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Babar Ali’s inspiring story: How a nine-year-old’s zeal brought education to Bengal’s poor

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Babar Ali's inspiring story

Murshidabad (West Bengal), Sep 30 : Walking home from school in a small town in West Bengal, a nine-year-old boy saw some of his friends work as rag-pickers. The thought that his companions were unable to study like him because they were poor so agonised the young Babar Ali that he decided to do something about it and bring school to those who could not afford it.

Determined to share his education as a fifth grader at a state-run school at Beldanga town in Murshidabad district, about 200km north of Kolkata, he turned teacher to his poor friends in the backyard of his own home. With a dream to make India’s children have access to quality education despite their economic backgrounds, he has been, over these many years, a silent crusader imparting education to hundreds of poverty-stricken child labourers in the state.

“I couldn’t tolerate my friends picking garbage while I attended school. So I asked them to join me in the roofless backyard of my home, so I could teach them how to read and write,” Babar, now a 25-year-old youth, recalled to IANS in an interview.

Babar Ali

Babar Ali (in red kurta) with students from his school in Murshidabad, West Bengal, where he educates ragpickers and poor children.

That backyard became Babar’s school, Ananda Siksha Niketan (meaning Home for Joyful Learning), in 2002, making him possibly the world’s youngest headmaster.

“My school began with a total of eight students, including my five-year-old younger sister Amina Khatun. We sat together under a guava tree for three hours every afternoon learning to read, so that the children who worked as rag-pickers or ‘beedi’ (handrolled cigarettes made of unprocessed tobacco) rollers could continue to work in the mornings,” recalled Babar.

With a population of about eight million, Murshidabad district has a large section of its adults and children working as daily-wage labourers in farms and rolling beedis. The district is among the largest manufacturer of beedis in the country. Collecting used-up chalk pieces from his school, Babar continued to teach children in his neighbourhood how to read and write in Bengali along with basic math, science and geography, completely free of cost, while he was in school himself.

“Teachers at my school thought I was stealing chalk to scribble on the walls, but after they learnt that I was teaching other children at my home, they began to offer me a box of chalk each week,” shared Babar.

The support from his mother Banuara Bibi, an anganwadi worker, and father Mohammad Nasiruddin, a jute trader, both of whom were school dropouts, allowed him to pursue his vision to create an educated neighbourhood, he said.

“The children I have been teaching receive very little support from their families and are often left to fend for themselves. With help from my family and teachers at school, I have been able to run my school and provide the kids with uniform, books and other reading material,” added Babar.

Admitting that it was a difficult task convincing families to send their children to his home school, Babar said he gradually won the trust of parents as students grew fond of him and enjoyed his classes.

Donations from teachers at his school, district officials, Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers from the region and other individuals has kept Babar’s institution running through the years — and in 2015, it shifted into a building near his home, with a recognition as a private school from the West Bengal School Education Department.

“The focus is on holistic education at Ananda Siksha Niketan, as I want the students to positively impact the society through whatever professions they choose in the future,” he stressed.

In a span of about 16 years, from 2002 till date, Babar has taught more than 5,000 children from Classes 1 to 8 — a few of whom have have returned to his school to work as teachers.

 

“Six of my former girl students have returned to the school as teachers after finishing their under-graduation courses,” said Babar, who holds a MA in English literature from the University of Kalyani, about 50 km from Kolkata.

Pursuing another Masters in History from the same university, Babar remains an ambitious headmaster who wants to bring about change in the district’s poor female literacy rate, which stands at just above 55 per cent, according to data from the district administration.

“Several families are still reluctant to send their girls to a school and prefer to marry them off in their teens, but through continuous effort we are seeing a change in their attitudes. Parents are realising the need for education as children are in turn helping them read, make a signature on paper and write,” he added.

The co-education school currently has 500 students, 10 teachers and one non-teaching staff, with classes from 1 to 8.

“We require more classrooms and infrastructure as our building can accommodate only 350-400. I also want to expand the school up to Class 10 so that kids do not have to go to other towns for education.”

