It took a lot of convincing, backed by the possibility of cases being filed against them, to get upper caste people to stop objecting to a Dalit woman being appointed as a cook in the Mysuru government school, where Chief Minister Siddaramaiah studied.
On Friday, The Indian Express reported that attendance at a government school in Kolar has dwindled because upper caste people refuse to let their children eat food prepared by Radhamma, a Dalit woman.
But a Mysuru school where a similar situation had arisen last year, shows that sustained effort supported by official intervention could remove a crucial element through which the caste system is maintained: the refusal of upper caste people to eat food prepared by Dalits or even take meals with them. Today, after several months of such refusal, children of all castes in the school eat food prepared by a Dalit woman.
For several months in 2014, upper caste people had objected to the appointment of a Dalit woman as a cook at the Government Higher Primary School in Kuppegala village. “During lunch time, (upper caste) parents would take their children home,” says Manjunath VD, a Dalit villager.
Kuppegala village has around 4,000 people, of which Dalits number around 1,200. The bulk of the villagers comprise socially dominant Lingayats and Vokkaligas, while Kurubas (OBC) and Naiks (ST) form a small percentage.
Although the situation in the school came to light only in December 2014, Manjunath says that it had been many months in the making.
Since August that year, Manjunath and other parents had urged the government to hire a Scheduled Caste woman as a cook in the school. “We had made this demand even back when the scheme was introduced, but there was opposition then. But when my son started studying in the school, we fought harder. The rules must be implemented,” Manjunath said.
Called Akshara Dasoha in Karnataka, one of the major objectives of the mid-day meal
scheme, along with improving school attendance and nutrition among children, is to “bring about social equity”.
The rules for the appointment of cooks and helpers under the scheme have been framed with a view to foster social equity by removing caste rules in the consumption of food. In most villages across the country, upper caste people do not eat food prepared by Dalits, or even eat with them.
The social composition of cooks in a school depends on the number of children enrolled.
When Manjula began to work at the school in October, upper caste people in the village strongly opposed it. Despite that, she continued to work there. Eventually, in December, things came to a head and parents began to take their children home during mealtime.
The media attention the issue received was amplified by the fact that Siddaramaiah himself had studied in the school, which is in his home district of Mysuru.
“A lot of religious leaders voluntarily came down and organised a saha-pankti bhojana (inter-caste dining event). Then too, some savarneeyas (caste-Hindus) had opposed it,” Manjunath says.
Akshara Dasoha Programme Officer for the district Uday Shankar told The News Minute that the deputy commissioner and local social welfare department had stepped in, and so had the police.
“We held several meetings with people and within 10 days we fixed a date and told everyone that nobody should object. Since then, all children have been eating together,” Uday Shankar said.
However, from Manjunath’s account, it does not seem quite so simple. “The district administration had told people that cases would be filed against those who objected,” he says.
“We would ask “savarneeyas” (caste-Hindus) if they knew the caste of cooks in hotels in Mysuru or Bengaluru. They would reply with ‘Don’t talk about that, we are talking about our village,” Manjunath says.
Another example they used was the marriage of a former MLC from the district. “I don’t remember his name, but we would tell people that the man married a Dalit woman and that they ate the food she cooked. Eventually, they came around.”