Saharanpur’s new schools raise Dalit hopes
Sahranpur: It’s a late Sunday afternoon in scorching June, but the sun is past its prime in Budhakhera Pundir village, a nondescript hamlet some 20 km out in the hinterland of Saharanpur district in Uttar Pradeh.
For some 40 kids squatting on the floor of a big airy hall of a dilapidated building, it’s as if the day has just begun. Their ages range from five to 15, and their school flaunts yellow walls with blue borders.
On the way to Budhakhera Pundir, you cross more than two dozen tiny hamlets, rich green mango orchards, a series of poultry farms and small markets. A narrow, semi-pukka road, lined by open sewage pipes, leads into the village and the school.
The 40 heads are glued to their notebooks, as if oblivious to every disabling factor around them. They raise their attentive eyes only to look at the white board. It has a maths sum scribbled on one side and a passage in English on the other. On top of the white board is a sign announcing that this is a Bhim Army Nishulk Paathshala or Free School.
These schools, coaching centers really, have quietly spawned a mini educational revolution of sorts in the backwaters of Saharanpur. Bhim Army founder Chandrashekhar Azad (now behind bars for instigating violence) and his associate Vinay Ratan came up with the idea in 2015. The son of a former headmaster and a lawyer himself, Chandrashekhar started the centers to ensure that Dalit children did not lag behind in the crucial early years.
However, last month’s episode in Saharanpur, when the Bhim Army headed an anti-atrocity demonstration that turned violent and ended in police vehicles being burnt, has changed the group’s image, overshadowing its school project. In the village, the sudden violent turn has created an air of apprehension.
The ramshackle building that houses the school is an Ambedkar Bhavan, a mandatory feature in Dalit villages, a multi-purpose hall that morphs into a baarat ghar (wedding hall), a recreation center or, in this case, a school.
Writing on the board is Rachna, 16, who looks almost as young as the students. Rachna and Nisha, in her early 20s, are today’s volunteers, teaching Maths, English and Science. The large group is loosely classified into two groups—class 1 to 4 and class 5 to 8.
“Most Dalit children don’t have access to good education. The government schools, where they generally enroll, are not good enough. And in private schools, Dalit students remain on the margins. Teachers ignore them,” says Nisha, frail-looking but with determined eyes. She is a second-year student in M.G. College, Saharanpur, and the youngest of three children of Kanvar Pal Singh, a private school teacher.
The free after-school coaching centers run from 4:00 to 5:30 in the evenings. The first one was established in Fatehpur Bhado village in July 2015.
As Nisha says, “The first 10 years are the foundation for any student’s educational career.” Chandrashekhar had realised that if children weren’t trained in the crucial subjects of Maths, Science and English before they completed class 10, they could not make a career.
After the first paathshala was set up, the Dalits of Budhakhera decided they wanted one too. Satish Gautam is a tall, well-built young man with a stern face and a moustache that curls up proudly. You might mistake him for a Thakur, but that’s what the members of Bhim Army have done—they have appropriated the cultural signs of the dominant Thakurs.
Schooling, at any cost
“We started with 30 students in the small front yard of Kanvar Pal Singh’s house,” says Gautam. In just two weeks the number of students swelled to 100 and the school had to shift to Ambedkar Bhavan. Gautam, a resident of Budhakhera, is a founder-member of the Bhim Army. He is supposed to be in charge of its organizational structure in rural Saharanpur.
In 2015, Nisha had just completed class 10. She was one of the first volunteers to teach the students in her father’s yard.
“We give everyone who comes to the paathshala a notebook, pencil, textbooks and anything they might need to study,” she says. The emphasis was on educating everyone at any cost. As the number of students in Nisha’s paathshala grew to more than 200, so did the number of schools in Saharanpur with almost every village reached in the last two years.
From paying the fees for poor Dalit students who had secured admission to B. Tech courses to arranging money for the marriage of poor Dalit girls to dealing with discrimination in private schools, hospitals and public spaces, the Bhim Army became the solution to every problem the youngsters faced on a day to day basis. The paathshalas become an informal institution, a uniting force for the marginalized community.
With more than 300 schools in Saharanpur, education became one of the most important and defining functions of the Bhim Army. Organizationally, this seemed to help it. It soon expanded to more than 30,000 members in Saharanpur alone in the last two years.
Until June, Chandrashekhar was a frequent visitor to Budhakhera. “He used to say that we must worry only about studying and leave other problems to him. The association with Bhim Army has given us—Dalit girls—the freedom to travel by cycle or by bus without worrying about being eve-teased or sexually harassed,” says Nisha.
For an organization with a macho, all-male image, dozens of young women are involved at the grassroots. “Babasaheb said, first you have to educate yourself, get organized, and then struggle for your rights. That is what we are doing,” says one of them.
Nisha and five other girls are among 15 teaching volunteers in the village. They take turns twice a month to teach the 250 children. As we talk, the students, in their blue, green, red and yellow T-shirts, look at us curiously. Ankit, 9, is the son of a labourer. He wears a white vest, faded black shorts, and a black tika on his forehead. He rattles off the 28 times table with the ease of a 15-year-old.
Taking care of dreams
Rachna, the volunteer, a shy girl in floral trousers and white blouse, was coached in the paathshala. She topped her private school, JHP High School, in Chamarikheda village, and was awarded on the eve of Ambedkar Jayanti by Chandrashekhar on April 13 this year. She shows me the photograph proudly.
The youngest of seven children of Dheer Singh, a landless farmer, Rachna takes my hand and leads me to her house at the end of the settlement.
As I enter the half-mud, half-concrete house with its thatched roof, I find pictures of icons like Ambedkar and Ravidas pasted on every wall. Rachna’s father and her mother, Keshav Devi, are sitting on a cot. “I want to study biology,” Rachna tells me, “and become a doctor and start small free clinics in every village, like the free paathshalas. I would not have thought of this dream without the paathshalas.”
Dheer Singh, tall, thin, in his early 50s, is clearly proud of his daughter. He tells me he would not have dreamt of seeing her become a doctor someday without the push of organisations like the Bhim Army. “It was very difficult to educate all my children. But I can now encourage her to become a doctor; I know there are people who will take care of her dreams.”
Rachna’s sister Sushma pursues a B. Ed degree. Her brother Satish studies in a Polytechnic. They volunteer in the paathshala.
As does Anuj Kumar, 22, who has a diploma in electrical engineering and is studying for a B.Ed degree. And Shivam, 25, a tailor who’s good in Mathematics. “Our priority is that the education, which is our core work, goes on without any problem,” says Gautam.
Running the paathshala has become a community affair and daily classes a community celebration for the Dalits of Budhakhera. Everyone chips in for this massive endeavour of empowerment. Hari Singh, a retired teacher, volunteers as Principal, while another retiree, Rishidas, makes the announcement from the Ravidas temple each evening to call the kids to school. “The sheer, vibrant energy on the faces of our kids, that’s what gives me immense satisfaction,” says Singh.
The paathshalas are also catering to children from other backward castes such as the Sainis and Valmikis. Ankit Saini, who studies in Class 5, tells me why he is here. “The teachers in the government school are either busy cooking the mid-day meal,” he says, “or they beat us. Here, I get to study and the teachers are friendly.”
It’s getting dark. The classes are over. The students come out of the hall and make a straggly line. Nisha stands at its head. As soon as she nods, they march out, each shouting out a Jai Bhim to her as they leave. The watching Dalit elders beam with pride.