Babar Ali Bengal

Babar Ali’s amazing story: World’s youngest headmaster brings education to poor (IANS Special Series)

Babar, who is also a motivational speaker, offering talks across the country inspired by venerated Hindu monk-philosopher Swami Vivekananda’s (1863-1902) teachings, wants to set up more such schools catering to the poorest sections across the country.

“Education for all will remain my life mission and, to realise that, several institutions and individuals need to come together,” he reiterated.

Babar’s inspiring journey has also made it to the first year English text book of pre-university (Class 11) in Karnataka’s state board and Class 10 communicative English text of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE).

“Governments alone cannot change the system. We need people of all sections to come forward and work together to bring in quality education for all our country’s children, irrespective of their social classes,” stressed Babar.

(The weekly feature series is part of a positive-journalism project of IANS and the Frank Islam Foundation. Bhavana Akella can be contacted at [email protected])

Analysis

YouTube testing new video recommendation format: Report

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San Francisco, Jan 16 : Google-owned video sharing platform YouTube is testing a new video recommendation format that displays blue bubbles on the screen with relevant keywords and related topic suggestions, facilitating easier browsing, media reported.

“The screenshots obtained show these blue bubbles just underneath the video player showing more specific video recommendations,” The Verge reported on Tuesday.

The video-sharing platform is currently testing the feature with some users on its main desktop page as well as on the mobile app.

For sometime now users have been complaining that the videos recommended on the side on YouTube’s interface often have little to do with the current video, making recommendations a point of contention for the platform.

“It’s unclear if the videos that populate from the new recommendation bubbles will face similar algorithmic issues that YouTube’s recommendation feed currently suffers,” the report added.

There has not been any word from YouTube as of now on the working of these blue bubbles and whether or not they will roll out the test feature to a bigger group in the coming months.

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Analysis

2002 Gujarat riots: Judge P.B. Desai ignored evidence, says activist Harsh Mander

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Harsh Mander

New Delhi, Jan 9 : Special SIT court judge P.B. Desai “ignored evidence” that former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri, who was killed in a mob attack in Ahmedabad’s Gulberg Housing Society during the 2002 riots, did all that was possible within his power to protect Muslims from the “rage of the mob” and instead echoed the position of then Chief Minister Narendra Modi that his killing was only a “reaction” to his “action” of shooting at the mob, says human rights activist Harsh Mander.

He says that “the learned judge”, who retired in December 2017, overlooked statements by surviving witnesses that Jafri made repeated desperate calls to senior police officers and other persons in authority, “including allegedly Chief Minister Modi”, pleading that security forces be sent to “disperse the crowd” and rescue those “against whom the mob had laid a powerful siege”.

Mander, who quit the IAS in Gujarat in the wake of the riots, makes these observations in his just released book, “Partitions of the Heart: Unmaking the Idea of India”, published by Penguin.

The 66-year-old activist, who works with survivors of mass violence and hunger as well as homeless persons and street children, goes on to quote the late journalist Kuldip Nayar to establish that Jafri had desperately telephoned him, “begging him to contact someone in authority to send in the police or the Army to rescue them”.

Mander says Nayar rang up the Union Home Ministry to convey to it the seriousness of the situation. The Home Ministry said it was in touch with the state government and was “watching” the situation. Jafri called again, pleading with Nayar to do something as the mob was threatening to lynch him.

In the chapter titled “Whatever happened in Gulberg Society?”, Mander contends that Jafri did everything within his power to protect “those who believed that his influence would shield them from the rage of the mob”. Mander says Jafri begged the mob to “take his life instead” and in a show of valour went out “to plead and negotiate” with the angry crowd.

“When he realised that no one in authority would come in for their protection, he also did pick up his licensed firearm and shoot at the crowd…,” Mander notes, describing it as the “final vain bid” on behalf of Jafri to protect the Muslims in the line of fire.

