Nagpur is the winter capital and the third largest city in the state of Maharashtra. It is also one of the prominent cities in Central India. Before the formation of the state of Maharashtra, Nagpur was part of the state of Madhya Pradesh. Under the British rule, it was one of the important precincts of 'Central and Berar' province. In 1956 and there on, Nagpur has gained prominence because of the mass 'Buddhist Conversion' of about half a million ex-untouchables, led by their brilliant and extraordinary leader and emancipator, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. In addition, the city is also infamously known for it being the headquarters of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu Nationalist organisation. However, historically its existence as the city was mainly marked by the 'Buddhist Conversion' and a vibrant Dalit-Buddhist Movement. The city of Nagpur not only stands for the struggle of Dalits and Buddhists as oppressed striving hard for education but also for their quest to gain a dignified life. There are innumerable stories in this city of Buddhists, their expedition for education after conversion to Buddhism, which lies folded in the pages of untold stories.
Here are the stories of some of the students, who tried to challenge the existing situation of education in the city. It is the story of a study circle group Youth for Self and Social Change (YSSC), which aims at promoting higher education among Dalits as Ambedkar envisioned throughout his life. Today, the members of YSSC are in different positions in higher education spaces. It began with a small idea to start a program that gives a platform to develop their personality by doing regular activities in the library, viharas, and homes. The activities there comprised of English comprehension, practiced by reading Ambedkar and other Dalit social reformers; group discussions on current as well as other social topics to further add to the awareness and public speaking sessions meant to enhance communication skills in front of large masses.
Basically, the group was started by some students from the slums. They were pursuing their graduation studies. They worked on a simple concept to gather at certain places and conduct the above-mentioned activities. However, the surrounding atmosphere was not as favourable as today, since these founder members used to engage in different part-time or full-time work to adjust their education fees. It was in their free time that they were actively involved in these skill enhancement activities.
This group is predominantly run by students from slum areas in the absence of a teacher and other traditional teaching methods. It mainly focuses on how to avail quality education; to introduce innovative pedagogy to unlearn, learn and re-learn many things; to create an atmosphere for pupils’ comprehensive development and to promote students for higher education. Further, in order to adhere to its objectives, the group conducts different activities for students at their own capacity.
Moreover, the slum atmosphere with its gender bias and negative perception towards education etc., are the major reasons which prevent a person from taking a different path. The existing situation spoils the chances of education among youth, it instead promotes labour or menial work. Thus, this was the prime idea to start and create an atmosphere to change this situation through the study circle. This group plays a vital role by supporting different activities for participants in a way to confront the unfavourable culture for learning new things. Similarly, it provides an opportunity and a forum for students to participate in activities like public speaking, group discussions, debate competitions, newspaper reading, one act plays, and other innovative learning games. Initially, however, it was an uneasy task before students who certainly look forward to breaking the prevailing norms of government colleges, ZP and village schools, and colleges where teachers hardly promote the said activities to inculcate habits of studying among students. Being a product of this group for more than half a decade, I venture to say that it surely works in the direction of advancing innovative practices for students and teachers as well.
As far as the group outcome is concerned some students are studying at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai, Tuljapur, Hyderabad and Chennai Campuses; Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; University of Hyderabad; Maharashtra Institute of Labour Studies; and International Institute of Population Sciences. These premier institutes are widely famous for their respective specialisations in India. Thus, listening to their struggle, one cannot stop feeling admiration for each and every person and how they undertook education amidst difficult situations. As Ambedkar says - “Sincerity is the sum of all moral qualities.” Undoubtedly, the group members have appropriately adhered to this phrase.
Most students belong to Dalit/Buddhist families residing in a slum in the northern part of Nagpur. Most of their families are headed by women, who are mostly engaged as casual labourers. In some cases, both the father and mother work as construction workers. Some of the mothers do catering work and fathers drive cycle rickshaws. Their income is often not enough for a large family. So, other family members also help by working as waiters in the restaurants to support their large families and fetch some money for them. Indeed, most of these students have no other options but to do that since they want to study further and support themselves and their families as well. The struggle of survival did not isolate them from the rest of community. It was here during the activity of this group that I met almost all of them. And it was there that members shared positive thoughts with me that helped me develop a positive outlook about education. When I contacted the group, I was in 12th standard and a member tutored me in a few subjects of commerce. They also used to discuss social issues with me, which helped me in understanding the society in a better way; they always used to say that we have to struggle a lot for education, as without struggle we achieve nothing. They always motivated the girls because they believe that if a mother is educated then the entire family gets educated. As Rahul Sonpimple, student of JNU, says:
“Is samaj ke caste or gender ki diwar agar koi todega to is desh ki oppressed section ki mahila todegi.” (If there is anyone who can break the wall of caste or gender in this society, it will be the women from the oppressed sections.)
The struggle of students does not get over merely after enrolling for education in these Institutes (JNU, TISS, HCU, IIPS, APU and MILS, since, they keep coming across troublesome situations because of financial and cultural constraints. Dalit struggle and the quest for education often have to go through economic and social handicaps. As Prof. Wankhede (retd.) from TISS says:
“Education as a means of development is considered to be important, especially for marginalised communities across the world. Higher education is closely linked to generating newer knowledge and enhancement of skills for the individual and the community development and thereby for occupational and social mobility.”
It was for the first time that students came out of their Bastis and entered the city of their dreams. Back in group members’ college days, they started to participate in college activities like debate competitions and they often secured first prizes during Bachelors. Students also participated in programs that used to take place in the basti, such as the celebration on 14th April, the birth anniversary of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. When I saw them the first time, their way of talking and communicating with people was very decent, unlike other fellow students from our neighbourhood. In our basti, members always motivated the people; they also worked among female students to create awareness among them on various social issues. I remember their motivational words which I can’t forget in my life:
“Kam aisa kar ki tumare mummy papa ko tumare nam se pehchana chahiye." (Do such deeds, that your parents are remembered by your name.)
More interestingly, one of the members who himself worked as a casual labourer in his life did his research on the same group of workers. This is an inspirational story for others who tried to undermine them when they began. In fact, the students’ rigorous efforts have made an apparent difference to them and their other contemporary students who had to give up education. I remember Rahul Sonpimple’s (one of the YSSC members) speech during JNU elections, 2016 where he said:
“Only oppreesed can talk about oppression.”
Whenever members go to their hometown they always arrange programs for the youth such as personality development, sports, drama or other activities which are mostly related to the development of youth or young generation. They strongly believe that every person should be educated and contribute some knowledge to the society. The group works on the principle: “Pay Back to Society'. One more thing I want to add here is that one of my professors once said, “women always have to negotiate with a man”. But I want to say here that a Dailt has to negotiate with all spheres of social, political, economic and education due to deeply rooted caste hierarchy. Through the means of education YSSC members are creating awareness and becoming an inspiration for all Dalit students.
Rahul Sonpimple, speech during JNU election, 2016.
Prof. Wankhede, Educational Inequalities among Scheduled Castes in Maharashtra, (EPW).
Payal Rama is from Nagpur. She is doing her M.A in Women Centre Practice (2015-2017) at TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences), Mumbai.