THEY call the post “bhojanmata”. It was the highest encomium Sunita Devi had ever received. It lasted all of seven days, after which the Dalit cook of Swatantra Sangram Senani Late Shri Ram Chandra Government Inter College in Jaul village of Uttarakhand’s Champawat district found herself out of the job, following protests.
On Friday, soon after a complaint was lodged by Sunita under the SC/ST Act and IPC Section 506 (criminal intimidation), the district administration announced that she would be reinstated.
Champawat Chief Education Officer (CEO) R C Purohit said Sunita will start working from January 16, after the winter vacation. “Earlier she was removed because the proper process for her appointment was not followed,” he said. “Now she has been reinstated after proper procedure.”
Sunita, 32, said she had received information about her reinstatement. “I am hopeful that this time there will be no trouble,” she said, adding, “I am both hopeful and unsure.”
The parents who objected to Sunita’s appointment had cited a rule “violation”. However, Principal Prem Singh, a Dalit himself, pointed out that the school, with a majority of the students upper caste, has not had a Dalit as cook in the 10 years that he has been in the job, despite the official criteria for the post prioritising “a non-general (category) appointment”.
The hunt for a new cook had begun in October when one of the two who prepare mid-day meals for students of Classes 6 to 8 (the school is till 12th) retired. Singh said he advertised locally on October 28, and six persons — five from the general category and one a Scheduled Caste — applied.
“The rule for the appointment is that the person should be BPL. But none of the six passed that criterion. I informed the school management committee (SMC, which includes parents) and the parent-teacher’s association that we needed to invite more applications. The previous advertisement also did not mention that SC, ST and OBC candidates would be given priority. Therefore, a fresh advertisement was issued on November 12, and we received five applications,” said Prem Singh.
After this, the Principal said, a four-member committee picked Sunita Devi, two of whose children study at the school, after finding that she met all the requirements.
But PTA president Narendra Joshi refused to sign on the appointment. Principal Singh claimed that at a meeting where he wasn’t present, Joshi was supported by some other parents, objecting to a Dalit cook. “Agitated by that, some others belonging to the SC community walked out. Those who remained agreed on the name of Pushpa Bhatt, who belongs to the general category.”
Singh said rules require that if a Dalit is not picked for a job, an NOC has to obtained from all the applicants regarding the alternative name. While the NOCs were awaited, on December 4, Sunita’s name was sent to the Block Education Officer for approval. As the school required a cook urgently, Sunita began work on December 13.
Around two-three days later, the boycott started, with over 40 General category students refusing to eat the meal cooked by her. On December 20, Sunita was told not to come.
A few days later, the 21 Dalit students at the school retaliated by refusing to eat the meal cooked by Vimlesh, the other cook, saying she was a Brahmin.
Purohit said the children refused to eat the food not because of caste prejudices but because of an “ego tussle” over the appointment. “The appointment of bhojanmata is done by the principal and SMC. Later, approval is given by the deputy education officer,” Purohit said, adding that Principal Singh was wrong in seeking more names after the first round of selection.
At the same time, the CEO admitted the caste divide is ingrained among the students. “It wasn’t easy for us to make them understand… At the end of the day, they listen more to their parents.”
Located around 27 km from Tanakpur tehsil, the Inter College has 66 students on the rolls till Class 8, who are entitled to a mid-day meal. Of them, 45 belong to the general category, while 21 are Dalits.
PTA president Joshi accepted caste bias in the area, which is dominated by Brahmins by a two-third majority. However, he stressed, the boycott started mainly because of the Principal appointing Sunita despite the parents agreeing on another name, Pushpa Bhatt. According to him, Bhatt had a higher claim to the post being BPL like Sunita, as well as being a single mother and hence “worse off”.
Sunita, mother of boys in Classes 6 and 8 respectively, says that with her husband who does odd jobs losing income following the Covid lockdown, the salary of Rs 3,000 a month as the school cook had come as a lifesaver. Accusing the administration of coming under pressure, she says that on the second day of her job, locals including parents assembled at the school and held a protest.
“We had prepared daal-chawal. Around 20-25 of them arrived before lunch time. I heard them saying that my cooking food was a disrespect to them. When the lunch started, several upper caste children boycotted it. Some convinced others to also boycott,” said Sunita, adding that the children were only doing what they were told.
Asked whether Sunita would be accepted by the parents now, Purohit said: “We cannot say this with full confidence.” He added: “Their main issue was the illegal appointment and they should not have any problem now. If some people do create a ruckus, legal action should be taken against them.”
On the basis of Sunita’s complaint, a case was registered against 30 people. Champawat SP Devendra Pincha said all the accused are from Sukhidang and surrounding villages, and no arrests have been made so far.
More than herself, Sunita said, she was pained for her two sons. “They never knew about these caste divides, but now, after my humiliation, they have started enquiring about these things. They must have felt bad. Anyone would.”