The author notes that in describing Jafri’s final resort to firing as an illegitimate action, the judge only echoed the position taken repeatedly by Modi, who had given an interview to a newspaper in which he had said that it was Jafri who had first fired at the mob.

“He forgot to say what a citizen is expected to do when a menacing mob, which has already slaughtered many, approaches him and the police has deliberately not responded to his pleas,” says Mander.

He says that it was as if even when under attack and surrounded by an armed mob warning to slaughter them, “and with acid bombs and burning rags flung at them”, a good Muslim victim should do nothing except plead, and this would ensure their safety.

Ehsan Jafri’s wife Zakia Jafri, according to Mander, was firmly convinced that her husband was killed because of a conspiracy that went right to the top of the state administration, beginning with Modi. The author notes that the court, in its judgement running into more than 1,300 pages, disagreed.

“It did indict 11 people for the murder but they were just foot soldiers,” observed Mander.

He further says that the story the survivors told the judge over prolonged hearings was consistent but Judge Desai was convinced that there was “no conspiracy behind the slaughter” and that the administration did all it could to control it.

“Jafri, by the judge’s reckoning, and that of Modi, was responsible for his own slaughter,” he laments.

Mander also argues in the book that recurring episodes of communal violence in Ahmedabad had altered the city’s demography, dividing it into Hindu and Muslim areas and Gulberg was among the last remaining “Muslim” settlements in the “Hindu” section of the city.

He says that Desai also disregarded the evidence in the conversations secretly taped by Tehelka reporters, mentioning that superior courts, according to Desai himself, have ruled that while a person cannot be convicted exclusively based on the evidence collected in such “sting operations”, such evidence is certainly “admissible as corroborative proof”.

“But he chose to disregard this evidence, not because there was proof that these video recordings were in any way doctored or false but simply because the Special Investigative Team (SIT) appointed by the Supreme Court of India chose to ignore this evidence,” says Mander.

According to Mander, the Tehelka recordings “certainly supported the theory that there was indeed a plan to collect, incite and arm the mob to undertake the gruesome slaughter”.

The SIT was headed by R.K. Raghavan, today Ambassador to Cyprus. Mander contends in the book that just because the investigators did not pursue Tehelka recordings in greater depth, Desai concluded that the “recordings cannot be relied upon as trustworthy of substantial evidence and establish any conspiracy herein”.

In the book, Mander takes stock of whether India has upheld the values it had set out to achieve and offers painful, unsparing insight into the contours of violence. The book is now available both online and in bookstores.

(Saket Suman can be contacted at [email protected])

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Analysis

Number of suicides highest in Army amongst three services

In the Air Force, the number of suspected suicides was 21 in 2017 and 19 in 2016. For the Navy, these numbers were 5 and 6 for 2017 and 2016, respectively.

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Ajit Doval

New Delhi, Jan 7 : The number of defence personnel committing suicide was highest in the Army amongst the three services in the last three years, data shows.

In 2018 alone, as many as 80 Army personnel are believed to have committed suicide. This number is 16 for Air Force and 08 for the Navy, Minister of State (MoS) for Defence Subhash Bhamre told the Rajya Sabha in a written reply on Monday.

In 2017, the number of Army men who are suspected to have committed suicide was 75, while in 2016 this number was 104.

In the Air Force, the number of suspected suicides was 21 in 2017 and 19 in 2016. For the Navy, these numbers were 5 and 6 for 2017 and 2016, respectively.

In his reply, the Minister said that various steps have been taken by the armed forces to create healthy environment for their officers and other ranks.

“Some of the steps include provision of better facilities such as clothing, food, married accommodation, travel facilities, schooling, recreation etc and periodic welfare meetings, promoting yoga and meditation as a tool for stress management, and training and deployment of psychological counsellors,” the reply read.

It said mental health awareness is provided during pre-induction training.

Besides, institutionalisation of projects “MILAP” and “SAHYOG” by the Army in Northern and Eastern Commands to reduce stress among troops has been done.

A helpline has also been established by the Army and the Air Force to provide professional counselling.

IANS

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