By : Dipankar Ghose
The article has been republished from The Indian Express, January 3, 2016.
A month ago, four teachers from the worst Naxal-hit areas of the Chhattisgarh were awarded by the state government for their courage and work in the most difficult of circumstances. From a teacher who stayed day and night with a child whose brother had been killed by Naxals to another who inspires her students with her own tales of struggle. Their stories.
‘I MISSED A YEAR OF SCHOOL BECAUSE I WAS SCARED OF MY MOTHER’ – Sumitra Sori, Kasturba Gandhi Vidyalaya, Dantewada
Sitting inside the staff room, Sumitra Sori, the principal of Kasturba Gandhi Vidyalaya in Dantewada, says, “I grew up in a village in Faraspal, 10 km from Dantewada. My story is the story of my students,” she says.
Sori’s father, a very poor gram sevak, wanted his daughter to study — there weren’t too many in the village who thought that way. “I was in Class III in a school close to my village when my mother told me to stop studying and start working in the fields. She would send me with the cattle exactly when it was time for school, keeping my father in the dark. I missed a year of school because I was scared of my mother. Then, one day, my father met the teacher in school and asked him how I was doing. When he learnt I had dropped out, he fought with the rest of my family and sent me back to school,” she says.
After studying in the same school till Class VIII, Sori was sent to a residential school in Dhimrapal, 15 km from Jagdalpur town in Bastar. “That’s where I grew in confidence. Our teacher, Dharampal Saini, encouraged us to sing, dance and play sports, apart from studying,” she says.
Two years after clearing her Class XII from the residential school, in 1993, she got a government job as a teacher in Katekalyan in Dantewada district. In 2008, she was appointed principal of the KGV school in Dantewada. As principal, she ensures that “once a girl is here, we, as teachers, make it so enticing for her that she never wants to go back”.
Every day, Sori and three other teachers engage with their students beyond the school hours of 9 am-3 pm.
At 5 pm, a group of girls is playing kabaddi in a field, shouting excitedly at each other. In another part of the campus, a group of girls, arms looped around each other’s waists, dances to folk music. A little later, the girls giggle, goof around, and finally end up watching a Hindi movie on television, in their hostel. “They watch sports, even news sometimes. We sometimes discuss the movies they watch. We engage with the students every minute of the day, including with those who take special coaching classes between 6 and 7 pm,” says Sori.
The school itself is spotless. The floor of the main courtyard is decorated with giant chess squares and ludo boards. One room has seven computers, with the children hooked to “Microsoft Paint”. Another has shawls that the students have embroidered. Every spare inch of the wall is covered with photographs of ‘Indian achievers’. “The most popular in our school is Kalpana Chawla. The girls dream of moving out of Dantewada. We tell them to dream of going to space,” Sori says.
Dada Jokal, Assistant Project Coordinator of the Rajiv Gandhi Mission, says that Sori was selected for the award not only for fostering an environment conducive for learning, but for her efforts in bringing children into school.
While the school, which has classes from VI to VIII, has full attendance now — a 100 students and four teachers — this is not always true in June. Sori says, “Two months before our term starts in July, we visit the most interior villages to bring the girls to school. We get to hear the same arguments — that there is no future after school for girls, that they will have an extra hand at home if the girls stay back at home. We realised that the best way to convince these parents is for our girls to talk to them. So we formed what we call a ‘Meena Manch’. Beginning January, the girls perform plays and sing songs in villages to convince parents to send their children to school. They walk for kilometres in the jungles, go to the villages, and bring other girls like them to school. When they return, they tell us that a particular family is being stubborn. That’s when we step in. The teachers then go and try to convince the parents to send the girls to school.”
We realised that the best way to convince these parents is for our girls to talk to them. So we formed what we call a ‘Meena Manch’. Beginning January, the girls perform plays and sing songs in villages to convince parents to send their children to school. They walk for kilometres in the jungles, go to the villages, and bring other girls like them to school. When they return, they tell us that a particular family is being stubborn. That’s when we step in. The teachers then go and try to convince the parents to send the girls to school.”
In her two decades of teaching, Sori has seen change sweeping through the halls. When she started, she says, keeping girls in school was a problem. Not any more. “They would run back to their villages or take weeks to rejoin school after vacations. Those days, our battle was with both the children and their parents. Now, we still have to argue with parents, but they are convinced more easily because they know that their children will be well taken care of. Ten years ago, we used to have only half the girls we have today in school,” she says.
