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He overcame hunger and humiliation to study at the LSE

Last updated on: October 20, 2016 21:41 IST

'There were days when there was no rice at home and we ate only jackfruit seeds.'
'They feel I, a lowliest human being, a tribal, have no right to go abroad and study.'
'The humiliation was so bad that I was broken inside.'

Binesh Balan

"Ever since I was introduced to books, Ambedkar has been my hero. I wanted to go abroad and study like him. I am so happy that, like him, I have been admitted to the London School of Economics," says 24-year-old Binesh Balan, a member of the Mavilan tribe in Kolichal in Kasargod, Kerala, speaking to's Shobha Warrrier.

The Mavilan tribe is a small migrant community who were traditionally artisans.

Today, many have educated themselves and hold government jobs.

Binesh's father though worked as a coolie as did his illiterate mother.

Years of toiling hard have made members of this tribe age fast and become sick.

Binesh's mother is just 45, but having carried heavy loads on her back all her life, she suffers from severe back problems. His father is a heart patient.

Until the local Panchayat gave community members proper houses, they lived in huts.

"Nothing comes easy for anyone born in a tribal community in India. Even in the supposedly 100 per cent literate state of Kerala, the situation is not different," says Binesh.

"Life has always been a struggle for me, fighting casteism, discrimination and poverty. Whatever we achieve, we are still looked upon by society as being socially backward. We are not even looked at as human beings," he says.

Binesh's family was so poor that he remembers working as a coolie even as a small boy.

"When it rained, my parents could not go out and work, and there were days when there was no rice at home and we ate only jackfruit seeds. When we were young, the only desire we had was to have rice to eat every day."

In school, if he remained a silent, invisible backbencher, it was mainly because no teacher paid any attention to him.

There was nobody to guide him or advise him on his studies, so much so that he didn't even know what to study and how to do it.

It was only when he was in Class 7 that he passed a subject for the first time.

"Nobody told me why I should study and what I could achieve by studying. So I never studied and I failed in all the subjects all the time."

His primary and middle school days went by without anyone hurting him much. But the moment he went to high school, he felt discriminated against.

"There were only socially backward and poor students in my upper primary school, so we all felt the same. But once we got to high school, there were socially and financially sound students in the school and they looked at us with contempt. Us tribal students got a stipend from the government and when our names were called out during the roll call, other students sneered at us. I felt very inferior and small then."

Once when he was out on the school ground for physical education, a teacher asked him which House (children are divided into various Houses) he belonged to. When he said he was a member of the Blue House, the master sarcastically remarked, 'You should have been in the black house; not the blue one!'

"That incident hurt me a lot. Even after so many years, it haunts me. Similarly, if there was any manual labour to be done around the school, they would always ask one of us to do it, never the well-off students.

"Our neighbours also humiliated us whenever they got a chance. I still remember them shutting the door in my face when I went to watch TV at their home. If they saw their children playing with us, they would immediately call them home."

"On festival days and birthdays, they used to call us to eat, but would make us sit on the floor at the back of the house and serve us food there. There are many, many such incidents in my life, which I want to forget. But they continue to haunt me all the time."

Internet to the rescue

Binesh Balan

IMAGE: Binesh outside his home in Kerala. All photographs: Kind courtesy Binesh Balan

Life changed dramatically for Binesh when a senior student in his school took him to an Internet cafe.

It was during the summer vacation after Class 7; the year he had for the first time passed a subject in school.

At the cafe he was introduced to video games first. After that, he started going there often to play games.

From games, he moved to the virtual world, a world where there was no caste, religion or backwardness, where nobody looked at him with contempt or judged him. He created an e-mail id for himself, and also an account on Orkut.

When the new academic year started, there was an allotted hour for students of Class 8 to study computers.

For the first time, Binesh felt confident in front of the other students, having already learnt to operate a computer.

He was so fascinated by programming languages that he scored full marks in the subject and became a hero for the other students!

That made him decide it was the field he was going to study after Class 10. He was going to become a network engineer!

"If not for computers, I don't think I would have studied up to Class 12, I don't think I would have had the drive to sit and study and achieve something in life. I was also interested in dancing, but didn't know where to learn."

