Freedom and Equality: Civil Rights at Ankur Vidyashram

Instructors of the Civil Rights Workshop at the exhibition.

The Book Bus visited Ankur Vidyashram in Bhimsen Gola from 21st to 24th July, conducting workshops with the theme of “Freedom and Equality”. Among the workshops facilitated by the Book Bus team, the Civil Rights workshops introduced students to the history of discrimination, slavery, and the ongoing injustices in the world and in their community, issues that our text-books haven’t yet tackled in meaningful ways, of which students are still not aware, especially students from Kathmandu.

People still face a variety of injustice in Nepal, causing them emotional and physical harm, and there’s no one way in which these injustices happen. Cases of acid attacks and domestic violence are rampant. Women aren’t able to speak up for their rights without criticism because it is believed that decisions about their lives and safety should be made by someone else. Freedom of choice is limited for most Nepalis. Parents don’t allow children to make friends with students of lower caste backgrounds, students who are poor, students who are weak in school. Teachers don’t allow students who don’t do well in class to participate in extracurricular activities. Parents and teachers force their children into studying medicine or engineering for the sake of public appearances at the cost of their mental health.

It doesn’t end there; even professions are discriminated against. People who don’t mind tipping a hundred rupees to waiters at expensive restaurants refuse to pay cobblers their fare. The time and energy cobblers put into fixing their shoes are devalued, all because of the low status that society imposes on them. My mother, who runs a tailor shop in Surkhet, has to deal with this often. My late grandfather, who used to sit under a tree on the main road and sew up shoes, would face this even more.

Freedom and equality cannot come about without awareness. With this in mind, the Book Bus team has been taking the Civil Rights workshops to schools, in Kathmandu and around Nepal, hoping to encourage understanding, awareness, and compassion in students. I, along with my fellow instructor, conducted a two-day workshop, where we discussed the history of slavery in the United States. This led students into reflecting on the history of slavery in Nepal: the long feudal system in which landlords would leave their tenants with barely enough earnings after years of hard labor, keeping them away from physical comfort and even further from education, the impacts of which still endure in our society.

Another part of the workshop was a reading of “Ruby Bridges goes to School”, a story of a young black girl’s struggle while going to a white school in her area. Because of her presence, other students stop coming to school in protest. Though she feels lonely and spurned, she never stops going to school and fights for her freedom and right to education.

The students at Ankur Vidyashram were inspired by little Ruby’s courage. Though they had never faced such an injustice, they felt compassion for Ruby. They talked about the discrimination they have seen or heard from their parents and neighbors in their community. They recognized why it was wrong.

The story of Ruby Bridges also holds special significance for me. Growing up, my two siblings and I were like three little chicks who had hatched at the same time. Because we were all so close in age and so young, things were hard on my parents. Yet, my dad sent my two brothers and myself to a boarding school a bit further away from home because of the discrimination and disrespect he had faced in the public schools growing up. But the boarding school wasn’t inclusive either, and friends and their family were snobby about who got invited to their homes. It was difficult to make close friendships because of this discrimination.  Even the teachers were subtly hostile and domineering, and they would use diminutives to refer to the community.

In school, we are taught that what is written in our course books are the things we need to remember, that a good life is all about good marks in exams. We never get to share the experiences of a person with my background. There is no system of making students aware of what is happening around them. There are no ideas of changing the society and bringing equal rights and justice to everyone in our curriculum.

For me, school had never been a comfort zone where I could learn and grow emotionally until I joined Kopila Valley School. There were a lot of underprivileged students at Kopila Valley. Awareness of the wrongs of discrimination and exploitation existed there. The learning environment didn’t allow for discrimination, or even micro-aggressions. Every day we ate lunch together in the same cafeteria. Then I was able to make good friends. Kopila valley educated and allowed growth to many children in our community. There was incredible value in this.

