollute them. Indeed, the violation of social patents does not even aim to bridge the spatial distance between them and Dalits to eradicate untouchability.

The dynamics behind the phenomenon of upper castes claiming social patents is to curb social behaviour symbolising Dalit mobility, to efface, as far as possible, proof of their uplift, to muffle sounds of delight and sully images of happiness. After all, these convey that Dalits have gained more confidence than they did decades ago. The diminishing of their marginality, whether real or merely forgotten for just an evening, becomes a sign of the grossly unequal and inhuman world of caste changing.

It invariably stokes the anxiety of the upper castes, who then insist they have social patents to forms of social behaviour – which, therefore, are foreclosed to lower castes. From this perspective, social patents seek to preserve the bliss of being upper castes, bliss that is directly proportionate to the misery of the lower castes.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.