“What makes a child gifted and talented may not always be good grades in school, but a different way of looking at the world and learning.”
– Chuck Grassley
Babar Ali is a student and teacher from Murshidabad, West Bengal. He was titled the “youngest headmaster in the world” by BBC on October 2009, at the age of sixteen.
He was born in 1993 in the village of Gangpur. The eldest of four siblings, he had his primary education at the Bhabta Rasidiya Primary School, two kilometres from his house. When he was nine, his father -a small-time jute trader, sent him to the Beldanga CRGS High School, about 10 kilometers away. But Babar had to walk two kilometers to the bus stand, from where he would get the bus to go there.
It was this walk that changed the course of his life. While returning from school, he saw children playing in the fields and grazing cattle. When he asked them “would you like to study, if I teach you?” They happily said “yes.” Encouraged by their response, Babar started his classes on 19 Oct 2002.Initially he taught eight children including his younger sister Amina Khatun, under a guava tree in front of their one-room house. The classes are dependent on the weather, if it rains the class is cancelled. The class has to end before darkness sets in.
Amazingly a nine year old was teaching children between the ages of five to nine. Babar improvised a blackboard from terracotta tiles before his father contributed Rs.600 for buying some text and notebooks. Babar gets up early in the morning, and after finishing the household chores he took an auto-rickshaw which covered a part of the 10km distance to Raj Govinda School where he studied.
He would also organize various activities like sports, dance and music to make school more fun for the students. Babar used to ask his teacher, in the school where he studied, to give him broken pieces of chalk for his school at home. When the teacher came to know about his noble venture, she started giving him box full of chalks.
Sanath Kar Principal of Beldanga SRF College inaugurated Babar’s new school in 2003 and named it Ananda Shiksha Niketan. “I hired a mike for 30, and we had a ribbon cutting ceremony followed by song and dance. I borrowed my mother’s sari to decorate the place. I also invited the local Panchayat members and village elders” said an innocent Babar.
Babar gets partly used notebooks from the ‘raddi wala’ and distributes to the students. He gives them sweets out of his pocket money to encourage them to attend classes regularly. In 2005 Babar was invited by Amratya Sen to Shantiniketan to talk about his school. He has gone to deliver speeches in Europe and Singapore later .Babar gets his inspiration from Swami Vivekananda.
In 2008, Babar passed class X board exams securing a first division. Even days before the exam, he was busy opening bank accounts for his students. “I gave them ten days off during my exams “he adds.Chumki Hajra who does household work in the village from six in the morning until two in the afternoon, attends Babar Ali’s school. After seven in the evening, she heads back to do more work. Chumki’s dream is to become a nurse, and Babar Ali’s classes might just make it possible.
The 300 students are taught by 10 teachers including Babar and his sister. There is a seven member management committee comprising of village elders and retired teachers’ .Neither any salary is given to the teachers, nor any fees is charged from the students. This accounts for the popularity of the school among the economically weak sections of society.
Babar even approached the then sub-divisional magistrate Sabuj Barun Sarkar to be the president of his school’s governing body. At that time, he was just 13 year old, studying in class 8. Feroza Begum, headmistress of another high school in his area, became his school secretary.
In 2009 Babar was featured in the “Real Heroes “program of the CNN-IBN news channel. In 2012 he was featured in the TV show ‘Satya men Jayate’.He shared his story on TED Talks in Mysore. A lesson based on the life and work of Babar Ali was included in the class X NCERT textbook.
Babar purchased a 7,200 square feet of land for 10 lakhs donated by one of his supporters in 2013.A new building of the school was inaugurated in 2015 at Shankarpara village, three kilometers away from the previous school.
The state government does not give any financial aid to the school. However the annual expenditure of the school which is about five lakhs is met from donations. Babar graduated with BA (Honours) in English and went on to do MA (English Literature). “I believe that if you are passionate about something then you can achieve anything. Age, finances, other hurdles, they just don’t matter and eventually everything works out,” he concludes.