When Dharampal Saini first came to Dimrapal village in the Bastar district of Chhattisgarh in 1976, with the aim of setting up an ashram to educate young tribal girls, he was faced with several obstacles and hostility. The education department of the region made several efforts to get families to enroll girls in schools but had had no results. When approached by Saini, they happily provided him with resources and support, and in time, the Mata Rukmini Devi Ashram was set up.Bastar has been caught in the heavy crossfire of the Naxal conflict for years. Within six months of opening his boarding school, Saini had only four students. He would visit families personally and implored them to educate their girls. What worked for the Dimrapal ashram though was that Saini emphasised not only academics, discipline and austerity, but focussed on different sports and games as well, making them an important part of the students' grooming process. An athlete himself in his youth, the special status given to sports soon attracted many students and by the fifth year of its establishment, the number of attendees soon grew to between 40 to 50 girls.
Today, the ashram has 37 branches in different villages. At the Mata Rukmini Devi Ashram—named after the mother of his guru, the venerable Gandhian Vinoba Bhave—350 girls excel at studies and nearly 150 compete in different sports competitions across the country, their medals adorning the walls of Saini's humble home.
Saini's ashrams act as shelters for the girls from the violence and harsh realities of living in some of the worst struck areas of Naxal activity, giving them opportunities to create new lives for themselves. The importance of sports was initially not a part of Saini's main agenda at the schools. It was only later, when he started to recognise the immense potential the girls had, that he began encouraging and nurturing their talents. Soon enough, the girls excelled with great support from their proud parents.“The girls would be restless in class, constantly climbing trees and walls to run away. Then a district forest officer said to me: "Saini sahib, you played sports in school, teach them that value. These young girls, by the time they are three, walk kilometres barefoot to the bazaar with their mother to collect forest supplies. They have immense pace and stamina." So I started teaching them sports.
"In 1982, 14-year-old Mangal Mode won the first national medal for us, in discus throw,” Saini told The Indian Express. Girls are provided training in marathon running, archery, football and kabaddi, amongst other sports, and the ashram boasts of a total of Rs. 30 lakh won as prize money for marathon races by the students.Dharampal Saini’s work is worthy of applause, having facilitated the education of thousands of tribal girls in the area who have gone on from the ashrams to hold government positions in Bastar—and constitute a large part of the working population. When Saini arrived in Bastar, the literacy rate was one percent, and with his help, Bastar has come a long way since.
Traditional beliefs were challenged, but also respected when it came to teaching girls new, ‘modern’ practices and thoughts. Keeping their cultural practices in mind, their traditional roots were not compromised. His model is noteworthy and has achieved great success, and should be an inspiration for change for leaders across state borders. “All we want is to make tauji proud, to add to that trophy cabinet. Football makes us forget everything—the Naxalism, how we have nothing. If we play well, we go to other cities all over the country, see things there,” The Indian Express quotes a 15-year-old-student of the ashram. “Humein sapne dikhte hain (we see dreams),” she adds further, referring to a trip to the capital for the Subroto Cup Football Tournament where they saw the residence of the prime minister.
Words: Sara Hussain