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Caste apartheid, now social custom

This is how it happens in Madhya Pradesh villages — Scheduled Caste villagers can’t touch the pots of their upper caste neighbours at the hand pumps; at anganwadis, food made by lower caste cooks is rejected. Salil Mekaad reports.

india Updated: May 22, 2009 00:07 IST
Salil Mekaad

Guddi, 14, a scheduled caste girl, has learnt about apartheid the hard way — by being at its receiving end.

Every morning, Guddi arrives early with her containers at the hand pump in Basadi village in Madhya Pradesh’s Katni district — around 400 km east of Bhopal near Jabalpur — and waits a few metres away, watching the upper caste villagers draw water.

She dare not go near them for fear of touching their vessels.

“In the last six months alone, my father has had to purchase two earthen pots as my little sister touched vessels belonging to upper caste women. They threw away the vessels my sister touched and asked for new ones,” said Guddi.

Basadi sarpanch Urmila Soni denied any discrimination, but said: “Some customs are laid down by society.”

Asked specifically about the discrimination faced by people like Guddi, she said: “It should not happen.”

But it does.

Guddi — and many others like her — has learnt, from daily experience, these customs that render her a second-class citizen.

With a population of around 5,000 mostly lower caste residents, including Charmakars and Mehtars, Basadi has been in the limelight following a series of reports in HT on caste-based discrimination in the serving of mid-day meals in schools and in government-run mother and child care centres called anganwadis. The reports were based on a survey conducted by an NGO, Jan Sahas.

The situation is similar in Dang village in the same district, where reserved class members form around 30 per cent of the population.

“We don’t allow caste discrimination in schools, but we do have to follow certain social norms,” said Nathulal Lodhi, husband of Sarpanch Sudama Lodhi.

Sudama can’t read or write, so Nathulal is de facto head of the village and is known as “sarpanch pati (village chief’s husband)”.

And what are those norms?

“Lower castes like Charmakar and Mehtar are served food at our functions, but they have to eat it outside the house and clean their own dishes,” he said.

District Collector Anju Baghel said stray cases of discrimination might exist, but government initiatives have helped put an end to regressive caste-based customs.

She said she had sent teams to villages mentioned in previous HT reports, but they had found no evidence of any discrimination. The villagers and sarpanchs had denied the practice of discrimination and were angry with the NGO, she claimed.

“We fear that if more such surveys are carried out, it might lead to a law and order situation,” Baghel said.

But reports from the ground belied her claims. Some lower caste members are determined to get their rights.

“Somebody has informed officials in Delhi about the discrimination against Dalits. We are expecting a team to visit soon,” said Suresh Choudhary, a reserved class member, in Tighara Khurd village in Katni.

He and his uncle Jeevan said they would tell the team about the high degree of social discrimination practised even in government-run schemes.

Citing an example, Jeevan said upper caste Patels refused to eat food prepared by a Mehtar (lower caste) cook at the local anganwadi. Following this, government officials visited the centre and hushed up the brewing controversy by asking an upper caste cook to prepare the food.

But the Choudharys are in a minority. Most Dalits are still scared of speaking up about the discrimination they face. Till that changes, official reports will continue to brush every inconvenient truth under the carpet.