‘THEY LEAVE THEIR VILLAGES BECAUSE THIS IS A SANCTUARY FOR THEM’ – Vijay Lakshmi Sethia, Porta Cabin Avasiya Vidyalaya, Dantewada
When her students get tired of academics, they ask Vijay Lakshmi Sethia to tell them a story. The same one, again and again. Of her own education and what she learnt. “I grew up with two brothers in Baccheli and my father sent me to the only private school in the town called Prakash Vidyalaya. I loved studying — and children too — so after school, I would give tuitions to the children where we lived. My father, who worked for the Railways, couldn’t afford to send me to college, so I saved the money I got from my tuitions for my education. Now I’m an MA in English, a BSc in Biology, and an MSc in Botany from Pandit Ravi Shankar College in Kirandul. My students say they want to study like me,” says Sethia, who has been teaching all subjects for Classes VI to VIII at the Porta Cabin Avasiya Vidyalaya since 2013.
The residential secondary school in Chitalur village, 15 km from Dantewada, houses close to 300 students, most from villages deep inside the forests that fight daily battles with left-wing extremism and poverty. “In each class, each sport, each cultural activity, the children put in their best. Even in Baccheli, where I studied, the children didn’t care as much about education as these girls do. They leave their villages because this is a sanctuary for them, protecting them from what happens around their homes,” she says.
All along the school’s wall is a barb wire mesh, a reminder of the threat the girls are shielded from. The school’s campus — a series of bamboo-and-ply porta cabins erected around a large, arid field — is also a sign of that danger. In order to avoid the possibility of school buildings being used as barracks by the Naxals, the government in 2011 came up with the scheme of building schools with
In order to avoid the possibility of school buildings being used as barracks by the Naxals, the government in 2011 came up with the scheme of building schools with non-permanent material, instead of cement or bricks, so that they can be easily shifted to another location if the need arises.
But at the Porta Cabin Avasiya Vidyalaya, there is an air of permanence. The structure is makeshift, but far from discomfiting. In the middle of the field, children play volleyball. The classrooms and dormitories are well-equipped with neat rows of chairs, tables and beds. “We only have basic facilities, but that doesn’t bother us. For us, it’s more important that we encourage a sense of community among the students. They eat together, do chores together. It gives them a sense of togetherness,” says Sethia.
She says her students have begun to take part in inter-school competitions, many in urban areas. But confidence is something they still lack. “Inside school, they laugh and talk because everyone shares the same background. But when my girls go to the district centre in Dantewada, or take part in state-level competitions, they suddenly go quiet and refuse to mingle with others,” she says. “We keep telling them that they are as good as anybody else,” Sethia says.
The teacher also makes it a point to “train the girls in modern methods of personal hygiene every day”. A 13-year-old girl hesitantly walks into Sethia’s room and whispers into her ear. Fifteen minutes later, Sethia returns. “I have told every girl in the school to come to me when there is a personal body problem. It is my mission to educate each one of my schoolgirls on how to wear a sanitary pad, when to throw it away, and what to do when they are menstruating. When they go out, they feel better about themselves. And when they go home to their villages, they spread the word, and talk to their mothers about hygiene,” she says.
‘IF TEACHERS DON’T GO TO THESE PARTS, HOW WILL THE CHILDREN LEARN?’ – Prema Kujur, Balika Awasiya Vidyalaya, Sukma
For Prema Kujur, a 22-hour bus journey, and much else, lie between her home and school. In 2013, when she quit her teaching job at a private school in her home-town of Ambikapur in northern Chhattisgarh to live and teach in Sukma in the south, she was asked why she was “moving to the state’s most dangerous area”. “I had no answer, except to say, bas duty hai (it’s my duty). Sab mana karenge toh baccho ko padhayega kaun (If everybody refuses to teach in these parts, who will teach children)?” she says.
Ambikapur, where she grew up, was once Maoist territory, but, in the last 10 years, the extremists have moved out of the region. Now back in Maoist territory, in Sukma, Kujur teaches classes I to VIII at Balika Awasiya Vidyalaya, which has 517 students in all.
