We are in the village Kannamedi in Karnataka with Sholay-esque, rocky, barren hills standing tall behind us. But, I am not in a haveli of a privileged family which has faced the wrath of a psychopath killer. Nor is there any young man parachuted to save the village. We are among the 800-strong landless families of the Madiga community who have been at the receiving end of discrimination, untouchability, and exclusion for generations until today because of their caste. This is a story of how children here, with the help of Thamate, are making sustained efforts to fight such perpetual, normalized violence.
Thamate truly embodies Dr. Ambedkar’s call to “educate, agitate, and organize.” It plays a key role in organizing Pourkarmikas (sanitation workers), including those engaged in the now illegal practice of manual scavenging, who want the state government to implement the “Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation” act (2013). At the same time, Thamate has identified that they should support children’s education so that they can break the vicious cycle of caste, poverty, and lack of education and alternative employment. To this end Thamate runs 7 Bheem-shale which function as after-school education support centers in the communities it works with.
Let’s cut back to one such Bheem-shale in Kannamedi which started operations in August 2016. This is a single-room, brick and mortar community hall, where kids – overwhelmingly girls – of all ages have gathered earlier than their usual meeting time of 5.30 pm. They attend the schools nearby during the day, so one wonders what brings them here. Most of them are not shy to introduce themselves, except the younger ones who are being helped by elder ones.
Ravi, their teacher and a young, unassuming man, carefully takes out the tablet that another organization has donated. Kids’ faces are lit with glee as the projector, well-guarded in a metal box, is turned on. Ravi is conducting some exercises in basic Maths and English today using the Apps installed on the tablet. Mr. Obalesh, who heads Thamate, tells us that most of the students from the community fail in these subjects in their board exams. Kids seem interested to play the games and learn. This is possibly much different environment from their schools for no one is using derogatory terms to refer to them. They are not being singled out and seated separately here. The teacher here is interested in teaching and ensuring students too have interest in learning.
It is more than education that brings them here. Soon, one of the folk artists associated with Thamate starts playing a thamate – a drum that is part of community’s identity. Some girls soon join him and through song and dance, pay tribute to Savitribai Phule, who started the first school for girls in South Asia. Taking inspiration from her work and confident of their identity, these girls are carrying her legacy forward to challenge the status quo.
Ravi’s first goal is to ensure they do not drop out of school. He encourages them to participate more in their school. Obalesh hopes to recruit more teachers who can train students for board exams so that they can become the first generation in the family to go to college, and secure a livelihood that guarantees their basic human dignity.
If exam scores could quantify one’s daily struggles against injustices, basic education might have equalized access to future opportunities. For lack of it, it becomes imperative that one must intervene with affirmative action to level the field. If you think otherwise, I encourage you to visit Kannamedi, just another village on the margins of shining India.
Nimish Sane is a Software Engineer and volunteers for AID Boston and Boston-MetroWest chapters.
AID Bay Area, DC Metro, Boston, Houston, Dallas, Boise, and Duke-RTP chapters support Thamate.