Caste and the Kitchen: Domestic Workers in Pune Allege Systemic Discrimination

“People hire 'upper' caste workers for the kitchen and 'lower' caste ones for other purposes."

Pune: Though scientist Medha Khole has withdrawn the police complaint she filed against her former cook in which she accused her of not correctly revealing her caste, the entire episode has opened a sordid can of worms about the caste discrimination faced by domestic staff in Pune.

Khole, who is deputy director general in the India Meteorological Department in the city, had complained that the cook, Nirmala Yadav, had ‘desecrated’ her family deities by hiding the fact that she was not a Brahmin. According to Khole family tradition, apparently only a Brahmin and married housemaid could cook in ‘sowale’ (purity) on death anniversaries and festivals such as Gauri Ganpati. Yadav worked in the Khole household for two years and her employer was apparently under the impression that she was a Brahmin. “I got to know her real caste recently and I felt that my God was desecrated, so I approached the police,” Khole said in her statement.

But several domestic workers The Wire spoke to claimed Yadav’s experience was hardly unique. Overt caste discrimination was a common affair in the city, they said.

Domestic worker Vimala Mangade said, “I belong to a backward caste and nobody has hired me as a cook till now. I am regularly humiliated by being called Mang (the name of her caste), and once my employer told her relatives in front of me that they shouldn’t touch me.”

“In my experience, ‘upper’ caste families routinely discriminate against us and don’t allow us to cook on festivals or sacred days. Sometime they don’t allow us to work in the kitchen or even sprinkle water on utensils. Going to the temple area in the house is forbidden,” said another domestic worker, Sunita Patil, who has been working in the city for over 20 years.

Savita Kambale, a domestic worker from Barshi Taluka in Solapur district, said that several families check the employee’s caste and refuse to employ those from ‘lower’ castes. “People hire ‘upper’ caste workers for the kitchen and ‘lower’ caste ones for other purposes. Lower caste maids are not allowed to enter their kitchen; the employer will avoid any physical contact with the domestic staff and not allow utensils used by them to go back to the kitchen without being thoroughly cleaned,” she told The Wire.

According to Kiran Moghe, chairperson of Pune Union of Housemaid and Domestic Workers, “Discrimination on caste lines is still followed to some extent while employing domestic help by upper castes, and mostly by Brahmins. But this is the first time that somebody has lodged an FIR and that too in a city like Pune. We get many complaints from domestic workers that upper caste families tend to employ Brahmin or upper caste women as domestic help to cook and work in the kitchen. However, they don’t mind employing lower castes domestic workers for other work like cleaning and washing.”

Moghe said that there was class discrimination too. “They will give us old clothes or old utensils as festival gifts. The utensils used to give us food and tea are kept separately. Basically they don’t treat the domestic staff on an equal footing at all.”

Many organisations had come out against Khole. Santosh Shinde of the Sambhaji Brigade, Pune, which had approached the police to file a case against her, said that upper castes, especially Brahmins, routinely discriminated against people from other castes.

The Akhil Bhartiya Brahmin Mahasabha initially came out in Khole’s support, but a day later modified its stand, asking that the issue be resolved with “mutual understanding” and blaming the government and reservations for the existence of discrimination. Anand Dave of the Mahasabha told The Wire, “I employ people without asking their castes or surnames both at my office and home, but it is our government that keeps the caste system alive. There are quotas and reservations everywhere. The upper castes should not be blamed; instead the government must changed the system. I am sure Dr Khole must be feeling cheated as her family tradition goes back 80 years.”

Yadav, who is no longer in the employ of Khole, has filed a cross complaint against her former employer. “She physically abused me, accusing me of desecrating her god. I had never lied to her about my own caste,” she said. The police has registered a complaint against Khole under IPC Sections 323 (voluntarily causing hurt), 506 (criminal intimidation) and 584 (intentional insult). The case will now go to court. Khole was not reachable for a comment.