05, Aug 2021 | Mohammed Ripon Sheikh
Remember Churki Hansda? Her inspirational story, published on the CJP website, has created waves across West Bengal. People are amazed that Churki Hansda, a Covid Warrior known for rushing oxygen concentrators, cylinders and medicines to the most deprived homes, herself had to struggle to survive a life of hardship. Many were shocked to find out how she and her family were once forced to leave their home in Gopalnagar village of Kasba panchayat in Parui in Birbhum district. They were accused of ‘witchcraft’ by the villagers, and were attacked with sticks and stones.
Slurs of “dayan” or witch, had followed them everywhere, till one day the family of six packed up their meagre belongings and moved to Bolpur city. Churki Hansda, now 26, had continued to study hard and soon gave back to society when she began teaching children from socio-economically weaker families. For Churki, education is the biggest weapon to end poverty and deprivation. When Covid-19 struck, she donned a new avatar as a Covid Warrior, supplying oxygen and medical assistance to the poorest of the poor.
Armed with the Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) Grassroots fellowship 2020-2021, and empowered with the mentorship of team CJP, I realised this was a story worth telling. I got in touch with Hansda to learn more about her life and work. The report: Meet Churki Hansda: Once branded a witch, now hailed as a Corona warrior was published, and soon began circulating in various social and youth groups of the state. More and more people read about Churki Hansda’s life and work. She is being hailed as an icon here, respectfully addressed as “di” (meaning elder sister) instead of “dayan” as her family had been called for years. Her story had an impact that surprised me pleasantly, as I too got calls about it as the writer of the report.
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Churki Hansda was suddenly a topic of discussion in Birbhum district. I was told that the Birbhum district administration has recognised her as a Corona Warrior and may soon be honoured with an award. Even the villagers who once shunned her now recognise her as a “savior”. History is probably written this way. Time gives everyone a chance to prove themselves. The name of indomitable struggle and willpower is Churki Hansada, a story I discovered as I too was empowered by the CJP Grassroots fellowship 2020-2021. The struggle of the Churki Hansda has now resonated with many. The girl who had struggled so much, yet helped hundreds, was now a role model of Birbhum district.
Once again, I decided to get in touch with Churki Di, as she is fondly addressed, and asked her how things changed for her since she first shared her story with CJP.
Q) Did things change after the CJP’s report about you as a Covid warrior?
A) I don’t have a television, but I work with an NGO called ‘Suchara’ who gave me a smartphone for work. I read the news on the phone. After the CJP report many people approached me. Some have offered support for my work, let’s see if that works out, and many more have heaped praises on me. Most importantly, I have heard that now parents are happy to encourage their daughters to study. Some even want their daughters to follow my footsteps into social work. That is really encouraging. I feel delighted. My parents are happy, too. There was a Santhal Festival a few days ago. On that day, I was called to Siuri and felicitated in front of a huge crowd.
Q) Your story on CJP has inspired many, how do you look back at your past life now?
A) My childhood, as far as I remember, was in my maternal uncle’s house, in Burdwan’s Panagarh. I studied there till primary school. After that I was sent to a Missionary boarding school till class 8. I am the eldest of three siblings, I have two brothers. I was always aware of the expenditure my parents incurred on us as they earned a pittance working as daily wage laborers in the fields. So I completed my secondary education in the village school and also worked in the fields, with my parents.
Q) How did you manage to complete your graduation?
A) I don’t know where to start. I have been through so much. I was 23 years old by the time I completed my graduation. I had taken a lot of gaps in between for jobs, or looking for jobs. Even when I was in higher secondary school, I used to work in Kolkata, as a nanny to a toddler and as a housekeeper. I studied between work, and would come back home to take the examination. My employer helped me. One of them was a teacher and motivated me to study well.
Q) Why were you forced to leave your village?
A) It happened in 2004. My parents are illiterate, and there was a pending case against them about which they had no clue until it was very late. They didn’t even understand Bengali properly as we are Santhals. Apparently, they had created some ruckus and a case was lodged, but my parents had no idea. They were threatened that they would be jailed. They didn’t understand that, either. They were sent to a prison for close to a year. I was in class four at that time, and we had to quit studies during that period. But my parents were dedicated to our education, that once they were free, they put us in school again.
Q) Why did they accuse your family of witchcraft?
A) My parents used to work like crazy to run the house, give us proper education. They used to be away for long periods of time to give us what we needed. The people in our village were envious. They didn’t think that we simpletons can have so much. They used to say, “How can they work so much? They must be witches.”
Q) Who took care of you when your parents were behind bars?
A) We stayed in our maternal uncle’s home. But it was difficult there, as well because the ‘witch’ tag stuck with us. Our maternal grandparents took us in and looked after us.
Q) How did you end up volunteering as a Covid Warrior?
A) I used to work with Bangla Sanskriti Mancha (BSM) and 10-12 of us used to work as a group. We cooked and delivered food to whoever was suffering. We came to know about their whereabouts through the BSM helpline number that had been circulated. We responded to the calls throughout the day. I drove around and visited every possible house that needed our help. Even during the night, I used to drive if there was an emergency. I used to work from 7 A.M till late evening when Covid was at its peak.
Q) Now that Covid-19 is said to have slowed down a bit, what are your future plans?
A) A lot of people have a lot of dreams but everyone is not able to make their dreams come true. I just want to do what’s right and what feels right. I have always felt like being there for the needy, the way certain people have helped us in our troubles. After the pandemic hit and people were rendered helpless, I remembered our condition in the past and thought that I also want to be there for people. I contacted Bangla Sanskriti Mancha and became a part of their team. I really like my work, it makes me learn and grow. I also work as a labourer in different fields, be it vegetables or grains. Right now, I’m working on paddy fields.
Q) Who is your personal icon?
A) My parents are my truest icons. I am also eagerly waiting to meet the CJP team, and learn from them. If they feel happy after seeing my work, I seek their blessings and good wishes. I hope I get to meet them, one day. And even if I don’t, I just want them to pray for me and I’ll pray for them too.
Q) What is your message to those who want to be like you?
A) Don’t make any work look small. Don’t be fixated on one kind of work. If you want to grow and learn, you have to look at every work equally. There’s no need to look down on any kind of work, no matter how small it is. Every work is dignified work. I just love working. I want everyone to work, do whatever you like to do, whatever you enjoy, but you must work. I want to be inspired by everyone around me. If you are working, you will be independent, regardless of gender. Everyone must study. Everyone must work.
This report is part of CJP’s Grassroots Fellowship Program, and has been written by researcher Ripon Sheikh, who is travelling around rural Bengal, tracking and documenting social and cultural movements of indigenous people.
Meet CJP Grassroot Fellow Mohammed Ripon Sheikh
This young man, who has graduated with a B.Sc degree from Burdwan University, loves trivia. Sheikh’s passion to research and seek “unknown information about World History” has earned him many medals and trophies at various University and state-level Quiz championships, and youth festivals. Sheikh is a born orator and a natural community leader. He has the potential to represent his community, state and country at a global level one day. His immediate goal, however, is to find a job so he can support his parents.