The one thing holding back the plucky youngster who has never hesitated to plunge into unknown territory, is funds, discovers Jyoti Punwani.
From a Zilla Parishad school to a Master's course in a university ranked 314 in the world. Will 24-year-old Satish Athawale's dream come true?
The one thing holding back the plucky youngster who has never hesitated to plunge into unknown territory, is funds. Satish must collect around Rs 35 lakh before he can set off in August for the Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, where he has got admission for the one-year Master's programme beginning this fall.
The fees for the programme are Rs 21 lakh. The university's Web site puts living expenses at Rs 11 lakh a year. Visa and health insurance charges are almost a lakh.
Given the tumultuous events that have shaken his life in the last three years, collecting that amount is a daunting goal.
On January 1, 2018, Satish was at home on vacation from the Bharati Vidyapeeth College of Engineering, Navi Mumbai. His home in Sanaswadi village falls en route to the memorial where Dalits were expected to arrive in large numbers to pay homage on the 200th anniversary of the battle of Bhima Koregaon.
The battle saw the defeat of the Peshwas at the hands of the British, and since 1927, after Dr B R Ambedkar declared it was of historical significance for the Mahars, his followers have been observing the anniversary on a grand scale.
Like they did every year, Satish's parents, Rama and Ashok Athawale, had made preparations for the visitors: Breakfast and a bath in their house, which was located on the Pune-Ahmednagar highway. This time though, they had to wind up their breakfast stall by 10 am as news came in of violence having broken out near Bhima Koregaon.
Soon, the Athawales themselves became victims of the violence: They saw their home, grocery shop and fabrication workshop being burnt down. Alerted by Satish's childhood friend, they had hidden themselves behind a nearby factory.
The same friend was to save Ashok Athawale's life again that evening. After the friend alerted the latter that a mob was looking for him, Athawale hid in a nearby farm. But they found him, beat him up, abused him for being a Dalit, and poured kerosene on him.
Watching the scene from a distance, a boy who knew Athawale called up Satish's friend. Within minutes, one of the men received a call, after which they left.
The Athawales later found out that Satish's friend had warned the mob, made up of Marathas, that if they proceeded with their plan, Dalits would target their village. This warning, coming as it did from a fellow Maratha, worked.
Another school friend of Satish risked lending his car to Satish's elder brother, then in Pune, to rescue the family from the riot-torn village. "I have no idea about his caste," says Satish.
The events of that day, says Satish, jolted him to the ugliness of the caste system. He was then 21.
As a child, he and the children in his neighbourhood were always in and out of each other's homes. The Maratha friend from the village whose phone call saved his family was one of these childhood friends. Satish is still in touch with him.
In Class 6, having qualified in the entrance exam, Satish left his ZP school and joined the residential Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya. In the friendships he forged there, as a 11 year old away from home, struggling in an English medium school with a CBSE syllabus, caste played no role.
In Class 10, Satish opted for the 'Migration Programme' which entailed spending a year in a similar school in another state. The one he was sent to turned out to be in Solan, Himachal Pradesh. In that diverse classroom, neither did students know which caste others belonged to, nor did they care.
Caste was never mentioned at the Bharati Vidyapeeth College of Engineering, too; it was free of the reported discrimination faced by reserved category students in engineering institutes such as the IITs.
Hence the targeting of his family purely because of their caste traumatised Satish. "My exams were immediately after that January 2018 vacation; it was my worst performance till then," he recalls. "But I managed to make it up in the next year, which was also my final year of engineering."
He confided about his experience only to his guide and the principal, whose permission he had to take to go home off and on to help his dislocated parents. "Both were very understanding," he says.
Again, it was one of his friends who came to his parents' aid, allowing them to live in his empty flat. Asked whether he too was 'upper caste', Satish replies, "He was a Bengali. I guess he was 'upper caste', but I don't know, I never thought of it."
Jolted violently into consciousness of his caste, Satish stood by his parents in their struggle. When promises of compensation turned out hollow, his parents sat on a month-long dharna outside the Pune collectorate. Satish too joined them. "It was tough, cooking and sleeping inside that tent as the rain poured down. That's when I realised the value of struggle."
Finally compensation was granted and his parents moved into a flat at Wagholi, near Pune. Though their erstwhile neighbours and their landlord had been sympathetic after the incident, the Athawales say they didn't want to go back to Sanaswadi as not only had attitudes changed overall, but they had also lost trust in the local police.
Despite their phoning them, neither did the police come to their aid when their home was being burnt, nor did they arrest the miscreants identified by the Athawales.
With his fabrication workshop destroyed, Satish's father, who suffered partial hearing loss after the assault on him, does welding jobs whenever he gets them. He survived Covid in the first wave.
Part of their compensation was invested in a small restaurant which was run by his elder brother, but the lockdown put paid to it, as it did to the job that Satish had found after graduating.
With the family having spent the last three-and-a-half years in this unsettled state, it is impossible for Satish to fulfil the prerequisite for the student loan that he has applied for: A copy of the last three years Income Tax returns filed by his father.
The enterprising youngster, who has also got provisional admission at UK's Teesside University, hopes he won't have to abandon his dream. But that would depend on two things.
Someone influential in the Maharashtra government could persuade banks to waive that one condition of the Income Tax returns. After all, many more conditions have been waived while giving huge loans to high profile industrialists.
The second avenue is that those who care about Dalits aiming high should donate for this student whose merit has already been recognised by two well-known universities in the field of engineering.
From Union Minister Ramdas Athawale to Prakash Ambedkar, there are many influential Dalit leaders from Maharashtra. But will anyone help?
A third avenue could be crowd-funding, but will it work?
Satish Ashok Athawale
Central Bank of India
A/C No: 3489803283
Branch: Kharghar, Navi Mumbai