A school run on a temple’s premises free of charge in Agra is drawing students from lower income backgrounds, a majority of them Muslim, earning goodwill at a time communal and caste politics have ratcheted up violent controversies.
Started by a 29-year-old graduate in education, Koshish – Ek Asha, Meri Pathshala at Pathwari Maa temple, located opposite St George’s School, began in August last year and has grown from two pupils to 47. Over 30 of these students are Muslims.
“I came across a Class 8 student of a government school who was quite ill informed. This made me think of providing a support base to students who could not afford tuitions. I thought of beginning my classes on the temple premises in Bagh Muzaffar Khan area. Initially, the temple authorities had some reservations, but later cleared the idea,” said founder Pintu Prateek Kardam.
Classes begin at 9:30 am and go on till 11 am in which students are taught the basics of subjects. Kardam says the school caters to first-time learners and school dropouts who are given free study material. This year eight students are preparing for the Class 9 exams.
“We had to convince their parents as a few (students) among them are working. But these kids make sure they attend classes,” he said.
To further incentivize his own students, Kardam approached officials at the state education department, asking for certificates to be given to his pupils. However, no positive response was forthcoming.
For students though, coming to school is a big deal in itself, and what they seem to appreciate most is the open learning space.
Said Durga, a 12-yer-old student, “No one differentiates between Hindu and Muslim students here. I love to recite the National Anthem, which I learnt in this school.”
“Be it students’ birthdays or festivals like Diwali, Eid, Christmas and Holi, all are celebrated with great enthusiasm in our school. I miss the atmosphere when I am not able to attend school,” said nine-year-old Saniya.
For 12-year-old Nazneen, school means getting to learn mathematics. “This is the first school that I’ve attended. It is giving me precious education and Mathematics is my favourite subject,” she said.
The lack of caste or religious differentiation is also what draws the remaining faculty members. There are five teachers who work at Koshish in spite of no salary.
“Once the class begins, the distinction between Muslims and Hindus vanishes and they are merely students whom we intend to make literate and good citizens (of),” said Kapil Chaudhary, a paper merchant who spends his mornings at the school teaching.
Neha Asiwal is a post graduate in history who is also giving her time to the school.
“I reside nearby and used to visit the temple to offer prayers. When I saw the classes being run, I evinced interest in teaching but faced opposition from family members. But my husband stood by me and now I am a regular teacher here,” she said.
Others faculty members include Nitesh Agarwal who runs a medicine business and a graduate student, Anju Kumari.