At a time when several thousand nonprofit initiatives in India are engaged in the education sector, what sets police constable Arup Mukherjee apart is that with very limited finances, he was able to turn a mere piece of land into a gurukul — a place where he provides food, education, and shelter to Dalit children in the Purulia district of West Bengal. Three hundred and ten kilometres away from Kolkata, his Puncha Nabadisha Model School situated at Purulia's Puncha block, has established a space of its own, since it is run only for children from the Sabar tribe.
A journey of about eight to nine hours took us to Puncha. Upon getting off a government bus, a gentleman recognised me at once and approached me. As he extended his hand and said 'Nomoshkar' (a Bengali greeting), I realised that this was Arup, with whom I had been communicating for the past few days. We rode his two-wheeler, and on our way to the school, I was told about the Sabar tribe's history in brief.
The Sabars are a Dalit tribe who were branded criminals by the British under the Criminal Tribes Act 1871. They are a community who are found mainly in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and in a few parts of Odisha and West Bengal.
They are a forest-dwelling tribe, and even in present times, they are only allowed to live within the forest department's area.
It is also said that the Sabars were considerably involved in the Naxalite Andolan in India.
As we approached the school, I could see a small one-storied building with a playground adjacent to it, as well as many boys and girls. As soon as they saw Arup, at least 50 of them came running towards the motorbike.
'Baba, where is my face cream? Baba, where are my shoes?' Arup was mobbed by them, and they were making these demands in their young, earnest voices.
At once I knew that this story was not about the misery of this tribe, or about how noble the initiative is; it is also about how a 43-year-old man had turned into a messiah-figure for several villages and become the children's 'Police Baba'.
While I took in the surroundings and was lost in thought, Arup came and tapped on my shoulder. "That these kids call me 'father' is the biggest reward. I just want the Sabar tribe to live respectful lives. They should be able to earn a living. And this is the only school for the Sabars in Purulia."
There's a reason why Arup chose to set up a school. "I have grown up living in the village of Puncha. The idea of establishing a school has a lot to do with my childhood. Whenever any sort of criminal activity would take place in this area, I would hear my grandfather saying 'The Sabars have done it.' As a child, I would not pay attention to this, but one day, I asked him why he always accused the Sabars. He said they indulge in criminal activity because of two reasons: One, they have no money, and two, they have no education. This is what led people to believe that they can't really tell right from wrong. That day, I decided that if I ever am able to do anything for these people, I would provide them with food and education."
Arup joined the Kolkata Police as a south traffic guard's constable in the year 1991 and established the school in the year 2010. "I had saved some money from my salary and borrowed loans from banks. A kind man named Khirad Shashi donated the land for the school, the panchayat also helped a great deal.
I started with 15 students. Initially, I would visit each home and request them to send the kids to school. It took me five years to gain their trust, and the number of students went up to 115.
I take pride in saying that as a result, in the last four years, there has not been a single incident of theft or dacoit by the Sabars in Purulia," Arup said.
Arup's passion clearly reflects in the school building, the teachers' body language and in the students' dedication. Against the backdrop of the Ayodhya hills and Kangsabati river, 'Nabadisha' is like heaven for the Sabar children.
Arup travels 112 kilometres each day whenever he is in Purulia. He visits all the Sabar villages across the district to make sure that all the enrolled children are present in school. He also takes care of the daily requirements of these families.
When I requested, Arup took me on a tour around a village where the Sabars live. It is a very dry region with identical houses. Each Sabar village in Purulia is home to five to ten families. There are more than a 100 Sabar villages across Purulia.
Certain aspects of these villages are too prominent to be ignored. For example, each village has only one well. And irrespective of what the weather conditions and water levels are, the Sabars are not allowed to enter the villages of the upper castes and fetch water. There is also the problem of widespread hunger; most of the villagers, especially the children, suffer from various nutritional deficiency diseases.
"The Sabars here don't get the 100-day job contract from the central government. Our chief minister Mamata Banerjee also announced that funds would be allotted, but those funds never reached them. Doctors refuse to perform ligation surgeries for these women. As a result, each family has five to seven children on an average. How will they sustain such large families? I had once appeared in a reality show, which helped me to collect some liquid cash. A few kind men and women send some money every month, and I use up my whole salary to get these children food twice a day. I am still unable to provide them with proper nutrition."
One of the people I was introduced to was Santi Sabar's mother. Santi is one of the few students who has passed their Class 10 exams in the village, but does not foresee any future for herself. "When Santi pursued her education, we were all very happy. We had high expectations, but now that so many years have passed and no job opportunity has come her way, the whole village is demoralised and disappointed," said Santi's mother.
Arup echoed the sentiment: If the government could provide a basic job to a few from the community, the Sabars would be more motivated to pursue education and live better lives.
Purulia, which shared borders with the states of Chhatisgarh and Jharkhand, is under severe political turmoil. The district has seen some of the cruelest political assaults in the past few months. Unsurprisingly, the heat can be felt across villages where people have right-wing inclinations.
"My school was inaugurated by a Sabar child, but I never allowed any political party to interfere in its running. I know politics would harm the cause," said Arup. "Those who understand my effort support me, but there are people who belong to the upper castes who don't want these kids to get an education. That gives them the upper hand to exploit them, of course... There is no point making this a political or caste battleground," he added.
When Arup tried to communicate with the commissioner to seek help and ask for funds on behalf of the Kolkata Police, but all talks were ceased mid-way. "I am not doing this for the money or fame; I just want the Sabars to be able to survive in this society, to provide them with the basic necessities. I wish the higher authorities would give them job opportunities. To them, I'd like to say: 'Don't let these people die of hunger,'" he urged.
— All photographs by Satwik Paul