The school as an institution of equality and liberating education can turn into the very foundation of oppressive and discriminatory beliefs. In an Uttar Pradesh school when children refuse a meal cooked by a Scheduled caste woman, it speaks about the paradox of our culture and the absence of interventions that bring about grassroot transformation.
Kavita Maheshwari is a Child Rights Activist, Writer and Film-Maker – based in Mumbai.
Caste seems to be so ingrained in our value system that no matter how much we try to console ourselves of its dilution; it appears to emerge even stronger. The irony of our times is such that on the one hand we see the assertion of caste politics and the emergence of political parties that cater to specific castes in many parts of the nation, we witness a heightened sense of awareness regarding caste for assertion of right to education and employment in the public sector through an emphasis on the reservation policy and we also see how caste has once again become central to our university and academic life as a theory of critical importance.
Thus whether it is in the realm of politics or culture, academics or assertion of the self in the public- the revival of caste has meant that we are reminded every moment that no matter how much we try we cannot annihilate caste through the logic of caste. Caste is an age old structural organisation that is embedded in the Indian consciousness to the extent that from sartorial preferences, culinary choices, marriage choices to opportunities for employment or education all continue to be shaped to a great extent by it.
The stereotypes and prejudices , the stigma and oppression that is inherent in the system of caste continue to be reflected in the way certain communities in Maharashtra are denied access to upstream water or a well from which the upper caste takes water, how they are expected to walk barefoot in the upper caste neighborhoods and mop the streets as they leave, how in several rural schools in Bihar children continue to be seated and divided according to their caste affiliations, inter-dining and inter-marriage among people of different castes continues to be a contested debate among many traditional societies across India where caste practices dominate over humanitarian causes.
It is ironic that even after seven decades of Independence and a constitution that is firm in terms of it prescriptions, we still have not been have able to annihilate the system of caste. Recently it has been reported from Palharia Village in Uttar Pradesh that many primary school students refused to eat the mid-day meal because it had been cooked by a woman belonging to the Scheduled caste. The parents of these children instead of resisting such a claim by their children supported them in this derogatory and archaic practice by appealing to the school authorities to get the school cook changed.
The regular cook of the school who was from the upper caste was on a day’s leave when another woman was appointed for the day. When the news of a lower caste woman cooking in the school kitchen spread in the village, both parents and village elders assembled to protest it before the school building. The children of the upper castes resisted the food and a large portion of it was thrown out in a matter of seconds. So many years after independence we still see incidents of this kind taking place all around us.
These incidents make us aware of the caste discrimination that goes on around us and the truth that despite legislation, the need to generate awareness is still not over. It is paradoxical that an institution like the school which should cultivate the values of fraternity and equality entertains the discriminatory and derogatory attitude that is central to caste. It is time we thought and acted out of the box and educated our children for a more cosmopolitan and emancipator world.