I, Bhagyashri Boywad, come from Nanded, one of the backward districts of Marathwada. I am from an economically backward family, my father works as an auto-driver and mother is a domestic worker. We do not own a house given the economic conditions. Both my siblings (one sister and a brother) had to drop out from school but I was determined that I will continue to study. I have always been a good student in school and participated very actively in every event. The teachers helped me a lot, they motivated me whenever I faced challenges in continuing my education but there was one thing that was always there – discrimination against me. It is from school that I started facing discrimination because of my skin colour, my caste, and my physical appearance. My intelligence was never enough to satisfy people that I deserve equal respect and space in my own school and everywhere. This made me think low of myself. I started believing that it is necessary to be beautiful to be appreciated and acknowledged.
I started to work after my school because it was becoming extremely challenging to continue with my education. For better job opportunities, I shifted to Pune and started as a construction worker in Aundh Military Camp at a salary of Rs.120 per day. I found it more difficult to sustain myself and therefore changed my job and went to Poly House and worked as a Bouquet making worker. After a few months, I started to work with National Insurance Academy as a garden labourer. Working six months and living in vulnerable situations, I finally could save some money to enrol myself in 11th grade but couldn’t attend classes and study. I had to get back to the job because further money was required to pay my school fees. My entire family was left unemployed so I had to go out and earn. I had to manage my studies and job hand in hand and somehow, I managed to pass out from High School with top grades (80.31%) but that was not acknowledged by the school authorities as I belonged to a Dalit background. Therefore, I was not appreciated with the scholarship amount that the school ought to reward me with. Disheartened, I continued with my work and kept on changing the workplace as nothing was sustainable.
Fate turns, mine also did. The grades that did not matter to my school due to my social position, was appreciated by my college and I got admission on merit basis. I felt hopeful that maybe I could proudly continue my studies but one’s caste erases one’s achievements. I faced discrimination there too. I was hated because I was active and outspoken, I was isolated because I was a Dalit, people commented on my skin colour too. They made me feel that I cannot be equal to the rest of the students because of my caste. I found it difficult to find a job while I was in college because people kept on asking me about my caste and family background.
Thereafter, I got to know about TISS. I read about the courses and the course of Women’s Studies influenced me a lot. I studied hard to get through the entrance examination. This was a turning point in my life. Finally, I felt that caste oppression and other challenges in my life will end here. The day I came for admissions, I got to know that the hostel fee was such that it was difficult for me to pay. I had to come back home. But luckily, the institute allowed me to take the admission in the hostel with one-month payment only. I did not want to lose this opportunity and therefore, I somehow gathered the money. I became a TISSian by then. I felt nothing can stop me now. I felt free in this place. My course, the environment of TISS, the culture and practices, classroom learnings have all changed my self-perception. I found myself growing here with new ideas, new thoughts, and new perceptions. I became more fierce and confident.
I realized lately, that places might change but the Brahmanical structure remains the same everywhere. TISS has taught me to unlearn certain things that were embedded in me by the social construction but it also made me face certain discrimination based on my caste. The service providers of the hostels recognized me only because of my caste and insulted me because I was unable to pay my fees on time. But this time I had real arguments and confidence to fight back any discrimination. I started participating actively in protests, events and learned to question and problematise issues that hindered our basic rights. I learned to fight for my rights.
I gradually started believing in the ideologies of Mahatma Phule, Savitri Bai Phule, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Anna Bhau Sathe, Periyar, Shahu and social reformers who stood for a just and equal society. Therefore, I aligned with The Bahujan Collective of TISS Hyderabad which gave me a platform to express myself and my experiences thereby, supporting me in my struggles. Bahujan Collective is an organisation that was formed to create space for Bahujan students and students who believe in Phule, Shahu, Ambedkar Periyar and Birsa Munda to make Bahujan Students vocal and politically aware. The idea was to make them strong enough to raise their voice. The collective also encouraged the students from regional college background and rural experience to take leadership. The proposed platform for events and academic debates was made bilingual and multidimensional in intellectual orientation. Thus, it helped me emerge as a leader and practice the theories that I learned in closed classrooms.
In my final year, I decided to stand for the students’ union elections. That was the time when I was again targeted and demoralised by the students due to my caste. Comments started coming up that I am not capable enough to be the chairperson. I had to break the notion that a Dalit cannot be a leader, a woman cannot be the chairperson and a Dalit woman cannot represent the college. Despite everything, I was proud enough to stand as the first Dalit woman candidate for the post of chairperson in TISS Hyderabad. And finally, with the support of the students who showed faith in me, I won the post of chairperson.
Now, I promise to stand with each and every student and their rights irrespective of caste, class, gender and other social barriers because I do not want any other student to face discrimination and oppression that I have faced.
Bhagyashri Boywad is the Chairperson of the TISS (Hyderabad) Student Council.