India’s low-caste still “untouchables”

permalinke-mail story to a friendprint versionPublished 09 August, 2010, 07:22

In the traditional Hindu society, caste prejudice is illegal but it is
still an issue for many, especially when it comes to the “ritually

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Propeller The so-called Dalits, or “untouchables,” are not allowed to
get involved with the upper caste in any way.

It is a problem that’s been simmering, but now Soni Devi says it’s
fast reaching the boiling point. She is a newly-appointed cook in this
primary school in Jaanipur. She is there to prepare the
government-funded midday meal.

But despite Soni’s best intentions, some of the students turn their
noses up at her culinary creations, because she is a Dalit. In
traditional Hindu society, only upper-caste cooks are allowed to cook
community meals.

“Some upper-caste children don’t want to eat food made by me,” she
said. “Their parents consider the food polluted by my touch. What can
I do? I’m here to make lunch in this school. I treat the children here
just like my own kids.”

120 million children across India receive a mid-day meal every working
day, in the largest school lunch program in the world. But when the
Education Ministry decided to send Dalit cooks to village schools,
where the majority of pupils are upper-caste Hindus, many found that
too hard to swallow.

“The mid-day meal can entice poor parents to send their children to
school. The kids look forward to it. But there are some parents who
don’t want their children to eat food made by low-caste people and
have removed their children from here, and also threatened us as
well,” said school principal Ram Kumar Pathak.

Meet the Singh family, a member of the upper caste Rajput community.
They refused to allow their 10-year old son Parmanand to continue
studying in a school which they felt didn’t respect their customs, and
pulled him out immediately.

“We are upper caste. We believe strongly in the caste system. We
cannot eat food made or touched by somebody from a lower caste. That’s
why we moved our child from this government school and put him into a
private one,” Parmanand’s mother Gita Devi explained.

Activists say this kind of reaction demonstrates the difficulty in
eradicating the caste system. Discrimination on the basis of caste is
illegal in India, but the practice is still entrenched in rural areas,
where the kind of work you do, and who you can eat with, is largely
divided along caste lines.

“We low-caste people are treated like dirt,” said low-cast villager
Umi Devi. “The upper castes order us about, they tell us, ‘Stay on one
side, wash the utensils, sit there’-- anything to humiliate us. They
want us to remain low and never rise up.”

As for the government, it is most willing to bridge social divisions
and says legal action will be taken against villagers who oppose Dalit
cooks in schools.


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