High-caste Indians find low-caste cooks hard to swallow
Shaikh Azizur Rahman, Foreign Correspondent
Last Updated: July 23. 2010 10:32AM UAE / July 23. 2010 6:32AM GMT A
plan in northern India to bridge social divisions by employing members
of the lowest caste as cooks in government schools has led to hundreds
of upper-caste pupils being pulled out of schools and outbreaks of
violence by angry parents.
The scheme was part of an ambitious drive by the Uttar Pradesh chief
minister, Mayawati, to empower the dalit caste. Dalits, often referred
to as "untouchables", are considered the lowest in the Hindu caste
hierarchy. But human rights groups have said resistance to the plan
shows how deeply embedded and discriminatory the caste system remains
in modern India.
The resistance against the dalit cooks by the upper-caste Hindus
turned so fierce in recent weeks that villagers attacked teachers and
the dalit cooks in some schools and fought pitched battles with
Ms Mayawati, who was born into a dalit family, ordered the appointment
of hundreds of dalits to prepare meals for children in the state's
government schools in April.
In Hindu society, only upper-caste Hindu cooks are allowed to cook
Trouble started on July 1 when dozens of female dalit cooks were sent
by the education department to start working in village schools where
the majority of pupils were upper-caste Hindus.
At one primary school in Mairakhpur village in Ramabai Nagar district,
the pupils refused to eat the meal prepared by the new dalit cook.
Last week more than 300 villagers, both men and women, armed with
wooden and iron bars and stones attacked the school. The angry
villagers locked the kitchen, ransacked the school and held the
teachers and the dalit cook captive in a room for hours until police
arrived and rescued them.
In an another school in Kannauj district, after pupils were forced to
eat the meals by general administration and education officials,
furious upper-caste villagers beat up the officials and set their
vehicles on fire, according to ETV.
Sanjay Shukla, an Uttar Pradesh education official, said last week
that legal action would be initiated against the villagers for
disrupting the functioning of government schools and that the dalit
cooks would not be removed. Sources inside the education department,
however, told local media that further district appointments of dalit
cooks had been put on hold.
Regional television channels reported this week that more than 1,500
upper-caste Hindu pupils had been pulled out of government schools by
their parents in villages in Ramabai Nagar, Kannauj, Kanpur Dehat,
Allahabad, Auraiya, Etawah and other districts.
"They are trying to force our children to eat food cooked by
untouchable dalit. It's like forcing a Muslim to eat pork. It's
totally against our culture," said Veeru Dubey, an angry villager in
Ramabai Nagar district, where the recent appointment of three dalit
cooks in two schools sparked protests. "They did not accept our demand
to replace dalit cooks with upper-caste ones and so we decided to
withdraw our children from the school."
Rights groups said this type of reaction demonstrated the difficulty
they face in eradicating the caste system.
"This is nothing but a rabid form of untouchability being imposed
against employments of dalit cooks," said Paul Divakar, a convenor of
the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights. "Though this practice
has been abolished in the constitution, the hidden apartheid is
continuing in several contemporary forms."
In 2007, Ms Mayawati vowed to lift the social position of Uttar
Pradesh's dalits, who make up about one-fifth of the state's
According to the latest Uttar Pradesh education department rule,
instituted this month, a school with 25 pupils should have one dalit
woman appointed as the cook. For a school with up to 100 students one
dalit and one non-dalit cook should be appointed. A school with more
than 100 pupils would have a third lower-caste cook.
For Shanthi, one of the dalit cooks from Ramabai Nagar, the scheme
that had once seemed like an opportunity has left her embarrassed and
"I asked a 10-year-old child in our school why he would not eat kheer
[milk pudding] cooked by me when I had cooked it with utmost care. He
replied that his parents had asked him not to eat anything cooked by
me because I was dalit," Shanthi, 38, said.
"I felt devastated when I found that the little boy even felt
uncomfortable when I touched him. I am sure that the child was taught
by his parents that he should not even get in physical touch with a
dalit. I was reminded again in a painful way that I am an
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