“If you look at the youngest children, who have had no education previously, you will see that they are all the same. They imbibe as quickly as anyone else. They may struggle with letters and numbers when they start off, but once they settle down and are used to their surroundings, they come alive,” Kujur says.
Kujur insists she is not only a teacher, but an “anudeshak (mentor)”. “Unlike day teachers who leave for their homes in the afternoon, I stay here and take care of my students,” she says.
Kujur says she often struggles to respond to questions that come from the girls, usually late at night after school, when they are thinking of home. “They tell me that when they go home for their holidays, the Naxals often come and ask them to attend meetings. Sometimes, I have no answers to their questions. I only tell them to value what they have at school and fight for it in whatever manner they feel comfortable,” she says.
Kujur has faced many such difficult moments in her two years at the Sukma school. She has spent nights next to her girls in government hospitals in Jagdalpur and Raipur as they suffered from measles or chickenpox.
As she narrates one particular story, her eyes well up. “She was one of our brightest students in Class VIII. One day, when she returned from her village after the vacations, she went quiet. She refused to talk, to play, to mingle. I knew something had happened, but she just wasn’t opening up. So I decided to simply stay next to her, night and day. I wanted her to know that there was someone who would listen.
A week later, she broke down and said that her brother had been killed by Naxals in Chintalnag. She said she feared for her parents, and didn’t want to leave them in the village. I told her that the only way to bring them out was to study and start earning. After a while, somewhere in the middle of that conversation, we started laughing, and I knew she would be okay,” Kujur says.
‘MY STUDENTS ARE UNITED BY POVERTY AND THE FEAR OF NAXALS’ – Ram Kumari Sen
Kasturba Gandhi Vidyalaya, Sukma
There are two ways of reaching Konta, a small town on the southern tip of Chhattisgarh: the national highway from the district headquarters in Sukma, where 70 km takes over three hours, or the 100-kilometre journey through Malkangiri in Odisha and a boat ride across the Sabri river back into Chhattisgarh.
Ram Kumari Sen, from Shirpur village in Raipur district, took the boat when she first came to Konta, as a teacher at the Kasturba Gandhi Vidyalaya. “My family advised me not to not take up the job. They told me it was too dangerous, but how could I not take up this government job? Now, I don’t want to leave. It’s the most challenging assignments that give you the most satisfaction,” says Sen.
Where she grew up, there was no trouble from the Naxalites, but it wasn’t easy for a girl to go to school. She studied till Class X, she says, then ran out of funds to go any further. “For one year, I dropped out of school. Then I did odd jobs around where I lived in Shirpur. I collected enough money to study for two more years and cleared my Class XII. Then I started working as a mitanin (a local health worker), aur paise jod tod ke (put money together) and did my MSc in chemistry,” she says.
The KGV school in Konta is like any other: a two-storeyed structure with a courtyard, a library, a computer room and walls plastered with inspirational proverbs in Hindi. What sets it apart is the diversity of its students. “Because Konta shares a border with Andhra Pradesh and is a boat ride away from Odisha, we have students who speak Odia, Telugu, Gondi and Halbi. But the students are united by poverty and the fear of Naxals,” says R N Mire, Block Educational Officer, Konta.
The school, with classes from VI to VIII, has only 65 students and three teachers. Sen joined the school in 2011 and teaches a range of subjects, primarily math and science, to all the classes. She tells her students to “never give up studying so that they can get a government job” like her. “It is important that they don’t take their studies lightly as we are very far from the mainstream. They need to have jobs if they have to break the cycle of poverty,” she says, adding that special coaching classes are held in the evening for students who need help.
Given how inaccessible Konta is, it has always been tough to convince parents to send their girls here, says Sen. “The parents ask us why should they send their girls to school when there will be no work for them even after they are done with theireducation. So we tell them that we train the girls in household work as well,” says Sen.
In one room of the school, there are jars of mango pickle and jam, dried fruits, and embroidered clothes. “They go home and tell their parents how to use these techniques so they can earn more money,” she says.
On November 20, when Sen took two students with her to Raipur to receive her award from Chief Minister Raman Singh and actress Kareena Kapoor, many people, she says, came up to ask which part of the state she was from. “I proudly said my girls and I were from Bastar. I am very proud of myself. Just like I am very proud of my girls,” she says.
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