Is caste normal in TN schools?


Bobby Kunhu

kunhuIn the street where my parent's home is in the middle of Salem city, adjacent to the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister's permanent residence, most local residents don't allow Dalit domestic workers inside the house – the kitchen is, of course, a no-go area – and there are separate vessels to serve these workers food or beverages. A few years back there was a function in a neighborhood family for which all women were invited. While my mother and another non Tamil woman had lunch at the function, a Gounder woman who had accompanied them made an excuse that she was fasting and would not be eating that day. When they left the house, she explained that she didn't eat at that house because that family belonged to a certain Dalit community! Even though all of these would amount to offenses under the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act., these are seen as so normal that nobody protests – and are taken in the stride. Many won't even see this as casteism in daily practice.

What unfolded in Thirumalaigoundenpalayam, Avinashi Taluk of Tiruppur District for the past couple of days is precisely this normal being taken for granted and a series of offenses taking place with the connivance of the state unchallenged by the opposition, media or the civil society. A woman from the Arundhatiyar community (one of the last in the caste hierarchy of Tamil Nadu) who had 12 years of employment service in the noon meal scheme of the Government of Tamil Nadu got an opportunity to be transferred to one of the two schools in her own village. When she first joined the primary school based on an oral order she wasn't allowed to work. Later she joined the high school on June 17th based on a written transfer order issued on June 16th. Many villagers from the dominant Gounder community (to which the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu also belongs incidentally), including parents of 29 out of the 75 students of the school objected to her being appointed there on the pretext that they felt uncomfortable with their children eating the food cooked by her. M. Sasikala, the school principal granted the objecting children leave on this ground.

The next day, the same people gheraoed the school and didn't allow it to be opened unless the cook was removed from her position in the school. When this was informed to the Avinashi Block Development Officer Meenakshi under whose jurisdiction this school functioned she cancelled the woman's deputation to the Thirumalaigoundenpalayam Government High School and transferred her back to Ochampalayam government primary school where she was working earlier.

A little bit of flashback to 2006 when this woman joined the Tamil Nadu Government's noon meal scheme is needed at this juncture. She first joined duty at Kandhayipalayam where she wasn't allowed to work following which she went to Vaiyyapurigoundenpudur with the same results and also to the school in her village at Thirumalaigoundenpalayam. Finally, it was only at the Ochampalayam school, a good 16 Kms from her residence that she could work without any resistance. As she had to shell out Rs. 30/- every day on transport from out of her meager salary of Rs. 6500/-, she decided to seek transfer when the cook at the Thirumalaigoundenpalayam school retired on 30th June.

This time however when the BDO transferred her back to Ochampalayam to placate the dominant community, her own community staged a protest on 19th June bringing the issue to the notice of at least the local media that the Tiruppur Sub Collector was forced to intervene directing the woman to continue in the same school. Also finally an FIR was registered against the 75 people who were involved in preventing the woman from doing her job under various sections of the Prevention of Atrocities Act and the Indian Penal Code.

But the point of this essay is not just to what transpired in Thirumalaigoundenpalayam or the consequences of it, but to examine how the normality of casteism creates an environment that doesn't challenge blatant and obvious illegalities and how the agents of the state being part of the caste society abet such offences.

First of all, things wouldn't have reached the impasse of the last few days, if the officials concerned during the initial appointment of this cook hadn't relented to caste pressure and transferred her from place to place till they found a school that would accommodate her. This is where the atrocity against her started and all those officials are equally culpable for what has happened. But, I am sure that their justification would be that it was to prevent an ugly situation and maintain peace regardless of the ramification on caste relations – for caste relations as it exists is normal for them.

During this particular turn of events too – both the school principal and the BDO, whether they gave into pressure or acted on their own volition aided by their own caste instincts are much more complicit in this act of discrimination than the dominant caste villagers themselves given the position of authority that they hold. The school principal's act of granting leave for the children whose parents did not want them to eat food cooked by a Dalit itself is discriminatory. She could have refused them leave and they could have absented themselves at the risk of their attendance. But she abetted in the villagers' casteism in her idea of normal. This could also have been one of the factors that gave the villagers the idea that a protest could help them get rid of this cook.

When the matter of the dominant caste villagers not allowing the school to be opened was reported to the BDO, instead of treating it as a law and order situation and requesting police help – her casteist normal decided to punish the victim and reward the perpetrator – by annulling the transfer order. This also amounted to abetting the atrocity committed against the cook. If the members of the cook's community hadn't rallied behind her and protested, this like most such "normal" caste incidents in this country would have gone unnoticed and she would have had to work in her old school with the burden of the long distance that she had to travel.

The normal is so entrenched that almost no one sees the role of the school principal and the BDO isn't even seen as casteist and they are represented as doing their jobs. In the recourse provided by the Tiruppur sub-collector by filing cases against the villagers – forget cases there is not even a departmental enquiry or a show cause notice against these concerned state officials. It's the duty of the state to enforce the law and if agents of the state abet the breaking of the law, if it was any other case these people would have had to face at the minimum the tangles of red-tapism.

But the normal of casteism is different, where it is normal for an Arundhatiyar to clean the village sewers, but not cook for the villagers, forget holding any other important post in the village. I shudder to imagine what deviousness might have been resorted to prevent his woman in a hypothetical situation of her or her progeny becoming the principal of the same school. You see caste is normal!



 Bobby Kunhu is a lawyer, researcher, and writer.

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