I come from “Pankote tole”, which is a small community of ‘dalit’ people, most of whom were my relatives. I grew up in a community surrounded by higher caste, discriminatory people who didn’t respect us, who would compel us to include them in our celebrations but refused to eat what we cooked. Higher caste people wouldn’t touch anyone from our family. We didn’t feel included in the community. We weren’t allowed to enter their homes, and were talked down to. They behaved like lower caste people didn’t exist as living individuals, like they existed only to serve them by doing occupations like sewing clothes, sewing shoes, sewing and making blankets and bed sheets. They didn’t involve us in the community because we were neither from a higher caste nor educated.

The disrespect existed in honorifics as well – even our elderly would be called ‘timi’ and our elderly were compelled to call younger ones from higher castes ‘hajur’. There was no dignity of labor: people were made to feel ashamed of their professions. The injustices piled up: once when I was fasting during the month of Shrawan, I went to the ‘Bhairabsthan Temple’ to pray near my house. The priest at the temple recognized me as ‘pankote ko natini’ and stopped me from entering the temple. I was hurt. I ran back home crying.

Since then, I haven’t returned to that temple. My grandmother spent more than 60 years of her life fasting for Hindu gods. My dad worships them everyday and fasts often. We’ve never seen a person who belongs to a lower caste family become a priest at any temple, even though we must contribute money for their construction. Not even letting us enter is such a horrible offence!

Raising awareness, helping each other understand these social issues of treating someone well are very important, especially in school. Being able to go to school every day was very helpful for me, only because I was able to have a good learning environment. We supported each other. In my experience, the more educated the people are, the more they are exposed to the history of slavery and the evils of oppression, the more improvement there has been. People have, at least, started to do the bare minimum of addressing each other with respect.

Kopila Valley School has taught me so much besides our course book and has motivated me to put in work to change our society. Classes similar to the Civil Rights workshop inspired me to get connected with the municipality and engage with the clubs in my community. I helped with organizing community building programs hosted by the municipality and got involved in the community finance organization. Now we have our own community well, which is open for everyone, indiscriminately.

With education and engagement, the people in our community treat us better these days. But though my community has changed for the better, there are still many places in Nepal where people face discrimination because of their castes. We hope that through workshops like the Civil Rights workshop, we can put our hands together to raise awareness and inspire students to work towards equality.

Keeping these stories they’d discussed on the first day of the workshop in mind, each student returned home to interview someone from their family or neighborhood. They asked questions like, “What differences have you found between the society now and the society ten or twenty years ago?”,“What were the rights you  had when you were my age?” and “What kinds of discrimination have you experienced or known about?”

On the basis of these three questions, students brought back stories of discrimination their elders had faced while growing up, stories that they hadn’t known before. Most of the victims of discrimination were women, who had had to stop going to school and get married at an early age. They weren’t given choices while making any kind of decision about their lives. They had to spend more time doing household chores than reading or writing. They couldn’t even think of getting a job, earning money, and standing on their own feet. There was no system where girls could vote.

A couple of interviewees also brought up stories of being discriminated on account of their culture, tradition, caste, or class. The students were surprised that there were so many things that they hadn’t known before or even talked about, that had happened to their own families. They could easily identify the wrongs of these injustices, and that no one should have to suffer them.

All the stories that the students brought back with them were put on display on the final exhibition day. A Civil Rights stall was set up, manned by the students themselves, who explained to visitors the history of slavery, misogyny, and discrimination. The stories that they shared even matched the stories of parents who visited the stalls, who added to the stories by sharing their own experiences with the students.

Through the Civil Rights Workshop, students at Ankur Vidyashram learned about the social issues that need their attention. By being introduced to the story of Ruby Bridges and the history of slavery in the United States, they were able to reflect on the change that collective effort from young people like themselves can bring. Though they were saddened to learn the history of Nepal and the challenges faced by their parents, neighbors and peers, they were inspired to know more and speak up to change practices.

Deepa is a writer, spoken word poet and poetry instructor, and a student of English literature and language. She is a Language and Arts instructor at Book Bus and travels around Nepal with the Book Bus team. 

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