Remembering Ramswaroop Bhai
Ramswaroop Bhai founder of AVI’s long-standing partner in Bihar, Lok Shakti Shikshan Kendra (LSSK) sadly died on 30 April aged 88 from a stroke. Under Ramswaroop’s leadership, LSSK supported dalit communities in his native area, Gaya’s Paraiya Block.
Initially Ramswaroop supported a landless dalit community as they settled on sandy river bank Bhoodan land. Their new village was known as Sarvodayanagar. The 16 families lived in small mud huts and once the new guava plantations started to bear fruit, his attention turned to the children’s education. He was an inspirational teacher of young children, using song and dance. His aim was to give the children confidence, so that they would go on to the local government primary school. Now people in the village live in brick and concrete houses have bore wells, electricity and there is a government kindergarten.
From the mid 1990s, LSSK received support from AVI initially to enable women to start micro-credit groups. Then it promoted the girls’ education project, enabling dalit girls in the area who had dropped out at secondary level to return to school till class 10 (GCSE equivalent).
Later, LSSK found and began supporting another dalit community who had been forced out of their homes by upper caste landowners and were settling, again, on sandy riverbank land. Their village was named Leninnagar. LSSK’s role there was to link the families to government programmes, such as applying for legal title to the land they were squatting on and, again children’s education.
Ramswaroop Bhai had many friends and supporters and was highly respected locally as well as by people in the UK and other countries. He was a great communicator, an inventive teacher, especially of small children, and a man with a deep sense of social justice. He gave his whole life in service to those who were less fortunate than himself such as supporting the families building new communities in Sarvodayanagar and Leninnagar.
Three AVI supporters, Nigel Phillips, Caroline Beatty and Ivan Nutbrown, all of whom knew Ramswaroop in India and hosted him during the 2 week visit to friends across England, including a day with Madras Cafe at WOMAD in 1998 – which he said was one of the highlights of his life – share their reflections on his work and their interactions with him.
Ramswaroop Bhai touched so many people’s lives; always for the better and he will be missed by very many people, once met never forgotten. His legacy goes on.
Ramswaroop Bhai – Once Met, Never Forgotten
Ramswaroop Bhai, the founder of AVI’s partner Lok Shakti Shikshan Kendra (LSSK) died aged 88 from a stroke on 30 April. I first met him at Samanway Vidyapith near Gaya, Bihar in 1969 and from then on our friendship was a very important part of my life and connection with India.
In the 1950s Ramswaroop abandoned his studies to join the Bihari Gandhian socialist leader, Jay Prakash Narayan (JP), in the Bhoodan Movement collecting land donated by landowners and distributing it to the landless. He then worked with another local Gandhian leader, Dwarko Sundrani as a teacher at the Samanway Vidyapith residential school Dwarko built for children who had lost one or both parents during the 1967/8 famine in Bihar.
A few years later, in 1974 Ramswaroop Bhai joined the JP led Gandhian and student Andolan (movement) in Bihar and was imprisoned for joining a blockade of the roads around the state parliament in the capital, Patna.
Visiting Gaya in 1982, we found Ramswaroop working in Gaya promoting Mahatma Gandhi and his ideas. However, from the 1960s Ramswaroop’s real passion was the village of Sarvodaya Nagar a few miles from his home. Here a small community of Dalits had been settled on very unpromising sandy riverbank land given as Bhoodan by the largest local landowner, Raja Tikari. Ramswaroop encouraged them to start planting guava trees and clear the land fro cultivation. We came away from meeting him in Gaya really inspired by his enthusiasm and vision and we determined to start fundraising from friends and family to enable him to hire a teacher for the school that he planned. None of the children in Sarvodaya Nagar went to school at that time. The original small mud hut eventually became a brick built government balwari and all the children of the village now go on to local government schools.
At this time, Ramswaroop started working as NBJK’s senior non-formal education mentor to support himself and his family. That link led to us routing funds for Sarvodaya Nagar through NBJK, and eventually, our UK friends and donors started supporting LSSK’s work through AVI and NBJK,
As the people began to prosper economically from the fruit orchards, Ramswaroop was able to access some local support and the government sank borewells which made a huge difference. Eventually, he started his own NGO, Lok Shakti Shikshan Kendra (LSSK). He bought a small plot of riverbank land in the block headquarters, Paraiya (about 10 miles west of Gaya) and slowly brick by brick built an office for LSSK. Increasingly Ramswaroop began to live there rather than in his family home.
When the Sarvodaya Nagar communities no longer needed Ramswaroop’s active presence, he began to turn his attention to promoting girls’ education and transforming another village, Lellin Nagar, where Dalits, this time Bhuiyas, were living very precariously on the banks of a monsoon river. These people had no land titles and had been thrown out of the nearby higher caste village after a dispute and were struggling to make a living as day labourers. Ramswaroop Bhai encouraged them to learn from the example of Sarvodaya Nagar. Today, AVI supports LSSK’s community worker in the village, running a non-formal school, encouraging older children to go to the government school (none of their parents went).
