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Students leave citing caste bias

- Discrimination charge over seating during school midday meal

Chandrakona, Dec. 9: Guardians of 29 students belonging to a particular caste have not sent them to school in West Midnapore for the past seven months alleging “humiliation” and “discrimination” during midday meal.

“Our children were not allowed to have midday meals with the 16 students belonging to other castes. The upper-caste boys and girls told our children that their parents had asked them not to have meals with those from the lower caste,” said Joydeb Ruidas, a farm labourer and father of Class III student Mangala.

The 29 students of Ramchak Primary School in Chandrakona, 70km from Midnapore town, belong to the cobbler (muchi) caste. They live in Harijanpara in Lakshmipur village, 1.5km from Ramchak.

Joydeb said the 29 children were made to sit separately while having the school meals. “Our children were not even allowed to use the school toilet. So we decided against sending them to school,” he added.

The school authorities said they were “worried” because the annual exams would begin from December 17. “If the students don’t turn up during the exams, they will lose a year,” said headmistress Shibani Nayek.

Basudeb Ruidas, a small farmer whose daughter Archana and son Sambhu study in Classes IV and III, respectively, said the parents were not initially aware of the discrimination.

“In March, a villager who was passing by the school noticed that the children were sitting in two groups a little distance from each other and having their midday meal. He informed us about it. When we asked our children, they told us that the upper-caste children did not want to have food with them and the school authorities had done nothing to convince them to have meals together. Our wards told us that they were not even allowed to use the toilet and had to go to nearby fields,” Basudeb said. He said the guardians of the 29 students had spoken to the headmistress.

“But she denied that there was any discrimination. We had hoped the school would take steps. But a few days later when we paid a surprise visit to the school, we found our children were still being made to sit separately during the meal. The headmistress claimed that the students from Harijanpara liked to have meals together as they were neighbours. We knew this was not true. So we decided to stop sending our children to school,” Basudeb said.

Headmistress Nayek denied the allegations. “We don’t discriminate against students as we don’t believe in the caste system. However, I don’t know if some students behaved badly with the others. The guardians of the 29 students did not listen to me and stopped sending their children here,” she said.

Since April, the 29 children are being taught by a local tutor under a shade in Lakshmipur village. The tutor does not take any money.

Some of the general-caste parents this correspondent spoke to also denied the allegation of discrimination.

Barada Prasad Dey, a farmer whose daughter is a Class II student, said: “We never instructed our children not to have food with kids from Harijanpara. I think the children from Harijanpara like to sit together as they come from the same area,” Dey said.

District inspector of schools (primary) Sisir Misra said: “We have received a complaint from the guardians (of the 29 students). We had discussed the issue with them. We ware trying to bring back the children for the final exams or else they will lose a year.”

Subdivisional officer Anshuman Adhikari said he would hold another round of discussions with the guardians of all the students in the next few days. “We are taking necessary steps,” Adhikari said.