Bheem Kumar belongs to the Musahar community, one of the lowest castes in India, referred to as Mahadalits. The Musahars have since long been the targets of institutionalized bullying, where an entire ethnicity is shamed by name – Musahar literally means a rat eater. They are condemned to a life in designated musaharis or ghettos at the margins of the villages. Bheem’s likely inheritance is to never read or write and to earn less than $2 a day as a landless agricultural bonded laborer. He is more than 85% likely to suffer from malnutrition.
However, Bheem is one of the five children selected from his village to go to Shoshit Samadhan Kendra, a free English medium residential school founded in 2007 by Mr. J.K.Sinha (retd.I.P.S.) exclusively for Musahar boys. Simranpreet Singh Oberoi, the Chief Project Officer, spoke to No Bully about the school at the Salzburg Global Seminar in April 2015 as part of their program on Youth, Economics and Violence.
What’s your theory of change? We see education as a means for these boys to come out of the vicious cycle of debt ridden poverty. We shall continue to support them till higher education and till they get real sustainable jobs. By creating these role models in different pockets of the state, we hope the community will see value in education and will be inspired from these success stories to educate their kids and hence create a ripple effect. We would like these kids to go back and start their own NGOs to solve community problems and get their projects supported by us. The idea is to develop the community as a whole, which, of course, will take a few decades.
Can you tell us more about the cycle of violence? Musahar youth has witnessed and experienced violence in different forms. Domestic violence, gang wars, humiliation in government schools and offices, are just some of the examples. Corporal punishment back in villages is quite common and many, including the parents, believe very strongly in it. We have had instances when the father will slap his erring child in front of us and say – “If he breaks the rules again, you can do whatever you want.”
We do have some physical bullying too. They will use their hands to punch each other or rip a book. The senior students often pass on their chores to juniors who do it without any question. In some grades, the academically best student – or maybe he is the teacher’s favorite – is pulled down and humiliated.
How are you breaking the cycle of violence? There are rules against corporal punishment, which in fact, is mandatory because of our affiliation with India’s Central Board of Secondary Education. The mornings begin with meditation to set a good tone for the rest of the day. Last March, nine students (3D boys) came to us with a project idea – ‘Mission Society’, to work in seven villages for seven days and carry out clean up drives and, do a street play in each for generating awareness. We got it funded but the road was not so smooth though. People doubted their intentions and were slow to trust since nothing much had happened for a long time in those areas. The students wrote reflection papers about this service and hope to do better next time. Students are now standing up for kids who are bullied and drove a senior boy who was doing this to leave the school.
It is indeed a Herculean task to help teachers change their attitudes. The new practice we started of giving power to the student council to make suggestions for school improvement was very alien and faced obstacles. But, we saw great value in introducing open forums for discussion since they at least created a space for everyone to speak up. We have also begun a Learning Together Series for the teachers on how they are thinking about things and, understanding their students better. But we have never had the funding to implement an anti-bullying program that would get to the root of this.