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Using their arrows for sport, not war

By Rupa Chinai

From sports clubs that build team spirit to special schools for dropouts, it's ordinary people who are working to strengthen and develop Bodoland In a sports field outside Dologami, an obscure village in the Chirang district of Bodoland, a line-up of young Bodo and Santhal boys and girls are poised with their bows and arrows, ready to hit a bull's-eye. At the height of the struggle for a separate Bodoland from Assam, Bodos and Santhals fought and killed each other with these very instruments. Today, this group presents a remarkable story of hope, which is finding similar expression in various corners of Bodoland.

This story of hope comes from ordinary people who are demonstrating that individuals can make a difference in society. They are showing that the various communities that live here are capable of coming together and developing their homeland. That they don't have to wait for external help. It is these young people who raise the flag of Bodoland, telling us about all that is refined and noble in the great culture of our country's tribal people.

Standing out from the group is a graceful archer, a 16-year-old Bodo girl, Buli Basumatary, who is from Samtaibaria village and studies in Class 10. She won gold at a national-level competition, and two gold and one silver medal at state-level tournaments. Also in the group are two young Santhal boys, Robilal Kisku, aged 16 and a Class 9 student, and Monjoy Soren, aged 13, who studies in Class 8.

Archery is part of the traditional culture of both the Bodos and the Santhals. This skill has, over the years, helped them hunt and survive. Instead of wasting it in fighting each other, they are now demonstrating a newfound pride in who they are and where they come from. Brought together by the Sunjarang Sports Club and Library, these archers are part of a group of over 80 young people living in the area. They come together every evening to engage in sports like tennis, boxing, hockey, football, kabaddi and judo.

Apart from Buli, the group has a national and state-level champion in Daimalu Brahma, a boxer who holds two gold and one silver medal. The club also boasts national-level players in kabaddi and judo. Sturdy and tall, used to hard work, exercise and a sensible diet, the youth of the area are natural sportspersons.

Even more remarkable than the achievements of its young members, is the story of 38-year-old Guno Shankar Wary who founded the Sunjarang Club. Trained as a physical instructor in Gwalior, Guno Shankar now works with the Chirang district sports office. The Sunjarang Club is entirely his personal creation, and is financed through major chunks drawn from his own salary, the support of well-wishers and the wo[B] [/B]rk of his young comrades.

Although it lacks both finance and infrastructure, the club thrives on creativity and hard work. The hockey sticks are carved from the branches of trees and bamboo. The tennis court was levelled and rolled with a well ring, and then plastered with a mix of mud and cowdung, using bare hands and brushes. Earth was manually lifted to even out the football field. Young people come from villages within a radius of 10 km. Many are small children who are weak in studies; the club facilitates their coaching by older, college-going students.

Guno Shankar provides free coaching in all the 10 sports that are practised at the club, and travel money for teams attending sports events at the district, state and national-level is raised after considerable cajoling on his part. The only major support the club has received so far has been from the Bodoland Territorial Council, which gave Rs 10,000 as a one-time grant-in-aid. Guno Shankar is worried about how to raise funds for the forthcoming state-level boxing, hockey and tennis tournaments where his teams are participating.

He says: "It was in these very villages that severe clashes took place between the communities, resulting in displacement, killings and distrust between the communities. I have sought to bring these youth on the platform of sports, which nurtures a feeling of brotherhood and equality. Sports facilitates better concentration in studies and the rounded development of a personality. Above all, it helps us to learn to play and live as human beings. Those who excel in this bring name and fame for themselves, their families and the communities of Bodoland. Sports also enables our youth to get scholarships and jobs. I am doing this for my village, state and also for India."

Another story of hope, in another corner of Bodoland, is the young brother and sister pair of Michael and Stella Hansda from the Santhal community. They are based in Shashipur, a picturesque village in Baksa district, on the banks of a river along the foothills of Bhutan. Hailing from a poor family, their father works as a sweeper with the Border Roads Organisation. Stella and Michael have set up a unique school for 'dropout' children called Educare Institute, which operates out of bamboo and thatch huts. The pair have demonstrated what individuals can achieve through education, and how much they can contribute to society when they set out to share what little they have.Educare Institute is open to children from all communities in the area -- primarily Santhal, adivasi (tea garden tribes), Bodo, Nepali and Bengali. The school started out with nine students; today their numbers have swelled to 265. Taught in the English medium, the non-formal system of education here prepares the children for the matriculation exam.

A brief visit to one of the classrooms and discussions with the children reveal their ability to speak in fluent English and interact with confidence and enthusiasm. "We dropped out of the Assamese schools where we previously studied because we could not afford the fees. We enjoy coming here and it is affordable," says one of the students.

