Gopalganj: Being a widow is still "a bad omen" in 21st century Bihar - that's the message from Kalyanpur village in Gopalganj district, around 200km northwest of Patna, which has prohibited a woman from cooking midday meals at a government school.
When the woman moved the district administration to reinstate her, around 150 people stormed the school - around 30km east of Gopalganj town - yesterday, forced the students and teachers out and locked the school gate. The midday meal was not served to the students. The mob shouted slogans against the local administration for allowing the widow to work as one of the school's six cooks who prepare meals for 734 students from class I to VIII.
Residents of the predominantly Rajput village of about 2,500 people have also warned Sunita Kuwar (36) of dire consequences if she resumes work.
Undeterred, Sunita met Gopalganj district magistrate (DM) Rahul Kumar at his weekly janata darbar (town-hall meeting) today. The DM assured her of support from the administration and directed her to rejoin as cook in the school from where she was sacked in February last year.
"I am being victimised as I am a widow," Sunita told The Telegraph after meeting the DM. "I have to look after my two minor children. I am fighting my battle alone and running from one office to another to get justice for the past 21 months."
Sunita's ordeal began in January last year when some villagers, who had helped her get the Rs 1,000-per-month job about five years ago, questioned her character.
"They accused me of being a woman of easy virtue, an allegation I have always denied. Even my close relatives (husband's brothers) refused to help me," Sunita said.
She first sought the intervention of the Kalyanpur mukhiya (panchayat head).
"She had come to see me after she was removed from the job," mukhiya Ram Deo Paswan said. "I met the then principal of the school, Pushpa Kumari, who expressed helplessness due to mounting public pressure."
Pushpa, who had appointed Sunita, said: "I took pity on her as she was a widow. But the situation has changed and she was removed."
Nikhileshwar Kumar Singh, who is now the principal of the Kalyanpur Utkramit Madhya Vidyalay where Sunita worked, said that he received a letter from the midday meal in-charge yesterday asking that Sunita be reinstated. That is what prompted the mob action.
"I will go by the directive of the department official and not by the wishes of the local residents who disrupted work yesterday," the principal said.
That is, however, easier said than done. Tension was palpable at the village today, and the villagers seemed determined.
"We will not allow a widow to prepare midday meal for our kids. This is a bad omen," said Shiv Bihari Singh, a Kalyanpur resident. "We fear a repeat of the Gandaman incident in neighbouring Saran district where 23 children died after eating a contaminated meal in 2013."
A few other villagers nodded in approval.
"She (Sunita) was married to Daroga Singh, a daily wage labourer, about 18 years ago," said another villager. "Daroga died within three years of his marriage. She is of Assamese origin and developed close relationships with people of neighbouring villages, who are helping her in her protest."
Sunita was replaced by Babita Devi. Babita's husband, Prabhunath, said that his wife was appointed by the local siksha samiti, which adopted a resolution to remove Sunita. "I belong to the Kharbar community (extremely backward caste) and my children will die if my wife loses her job," he added.
Barauli block midday meal in-charge Rajeev Kumar visited the school today. "I tried to pacify the residents, but they are not in a mood to relent," he said, adding that he would apprise his seniors of the situation.
Gopalganj DM Rahul Kumar refused to comment. "I am busy in a meeting. Come next time to discuss the issue," he said before disconnecting the phone.
The district education officer, Ashok Kumar, claimed that the issue has been resolved.
Sunita still hopes to get her job back.
"If the local administration fails to deliver justice, I will go to the chief minister's janata darbar in the capital," she said.
"I will never bow to the people who want to ruin my family. I am the daughter-in-law of this village; I will fight for my pride till my last breath."
The Telegraph, Kolkata