"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it." - Harper Lee, To Kill a Mocking Bird.
Sudha Varghese is one of the best examples of people who have understood and applied the above quote in real life. Sudha Varghese is a social activist who has spent more than 50 years in Bihar working for poor in particular Musahars – a Scheduled Caste community who are still treated as untouchables in the 21st century.
Source: Youtube: The Globe and Mail
Source: The Globe and the mail
WHO ARE THE MUSAHARS?
In urban India, people live with the comforting belief about the absence of the caste-discrimination in the society except for the few reported incidents here and there. However, even after 70 years of independence and implementation of affirmative-action policies to uplift the people belonging to Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) have been only successful partially. Moreover, even in this scenario few communities have been almost entirely neglected by the government, and one example of such group is the Musahars which are at the bottom of the Indian hierarchal caste-system and occupy the lowest rung in the socio-economic ladder. Musahars constitute 1.5% of the scheduled caste population, and their estimated population is nearly 3 million as per the 2011 census. They also have the lowest literacy rate and per capita income among all the Dalit sub-castes. The literacy rate among males is 2-3 %, and among women, it falls even below one percent.
Source: Dailymail UK
Traditionally, the widespread poverty amongst Musahars has led them to consume rats as a source of protein and hence the name “Musahar” ( “Musa”(Rat) + “Aahar”(Eat) ). Musahars are unskilled labourers and are landless. They are deprived of means of livelihood and education. The search for food is the everyday struggle for this community, and in this scenario education, health and sanitation are not priorities for them.
THE JOURNEY:21 YEARS IN A MUSAHAR VILLAGE
Sister Sudha Varghese was born in a prosperous family in 1949 in the district of Kottayam, Kerala. In 1965, at the age of 16, she moved to Bihar where she started working in the schools run by the convent – The Sisters of Notre Dame. She soon realised that to reach the most marginalised community, she needs to take the less trodden path as she wanted to be with the poor and that’s why she left the confines of the convent.
In 1986, She moved to a tola, (a cluster of slummy mud houses at the margin of a village reserved for lower caste peoples) in Jamsaut, a village Near Danapur, Patna. The transition from the Motherhouse in the city to a Musahar tola wasn’t smooth. The residents gave her a home, and she had to made many adjustments like waking up at 4 AM with other Musahar women to go into fields to relieve herself due to the lack of toilets. The appalling condition of Musahars in the village shocked her. The whole tola was filled with dirt, animal wastes and filth. Slowly, she started educating the women about personal-hygiene, personal-health and also of their children. She began teaching alphabets to the kids who were unable to attend the nearby government primary school due to discrimination.
She started to study their culture, their lifestyle and accepted this new way of life and later on, she taught them about their fundamental rights. The exploitation in the workplace was a common thing, Musahars were often paid below the minimum wages and that too never on time. She made sure to educate them so that they can demand their rightful share and was successful in her attempt. She made aware the parents about the government schemes regarding the education of the children and enrolled them to the nearest government schools.
She dedicated herself to know all the aspects of their lives. She learnt the different dialects to communicate efficiently with the people, and she focussed mainly on improving the deplorable condition of women and girls in the Musahar community. The girls are considered a burden and are the victim of child-marriage and are married off at the age of 12 or 13. They have five or six children by the age of 30, and a high infant mortality rate is prevalent among them. It can be said that women and girls can be called as Dalits among Musahars. However, they do play a central role in the households, and this observation gave Sudha to work towards the upliftment of teenage girls who would be in charge of families in future and may catalyse a change in the community.
Sudha started to teach sewing, embroidery and functional literacy to teenage girls at her home and this slowly expanded into five centres in other villages. The organisation “Nari Gunjan” (Women’s Voice) was established in 1987. Gradually, the number of educational centres expanded to 50 with the help of UNICEF funds.
To fight the sexual abuse and rape from the dominant caste men, she commuted for three years to a law school in Bangalore and became an advocate. She registered cases and fought legal battles against the upper caste men and got few of them convicted of rape against Musahar women.
She stayed in Jamsaut with them for 21 Years.
In 2005, she had to move out from the village due to the death threats by dominant-caste members as they blamed her for an incident in which dominant-caste men attacked some Musahar boys and the latter filed a police complaint against the former. She was not aware of the issue, and she protested, but then due to risk to the life, she left the village. In a way, it was a victory for her as the whole incident was a result of years of educating the community about their rights.
By this time, Sudha was sure that the Musahar’s girls were the key to the change in the community. It was this time, when the concept of creating a unique and special school for the girls, came to her mind.
ORIGIN OF PRERNA
In 2006, she found a place in Lal Kothi, a place near the Danapur Cantonment ( outskirts of Patna ) which was a combination of public toilet and buffalo shed. However, with the help of state government, donations and volunteer service, this derelict property got converted into a two-storey building with dormitory, kitchen and few classrooms.
She named this special residential school “Prerna”- which means Inspiration in Hindi - for Musahar girls, to make sure they are removed from the farm labour and escape the evil of child marriage. The girls are taught the fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution, special classes on arts and dance and Karate class as Sudha felt that self- defence training would give them “more self-confidence, and self-protection”. Since birth, a feeling of worthlessness is inculcated in Musahar girls, and Sister Sudha’s fundamental goal is to replace that feeling with dignity. In an interview to The Globe and Mail, she told,
"All their lives, they are told, 'You are the last. You are the least. You do not deserve to have.' They learn very fast to keep quiet, don't expect changes and don't ask for more."
