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UP: Caste-Based Violence in an Upper Primary School Exposes Deep-Rooted Discrimination

A school principal had a long list of complaints regarding discriminatory practices against chamar students. However, in this case, despite evidence, a controversial compromise was brokered by the local police that led to the suppression of the incident.
Students of Sonepur Upper Primary school, Chitrakoot district, take a break between classes on a September afternoon. Photo provided by author.

It was a rainy September afternoon. Principal Anita Katiyar assembled the students of Sonepur Upper Primary school, in Uttar Pradesh’s Chitrakoot district, after lunchtime. It was brought to her attention that some students played in the rain and got drenched. This playful behaviour upset her to no end. She pulled the truants aside – class 8 students Tara and her four girlfriends. Then she brought out a bamboo stick and beat the five drenched girls in front of the gathered students. She beat them till they were black and blue. Tara took the worst beating. Her arm was swollen, nose was bleeding, and her thighs were badly bruised.

No one understood why principal Katiyar got so angry. Yes, Tara and her friends got a little wet but who can resist a little dance in the first winter rains! The girls cried and howled and screamed but their principal did not stop thrashing them. Tara grabbed the bamboo stick from her teacher’s hands. Enraged, principal Katiyar snapped the cane into two and resumed the beating. Splinters flew into Tara’s face and bloodied her nose.

“How dare you <thwack>!”

“Do you think you’re my equal <thwack>!”

You see, Tara Devi was a chamar [Scheduled Caste] student, from the chamar basti in Sonepur. So were her friends Anchal and Anjali.

While some may argue making everything about caste, so let me stop you right there, as this situation is about caste.

Even 15 years ago, it was about caste.

In Sonepur, Patels (or Kurmis and Katiyars) were numerous and dominant. They influenced almost everything in the village. It was not hard to guess why the chamar basti in Sonepur had no pakka roads or functional sewers, or why Katiyar remained at her post in Sonepur Upper Primary despite a long list of complaints compiled over a decade. Principal Katiyar didn’t even live in the village, but she was feared by chamar students.

Over a decade ago, we are told, a group of chamar students was forced to drop out of school because of her violent temper. Some of them went to schools far away from their own village. Some never went to school again, like Prema’s little brother. He was in class 8 when principal Katiyar, then only a senior teacher, ruthlessly beat him. He left the school suddenly, without even sitting for the final exams.

Principal Katiyar was not just violent. She was an avowed casteist. It was her habit to make chamar students come early to school and sweep the floors and clean the toilets. She made them cut the grass in the school compound. She flatly refused to get on with the school’s cooks, who were also chamar. The school’s most recent cook, Sangeeta, quit her job in a ragey huff when the principal hit her with the hot ladle she was using to make dal. Katiyar was upset that a lowly chamar school cook could possess the latest touch screen smartphone. Suddenly short of a cook, the principal forced Tara and her chamar friends to cook midday meals for the whole school.

When a few concerned people brought these things to the notice of the district’s Basic Shiksha Adhikari (BSA), they calmly replied, “It is part of our national cleanliness campaign. Children must take responsibility to keep their school clean.” Is cleaning a job only for the chamar students? Are cooking school meals and cutting grass also part of this cleanliness drive? These questions remain unanswered.

On September 20, when principal Katiyar was raining down blows on Tara, a few students ran to her basti to fetch her family members. “Go, call whoever you want. Tell whoever you want to. It doesn’t matter,” principal Katiyar shouted. Minutes later, Tara’s mother Sumitra Devi and aunt Suneeta rushed to the school. Father Keshav stayed at home; he knew he would lose his temper and do something rash. Aunt Suneeta caught hold of principal Katiyar’s dupatta to resist the attack on her niece. Later, the principal wrote to the BSA, lodging a complaint about aunt Suneeta. The report said that principal Katiyar was threatened in her own school and that she felt unsafe now, that too in her own school.

Mother Sumitra went to the police to lodge a complaint the next day, accompanied by the district’s social workers. Local reporters also came, to talk to Tara, Anchal, and Anjali and their families. The girls described the violence and talked about their principal’s discriminatory behaviour over the years. The reporters took videos of Tara’s injuries and wrote righteous social media posts, which became viral. In so many years of oppressive behaviour, no one had actually dared to report Katiyar to the authorities. This incident had the potential to become a national issue. Under pressure, principal Katiyar and the local police needed to take some visible action about the incident.

