Uttarakhand: Students refuse midday meal by Dalit cook again
The principal of the government inter college (GIC), Prem Singh, said he was forced to issue transfer certificates (s) to seven students to warn them to stop the boycott
Nine to ten students out of 37 upper-caste students in an Uttarakhand school allegedly refused to eat midday meals again cooked by a Dalit woman, the school’s principal said on Friday, months after an identical incident at the same institution sparked nationwide condemnation and a government probe.
The principal of the government inter college (GIC), Prem Singh, said he was forced to issue transfer certificates (s) to seven students to warn them to stop the boycott. The incident was reported from Sukhidhang in Uttarakhand’s Champawat district.
“Some students have refused to eat midday meals cooked by the Dalit bhojan mata (midday mealcook). They have been bringing meals from their house. I wanted to stop such practice and make them eat together with Dalit students, therefore, I took such an action,” Prem Singh said.
This is the second caste-based boycott in six months faced by the cook, 32-year-old Sunita Devi. In December, 40 students refused to eat meals made by her. She was sacked the next day, triggering widespread outcry. The government later reinstated her after chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami took note of the incident and the local administration stepped in to end the boycott.
But the boycott began again on March 9, and by 9 to 10 students in classes 6, 7 and 8, said the principal as class 8 students passed to class 9 and some new students joined class 6. Last academic year, 66 students were in Class 6 to 7 and 26 students of them were from SC. In the current academic year, 57 students are in class 6 to 8 and 37 students are from upper caste and 20 Scheduled Caste category. In December all 40 students of upper caste boycotted the mid day meals. Now the number of such students has reduced to 9-10 students involved in boycotting the meals.
“I did not remove the names of upper caste students who have refused to eat the meals from the college but issued the TC only as a warning so that they stop boycotting the meals prepared by the Dalit bhojan mata. I wanted them to maintain college decorum as well as harmony between the two sections,” Singh said.
Devi alleged the villagers asked the children not to eat meals cooked by her. “This is against my self-respect. They (students) leave no chance to insult me. I will fight for my self-respect in the future also. I will not withdraw the case lodged by me last year in a similar incident,” she said.
Devi was referring to a complaint she filed with police against six named and 18-20 other unnamed people – including a female block development committee (BDC) member and the president of the parent teacher association – under the Scheduled Castes (SC) and the Scheduled Tribes (ST) (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and Section 506 (criminal intimation) of the Indian Penal Code in December. The Uttarakhand high court has suspended the arrest of the six people named by her.
Champawat district magistrate (DM) Narendra Singh Bhandari rushed to the GIC with senior officers of the education department. He also interacted with villagers to resolve the matter, the people cited above said.
“The DM and I visited the college today and talked to parents. The matter will be resolved soon. Refusing to eat midday meals is not a crime, if children don’t eat rice and bring tiffin from home, they should at least eat dal or vegetables cooked in midday meals for social harmony. The parents agreed with our advice. All students had a midday meal with the DM today,” chief education officer Jitendra Saxena said.
Devi joined as bhojan mata on December 13. She replaced Shakuntala Devi, an upper caste woman who retired after turning 60.
On her first day, all students ate the midday meal together. But a day later, some 40 upper caste students in classes 6 to 8 — out of a total of 66 pupils in these classes — stopped eating the meals and started bringing their tiffin boxes from home, sparking a row over caste discrimination.
Following an inquiry, Devi was fired by the education department on December 22 on grounds of “procedural lapses” in her appointment. Two days later, Dalit students in the school boycotted the midday meal cooked by the upper caste woman who replaced Devi. Devi was reinstated 10 days later in the wake of widespread criticism, but winter vacations began for students on December 31.
As the school reopened in February, midday meals were not prepared for a short period amid a surge in Covid-19 cases. Cooking resumed on March 9 and so did boycott of meals by 9 to 10 students .
Some parents criticised the principal. “If some children don’t want to eat midday meals in the school, how can the principal force them and then issue a TC? It is not a crime not to eat midday meals. There might be a medical issue. Rice is served in midday meals and children who are under treatment don’t want to eat rice,” one of the parents said, seeking anonymity.
But others indicated that it is a caste-based issue.
“Bhojan mata has filed an unnecessary case against me. How can my child eat midday meals cooked by that woman? After all, it is a matter of self-respect,” said Babloo Gahtori, the parent of a student who refused to consume meals cooked by Devi.
Activists said the boycott sent a wrong message to society. “This is a social evil that upper caste students are boycotting the midday meals cooked by a Dalit woman. It sends a wrong signal in society. Our system and political parties are also responsible for such incidents,” PC Tiwari, a social activist based in Almora, said.