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