In her years of studying at the Bande Mataram High School in Andara gram panchayat of coastal Kendrapara, the closest Savita Malik had got to the Ganesh Puja festivities was touching the coconut to be given to the God. This year in September, the Class X Dalit student decided to offer to scrape the tender coconut for the puja.
According to her, as punishment, she and 20 other Dalit students were insulted, faced casteist slurs, were barred from offering prayers, and kept locked in the school for five hours.
Later, following an FIR by her and other Dalit students with the Pattamundai police station, against five of the upper caste teachers plus the school headmaster, the teachers had to issue a public apology.
The upper caste have got back in kind. At least 30 Dalit landless families of Andara are no longer allowed on upper caste land for sharecropping work, that they had been doing for decades. According to the Dalits, they have also been stopped from selling vegetables while local barbers have been told to turn them away.
Last month, the Dalits approached the State Human Rights Commission seeking a stop to the “boycott”. The Dalit sub-caste Kandara makes up one-third of the panchayat’s total population of around 4,000. Discrimination is common, and the Dalits say they had learnt to live with it. But this time it is different.
Rabindra Malika started working as a daily labourer in the field of an upper-caste Khandayat at the age of 20. He is now 60, and for the first time scared to approach the field. “I am sure they will beat me up. They know we Dalits are landless. If they don’t allow us to plough their land, how will we survive?” he says.
Nirakar Malika, also 60, has a family of five, dependent on the ploughing work he did on his upper caste landlord’s 3.5 acres field of black gram. He had spent Rs 5,000 of his own clearing the 6-ft tall grass that sprouts up every monsoon, over the past two months, Nirakar grimaces. “Had they told me earlier, I would not have wasted my money making the land ready for sowing.”
Madhav Malika, who was among the villagers who lodged a complaint with the tehsildar over the school incident, says, “They have declared war on us. They are hurt by the apology which we extracted from upper-caste teachers… We no longer feel safe as the Khandayats are in a majority.”
But the Khandayats don’t see anything wrong in the “boycott”, saying no one can force them to give their land, with crops of black gram, ground nut, coriander seed and moong, for sharecropping. “If we don’t like somebody, how can we allow them to go near our land?” says former sarpanch Upendra Mallick.
Claiming that what happened at the school was a “concocted story”, Mallick adds, “Our teachers did not hurt any Dalit children. The physical education teacher just wanted to ensure the schoolchildren didn’t hurt themselves scraping coconut. It was a humiliating experience for the teachers to apologise over a silly thing.”
While it remained under the surface, tension had also been simmering over minor incidents. Four months ago, Dalit farmer Ratha Malika’s 75-year-old father was allegedly beaten up after his sheep strayed into the backyard of Kalandi Nayak, a Khandayat. One of the sheep was allegedly struck to death. When Ratha complained to the police under the SC/ST Atrocities Act, upper caste villagers gave Rs 6,000 for the dead sheep as compromise.
Santosh Malika says that day, at the school, their children “begged” teachers to let them go. “The teachers mocked them saying it was the destiny of Dalits to touch the feet of upper-caste people.”
Savita remembers that it was her friend Sumi Parida who had asked her to help scrape the coconut. “I had just started scraping when Ashok sir (sports teacher Ashok Mullick) came and said since I was a ‘Kandara’, I couldn’t participate in the puja. When I started crying, the headmaster sir said we were destined to face such problems throughout our lives. As I was about to leave the school campus with my friends, a teacher snatched our bicycle keys and asked us to stay till the puja gets over. We begged our teacher that we were hungry and wanted to go. But they kept us locked till 3 pm, when one of us scaled the wall and told our parents what was going on,” says Savita.
Dalit students add there are other areas of the school “out of bounds” for them. “We are yet to touch the computer keyboard though upper-caste students are allowed to enter the computer room,” says Monalisa Malika, a Class IX student.
The Bande Mataram High School reopened recently, after the Puja vacations. While headmaster Ramesh Rout was not available for comment, Ashok Mallick, who is accused by the students of casteism, denies any such discrimination.
“Even the Ganesh Puja issue was blown out of proportion,” he says. Kendrapara District Collector Debraj Senapati and Kendrapara district education officer Sangram Sahu too claim they have “no information” of caste discrimination, “Let somebody complain. Then we will take action,” says Sahu.