A highlight of Ramsawaroop’s life was the two weeks he spent in the UK in July 1998 with Girija Saatish from NBJK visiting people he had met in India and learning about their involvement in community campaigns or education. The visit, part of a UK lottery funded project to build the capacity of community groups in parts of Bihar and Jharkhand, took him to Devon, North and West Yorkshire, Lancashire and Essex as well as London and to top it all the two visitors spent a day at with the Madras Cafe at WOMAD where Ramswaroop played dholak and sang some of his ‘action songs’’. Every time we met after that, he would say, ‘I want to go to London again and play at WOMAD’.
Ramswaroop was a great communicator, an enthusiastic and inventive teacher, especially of infants, and a man with a deep sense of social justice. He gave the whole of his life in service to those who were less fortunate than himself.
He touched so many people’s lives; always for the better and he will be missed by very many people. Once met, Ramswaroop Bhai could not be forgotten.
Early memories of dear Ramswaroop:
When I first went to live in Bagha in 1973, aged 22, I didn’t know any Hindi. No-one in the school spoke English! All the teachers at the school were very kind and patient, and many of them spoke slowly for us. But Ramswaroopbhai, who was especially kind, nevertheless could not slow down his verbal express train. This provided us the very best test for all videshi’s grasp of the language – once we could understand Ramswaroopbhai, we had arrived!
Over time, the relationship with Ramswaroopbhai has become one of my most significant connections in Bihar. I have a lovely memory of walking to the market in Dangara with him, during a difficult period that I was going through, and his own kindly questioning and concern.
Ramswaroopbhai was very patient with us foreigners at Bagha and tried to include us in his work wherever possible. In turn when I started to learn to use a treadle sewing machine he encouraged me by asking me to make a khadi vest for him – quite a challenge as it is all cut on the cross. When a Canadian friend and I determined to reach and climb the hills that appear in the distance from Bagha school, Ramswaroop was the one who was up for the adventure along with Dadaji.
I first became aware of Ramswaroopbhai’s personal integrity in 1974/5 – the years of the ‘Emergency’ in India. The people’s movement of opposition to state and government corruption, led by JP Narayan, was especially active in Patna and Gaya district and the areas around Bagha school. JP visited the school with members of the Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Wahini and spoke passionately about the anti-corruption struggle. Bodh Gaya Ashram and Bagha school officially took a neutral stance and teachers were generally discouraged from participating actively in the movement. A few teachers, however, were inspired by JP, followed their own consciences and became actively involved. Ramswaroopbhai was one such; at one demonstration was himself arrested and was imprisoned under the hastily passed Maintenance of Internal Security Act, designed to repress government opposition. From that time I realised that he was ‘his own man’, and my respect for him increased further.
The most abiding impressions of him in those days, were his concern and his boundless enthusiasm. He loved the children, believed in them and danced and sang with them. He believed particularly strongly even then in the importance of the girls’ education, and was much loved by the girls in the school. He organised all the performances for visitors, and his own delight in the children and these performances was completely infectious. His commitment and enthusiasm have not waned in all the years I have known him.
He brought it with him when he visited the UK some years ago. He was equally prepared to show the children in my son’s primary school class in Devon, the dances that he taught in India.
The very first time I visited Sarvodayanagar with him in the early 1980s (I think?) Ramswaroop bhai was so excited about the guava production, against all odds encouraging villagers to cultivate the sandy river banks and produce phenomenal crops of guava and other fruit. He described the success of the project as the villagers’ own. His own happiness is bound up in the successful changes that he has helped bring about in people’s lives, and his own contribution is always underplayed. Ramswaroop and his family have known a great deal of personal tragedy – losses that also sadly reflect the struggle of life in rural India. He has shared these with his wider family from AVI and am deeply grateful to him for including his English friends including myself in the woes as well as the joys of his life.
Over the years I am very much aware of the key role that Ivan Nutbrown played in keeping the connection so much alive, for the wider circle of friends too. When I had the good fortune to visit Paraiya with Ivan in March 2015, it was deeply touching to feel the mutual respect and depth of the friendship between Ivan and Ramswaroopbhai. They are both people of the greatest integrity and it has been an enormous privilege to bask occasionally in the warmth of the connection between them.
In later years, I remember Ramswaroopbhai for his matchless generosity and hosting skills. He gave the impression of pure delight when he had visitors and nothing was too much trouble. He had a knack of seizing every possible opportunity to make connections, show his visitors what was happening in the areas he was working in, the progress that people were making. He was so clearly deeply respected and loved by local people and absolutely deservedly so. Dear Ramswaroopbhai – thank you for everything that you have given to your community, to many generations of visitors from outside India, as well as to me personally. Jay Jagat!
