A dark chapter in the life of a soldier has helped illuminate the lives of hundreds of disabled children across India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Major Gopal Mitra (36) lost his sight in a landmine explosion in Kashmir in November 2000 and was boarded out of the army. He is now spearheading an initiative in South Asia to help children with disabilities enrol in regular schools.
Mitra is not bitter about his disability. He says it is a blessing in disguise as he can now touch the lives of thousands of disabled children. Mitra, who won a Sena Medal for gallantry, could have easily landed a lucrative job in the UK after he topped the MSc course in development management at the London School of Economics in 2006.
But he followed the dictates of his heart and returned to India with a simple but powerful conviction of making a difference in the lives of special children. He joined Leonard Cheshire Disability International’s South Asia regional office in Bangalore to head its inclusive education division.
His stint with the charity, founded by the legendary world War II hero and Victoria Cross winner Group Captain Leonard Cheshire in 1948, has given new hope to over 1,000 special children who had nowhere to go after being shooed away by regular schools. It is a result of Mitra’s conviction that the children are now attending regular schools.
Mitra told HT from Bangalore, “In hindsight, I am happy that the landmine exploded in my face. Or else, I would have never found my true calling. If I can triumph over my handicap, so can these special children. All that is required is direction and resolve. My disability helps me connect with them.”
“We require one lakh schools and five lakh teachers to cater to special children. It’s a big ask. The focus has to be on what these kids can do instead of what they cannot,” says Mitra, who was commissioned in 15 Mahar in 1995. The charity’s research has shown that 70 per cent of special children can attend regular schools if attitudinal barriers are knocked down.
KR Rajendra, the charity’s South Asia head, says, “Major Mitra is a living example of resolve triumphing over everything else. He inspires all of us.”
After the blast, the major's facial features were barely recognisable with a criss-cross of over 60 stitches. He had to undergo several rounds of reconstructive surgery for 18 months. He uses the JAWS (Job Access with Speech) software to operate his laptop. The speech software tells the user what's on the screen and it also vocalises every keystroke.
Mitra went through a rehabilitation programme at the National Institute of Visually Handicapped in Dehradun. He set a record at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, in 2006 by becoming the first blind student to top a post-graduate course — MA (Social Welfare).