Source: Global Sisters Report
Source: The Globe and mail
Prerana Hostel’s adolescent girls during Karate Practice. Source: Livemint
The girls of Prerna hostel became so proficient that they won five golds, five silvers and 14 bronze medals at a competition in Gujrat in 2011 and it earned them an international trip to the Asian Karate Championship in Japan where they won seven trophies. The Prerna residential school currently accommodates 150 girls. The success of Prerna school was such that in 2012, the government of Bihar asked Sudha to replicate the model at Bodhgaya which has the residential capacity of 100 girls.
Apart from Prerna, there are 50 educational centres (Kishori Kendras) in various blocks like Punpun, Bihta, Phulwari Shariff and Naubatpur Blocks of Patna district. These centres focus on promoting functional literacy among adolescent girls as well as information on moral issues, fundamental rights, sanitation, health, nutrition and various questions about women and teenage children. Moreover, there are centres ( Ananda Shiksha Kendra ) which extend educational support to all Musahar children to level up them with the curriculum of government schools. There are 3000 children in total enrolled with these centres, and the ultimate goal is to reduce the dropout rate in schools which is high among Musahars.
There are also livelihood training programs which include necessary information to open bank-account, procure micro-credit for self-employment. Moreover, Sudha’s organisation train women to produce Sattu, pickles, leaf plates, doormats, bags etc. and later provide financial and market connections. Community farming, poultry and goat farming were also introduced to provide more livelihood options.
Sudha Varghese tried to implement a unique way of providing livelihood to Musahar women by creating Nari Gunjan Sargam Mahila(Women) Band. Nari Gunjan Sargam Mahila Band is Bihar’s first all-women drummer's band and has given new hope to the women in marginalised communities. Apart from financial stability, playing music in different ceremonies have earned them respect, fame and prestige. This band was also featured in BBC 100 Women 2017 series and also been covered by many Indian media outlets like The Hindu, Scroll.in, livemint etc. Based on the success of this band, girls at Prerna are also given drumming lessons these days.
Source: The Hindu
Sudha Varghese is popularly known as “Cycle wali Didi (Cycle- Sister)” because she used to visit all the Musahar communities on her bicycle for more than 30 years. She draws her inspiration from Dr B.R.Ambedkar who fought caste-based discrimination and drafted the Indian constitution which legally abolished the practice of untouchability. Although she is a Catholic nun, she recognises herself, first and foremost as an activist with a humanitarian purpose, not a religious one. Sudha Varghese has spent five decades in Bihar improving the condition of Musahars, fighting her religious congregation, dominant caste people and local politicians.
“Even when I am threatened, I am frightened inside, but I don’t show fear. Everything is not possible, but a lot is possible. Hope is necessary. We cannot get disappointed, that things will never change. They will, and they do,” she said in an interview with livemint.
This list doesn’t end here, and many more such initiatives have been taken by her to make sure that the community which has been oppressed for centuries comes out of this grim condition and joins the rank of other Dalit sub-castes which are doing relatively well.
Sudha Varghese has been awarded “Padma Shri” in the field of “Social Work” by then President of India, Dr A.P.J Abdul Kalam in 2006. Recently, she has been honoured by awards like Vanitha Women of the Year and Mar Joseph Kundukulam Foundation Award for her humanitarian work for Dalits in Bihar. She has also served as the Vice-chairperson of Bihar State Minorities Commission (August 2012 – June 2016).
Sudha Varghese accepting the Padma Shri Award 2006 from President Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. Source: Patnabeats
The devastating effects of caste system have pushed back the starting line of development of few communities so back that India can never aspire to be a developed nation unless it brings back the marginalised groups into the mainstream society. Apart from it, the restoration of dignity among Dalits will take centuries, but people like Sudha Varghese are acting as a catalyst to boost up this change by working at the grass-root level. She is indeed a great inspiration for everyone who wants to bring equality in the society as well as her work can open the eyes of people who are privilege-blind and deny the existence of evils of caste-system.
The only question which haunts her is where these girls will go after leaving this school? These girls will no longer fit in with their community, and they have to fight the harsh reality of discrimination at every step of their life. No one can answer this question, but one thing is established that Sudha Varghese has instilled hope and dignity in the girls and few of them have begun to dream.
“My dream and my hope for them is that they would be educated. They'll be people with self-confidence, independent, and someone who can stand up in their community and attract other children to follow the way that they have taken, the way of education. And they will become agents of change and help their society to go ahead.
And I'm sure they themselves will begin to dream.”
– Padam Shri Sudha Varghese [Source: The Globe and the Mail]
If you have endured this long reading this story then I will encourage you to help her initiatives. Any amount of donations (INR 100, 500 etc.) will be helpful, please donate as well as share the story.
Books = 250 INR p.m * 12 = 3000 INR
For more information and media coverage of her incredible service, please click on the following links:
1. Breaking Caste: The Globe and Mail
2. Huffington Post India