Thursday, July 22, 2010

Parents protest 'lower caste' women cooking food in schools

The outrage among parents over Dalit or Lower Caste [sic] women cooking food for their children in schools has once again demonstrated the casteist face of our society.

'Upper caste' families are insistent that they would not send the kids to school if the children are served food cooked by Dalit women. In several places, villagers have turned violent and the cooks had to be sent away.

This is happening in the heartland of India, from Kanpur to Kannauj, Allahabad to Shahjehanpur and Farrukhabad to Bijnore. Despite that a Dalit woman is the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP), the caste prejudices remain strong at the ground level, especially in rural areas.

The State government recently ordered that Dalit women were to be appointed as cooks in schools under the mid-day meal scheme which is aimed at enrollment of poor children in schools. For 25 kids, the cook would be a Dalit, and in case of 100 children, two cooks including a Dalit and a 'general' woman would be hired.

Despite the loss of upper castes' clout, a Kayastha, Bania or Thakur woman is not likely to go for a cook's job in UP. A Brahmin woman belonging to poor family may however be found at a cook's place because Brahmins are numerous and not financilaly as strong as Banias [Vaishyas] or even Thakurs.

Otherwise, backward caste women are more likely to do this job. However, a Dalit woman is still not welcome. Such are the complexities of caste in contemporary Indian society. In some schools, teachers went on leave.

Elsewhere the are not cooking food but cleaning school premises for fear of hurting 'sensibilities'. In Kannauj 70 parents were booked by police for withdrawing their children from schools. But this is causing further hardening of stance.

For political purposes, Congress' Rahul Gandhi and BJP's Rajnath Singh may go and have food in Dalit households but practically untouchability is still practiced widely. The educated class of parents is least bothered about the criminality of their conduct and that these actions are corrupting the minds of their kids.

Surprisingly, it is not just the traditional upper castes including Brahmins, Rajputs, Banias and Kayasthas who are protesting the decision to appoint dalit women as cooks in schools, but the other backward castes [OBCs] are equally fierce in their opposition to Dalits.

Jats, Kurmis & Yadavs also ganged up against the Dalits. Muslims may not have openly reacted but they are no less casteist and when it comes to caste divide, readily align with the upper castes. And though Dalits comprise the biggest caste group (22%) in UP, the battle for honor is yet to be won despite the BSP ruling the state once again.

UP that has a population of around 200 million is today ruled by a Dalit woman. But that hasn't changed attitudes much though there has been a sense of empowerment amongst the weaker sections who remained at the periphery for centuries.

The open display of caste prejudices and such inhuman attitude towards Dalits haven't still send shockwaves across the country. In rural areas of UP, MP, Rajasthan, Haryana and also parts of South India, it is still a dream for many Dalits to wear shoes or ride horse in the marriage procession.

Such news items don't alarm the society much. While reservation in jobs has helped a section of Dalits attain financial security, for a vast majority the real fight for dignity is far from over. The recent spate of honour killings in which often OBCs were the perpetrators show that the cancer of casteism is spreading.

Caste may not appear as strong and as divisive a factor in cities, in countryside--towns and villages--this abhorrent apartheid continues to oppress millions. It was perhaps this reason that Dr BR Ambedkar had urged his followers to move to cities.

While communalism may be responsible for more deaths in indpendent India, the fact is that casteism is a much serious social evil that is often neglected and due attention is not given towards redressing the caste issues.

It is this reason that some media reports seemed to blame the government for taking the decision to appoint Dalit cooks and in turn fanning caste tensions. Sadly no progressive or reformist voice has been heard from the society against this anti-Dalit mindset.

Legislations and penal actions haven't changed the situation. Isn't it ironical that even today we, in India, commonly use terms like Upper Castes and Lower Castes?