"Again, the Internet came to my rescue, and I started learning dance watching YouTube videos of Michael Jackson. I learnt the most difficult steps first and I would say today I am a reasonably good dancer."

"Dancing also helped me break free from the shackles that bound me since childhood. I learnt to design Web sites on my own, I learnt to dance on my own, I learnt to program computers on my own, I started reading books -- all thanks to the Internet and YouTube videos."

Binesh was very keen to study network engineering and was admitted to a college in Bangalore. However, due to a local politician's interference, he did not get funding from the government, and there ended his dream of studying network engineering.

Disappointed, Binesh had to bury his dreams and join a nearby college to study development economics.

"I started spending more time in the library to improve my language skills and knowledge of the subject."

After completing his graduation, Binesh decided to do an MBA at the Kerala University campus.

The campus turned out to be a very unpleasant experience for this young man. He had to face discrimination, racism and isolation there.

"It wasn't just the students, but the lecturers too that looked down upon on students who were admitted through the reservation quota. They used to loudly comment that the government was unnecessarily giving everything free to us."

The insults and discrimination did not end there. When he planned to write a Master's thesis on subtle religious undertones in marketing, his teachers did not let him do so.

In India, Binesh felt he would always be discriminated against and nobody would let him think and act freely.

That was the time he was introduced to Dr Ambedkar.

Binesh Balan

IMAGE: Binesh wants his story to be an inspiration to all.

"Like Ambedkar, I also wanted to go out and study where I would not be judged on my colour, background or financial status."

But life continued to comprise of a series of hurdles.

When he was admitted to the University of Sussex to study the anthropology of development and social transformation and was to join the university in September 2015, he approached the Kerala state directorate of scheduled tribes for the funds needed to study.

That was when he discovered through an RTI inquiry that a boy whose father occupied a good post in the government department was previously given funds to study in France.

The news gave him hope that he also stood a chance to receive funds from the government to study abroad.

Though the director okayed the funds of Rs 36 lakhs to Binesh, when the file reached the section office, the officials, instead of releasing the amount, closed the file.

When he enquired about this, the joint secretary rudely told him, 'With this much money, we can educate 100 students here. We can't give you more than Rs 5 lakhs.'

September 2015 passed. There was no sign of any progress in the allocation of funds.

Binesh approached the local CPI-M MLA and also filed a complaint with the SC/ST Commission which ruffled many feathers at the Kerala secretariat section office.

The officials had to reopen the file, but they showed their displeasure by humiliating and abusing him in every imaginable way.

The under secretary called Binesh to his room and insulted him for half an hour.

"I recorded all of what he said so that I could use it against him if necessary. They feel I, a lowliest human being, a tribal, have no right to go abroad and study. The humiliation was so bad that I was broken inside. I cannot explain how bad it was."

"Only when you undergo such insults will you know the intensity of the feelings it provokes. In fact, I thought of even committing suicide."

The file went to the state cabinet in October and he was allotted a fund of Rs 27 lakhs, but the secretariat didn't release the order clearing funds for the course that started in September until November.

"There was no way I could get the funds as I had not gone in September and the university had advanced my joining time to January 2016. Though I had submitted the renewed admission details, the officials did not make the correction and that meant the file had to go back to the cabinet to change the date."

While the Kerala bureaucracy humiliated him and stalled his request as much as it could, the university was extremely supportive, Binesh says.

The state government officials also sabotaged his visa application by refusing to give him a document in English. 'Due to insufficient documents,' his British study visa application was rejected.

In the meantime, he was selected among 20 students to win the National Overseas scholarship of Rs 45 lakh. Binesh applied to the London School of Economics and was admitted for an MSc in social anthropology.

What worked in his favour was a paper he published in the Asian Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies on tribal medicine that can de-toxify the bodies of alcoholics before they started counselling.

As he gets ready to go to LSE next year, he says, "I have found that if these universities notice that you have potential, they encourage you and not try to kill your ability."

"People try to quantify education and look for quality. They don't judge me as a tribal to be shunned."

"I will not be looked at as a person who has come in through 'reservation'. My ambition is to do a PhD at Oxford or Harvard, just like Ambedkar did."

"If I can inspire other young people from my community, I will consider myself fortunate."

Shobha Warrier