Students poring over their slates in Banwasi’s (left) school. Though the school is upto Class 3, Banwasi supervises their studies even beyond.
There was a time the Musahar community at the Akorhi Mahadalit basti, 200 km southwest of Patna, rarely got to meet an official. When it did, it was never good news. Officials, on their part, had a name for this village. They called it the ‘village of thieves’. For 20 years, Banwasi Musahar, a 58-year-old brick kiln worker, had been trying to bring literacy to the area to change that reputation. And he has succeeded to a significant extent.
Located in the Ramgarh block of Kaimur district, the basti is inhabited by 70 families who live off farming and making bricks. Official apathy, grinding poverty and no educational facilities had, however, made the area vulnerable to petty crime. Male members of the community used to be rounded up by the police after every local robbery.
“I want the children to become educated and change the destiny of our community,” vowed Banwasi , the first person to clear Class 7 in his otherwise illiterate settlement. But his dreams died young. He had to work in the fields to provide for his family after his father expired. But he did not give up the fight. He could not finish school, but others would.
Twenty years ago, on a Saraswati Puja day, he gathered some children and started a school outside his thatched hut. Convincing the children and their parents to make time for school took some doing, but he did it. Banwasi also dreams of making Kiran, 7, his grand-daughter, a doctor in the hope that she would attend to the area’s poor Mahadalits. Banwasi has similar hopes from his school. It will perhaps be the beginning of a change in the destinies of the local Mahadalit children, he feels. (Mahadalits are the most backward of the Dalits of which Musahars are a subcaste — a community that derives their name from their diet of rats or musa).
At present, 22 children (boys and girls) attend Banwasi’s classes. Banwasi makes sure classes start at 7 am and wind up by 9 am. He trudges to the brick kiln to make bricks after that. His beloved transistor plays in one corner, blaring news bulletins. “I have an interest in political developments in the country and also in current affairs and quiz programmes. This helps me brush up the children’s general knowledge,” he said.
So far, he has succeeded in the ‘making’ of two graduates and several matriculates from his community. “Around 200 Mahadalit and Musahar children are pursuing education in and around my village due to my efforts,” he said proudly. Banwasi teaches Hindi, English and Mathematics to students upto Class 3. His students are next admitted to the nearby middle school. But even then he regularly supervises their academic progress and helps them with their homework.
But after that?
Banwasi, finds the course material for Class 7 and above difficult to handle. “Even intermediate and graduation level students, whom I have taught earlier, are unable to help me as they reside at Ramgarh, some distance away,” he confessed.
Former students Ranjay Musahar, Ramayan Musahar and Brishna Musahar, who are studying B.Com, are without books, stationery or finances for advanced studies, he adds.
No institution or government body has come forward to help his school. District education officer Kaushal Kishor Prasad said there are provisions in the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan for providing books, stationery and financial help to people like Banwasi, who are educating Mahadalit children. But he added a caveat: “We will verify his work and provide him suitable help.”
His students, naturally enough, swear by him. Ram Pyare Musahar, now doing his B.Com Part-II from GB College, Ramgarh, is all praise for his teacher. “Guruji maati se aadmi bana delan (I was clay, he moulded me into a human being),” he said. But all his education seems to be going down the drain without institutional support.
‘Mr India’, a student of Banwasi, (his father registered the child to school with this name after falling in love with the Anil Kapoor movie) is, however, too young for any such worries. A Class 3 student, he is busy writing the English translations of ‘Main aa raha hoon’ (I am coming) and ‘Woh jata hai’ (He is going) on his slate. He looks towards Banwasi to figure out what to do next.
That is the big question that confronts Banwasi as well. His great worry is what will happen to the school once he is gone. Even the man who overcame seemingly unsurmountable odds to change the destiny of his community has no answer to this one.