Just when justice seemed around the corner, things in Sonepur took a chilling but unsurprising turn. The local police brokered an inexplicable samjhauta [deal] between principal Katiyar and Tara’s family. These were the terms of the compromise: 1) all evidence, including videos and posts, taken by social workers and journalists will be deleted; 2) Tara will apologise to her principal; 3) the police complaint against principal Katiyar will be withdrawn; 4) principal Katiyar will file a complaint against Tara’s family for threatening her safety.

Does this make sense to you, dear reader?

Unable to comprehend the turn of events, social workers and journalists returned to Sonepur in search of the ‘truth’. Clouds of explanation were hovering all over the chamar basti, each one more bizarre than the other. Tara’s father Keshav explained to everyone that principal Katiyar was a patient of high blood pressure, who was unfairly provoked by his daughter. When no one was listening, he muttered to himself, “We are only poor labour, who are we to complain. I have other children whose futures I have to think about.”

Anchal and Anjali, Tara’s closest friends and fellow victims of the principal’s unrestrained violence, changed their statements entirely. “We were totally at fault. Ma’am told us not to play in the rain but we just refused to listen. It was Tara who started it, she slapped the principal.” At the end of September, principal Katiyar selected Anchal and Anjali to represent Sonepur Upper Primary in sports day festivities being held at another school in the district. Tara was left behind.

The other two teachers at the school, Shobha Devi and Rakhi Singh, told everyone that the incident was made up, and nothing of that sort had ever happened at the school. Social workers and journalists were left wondering how Tara got all those injuries. Was it an elaborate set up by a disgruntled chamar student against an honourable teacher with decades of unblemished service?

Finally, social workers and journalists went to principal Katiyar to hear her version of the incident. At first, she refused to talk to the impartial observer-outsiders. Then she accused them of making up lies to disturb the harmony of Sonepur. When the observer-outsiders showed her videos and posts, she grumbled, “Didn’t I tell the police to delete the evidence!” Slowly, she told us what actually happened.

“Look, it was a routine thing. The girls were jumping about in the rain and I was pleading with them not to. We found a snake there a few days earlier, what if it appeared again? Who will protect them? I asked them to get out of the rain for their protection but I don’t know what happened to Tara. She jumped at me, almost striking me. I had to defend myself. It wasn’t even anything serious. I was laughing the entire time. The children were laughing too. But as soon as I defended myself, Tara’s family came to her rescue and jumped at me. They threatened me. Everyone in her family appeared out of nowhere, ma, chacha-chachi, mama-mami, bhaiyya! Their children don’t even go to this school, so what were they doing there, I ask you?”

Why did the police come then?

“In my 27 years of service, such a thing has never happened. Isn’t it obvious that this is the mischief of that chamar student? That is what they do, misbehave, misbehave, misbehave. They have no culture, no manners. They lie all the time. Why do you think I keep the staff room locked? Because they steal. They don’t come here to learn, they disrupt and distract. Their family members are always in and out of the school. One day they take that girl away to fill the Aadhaar form, another day they will take her away for some agricultural work. They don’t really want education. Just because the government has given them reservation, look how they behave. They just want the reservation, without putting in the work. How will you understand what it is to teach students like them!”

What was the result of the police investigation?

“Look, the police told me I didn’t have to put up with such behaviour. The police asked me to strike their names off the school list. But I didn’t want to do that. They have four-five months to go. I won’t see them again. And I have made it clear that that the girl’s education has nothing to do with me.”

Tara Devi is still enrolled at Sonepur Upper Primary school. Principal Katiyar takes no notice of her. Other children are given guides to aid them in their preparation for exams, she is given nothing. When she submits her notebook for correction, the principal checks it and throws it on the floor. The school has not appointed a cook yet, so Tara and her friends continue to make meals for the whole school. They are also cutting the grass, sweeping the school, and cleaning the toilets. They are the ‘quota’ kids.

Note: This is not a work of fiction. This is entirely factual. Names, characters, events, and incidents are rooted in harsh reality.

Chitrakoot Collective is a feminist research collective documenting women’s working lives, access to leisure and mental health. Their Instagram handle is @chitrakootcollective

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