The house of Daudapur village pradhan Manju Devi in Mainpuri district of Uttar Pradesh was locked on Sunday. Her husband, Sahab Singh, is the pradhan pratinidhi (the village head’s representative) and had complained about caste discrimination in the village primary school. Neighbours said he had gone to Mainpuri district headquarters for some “emergency work”.
When contacted by The Indian Express on his mobile phone, Singh, a Dalit, said that he was being threatened by the Thakurs of his village after he complained that utensils of Scheduled Castes schoolchildren used for their mid-day meals were kept apart on the premises, and washed by the children themselves.
“They are openly saying that they won’t let a Dalit continue to remain the village pradhan. They used caste slurs on me as well. They are threatening to break my bones and even shoot me… They are doing this hungama (ruckus) in the village. I had come to meet the Superintendent of Police and District Magistrate, but they were not available. I will submit a complaint to everyone, including the honourable Chief Minister (Yogi Adityanath),” Sahab Singh said as he disconnected the call.
His wife, Manju Devi, was elected village pradhan from the SC reserved seat in the recently concluded panchayat elections in the state.
After the issue of caste discrimination was raised, Mainpuri district administration suspended school headmistress Garima Rajput and relieved the two cooks — Somvati Devi and Laxmi Devi — who allegedly refused to touch the utensils of the Scheduled Caste students during the visit of the officials, and said they can’t work at the school if they were forced to do so.
Of the 80 students at the government primary school, 60 belong to Scheduled Castes.
“This is wrong. All the students must be treated the same at the school. We are with pradhanji on this issue,” said 52-year-old Premvati, the neighbour of the pradhan, who lives in the middle of the Dalit basti of the village.
Premvati’s grandchildren also go to the same primary school.
According to the family, the utensils used by the Dalit children in the school were kept in the classroom, while the utensils used by other students were kept in the kitchen.
“When schools reopened after the lockdown, she entered the kitchen and asked the cooks for food. She was scolded by the cooks and told to stay outside the kitchen,” Premvati’s daughter added.
“There are barely five to six Thakur children who go to the government school. Most Thakur families send their children to private schools. We are poor, so we are forced to send our children to the government school,” said Soni (40), a Dalit, whose son also goes to the same school.
According to a student, the arrangement for keeping plates has always been like this since he started going to school three years ago.
The village has an almost equal number of Thakurs and Dalits (nearly 35%), while the rest belong to the Other Backward Class.
On the other side of the village where Thakurs live, a group of men, mostly Thakurs, had gathered at the residence of 50-year-old Gajendra Pratap Singh.
Singh, a Thakur, denied that he had threatened Sahab Singh. “I have not threatened anyone. What do I have to do with the issue?” he said and accused Sahab Singh of spreading “caste animosity in the village”.
“The school was running smoothly. Everything was being done, but then he went to the school for a visit and humiliated the cooks and did netagiri (politics). The suspension is also wrong. The headmistress is very good, and she must be reinstated. There is no question of any caste issue. Lies are being spread by the village head’s husband, who has no right to interfere in the school’s functioning,” said Gajendra Singh as sat outside his house with around 50 men.
“This is how it is in schools everywhere. The children decide where they keep their plates… Now, Sahab Singh is saying that someone from his community will cook at the school and that all students will have to eat that food. The village elders have said that if someone from the village head’s community (Dalit) cooks food, they won’t send their children to the school. Our simple demand is that things should go back to how they were and village head’s husband should face action,” Gajendra Singh told The Indian Express.
The two cooks, who were relieved of their duties, were then summoned to Gajendra’s house.
“There was no question of caste. They said that I should wash dishes of the students, which I can’t, irrespective of their castes,” said Laxmi Devi (48). “The way the food has been cooked at the school has been the same since I have worked here,” she said.
“There is no issue of caste here,” she added.
Asked how many years it has been since she was working as a cook at the school, Devi said, “I can’t remember, but it has been very long, and we kept a few dishes in the kitchen to use for chopping and keeping, while all others were kept in the classroom. There is no issue of caste here.”
School headmistress Garim Rajput, who was suspended on Friday, could not be reached.
Mainpuri Basic Shiksha Adhikari (BSA) Kamal Singh on Saturday said the complaint of caste discrimination at the school, made by the husband of sarpanch Manju Devi, was found to be true. “The utensils used by the Scheduled Caste children and other children were kept separately. The Block Development Officer and other officials visited the school. During the visit, the cooks Somvati and Laxmi Devi refused to touch the utensils of the Scheduled Caste students, and said they can’t work at the school if they were forced to do so. They also used caste slurs,” Singh had said, adding that action against the cooks had been taken by the School Management Committee
Kamal Singh claimed that a “compromise” has been reached among the villagers.
“A team of our officials had gone to the village today and met the residents. Both sides have agreed to let the school function. The suspension and removal of the three persons will continue for now. Everyone in the village has agreed that the school should run. Our focus is the education of the children and that will not be interrupted. From tomorrow, the school will reopen and the midday meal will be served,” said the BSA.
“We will see whose fault it was. On whether the suspension has to be continued or not, those things will be looked at later. A few politicians have also got involved and are ensuring that the issue is resolved,” Kamal Singh said.
Speaking to The Indian Express on Sunday, Mainpuri Superintendent of Police Ashok Kumar Rai said that action will be taken once he receives a complaint from the village pradhan regarding the threats.
“I did not meet the village pradhan’s husband, but if he comes to meet tomorrow, I will take his complaint and if needed, action will be taken. If needed, he will be given security,” said Rai.