Fifty-nine-year-old Upadhyay’s students mostly belong to the Gond, Baiga and Panika tribal communities of central and eastern India.

How a tribal university in India is inspiring tribal students to voice their stories through journalism
news Wednesday, October 28, 2015 - 13:22

Soon after he began teaching, Madhuker Upadhyay was disappointed that his students weren’t interested in reading the books he asked them to. But when he tried reading to them in class, the results were astonishing. "They wrote amazing book reviews," he says.

Fifty-nine-year-old Upadhyay’s students mostly belong to the Gond, Baiga and Panika tribal communities of central and eastern India, whose cultural traditions are oral, not written.

A journalist by profession, a month ago Upadhyay took up the post of a scholar-in-residence at the Indira Gandhi National Tribal University (IGNUT), India's first central university for tribals. The university is open to all, but the majority of students hail from tribal communities in and around the region. 

Although the university is geographically close to areas where tribal communities are predominant, it is not easily accessible.

The university is located in Amarkantak town in Madhya Pradesh’s Anuppur district. The town is a pilgrimage destination as the Narmada, the Son and the Johila rivers rise here.  

"Reaching the railway station here is not difficult. Getting to the university campus, which is 45 km away from the station, is tricky. You are totally dependent on the availability of public transport," Upadhyay says speaking to The News Minute. The closest airport from the university is 200 km away. 

For someone who has been a media professional for nearly four decades, Upadhyay doesn't feel he has switched careers now that he is teaching “150-odd” students enrolled in the university's journalism courses. He says he "wanted to do something meaningful".  

Upadhyay says that although 70 percent of his students are tribals, they aren't "alike".  

"Tribals who hail from areas where roads have reached are different from those who live in the interiors without basic infrastructure," he says. 

BJMC students in the university

But his students are a shy lot, who generally keep to themselves and need a "lot of prodding" to open up.  

Malti Dhurwey (18) from Dindori district of MP says she didn't know how to talk when she got enrolled in the university. "Now I am much more confident, and open. I am not scared anymore like I was earlier," says the II year Bachelors in Journalism and Mass Communication (BJMC) student.  

She likes her course and wants to become a reporter. "Mujhe bolna bohut acha lagta hai (I like talking a lot)" she says sheepishly.  

What amazes Upadhyay however is their perspective, which he says is totally "different from ours". "They don't view news the way we do. They also do not connect to TV as a medium for news," he says.

Narmada Kund; By Pankaj Oudhia, via Wikimedia Commons

Many of the students either didn't have any knowledge about a course in journalism prior to their joining the university or were not too keen on taking up a course, which no one in their villages had heard of.  

One of them is Manisha Sant, a 22-year-old third-year student of BJMC.  

"I came to know about the course from friends, and the first three months passed in the blink of an eye. Now I understand what I am studying," says Sant.  

That Sant's father is a teacher helped her in completing her schooling in her remote village of Pushprajgarh in Anuppur district, where she says "many aren't interested in studying or even going to school".  

Like many in her batch, she feels journalism could help spread awareness in her village which is still "not advanced". 

"People are very superstitious there. They would rather approach a quack than a qualified doctor if someone falls ill," she says.  

But she is skeptical about whether she will be able to become a "patrkaar" (a reporter).  

"I am in a position where I do not have the freedom to choose my career. I am unmarried. Reporting requires a lot of travel. Once I get married, I don't think I'll be allowed to travel to places and report. They might be okay with me being a teacher, who has a fixed work schedule, but not a reporter," she says frankly.  

Twenty-two-year-old Ritu Singram, a second-year student, however feels no such pressure. Singram opted out of a course in medicine because the college she wanted to go to, was infamous for "ragging".

Though both her parents are involved in politics, she says she has been intentionally kept away from it all these years. Singram likes anchoring and says she is free to do what she wants.  

Upadhyay feels that though he may not be able to achieve anything "tangible", the fact that his students will be able to carve out a career for themselves in the media gives him immense satisfaction.  

"We look at them (tribals) as people who do not want to be educated, which is not the case," he asserts adding that they are in certain ways more advanced than "us" and that we often "look down" upon them.  

Dilip Singh is a 24-year-old who lives in Rajangram, 25 km away from the university. A final year BJMC student, he travels by bus to college every day.  

"I wanted to do MBA after I finished my BBA. Since I am the only son, my family wasn't very keen on sending me too far," he says.  

Singh feels that as common citizens we do not and sometimes cannot raise our voices against whatever happens around us. "Journalism gives us that voice. We can highlight issues from our region and that is why I want to become a journalist," he says.  

Ask him if he follows the news, he says he mostly watches news on his phone through Internet. "In the evening, my mother and sisters usually watch serials on television. So I watch news on my phone," he says adding that he is often unable to follow certain issues being aired.  

Madhuker Upadhyay at the Sri Yantram temple, Amarkantak

As for Upadhyay, his journey in the university has just begun. Teaching in a city is remarkably different from that in the interiors of the country, and he loves every minute of it: guiding future media professionals, and perhaps even mentally working on his next book.  

"It is a joy to watch the students learn. The place is beautiful, and the climate is good.  I am eagerly waiting for the massive tribal gathering that assembles every year in January. The only problem is when you have Russell vipers as uninvited guests at times," he says breaking into a hearty laugh. 

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