Ironically, this is Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s alma mater, and the village, part of his Varuna assembly constituency, is where the Kuruba strongman shaped his political vision of social justice and inclusiveness.The attendance register at the government higher pri­mary school in Kuppegala village, about 30km from Mysuru, showed 75 absentees. The strength of the school was halved. The missing students, however, were not dropouts, but children of upper caste families, who have been forced by their parents to stay away from the school to protest the recent appoint­ment of a dalit cook. “Our children are better off grazing cattle than eat­ing food cooked by a dalit,” says one of the parents.

Till a few days ago, some students brought food from home. But when the district administration tried to | make the midday meal compulsory, the children stopped attending school. Caste seemed to be in session. The par­ents even sent a Right To Information application to the local administration to know if the midday meal was com­pulsory under the law.

Says Manoj, a class VII student who skipped school: “My father has asked me not to attend school. He warned me that he would not allow me to enter the house if I went to school.”

The boycott has been an embarrass­ment for Siddaramaiah, who visited his constituency and asked the vil­
lagers to “amicably resolve” the issue. His appeal fell on deaf ears as the com­munity leaders were in no mood for reconciliation.

However, with three religious lead­ers led by Sri Basava Murugendra Swamiji visiting the school on December 8, the situation seems to have improved. They served the children, ate the midday meal and advised them to live harmoniously with all communities. The attendance

They[upper caste members] live in the past. They want to keep us [dalits] away from the school, temple, hotel and even the hair-salon in this village.

Manu, a former student of the school

reached 130.

Says Social Welfare Minister H. Anjaneya: “The issue of discrimina­tion cannot be tackled by legal or police action. We must encourage the communities to talk to each other. Parents should not pass on their nar­row-mindedness to their children.”

According to sources, the trouble began after one of the cooks quit and the dalits insisted that, because there was a quota, the job should be given to a dalit woman. “The midday meal was started 14 years ago. We yielded and allowed all three posts to be giv­en to Lingayats to avoid friction. But this time, when one of the cooks quit, we insisted that a dalit woman be recruited. The upper caste commu­nities opposed this. Discrimination is nothing new in the village as we are barred from entering even the govern­ment Muzrai temples, hair-salons and hotels. Even the dalit burial ground has been encroached upon by an

In September, a dalit leader, during a phone-in programme, sought the deputy commissioner’s intervention

upper caste member. We are not given access to the community hall though it is built with MLA and MP funds. Now, this bias is showing inside the school,” laments Harish, a dalit.

to end discrimination. Soon, the teh- sildar facilitated the entry of dalits into the Anjaneya temple. But a day later, the villagers, along with the priest, abandoned the temple.

Though the school attendance has improved, the inequality outside the school persists. Many villagers
approached the religious leaders after their session with the children and complained about the untouchability plaguing the village.

Meanwhile, the upper castes, Vokkaligas and Lingayats, are resisting change as they allege the government and political parties are “appeasing the vote bank” and infringing on their personal freedom and choice. The situation worsened after the district administration warned the parents of legal action under the Prevention of Atrocities Act, alleging that boycott of the midday meal amounted to practis­ing untouchability.

An uneasy calm prevails in the vil­lage as community leaders refuse to see eye to eye. “How can the govern­ment make the midday meal compul­sory?” asks Nagarajaiah, the village head. “No politician sends his chil­dren to study in government schools and they are guilty of playing caste politics. How long will they give out scholarships and quotas to dalits while our children continue to struggle?”

The school gates now remain locked to outsiders during working hours. While the school development com­mittee members stay engrossed in animated discussions outside the cam­pus, curious children race to the gate to catch a glimpse of the police van parked outside.

Manu, a 16-year-old former student of the school, is furious with the devel­opment. “They live in the past. They want to keep us away from the school, temple, hotel and even the hair-salon. My friend was asked to go out of a hotel as it [his presence] would upset other customers. We are offered food on paper and not plates,” says the teen­ager, now studying in the neighbour­ing village.

Manjula, the dalit cook, puts on a brave face as she carries on with her duty. “I was a garment factory worker in Bengaluru and came back to our vil­lage with my family after I got this job. I don’t bother about what is happen­ing around me as I am happy doing this job,” says the cook, whose two chil­dren study in a private school. •