New Delhi (CNN) Members of India’s lowest Dalit caste are fighting against discrimination by posting “mustache selfies” on social media.
The posts are in response to a string of violent incidents in which Dalits in the west Indian state of Gujarat were allegedly attacked for sporting mustaches — traditionally only worn by upper caste Indian men.
As a form of protest in response to the attacks, Dalit men across India have changed their profile pictures on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp to an image of a mustache with a crown and the words “Mr. Dalit” below it.
Others are posting selfies on Twitter proudly twirling their mustaches, using hashtags such as #MrDalit, #DalitWithMoustache, #RightToMoustache and #DalitLivesMatter.
One of the Dalit men who was beaten up in Gujarat was reportedly told by his attacker that he “cannot become a Rajput by just sporting a mustache.”
Rajputs (literally meaning “son of a king”) claim to be descendants of north Indian Hindu warrior classes.
Many of them sport elaborate handlebar mustaches, that are considered within the community to be a symbol of dignity, valor, masculinity and upper-caste status.
“The Manu Smriti (an ancient Hindu legal text) forbids lower castes from sporting mustaches, wearing colorful or good clothes,” says D. Shyam Babu, a senior fellow at Center for Policy Research.
In Hinduism’s caste system, Dalits are traditionally at the bottom rung. Members of the higher caste sometimes consider them impure, and they aren’t allowed to enter the homes or temples of the upper-caste community or share utensils with them.
This practice, despite being unconstitutional, is still practiced in India, and Dalits continue to struggle with instances of discrimination, exclusion and violence.
Satish Misra, a senior fellow at Observer Research Foundation, says that attacks on Dalits have been on the rise since the current Bhartiya Janta Party-led government came to power in 2014.
“Majority of political parties are led and controlled by upper caste individuals. These leaders pay only a lip service to the constitutional principles while in their day to day behaviour they are anti-Dalits and can’t accept Dalit assertion. Police or other law enforcement agencies are covertly asked to look the other way and upper caste criminals are given a free hand,” says Misra.
“The oppressive feudal set-up in many parts of the country creates conditions of impunity. Those perpetrating violence on Dalits use any excuse to assert their dominance,” says Babu.
Empowerment, or is there?
Decades of economic growth and rise of technology have led to Dalit empowerment, however, and Dalit political leaders and entrepreneurs are prominent today. In July, Ram Nath Kovind, a member of the Dalit community, was elected India’s 14th president.
But despite considerable advancement, there is still a long way to go.
“Much work is left to be done in field of quality education and public health. There is an urgent need to spread more awareness among upper-caste children and youth that Dalits needs to be seen and treated as equals,” says Misra.
According to Babu, the advancement of Dalits “stands nullified as long as they are treated as sub-human by the society around them while the government agencies prefer to remain hapless spectators.”