By Ila Ananya
When I was in college and we were reading UR Ananthamurthy’s Samskara in class, I had a professor who told us a story about a teacher in his school who would refuse to drink water from the same glass as the Dalit students. It played out in different ways when I was in college — I also had young women teachers who would be dismissed both by a few fellow teachers and students on the basis of their caste and gender. I was reminded of this when on 29th January, reports about students from a government school in Tikamgarh, Madhya Pradesh, who refused to eat their mid-day meals because they were cooked by a Dalit woman, started doing the rounds.
Two days ago, the reports were short, barely quoting students who said that they didn’t eat the meals because it was prepared by women from the Banskar community, and “Only Banskar community people consume the food.” Some reports have quoted the children as saying that their parents had insisted that they shouldn’t eat the food made by a Dalit woman. Only 12 students turned up at the Dalit woman’s house to eat their meal—something that the school’s headmaster heavily downplayed when he reportedly said, “The midday meal should be cooked inside the school’s kitchen, not at the cook’s home. Secondly, kids avoid the meal just because the meal is prepared in someone else’s home.”
The primary school, which has students from standard 1 to 5, reportedly has 89 students. Yesterday, however, a development in the case came when, according to a letter written by the school’s headmaster, stated that 67 students had been refusing to have the mid-day meals made by the Dalit woman since July. In what seems like a complete turn away from what the headmaster had said earlier, this time he argued that he’d written three letters to his seniors about the issue. The headmaster also said that the 89 students had their meals for three months in between, when another woman had been cooking food for them.
At a time when there have been many strong anti-caste movements across the country, these stories are extremely disturbing. It’s particularly unsettling to hear these responses from young children–indicating that discrimination is continuing to play out in different ways.