A conscientious policeman has invested his life’s savings in a residential school for children belonging to a so-called “criminal tribe” languishing on the margins of society in Purulia district of India’s West Bengal province.
During British colonial rule, 150 tribes across India were notified as “addicted” to crimes like robbing people, committing thefts and murders and brought within the purview of the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 which imposed restrictions on their movements and forced male members to report each week to the local police. The Sabars living in central and eastern India were one such tribe.
When India became independent in 1947, the grossly unfair Act was quickly repealed. But Sabars living in the interiors of Purulia district are still ostracized and ill-treated by the administration as habitual criminals.
Their alienation and marginalization moved Arup Mukherjee, a 42-year-old policeman, to establish a school for Sabar children – the only school in India to help integrate a “criminal tribe” with mainstream society.
Mukherjee founded the Puncha Nabadisha Model School in 2011 at Pandui village in Purulia district, approximately 300 km from Calcutta, capital of West Bengal, where he works as a traffic constable. At present, the residential school is home to 112 Sabar boys and girls between the age of four and 12.
Speaking to Al Arabiya, Mukherjee said: “Growing up in an upper caste family in Purulia, I often heard stories from my grandfather about the injustice meted out to Sabars for generations. Nothing can be more discriminatory than treating anyone as a born criminal. The Sabars have been deprived of the fruits of independence and democracy.”
Change through education
“I wanted to do something for Sabars as soon as I joined Calcutta Police in 1999. But I had to wait for 12 long years before I could save enough money and collect donations from my family members and friends to start a school. I believe that change will come through education which will give Sabars the confidence to fight prejudices and stand up for their rights.”
Mukherjee even borrowed money to set up the school of his dreams. In the beginning, there were only 20 children cramped in two rooms. Today the school has expanded to nine rooms where as many as 112 boarders are given free education, food, clothes and medicines.
A stickler for security and cleanliness, Mukherjee has built a modern kitchen and installed CCTV cameras. Most of the teachers are volunteers but some draw salaries. Mukherjee is grateful to former Indian cricket captain, Saurav Ganguly, for hosting him on a very popular television program which the star cricketer anchors.
“A lot of doors opened after my TV appearance. Severable charitable organizations, including Ram Krishna Mission, came forward to help. I would sum up my experience so far by saying that where there is a will, there is a way”, said Mukherjee.