The students pay a fee of Re 1 every day, which is shared between the 11 teachers who volunteer their services. The children spoke of their aspirations to go in for higher education, to become doctors, engineers, nurses, mechanics. Though they lack books, games and other infrastructure, they demonstrate a thirst for learning and exposure to new ideas.

Says Michael: "We are stressing learning in English because everyone is running to the towns for jobs. We are trying to make them understand that they can work in the village. From here in rural India we should communicate with the urban areas, and with the rest of the world. We have to strengthen our youth through education. Economic, social and political advancement for our communities will come through education, which creates enlightened leaders in every field. These persons will not consider caste and creed but will work for humanity."

Remarkable in this story are Stella and Michael themselves. Despite their poverty and illiteracy, their parents scraped together the funds to send their five children to Tezpur in upper Assam for education at the Silesian missionary school. Recalls Michael: "My father had a transferable job. He used to bring me job application forms where 3,500 candidates had applied for five posts of sweeper. Boys holding degrees were in this queue. People were desperate for jobs. I felt that educated people should be creating jobs for unemployed youth. We had seen what our parents had done for their children and realised how education had benefited us. Hence we decided to create a school where poor children can study. We are not perfect in our learning. But whatever we have learnt we are trying to share the best we can."

Speaking of their community, the Santhals, Stella and Michael talk of a people in a time warp, cacooned by the smallness of their world and a life consumed by alcohol. The Bodo and Santhal students in this area have joined together to campaign against alcoholism. Those caught creating a disturbance in an inebriated state are warned that they will be "beaten until the stick breaks". Many have experienced this threat.

Struggling to articulate their vision, Michael says: "Our people have no concept of what change and development could mean for them. They have not understood that they can be useful to society. We have to make them realise that society needs them. We need a platform to reflect their lives. We want to bring that reflector to them so that they can see themselves in that mirror. Through it they can begin to see how they think and live, and see their future. They will then begin to ask, 'If we continue the way we are at present, what will our future be? Supposing there is change, what is the future we can have?' We need a proper reflector."

For Michael and Stella's mother, that reflector and the vision she got from it was clear: "I did not want my children to work as servants in other people's houses as we have done," she says with simplicity and firmness.

Joining Stella and Michael in their quest to impart meaningful education is a Bodo, Dominic Basumatary. Holding a master's degree in social science from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, in Mumbai, Dominic's effort to develop human resources -- "the most important resource of Bodoland" -- has brought him to the path of education. Setting up the Centre for New Learning, a school in Bengtol village, Dominic and his wife Ersilia are seeking to introduce a holistic approach to education, based on the concept of 'learning while doing' rather than mere teaching. It aims at developing observation skills, teamwork, leadership, resource management and confidence-building.

Elsewhere in Bodoland, a group of around 400 young unemployed youth, some operating individually, others in groups, are demonstrating that there are ways to make an independent and satisfactory living through small tea and rubber plantations. Obtaining government-allotted revenue land, large tracts of which are available along the Bodoland-Bhutan foothills and considered unfit for paddy cultivation, these youth started to first grow sugarcane and ginger and then tea. The tea leaves are sold to larger tea companies for further processing, earning around Rs 8 per kg.

Supporting the small tea gardens in this effort is the Jorhat-based Toklai Tea Research Institute that has provided the technical training. While regular banks consider tribals "unbankable" because of their poor payback of loans, these planters are now finding supporters in institutions like the North-East Development Finance Corporation which is so convinced by their track record that it is willing to advance them sizeable loans. Profits earned from these efforts are being put back into expansion of the business.

Says Bijit Basumatary, a young tea planter from amongst a group of 12 partners who have set up a tea garden in Kokrajhar district: "We tell our youth that it is we who have closed the doors to obtaining bank loans and it is we ourselves who must now open them again. We are demystifying the myth that only Tatas and Birlas can create wealth."

One of the greatest strengths of Bodo society is that practically every woman knows how to weave. Tapping this potential are NGOs like ANT (Action Northeast Trust) and other weaving societies that are opening up a whole new world of possibilities for Bodo women through innovative design inputs, improved techniques and marketing ideas.

ANT started its activities in 2000; today it works with 150 weavers and has a turnover of several lakhs. Its trendy cotton outfits in bright colours are based on traditional Bodo designs and fabrics, and have even reached the Western market. Many young Bodo weavers are learning new skills as they take charge of production, make decisions on pricing and organise exhibitions and sales outside the region.

Others are finding the means to pay back family debts, or support the higher education of siblings. Moina Bora in Udalguri, for instance, studied up to Class 10 and earns Rs 3,000 a month through her weaving. She sends Rs 1,500 to her younger brother who is studying foreign languages at the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

[I](Rupa Chinai is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. [I]This is the concluding part of her series on Bodoland[/I])[/I]


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