‘I request residents of Punjab to go to UP, Bihar, Haryana or any other part of the country, and then you will appreciate Punjab. … In Punjab, the whole state is equally developed.’ – Sukhbir Singh Badal, deputy chief minister, Punjab. (23 May, 2015, The Times of India)
The government schools of Punjab employ about fifty thousand women to prepare the midday meals. These women get Rs 1200 ($ 20) as monthly wages. It was in 2012 that these wages were standardised. Before that the wages were 40 paise per child per day. The cooks are paid 10 months in a year. They have no other provisions like health care, insurance, pension, provident fund, etc. Since the jobs are temporary, the wages meagre, it is the poorest of the poor who take up such jobs. The majority of these cooks are dalits and widows.
The story of the cooks in government schools point to a number of factors: on the one hand the government agrees that there is a section of society that sends its children to school out of the necessity for one good meal; on the other hand there is a section of our society that is willing to work for abysmally low wages. Barring ghee and sugar, Rs 1200, is insufficient to buy basic rations for a family of five. In such circumstances it is difficult to mobilize such women but Democratic Mid Day Meal Cook Front (DMMMCF) has gone ahead and created a union. In recent years DMMMCF has emerged as a prominent grouping of poor women and has raised important questions to assess the relationship between current administration and the people. In the past Lok Sabha elections these women gathered in various parts of the state and invited candidates to speak to them. Most of the larger parties did not respond to their call. That is when the women decided to question the candidates who came to canvass in their villages.
Mandeep Kaur questioned the finance minister of Punjab Parminder Singh Dhindsa at village Drogewal near Malerkotla. Outspoken Mandeep Kaur is the state general secretary of the DMMMCF. Upon being questioned, the Akali leadership instantly threatened her with termination of work from the school at Manak Majra where her daughter and son also study. Mandeep Kaur has been working here since 2007. She was sacked on 21 February. After which she approached the authorities to revoke termination. Other employees, labourers, farmer unions and a few political organisations formed an Action Committee in her support. Yet, her plea fell on deaf ears. On 22 March Mandeep Kaur sat on a protest at the government school.
The way in which the local panchayats and most of the school employees ganged up to avenge the supposed ‘insult to the finance minister’ exposes the layers of nexus between social dominance, political establishment and executives. Mandeep Kaur has been terminated without any notice because the school committee has taken the action. Now the Director General School Education, Punjab has issued a notice that ‘local committees should not terminate cooks without proper notice’. Furthermore, when a protesting Mandeep Kaur is attacked by a drunkard, police does not considered a crime worth registering a complaint. The unwritten rule seems to be: when the state has already given itself the title of being developed, how can someone question it? If one questions the state, he/she needs to pay the price. This is how, in Punjab, the leaders of the villages, beholden to power structures, and anti-social elements come together to rally against a struggling individual.
The political leadership labels her struggle as being politicised. Yet, when Mandeep Kaur’s sacking is a political decision, how can the action committee’s or her response be non-political? If the government is baring its fangs then the opposing voices are justly raising a hue and cry. A small village like Manak Majra thus becomes the threshing floor of the politics in Punjab. Being four kilometers away from Malerkotla, historically known for its Nawab’s expression of empathy when younger sons of Guru Gobind Singh was prosecuted by Suba Sarhind, Manak Majra is in fact a perfect setting for empathy driven politics. Examples of struggles like Mandeep Kaur’s are also rising from Hamirgarh to Moga where the politico-police nexus have taken offensives against struggling people.
In the highly rarefied political atmosphere of Punjab, where political parties focus only on votes, ordinary people cannot play the political games. That is why the political nexus issue threats like ‘we shall remind you of your place in society’ or ‘teach the people a lesson’. It is possible that Mandeep Kaur’s struggle may not lead to any dramatic results but that too has its own implications. Her struggle is linked to her identity: her being poor women, on a temporary job, on the mercy of the government for a hand to mouth existence. The government keeps this section bereft of benefits, respect and the very ‘seva’ it claims to do for society. The government considers keeping this section at the minimal level of existence so that it can sing paeans to the administration. Politics for this section is a politics on the behalf of the disenfranchised. This kind of politics is completely absent from the SAD-BJP and the Congress narrative.
It is in the vote bank based party politics that the people’s voice remains diminished. Mandeep’s case breaks this dichotomy. If the people’s voice is emboldened, the powers that be start seeming hollow. Mandeep’s issue makes the claims of the powerful seem hollow and link to Hardeep KaurKotla’sissues, to Angrez Kaur Hamirgarh’s issues. Some elements of it link to Nichatar Singh who went to war-torn Iraq to earn a living. If Mandeep Kaur struggles for a $20 per month job, Nichatar has gone back to his $30 a day job to Iraq from where the Indian government rescued him in July 2014. Punjab did not raise a question on Nichatar’s exodus but these women are raising questions. In Mandeep Kaur’s case the influential people of the village, the local leadership, government employees, politicians and ministers, say: she talks too much. The resistance politics call her brave. The current government wants to steal Mandeep Kaur’s bravery from her so that a citizen becomes only a follower, bowing down in obedience to the masters. That is why the deputy chief minister counsels the people to look at other states and be satisfied. Mandeep Kaur treats this suggestion as a threat. In the struggle between being a citizen and a follower, all that Mandeep Kaur wants to assert is that she is an independent thinking human being and through that she wishes to unveil the internal Uttar Pradesh and Bihar of Punjab.
Translation by Amandeep Sandhu, currently a fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude.