If there is one New Year resolution the nation must make, it must be to strive to eradicate the caste system. The shameful incident in a government school in Uttarakhand where the cook for the mid-day meal scheme – a Dalit woman – was sacked because upper caste students refused eat the meals prepared by her shows how deeply entrenched the caste system is. What is worse, the education department justified her sacking on the pretext of procedural lapses in her appointment. It was only after a media outcry and pre-poll pressure that the cook, Sunita Devi, who had filed a police complaint against discrimination, was reinstated.
The incident merits closer inspection as the scenic hill state calls itself ‘Devbhoomi’,the abode of the gods, but the fallout of the episode could be as devilish as it is elsewhere in the cow belt where Dalits who dare invoke the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of atrocities ) Act, 1989,are taught a lesson through rape and murder. Hathras is a case in point. On an average, 10 daily cases of rape of Dalit women were reported in 2019, going by the report of the National Crime Record Bureau.
Uttarakhand has a fairly high SC population (18.8 per cent) and close to 80per cent of them live in segregated settlements in villages. However, their political clout is negligible. The secondary school at Jaul village in the remote Champawat district where Sunita Devi was appointed a cook, is headed by a Dalit principal. The PTA president, Narendra Joshi, a Brahmin, objected to Sunita’s appointment on the grounds that a Brahmin candidate had better credentials. The Inter College has 66 students on the rolls till Class 8, who are entitled to amid-day meal. Of them, 45 belong to the general category, while 21 are Dalits.
The incident has led to communal polarisation and local administration and education officials are persuading villagers to maintain peace. Incidents of violence against Dalits in Uttarakhand are not unheard of. Last month, in Champawat itself, a 45-year-old Dalit man was beaten to death by upper caste people after he was found having food at a wedding along with everyone in violation of casteist norms prevalent locally. In 2016, a Brahmin school teacher in Bageshwar slit the throat of a Dalit man who entered the flour mill and answered back when rebuked. Two decades ago there was the infamous case where a Dalit wedding procession was attacked as the groom refused to dismount before the local shrine.
Such stories are sickeningly common in north India. Even during the pandemic, when crime was low, crimes against SC/ST communities increased by 9.3 per cent, the NCRB noted. In fact, a scheduled caste person was a victim of crime every 10 minutes in India.
Maharashtra, which prides itself on its social reform movements, is no different. Who can forget the Khairlanji case of 2006 when four members of the Bhotmange family were murdered for opposing the construction of a road through their field? The women of the family were paraded naked in public before being murdered. Their crime was to lodge a police complaint after being abused and threatened by the dominant Kunbi case, classified as OBC. A government report on the killings, prepared by the social justice department and YASHADA—the state academy of developmental administration—implicated top police officers, doctors and even a BJP member of the legislative assembly in a cover-up. In September 2008, six people were given the death sentence for the crime which was commuted to 25 years’ rigorous imprisonment by the Nagpur bench of the High Court in2010.Incidentally,it was an American interning as a journalist, Sabrina Buckwalter, whose report set the ball rolling.
The National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, a non-government organisation, says a significant percentage of Dalit women report being raped and many have reported multiple instances of rape. In fact, there was a time when it was common for landlords across India to abduct young girls belonging to low castes whenever they pleased. They would keep them for days and rape them till they wanted. When the girl would return, her family would take solace in the fact that at least she had returned alive.
Now, this does not happen in Uttarakhand, largely a state of marginal farmers. However, the manner in which Sunita Devi and the Dalit community in Champawat resisted caste oppression – the Dalit children refused to eat food prepared by Sunita Devi’s replacement – is a welcome sign, an indication that India’s anti-caste movement is ready for a showdown. Her defiance is especially brave when the political class sidesteps such issues. It remains to be seen if she can become another Rosa Parks, the black woman whose refusal to give her seat to a white man in a segregated bus in 1955 in the US triggered the civil rights movement. Parks was arrested for breaking the existing law and punished by the courts but her small but brave gesture led to the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott that lasted 381 days and finally culminated in the end of segregation on buses.
Finally, one would like to ask why the Mahamandaleshwars and Shankaracharyas who were spewing hatred against the Muslims till yesterday are silent on the oppression of the Dalits. Why are those so keen on ‘ghar wapasi’ of converts but not lifting even their little fingers on equal status for the Dalits. Why has the PM, an OBC himself, not lauded Sunita Devi in the Amrit Mahotsav of ‘azaadi’. Empowerment of Dalits needs more than tokenisms such as a Dalit president.
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