This article is part of Charkha’s ‘Children Changemaker’ series.
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, while the rule book of the school didn’t mention it.
The overzealous teacher would often reprimand them and would offer these two ‘erring’ students the accessories from her stock – only to be rejected. Their behaviour was soon reported to the principal who summoned the duo and asked 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 and explained how the ‘bindi’ is part of our culture with proven scientific benefits but the girls were not convinced.
“I have read the rulebook thoroughly and could not find anything related to such 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 the imposition of such regressive practice. The principal responded by informing the parents of these two girls about their ‘rebellious’ behaviour.
“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 the freedom and never compelled me to do things only because they are accepted by the society,” shared Saloni while 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 honoured. But the school should not try to execute unconstitutional commands,” shared Saloni while explaining her stand.
Where does Saloni get her ideas and strength to fight for the rights?
Saloni’s journey into ‘activism’ began when she had started attending the ‘Baag Shala’ (garden school) of ‘Maitrakul’ – a residential study centre for students run under the aegis of ‘Chhatrashakti Sanstha’. Maitrakul, is an abode for children from the weaker sections 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 realizing the need for a shelter for the children coming from a low-income background such as Saloni’s. 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. While she was studying in Class 10th, she learnt that out of school children wanting to appear for the Secondary School Certification (SSC) Board exam directly, had to fill the exam form no. 17 through a school.
Although the charge for the form 17 is ₹400, the schools were overcharging these hapless adolescents around ₹ 4,000-5,000 per each form. When Saloni noticed the exploitation, she raised the issue with the school administration who dismissed her concerns. Looking at the administration’s response, Saloni and fellow students decided to peacefully protest against the SSC Board.
“We tried to seek an appointment with the SSC Board officers but to no avail. We wrote several letters but didn’t receive any reply. As our pleas were falling on deaf ears, we staged dharnas outside the board office. Even after days of protests when the board refused to act, 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 beg’ 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 cognizance of our grievance and acted on the schools which were overcharging the students for the form 17,” narrated Saloni.
She also informed about the protocols they had followed while organizing the protests. “We had informed the nearest police station about our plans. We went by the regulations and used peaceful methods to make our voices heard,” explained Saloni emphasizing on the need of following the constitutional norms while organizing 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 (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 being organized by Maitrakul activists here.
As she grew older, Saloni’s grasp on social concerns especially on the challenges faced by the deprived children has also matured. On her way to school, Saloni started noticing the child beggars stalking the walkers on the street 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 3 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 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 they took turns to fast for a day with me. When my mother came to see me, she was shocked and broken but didn’t discourage me. She understood that I was doing it for a good cause and gave me her blessings,” said Saloni.
On the third and the last day of the fast, the local corporators and members of political parties came to meet Saloni and promised to address the child beggars’ issue. The fast was undertaken in the second week of March after which the Covid 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 lockdown. But she 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 persons and seeks police permission for the camps,” shared 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 for children in his heart. 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.