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Uttarakhand's Caste Cauldron and 2 Unlucky Cooks Who Got Their Fingers Burnt in It

By: Anupam Trivedi

News18.com

Last Updated: December 29, 2021, 07:30 IST

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Sunita Devi was appointed as a cook under the mid-day meal scheme at an intermediate government school in Sukhidhang village in Uttarakhand's Champawat district after the school management decided to replace Pushpa Bhatt. Representational pic

Sunita Devi was appointed as a cook under the mid-day meal scheme at an intermediate government school in Sukhidhang village in Uttarakhand's Champawat district after the school management decided to replace Pushpa Bhatt. Representational pic

Sunita Devi is a Dalit and Pushpa Bhatt a Brahmin, who both lost their jobs as cooks under the mid-day meal scheme from a government school. They speak to News18, underscoring a larger problem.

Sunita Devi, a Dalit woman who allegedly faced a social boycott from students at a government school in Uttarakhand recently where she worked as a cook, has been offered a similar job by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in a Delhi school. A formal offer letter was given to her on Tuesday.

“At least someone respected my dignity,” said Sunita who is yet to decide on the offer. A mother of two young boys, Sunita Devi is in her 30s. Her husband is a labourer and she also often doubles up as one.

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“We need money to feed young boys. It will become difficult to meet expenses if I don’t work to earn extra money. The school job was one good chance,” she told News18.

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Sunita was appointed as a cook under the mid-day meal scheme at an intermediate government school in Sukhidhang village in Uttarakhand’s Champawat district after the school management decided to replace one Pushpa Bhatt.

Her employment with the school, however, was short-lived as out of 66 students, most of them belonging to upper castes, reportedly refused to eat food cooked by her. The issue soon snowballed into a major controversy as parents were clearly divided along caste lines. In retaliation, students belonging to Scheduled Castes refused food prepared by a Brahmin cook whose contract expired last week.

Uttarakhand chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami on Friday ordered a probe into the incident and asked authorities to take stern action against the guilty after visiting the school. The issue has taken on a political hue in the BJP-ruled state that will have assembly elections early next year.

Trying to make both ends meet

News18 independently spoke to several stakeholders, including both the cooks. It is a rather contrasting story involving two women – one Dalit and another Brahmin – struggling to make both ends meet.

“It was not about caste, it was all about a job to support my son. But the people with vested interests gave it a different colour,” said Pushpa Bhatt, a Brahmin, while speaking over the phone to News18.

Pushpa is also in her 30s and separated from her husband. She has one child to look after. A teacher at a local Sishu Mandir – an RSS-run school – Pushpa gets 1,500 per month as remuneration. The job of a cook at a government school seemed lucrative to her as it promised double the amount that she was getting.

“Rs 3,000 per month was a dream come true for me. I am a single parent looking after a child. I struggled hard to complete graduation and the school management shortlisted my name, gave an appointment letter. But then they changed their minds for unknown reasons,” Pushpa said.

Caste struggle in Uttarakhand

In the past few years, sporadic cases of caste disputes have been reported in the media from Uttarakhand.

Last month, a Dalit man died after he was allegedly thrashed for eating in an upper-caste marriage, an allegation that is yet to be investigated by the police. A few years ago an upper caste teacher was jailed on charges of killing a Dalit person after he refused to move from a flour mill.

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Social thinker and historian Shekhar Pathak has extensively travelled and observed rural life from close quarters. “The caste struggle was always there in the hills. However, in the past few years it has surprisingly increased,” said Pathak, blaming changing political equations for the “new trend".

The department of social justice and empowerment says Uttarakhand has a 19 per cent Dalit population. The figure is more than in many other states. Pathak says it is evident that the upper castes are in a majority and have a greater responsibility.

“Those in the driver’s seat must ensure to check social equilibrium before things go out of hand,” he said.

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first published:December 29, 2021, 07:30 IST
last updated:December 29, 2021, 07:30 IST
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