“I have lived a thousand lives and died and a hundred deaths in these 50 years that I chose to spend in Bihar,” confesses Padma Shri winner Sister Sudha Varghese while arranging the scattered pile of files in her office located near Danapur, Patna.
Awarded with Padma Shri, fourth highest civillian award in 2006, Sudha Varghese also known as Sister Sudha has had a long persevering journey of five decades. But the selfless Catholic nun has not struggled to create a better life for herself. She has struggled all this while to give a better life to others.
Coming to Bihar and exploring modern day evils
Chief executive officer of Nari Gunjan, an NGO that empowers the marginalised women in Bihar, Sister Sudha also fondly called ‘Didi’ came to Patna’s Notre Dame Academy in 1965 with the nuns working for the Roman Catholic School. She was just 16 and she had come here against her family’s wishes. The language barrier here made things a little more difficult for her as she did not know Hindi and English because she was born and brought up in Kerala.
“It was difficult initially to communicate with the locals, but then when I joined Notre Dame Academy things became easier as I learnt the language,” she recalls.
Bihar has helped the 65-year-old social worker to evolve her perspective towards many issues. “I was unaware about the evils of caste system,and the miserable state of poor in Bihar. In the last five decades that I have spent here, I have grown as a person. I have overcome my fears. There were days and nights when I feared that I could be killed any moment.” Due to death threats, Sister Sudha had to leave her home in Danapur and was forced to live in a rented flat at Bailey road. “But then the realisation dawned upon me that I can’t fear to lose my life to some goons who don’t own my life. God has given me this life. It was after that I moved back to my home in Danapur,” she recalls.
The misery of the poor people in Bihar disturbed Sister Sudha to a great extent. “I compared the state of poor people here an in my hometown in Kerela. Poor people in Kerala at least have a home, but here in Bihar they are forced to beg and thrive on footpaths. Besides, the evils of child marriage and domestic violence is also looming large on society, especially in Bihar,” she laments.
Why she feels for Dalits in Bihar
Dedicated to the cause of upliftment of Musahars or Dalits in Bihar, Sister Sudha is greatly inspired by the fight that was put by Dr B.R Ambedkar against the evil of untouchability.
According to Sister Sudha’s observation, Dalits in Bihar are completely unaware of their rights and privileges, “They are bribed with liquour, food and money during elections for vote but no one turns out for them once their motive is fulfilled. They are exploited from all corners, and the administration, politicians and other officials keep mum on this.
Sharing a personal experience that served as an eye-opener for her, Sister Sudha talks about her visit to Patna’s Naubatpur district in July 2013. One of the staff members of Sister Sudha married off her daughter in Naubatpur who narrated the stories about the ongoing atrocities on Dalits in the village.
“The cruelty being faced by Dalits there shocked me to the core. The upper caste people of the village had simply made it impossible for the people from Dalit and Musahar community to survive. I was told that the upper caste people wanted these Dalits and Musahars to leave the village; they did not allow them to avail the basic amenities of life and would beat the lower caste people.”
Case in point: Naubatpur
When she visited Naubatpur, Sister Sudha discovered that the Dalits were not allowed to mend their huts. “A lady moved a cement rag towards me and said “baitho, humni ke kursi khatia rakhey ke izzajat nahi” (Sit, we are not allowed to keep chairs and cots.) The population of the Dalits residing in these villages had drastically come down due to atrocities done by the upper caste people.
The villagers were scared to seek help from the police, Village Panchayat or anyone else. Only when Sister agreed to accompany them to police station, they agreed to go to the police station.
Sister Sudha along with six other people from the village went to the police station met the station incharge and discussed the grievances of these Dalits. “I asked the officer-in-charge if he had ever visited the villag. He said, ‘no’. I was shocked and warned him to complain about him. It was only after that he agreed to take necessary action,” she shares with a concern.
Shedding light on the plight of these people, Sister Sudha further talks about a child who was beaten up for playing near a temple which belongs to the upper caste. “It is the Dalits who build these temples, but they themselves are not allowed to roam around in these temples,” she points out. She appointed a lady to take charge of the situation and report to the station-inchage if they are ever abused again.
“Another thing that really scared me was a long stretch of 40 feet deep ditch in the village. Anybody, especially children and elderly, could accidentally fall in the ditch, even during the day time,” she shares.
Not only the issue of deep ditch was resolved, but Sister Sudha’s meetings with SSP, DMs and commissioners, HT resident editor M.M Mathew proved to be benefical for the village. In 2013, the then CM came here to hoist the flag on Independence Day and annouced welfare schemes for the people including like widow pension scheme, old age pension, and Indira Awas Scheme. The villagers were given money to buy goat, land was given, and roads were constructed apart from facilitating other amenities.
Spent 21 years working for Musahars and marginalized girls
Sister Sudha has spent 21 years for her life living among the Musahar community people in their Musaharis. “I have seen their pain, their suffering, their lifestyle, their customs. I notice their life every day. The children hardly go to school, especially the girls; they cook, clean and wash at home. I wanted to work for the cause of girl education,” she explains.
Sister Sudha started an education programs for the marginalised girls in 2005, and set up residential school, Prerna. She also added vocational skills like sewing and stitching to the education program. “I started with 25 girls, and then the state government officials heard about the program and visited the education centre. They liked how education had brought about a change in the lives of Musahar community girls and supported me in expanding my education centre from one to three. And then it went from three to five then 15 then 27 then 50 and now 80. I have my education centres in Bihta, Danapur, Punpun, Phulwari and Naubatpur” she explains.
After providing basic education in these education centres, the girl students are sent to government schools for proper certified education as the education centres run by Sister Sudha are not authorised to issue educational certificates. So far, 2,000 girls from these education centres have received matriculation certificates. These girls today know the importance of education and hygiene in life. By educating a girl, sister Sudha is aiming at educating a family and working towards a paradigm shift in the society.
Fighting against sexual assault on Musahar women
Sister Sudha narrates an incident where a group of ladies from Jamsaut village under Danapur block had come to meet her in 2005. A man from Yadav community had raped a Musahar girl, they informed her.
The villagers further told her that it was a usual thing for the men from Yadav community. They would come to the village, get drunk, fight, rape and cause trouble. The villagers mentioned nine such incidents in which the victim was a Musahar girl and the accused a Yadav.
This enraged Sister Sudha to an extent that she decided to approach police in this regard. “I went to the police station to report the incident. After waiting for three hours got an FIR lodged,” she shares.
She also spoke to the villagers and stopped the trade of liquor going on in the village. “But soon after this incident, I started receiving death threats. the upper caste accused me of running propaganda against them,” she points out. The death threats forced sister Sudha to live in Patna for one full year. The Yadavs had threatened to kill her if they saw her “I was adamant on staying in the village but my colleagues and subordinates requested that I leave the place for some time. I spoke to the DM about this but he said he cannot take guarantee as I live in village and hence forced by circumstances I moved to Bailey Road,” she mentions.
With every such incident, not only Sister Sudha emerged stronger but her pledge to support marginalised also grew stronger. Laurels like Corporate Philips Good Samaritan award, Bihar Saman Award in 2010 and Bihar Asmita Award have applauded her effort to work for the society time and again. “It is the smallest change that I have been able to bring about in somebody else’s life that makes a huge difference to my own life,” she concludes.