Piyush Parmar, 24, loves watching “South Indian films”. “Those that are dubbed in Hindi.” His favourite is Vikramarkudu, the Telugu film remade as Rowdy Rathore in Hindi, which he has seen countless times. Both in the original and the Hindi version, the hero sports a luscious moustache, and is proud of it. “I started growing my moustache after watching the movie,” Parmar says, twirling his own. “I think the moustache makes me look good and people around me think I have a distinct personality.”
On September 25, Piyush and his 17-year-old cousin, of village Limbodara in Gujarat’s Gandhinagar district, were beaten up, allegedly by upper castes, over the moustaches the two sport. The 17-year-old only recently developed facial hair.
Four days later, 24-year-old Krunal Maheriya was assaulted, allegedly by upper castes, in the same village. “They asked me to remove my moustache. I refused, and before I knew it, they started beating me up,” he says. Shifting his weight nervously from one foot to the other, the Dalit youth asks, “Is there a problem if we are good-looking?”
FIRs have been filed in the two cases under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act against four Vaghela youths. All are out on bail. DySp Rajesh Bhavsar of the SC/ST cell at Kalol says, “We have assigned two policemen in the village for safety. But I would like to emphasise that the incidents were personal matters and did not involve caste, as has been made out.”
A village of 10,000 people dominated by upper castes, with around a hundred Dalit families, Limbodara has never seen caste tension of this kind. Both the attacks happened during the Navaratri festival, with Parmar, his cousin and Maheriya complaining they were attacked during garba.
On October 1, another Dalit youth, 20-year-old Jayesh Solanki, was killed allegedly by upper-caste Patels over watching garba, in Anand district. While the 17-year-old also claimed to have been struck a second time, on October 3, with a blade, police said on Friday that he had staged that attack for “garnering publicity”.
Since the attacks, the Dalit community has taken to social media and the streets, sporting moustaches and the slogan, ‘Moocho toh rehvani (the mooch is here to stay)’. While Maheriya too plans to join the campaign, Parmar says he is wary. “I do not want to escalate the matter. I will fight the case silently,” he says.
Parmar’s caller tune is a popular Gujarati song, about a man drinking whiskey and mourning his unfaithful lover. Popularly known as “lambu” in Limbodara for his “almost 6 feet” height, the 24-year-old giggles talking about it. “It is not what you think. No girl has broken my heart. I like the song because of the voice of the singer.”
Parmar had to give up studies after Class 12, and join as a helper in a power transmission company in Gandhinagar, following his father’s death in 2014 from electric shock. Parmar’s mother Nita Parmar, 43, took up work as cleaning staff at Gandhinagar’s Civil Hospital, for a salary of Rs 7,240 per month, and the two of them shifted from Mehsana district to Limbodara as Nita’s brothers stay in the village. The mother and son live in a two-room pucca house owned by Nita’s brother Hargovind Maheriya, and pay Rs 250 per month as rent.
“Piyush is my only child and I wanted to give him all he asked for. I opted for night shift at the hospital as I could then finish all the chores at home and go to work. Also, night shift pays a little more,” says Nita.
“It is odd that I joined an electric company considering how my father died, but in Gandhinagar, it is one of the best options. After his death, I had no choice but to take up a job,” Parmar adds. “I earn around Rs 12,000 a month, out of which I spend Rs 750 on travel and pay an EMI of Rs 800 a month for my motorcycle.”
Apart from movies and his moustache, the Hero motorcycle is his passion. “I got it a year ago and enjoy riding it around the village with my friends.”
On the night of September 25, he had gone to see the garba with a friend at Patel Par, an area near the village. Parmar says this was his first visit to a garba, and he went at his cousin’s insistence.
“A few boys from our village called out to us, using an abusive term. I objected. They replied that we had no right to watch the garba. Then, they came closer, took a look at me and said I did not have the right to grow a moustache as only the Kshatriyas could sport one. They told us we were the cleaners of society, and had no right to either grow or twirl a moustache,” says Parmar.
The 24-year-old says he is scared, and hasn’t reported to work since the incident. “They will gang up again and beat us up,” he fears.
However, standing in front of a wall with photos of his father and grandfather sporting a moustache, Parmar says he is willing to take the risk. “One thing I am sure of is that I will not remove my moustache. Especially after this incident. I am thinking of growing a beard as well. It will go well with the moustache,” he smiles. Nita nods.
The houses of the accused Vaghela youths in the village are locked. Their neighbours claim the matter is being blown out of proportion. Sitting in the old village school that has been converted into a panchayat office, sarpanch Ranjitsinh Vaghela is cautious in his replies. On a wall are the names of sarpanches of the village going back 40 years. None is a Dalit.
“This is my second term as sarpanch. As far as I know, the village has seen only one atrocity case before this,” stresses Ranjitsinh, adding that he is perplexed as well by the row. “Everyone in the village keeps a moustache. It has never been an issue. I do not understand the younger generation. Why would they beat up people from their own village for having a moustache?”
Ranjitsinh also claims that Parmar’s family had gone to the house of one of the accused, Ajitsinh Vaghela, to try settle matters the same night. “Instead of apologising, they started abusing Piyush’s family,” says Ranjitsinh.
The parents of Parmar’s 17-year-old cousin, who was reportedly also beaten up along with him, did not file a police complaint in the case, and say they didn’t want him to get distracted during his exams. With police holding a press conference to discredit his claim of a second, October 3 attack, the family is apprehensive.
Three houses away, Krunal Maheriya is preparing for his law exams alongside working as a manager with a private telecommunication company. “When I am not studying or working, you will see me running. I love to run. There is no gym in our village, so I go to a school ground and do my own workout routine,” says Maheriya, as he folds his sunglasses.Maheriya’s parents Ramesh and Jyotsana tend to their fields, growing enough for the family. His elder brother Pragnesh, 26, who is married and has a child, works as a supervisor in a power transmission company.
Maheriya’s parents Ramesh and Jyotsana tend to their fields, growing enough for the family. His elder brother Pragnesh, 26, who is married and has a child, works as a supervisor in a power transmission company.
Maheriya hopes to become a lawyer, and one as fit as Bollywood star Akshay Kumar. “I am inspired by his movie Jolly LLB. I must have seen it 20 times. I think Akshay Kumar is the most stylish celebrity. I see all his films. I try to imitate his style of dressing and his fitness regime.”
Talking about the attack on him, the 24-year-old says, “That night I had gone to meet friends at the Kali Mandir in our village. We wanted to collect funds to celebrate the last night of Navaratri in style. On my way home, I was stopped by some Darbar boys of our village. They started abusing me, and as I tried to start my motorcycle and leave, they asked me to remove my moustache. I refused. I was shocked they could do something like this.”
There is another reason he works out as much as he can, he adds. “I do not want to be like my father and brother. My father has been working hard all his life to make ends meet. And while my brother works for a private company, working in one gives you little by way of power. That is why I am also giving my entrance exam to join the police.”
Once he gets in, Maheriya hopes to put Limbodara far behind him. “The incident has made me more determined than ever to leave the village. I want to settle down in Gandhinagar with a police job and not look back. I had heard about my grandparents going through a lot for being a Dalit, but I never thought such a humiliating experience could happen to me.”
Having a police job would change everything, he adds. “Imagine a policeman who also knows the law… Plus, if I have a government job, people would think twice before doing what they did to me. They would not dare beat me up for growing a moustache. They would fear me.”
with inputs from Abha Mehra