I first met Ramswaroop Bhai on a visit to India in 1984. I had been seeing the places that tourists visit in the north of India. Now, as someone who for the past two years had supported his work as a result of a friendship with Ivan Nutbrown, it was time to take in a very different aspect of the country. I had written ahead to the NBJK office in Gaya to confirm the date and time of my arrival, and given a description of myself: rucksack, beard and glasses. As the train pulled into Patna station, I felt a little apprehensive: this was no tourist destination like those I had seen over the previous two weeks – and I didn’t need to have given the description since there were no other westerners getting off the train.
There on the platform to meet me was a man in middle age with a warm smile and piercing eyes, neatly cut hair, dressed in what I afterwards came to recognise as the traditional dhoti and lungi. I think we shook hands and embraced in the way that had apparently become his standard greeting. I also think he picked up my rucksack despite my protestations that he should put it down and leave it for me to carry.
That evening he looked after me like I was a friend of long-standing, taking me for a meal in a restaurant that he said was both cheap and good (which it was), and then to a room near the NBJK office where he said he stayed if he wasn’t able to get back to his family home. We shared out the cushions and slept on the floor.
How did we communicate, given his lack of English and my Hindi not having advanced beyond basic greetings? People say there is always a way, and somehow we foundit. I think that first evening I came to appreciate his innate goodness and warmth, and his constant bustling energy, wanting me to see everything
The following morning we caught a train to Gaya, young men hanging on to the roof of the already overcrowded train where Ramswaroop introduced me to some NBJK people, and then it was a bus and borrowed bikes to get us to Bodh Gaya, where there were more people to meet and projects to visit. I remember he took me to a district senior school where the head asked me as a visitor from abroad if I could say a few words to the pupils. I looked at Ramswaroop who suggested I should sing them a song -which is what I did!
I recall we left the bikes and marched across fields in order for me to see what turned out to be the project he was most proud of -the kindergarten at Sarvodaya Nagar that had been partly funded by NBJK which had just opened its doors – except there were weren’t any doors. It was one long room made of thatched straw, one teacher and about 20 small pupils. A school for Dalit children, the poorest families in the local community who as Ramswaroop explained, by gestures and a few words of English, were the most disadvantaged when the time came for them join the Senior School since they would have had very little previous schooling.
It was a further 13 years before I met him again. This time I was part of a group of six including Ivan who were one of the first Friends of ASSEEFA organised visits to Partner organisations which, after 1997, became a significant feature of Action Village India’s programme of raising awareness of the work being done by the NGOs which the charity supported. This time Ramswaroop had organised along with colleagues in NBJK a number of visits for us to see the work being done. It was an action packed few days in which we witnessed the Gandhian movement not only alive but actively campaigning for the empowerment and education of women, a recognition of domestic violence and the need to end it, a call for people to give up drinking alcohol, and moves to help the poorest people to save through early microcredit schemes at village level.
Ramswaroop seemed to be involved in all of it, bringing his unique talents and enthusiasm as a ‘social animator’ (that was how it was translated I seem to recall), local organiser, grass-roots educator, singer, dancer, percussion player and probably mush else besides. Along I think with other members of that group one of my strongest memories of him was an evening partly spent on the roof of the NBJK office in Hazaribagh where as night was falling to reveal a starry sky, Ramswaroop, accompanied at times by another younger musician, played his drum, danced and sang in his lovely high voice.
The last and final time I met Ramswaroop was in 1998 when along with his NBJK colleague Girija Satish, he visited the UK as a guest of various individuals and families connected with AVI around the UK. In addition to seeing the work of the support groups (such as going into primary schools), they were taken to see the place near Blackburn in Lancashire which Mahatma Gandhi had visited in 1931 which Ramswaroop found very interesting. Following that, Ramswaroop and Girija came to stay with me in the small Pennine cottage near Hebden Bridge where I was living then. Ivan too stayed and we passed two memorable evenings of translated conversation and animated discussion. I recall looking out on the back garden and seeing two pairs of Indian lungi flapping in the wind on my washing line!
On a personal note, it was while Ramswaroop and Girija were staying with me that I received the news that my mother had died suddenly in our old family home in Surrey. As well as receiving comforting words from Ivan, he told Ramswaroop what had happened. On hearing the news, this man whom I had got to know on my previous visits to India came over and hugged me, and spoke some words about the finality of the bereavement of a parent and the love one naturally felt for that person.
That embrace from Ramswaroop has stayed with me over the years, and I am inevitably saddened through hearing of his passing. He was clearly an unusual person who affected the lives of many people that he worked with, and came across on his travels through life.
And what of those songs that he sang and played to the children in the school, the people in the village square, and to our group on the roof in 1997?
I asked Vinay the young man from the NBJK, who was with us that evening. What he said was that the words were poems, songs of praise to the trees, the rivers, the fields where the crops would be growing, to the basic goodness of the people themselves. Vinay went on to say some of them appeared to be jokes about the crops not growing, the rains not coming, while others expressed the brotherly (and sisterly) love in society which would eventually improve people’s lives, and help them out of poverty. Surely a good thought on which to end a small memory of a remarkable man.