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.