Saloni Todkari, a Class 10 student, immediately after joining her new school at Kalyan, was informed by her teacher that bindi and bangles were mandatory for girl students. Saloni and her friend Rekha (name changed), who wore neither the bindi nor the bangles, failed to understand the teacher’s insistence as the rule book of the school hadn’t mentioned it.
The overzealous teacher would often reprimand them and offer these two ‘erring’ students the accessories from her own collection – only to be rejected. Their behaviour was soon reported to the school principal, who summoned the duo and asked them for an explanation for not following the dictate of the school. She attempted at brainwashing the girls into conforming to the ‘good practices’ of the school, explaining how ‘bindi’ is a part of our culture by giving proven scientific benefits. But the girls were not convinced.
“I have read the rulebook thoroughly and could not find anything related to the mandatory practice of wearing bindi and bangles. Why, then, the girl students are being subjected to such rules,” asked Saloni, clearly looking for a reasonable explanation for imposition of such regressive practice. The principal responded by informing the parents of these two girls about their ‘rebellious’ behavior.
“Why is your daughter so headstrong? She argues a lot and refuses to wear bangles and bindi,” the principal asked their mothers. “She tried to incite my mother. But my mother understands my point of view, as she has given me freedom and never compelled me to do things just because they are accepted by the society,” shared Saloni, explaining how their parents stood by them. Many other girls joined the cause and voiced their opinion. The principal finally conceded and allowed students to follow their will to wear bindi and bangles. The girls’ voice paved way for a big change.
Saloni was not against the rules. “Cleanliness, hygiene, proper uniform and shoes, adherence to school timings and rules for maintaining order have to be honored. But the school should not try to execute unconstitutional commands,” shared Saloni while explaining her stand.
From where does Saloni get her ideas and strength to fight for her rights?
Saloni’s journey into activism began when she started attending the ‘Baag Shala (garden school)’ at Maitrakul, a residential study center for students run under the aegis of Chhatrashakti Sanstha. Maitrakul is an abode for children from weaker sections of society who find it difficult to pursue school education due to challenging circumstances at home. Here, the children study in a local-aided school.
In 2014, Maitrakul boarding was established by Kishor at Bapgaon, Kalyan, in Thane district, realising the need for a shelter for children such as Saloni, who come from low-income background. Originally from Virar, a town in Palghar district, Saloni convinced her mother to allow her to relocate to Thane. Saloni’s mother Manali Todkari, who works as a domestic help, understood her daughter’s dream and helped her achieve that.
After moving to Maitrakul, Saloni started attending the local secondary school, not very far from the boarding. When she was studying in Class 10, she learnt that the children wanting to appear for the Secondary School Certification (SSC) Board exam directly had to fill Exam Form no. 17 through a school.
Although the charge for Form 17 was Rs 400, schools were overcharging these hapless adolescents around by charging Rs 400-500 per form. When Saloni noticed this exploitation, she raised the issue with the school administration, who dismissed her concerns. Looking at the administration’s response, Saloni and a few of her fellow students decided to peacefully protest against the SSC Board. Recalling the incident, she said:
“We tried to seek an appointment with the SSC Board officers, but to no avail. We wrote them several letters, but didn’t receive any reply. As our pleas were falling on deaf ears, we staged dharnas outside the board office. When the board refused to act even after days of protests, we decided to change our strategy. We created a trophy – an effigy of a beggar with a note pasted on its torso that read – ‘since the officers don’t get paid, they have turned to begging’ and entered the office. We wanted to present the trophy to the officer, but we were whisked away. Although none of the office bearers met us, the SSC Board took cognisance of our grievance and acted on the schools that were overcharging students for Form 17.”
She also informed about the protocols they had followed while organising the protests. “We had informed the nearest police station about our plans. We followed the regulations and used peaceful methods to make our voices heard,” explained Saloni, emphasising on the need of following the constitutional norms while organising peaceful protests.
Known for her understanding, peace-loving and empathetic nature at the boarding, Saloni was entrusted with the responsibility of reaching out to the neighbouring Katkari Wadi (a hamlet) under Maitrakul’s ‘Chiranjeevi’ programme. The Katkaris are an aboriginal forest tribe who continue to live in abject poverty even today. Parents go for work, leaving behind young children at home. Schools in and around the area have limitations in meeting their educational needs, and almost no Katkari child was enrolled in school.
When Saloni entered the hamlet, she was welcomed with mud and stones, hurled at her by older children. Saloni persisted and tried to broker a truce with the children by proposing to play games. Soon, the children, old and young, were playing games with Saloni. In a month’s time, she was able to hold an exercise on alphabets with the children in the Katkari Wadi. Since then, regular ‘Baag Shala’ is organised by Maitrakul activists here.
As she grew older, Saloni’s grasp on social concerns, especially on the challenges faced by deprived children has also matured. On her way to school, Saloni started noticing child beggars stalking the walkers on streets for money and food. She felt for the children who have been robbed of their right to live with dignity.
Swayed by the issue, Saloni decided to act by staging a protest outside Kalyan station. Maitrakul backed the decision as Saloni went on to fast for three days against the insensitivity of the administration, police and public regarding child beggars. Her dharna and fast against child begging attracted the attention of the administration, media and political leaders. Saloni was just 15 years old when she launched the agitation and fast for the cause. But how did she cope with the pangs of hunger?
‘When I decide, I act. There were friends from Maitrakul who joined my agitation and took turns to fast for a day with me. When my mother came to see me, she broke down and was shocked, but didn’t discourage me. She understood that I was doing it for a good cause and gave me her blessings,” shared Saloni. On the third and the last day of the fast, local corporators and members of political parties came to meet Saloni and promised to address the issue of child beggars.
The fast was undertaken in the second week of March, after which the Covid-19 pandemic had set in and a total lockdown was announced in the state of Maharashtra. Saloni has not been able to pursue the issue of child beggars since the beginning of the lockdown, but keeps the issue alive by fasting once a month. Other children at Maitrakul also join her for the cause.
‘Saloni is not all agony and anguish. She’s fun loving and easy going. She’s a good actor and a performer. Her coordination skills are great; she plans the schedule, helps in contacting the resource person, and seeks police permission for camps,” shares Ashish Jadhav, one of the functionaries of Maitrakul.
“The law of love could be best understood and learned through little children,” believed Mahatma Gandhi, who always had a special place in his heart for children. He also said that one can learn the greatest lessons in life from the so-called ignorant children. His immense belief in children has, undoubtedly, inspired generations, and the values he had advocated continue to guide the young minds like Saloni even today.
Note: This article has been written by Alka Gadgil from Maharashtra for Charkha Features.