Beyond politics, the Bihar caste survey is a revolutionary document.
A public document, the first ever after 1931, allowing for people to stand up and be counted.
We go down to the wire, on what each of the numbers unveiled mean.
Who are the people referred to by percentages in the survey?
Today we look at Nai or Hajjaam (2,082,048 people).
Castes are not mere classification of the basis of labour. In western countries, members of the same family can opt for different professions and a single family can have cattle herders, carpenters and cobblers at the same time. But it is not so under the caste system. When professions are segregated into castes, social rules are imposed accordingly.
People of the caste group we are talking about today can be found anywhere, be it a city or a village. They can be Hindu or Muslim. Among Muslims they are called Hajjaam and the work done by them is called hajamat. There are several names for them among Hindus, such as Nau, Naua, Kshaurik, Napit, Mundak, Bhandik, Nais, Sain, Sen, Savita-Samaj, Mangala, and so on.
This caste group also has various names in different states. In Punjab, they are sometimes affectionately called “raja” or king. They are called Kulin in Himachal Pradesh, Khawas in Rajasthan, Sen Samaj or Napit in Haryana, and Nai-Thakur or Savita Samaj in Delhi.
The people of this caste are responsible for cutting hair and grooming people.
In Bihar, people of this caste are considered extremely backward. According to the caste-based survey report released by the Bihar government, their population in Bihar is 2,082,048, which is only 1.5927% in terms of share.
Yet, this caste group has a special role in society and politics. As far as their social status is concerned, they are present in all important rituals in a person’s life, from birth to death, along with people of the Brahmin caste. But they are not given the same respect as the Brahmins. In north India, there is a saying which derogatorily equates the Nai with a crow – a clever omnivorous bird.
But they are not untouchable because declaring them as such would cause discomfort to the people of this society who avail themselves of the services of this caste. Moreover, if someone wants to get shaved, they must allow the barber to touch their face.
There is also a discussion in the Atharva Ved about “making them touchable.” A shloka says the main person in the marriage ceremony is the barber, who finds a groom for the girl and verifies his qualifications. They perform key rituals and that is why they are the first ones to be entitled to wear Panchavastra.
The biggest contradiction in Indian society is that this essential labour too has been devalued. But if we look at the history of the development of human civilisation, perhaps the barber was the first person to have thought of grooming a person to make them look beautiful.
Historically, the period of emergence of barbers must have been after the Neolithic era when iron was discovered because scissors and other tools would not exist without iron.
The role of the barber community cannot be dismissed in the development of human civilisation. He was the first surgeon who used his tools to remove thorns from the feet of countless people and healed their wounds. Be it a king or a common man, barbers have served everyone, across caste groups too. Even today, in the villages of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, women of the barber community serve women of all other castes – they clip nails and apply alta to their feet, among other things.
Earlier, their wages were called jajmanaka. They had a fixed share in every farmer’s household – one or two sacks of grains. As a result, despite being landless, the people of the barber community always had full barns. But now the era of jajmanaka is gone. They do business in cash now.
Karpoori Thakur, from the community, was a renowned politician of Bihar who became its chief minister twice. The recommendations of the Mungerilal Commission implemented by him gave an impetus to the politics of backward classes in the country. However, at present, it seems this community is in search of a hero for itself.
Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman. Read the Hindi original here.