History is an aggregate of cumulative events. But the potential of some of those events may not be realised at the time. Sunita Devi, a young woman from the Scheduled Caste community, and a group of children at a government school in a Uttarakhand village, have done something that can have a lasting impact on Indian social history.
Sunita Devi, hired as a cook at Sukhi Dhang Government Secondary School, and then sacked after dominant caste students refused to eat the mid-day meal prepared by her, has signalled a watershed moment in India’s anti-caste struggle. Sunita Devi will be remembered as an icon, just like Rosa Parks, who finds her place in the glorious history of the civil rights movement in the United States.
According to a BBC Hindi report, the school appointed a new cook, a Brahmin, but in a significant turn of events, Dalit students have now refused to eat food prepared by the Brahmin cook. Meanwhile, Sunita Devi has lodged a police complaint and said that she would apply for the post again if it becomes available. Not surprisingly, the dominant caste people in the hilly village, which falls in the Champawat district, are adamant that they will not tolerate a Dalit cooking food for their kids.
But the way Dalit children have resisted caste oppression in Sukhi Dhang is a testament to how India’s anti-caste movement is ready to take new, unforeseen turns, and Sunita Devi might find herself as the centre of it. And they have political support too.
Uttarakhand’s principal opposition party, Congress, has organised protests and former chief minister Harish Rawat has gone on a hunger strike. Bhim Army has announced that it will protest in front of the CM’s residence if Sunita Devi is not reinstated. CM Pushkar Singh Dhami has announced a high-level inquiry into the matter. It has been reported that Sunita Devi may get her job back. The Delhi government, led by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), has offered Sunita Devi a government job in the national capital.
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Casteism and Uttarakhand
It will not be prudent to predict the outcome of this case right now, but at this juncture, it is safe to say that the Scheduled Caste people of Uttarakhand are resisting the age-old practice of subjugation and untouchability by the dominant castes in a newfound way. Uttarakhand has a fairly high SC population (18.8%) but quite a low middle (OBCs) and intermediate caste inhabitants. In Uttarakhand, most of the SCs (around 80%) live in villages and in segregated settlements. Uttarakhand has a high literacy level, but perhaps this has no relation with the social dynamics and social relations as casteism is rampant in the state.
In fact, this unique blend of the population — exceptionally high dominant caste concentration and low OBC population — was the prime reason for the formation of Uttarakhand as a separate state. In 1994, then-CM of united Uttar Pradesh, Mulayam Singh Yadav, declared the SP-BSP coalition government’s plan to implement 27% reservation for the OBCs in state government jobs and educational institutions. This declaration unleashed anti-reservation protests in the hilly areas of the state where the OBC population was miniscule. These protests gave fresh impetus to the long-standing demand of the hill people for separate statehood. Their demand was finally met by the Union government in 2000.
Uttarakhand society is hierarchical as any other Indian society. The only difference is that there is negligible or a very small buffer of intermediate and middle castes between the dominant castes and the Scheduled Caste. Describing the social structure of the hilly districts of then Uttar Pradesh, social science scholar Joanne Moller says, “This basic social and ritual distinction… between the twice-born ’clean castes’ and the impure ’outside’ castes, has been fundamental throughout the region’s history. And, despite the changes which have occurred in political and agricultural relations, and particularly the transformations which have occurred among the lower castes this century, the binary opposition between the high caste Brahmans and Thakurs and the low caste Untouchables continues to influence people’s attitudes and behavior.”
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The importance of Sunita Devi
In such a society, Sunita Devi’s exemplary courage to overturn the biased, oppressive, and casteist social structure is commendable. Her defiance is especially brave when the political class, due to the electoral and political arithmetic of Uttarakhand, stays silent on such issues. She has shown valour in a place where it’s not possible for even the secular administration to antagonise the dominant caste groups’ interests.
Her courageousness can be compared to the valour of Rosa Parks (1913-2005), who refused to give her seat to a white man in a segregated bus on 1 December 1955 in the US. She was arrested for breaking the existing law and punished by the courts. But her small but brave gesture led to the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott that lasted 381 days and finally culminated in the end of segregation in buses. Her act invigorated the Civil Rights Movement in the US. She was nationally recognised as the “mother of the modern-day civil rights movement” in America. Rosa Parks actually redirected the course of history.
One may argue that what has happened to Sunita Devi is a law and order problem as it violates the preamble of the Indian Constitution, Article 17, the Civil Rights Act of 1955, and SC-ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989. So, the primary responsibility to resolve such problems rests with the state and administration. In a similar vein, it can be argued that what Sunita Devi and the Scheduled Caste children did in the school is not the way such matters should be resolved. They should have gone to the administration with their complaint and followed the copybook constitutional method.
But such methods are for a just, constitutional society where casteism doesn’t pervade every corner. They don’t work in a fractured and hierarchical society like India. In any case, some issues in social life are actually beyond the purview of the administration and have to be settled at the societal level itself. The State has limitations in dealing with matters when the society at large is not conducive to administrative interference. As political science scholar Arvind Kumar has said in a Twitter Space, “If someone spits on the ground every time I go past him, I will be facing humiliation. But will the police interfere in such matters? Probably not. Such cases have to be dealt with at the level of the society itself.” He cites his fieldwork and argues that caste oppression in eastern Uttar Pradesh has decreased due to the resistance from Dalit communities.
That is why the role of vanguards like Rosa Parks and Sunita Devi is important in social transformation and deserves all the accolades.
The author is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has written books on media and sociology. He tweets @Profdilipmandal. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)