“What makes a child gifted and talented may not always be good grades in school, but a different way of looking at the world and learning.”
— Chuck Grassley
Named by the BBC at the age of sixteen as the “youngest headmaster in the world”, now 26-year-old Babar Ali is the headmaster of Ananda Shiksha Niketan (Home of Joyful Learning) in Murshidabad, West Bengal.
The eldest of four siblings, Babar was born in 1993 in Gangpur. He completed his primary education at Bhabta Rasidiya Primary School. When he was nine, his father, a small-time jute trader, sent him to Beldanga CRGS High School, about 10 kilometres away. Babar had to walk two kilometres to the bus stand, from where he would catch the bus to go to school. It was this walk that changed the course of his life. While returning from school, he saw children playing in the fields. When he asked them, “Would you like to study if I teach you?” they happily said “yes.” Encouraged by their response, Babar started his evening classes in October 2002. Initially, he taught eight children, including his younger sister, basic reading and writing under a guava tree in front of their one-room house. Classes had to end before darkness set in and were dependent on the weather; if it rained class was cancelled.
Amazingly, a nine-year-old was teaching children aged five to nine! Babar improvised a blackboard from terracotta tiles. He conducted class tests and exams and organized activities like sports, dance and music to make school more fun for his students. When Babar asked his teacher in the school where he studied, to give him broken pieces of chalk for his school at home, she refused at first thinking he would scribble on the class walls. But when she came to know about his noble venture, she started giving him a box full of chalks every week.
Sanath Kar, the Principal of Beldanga SRF College, inaugurated Babar’s school in 2003 and named it Ananda Shiksha Niketan. “I hired a mike for Rs 30, and we had a ribbon-cutting ceremony followed by song and dance. I borrowed my mother’s sari to decorate the place. I also invited the local Panchayat members and village elders,” recalls Babar.
“Parents were very sceptical about educating their children. They were not educated themselves so they did not realize se the value of education. We went door-to-door asking them to send their kids to school.”
Babar would pick up partly-used notebooks from the raddhiwala for his students. He gave them sweets bought with his pocket money to encourage them to attend classes regularly.
When he was in Class VIII, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen invited him to Shantiniketan where Babar gave a one-hour talk in front of the former finance ministers of West Bengal, and eminent professors.
In 2008, Babar passed his Class X board exams securing first division. Even days before the exam, he was busy opening bank accounts for his students. “I gave them ten days off during my exams,” he adds.
He motivated his first batch of students to join Beldanga High School where he himself studied and six out of eight students followed his advice. They completed their undergraduate courses and joined Ananda Shiksha Niketan as teachers.
In 2009 Babar featured on CNN-IBN’s Real Heroes and was awarded NDTV’s Indian of the Year Award. In 2012, he appeared alongside Aamir Khan on the TV show Satyamev Jayate. He was also made a TED Fellow and shared his story on TED India Talks in Mysore. Since then, he has travelled to Canada and the U.S. for TED Talks. The Karnataka government included a chapter on him in a CBSE Class XII English textbook.
By 2014, more alumni returned to Ananda Shiksha Niketan with formal diplomas in teaching. The number of students rose to 200 and 21-year-old Babar was officially recognized as the ‘youngest headmaster’ by the West Bengal state education department.
In 2007, he purchased 7,200 square feet of land with 10 lakhs donated by one of his supporters. A new school building was inaugurated in 2015 at Shankarpara village, three kilometres away from the previous school.
The state government does not give any financial aid to the school. The school’s annual expenditure is met by donations. Babar provides students with uniforms, mid-day meals, and scholarships with the help of sponsorships and donations. The school is affiliated to the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education till Class 8; Babar encourages students’ parents to admit them to affiliated schools afterwards.
Currently, the school’s 300 students are taught by ten teachers including Babar and his sister. There is a seven-member management committee comprising of village elders and retired teachers. No salary is given to the teachers nor any fees charged from the students. The school motto? “We must do something extraordinary in this short human life.”
In the future, Babar is hoping to extend the education beyond the schooling level. “My dream is to extend it to college in the future,” he says. He looks forward to starting a hostel facility and smart classrooms.
Babar was inspired by Swami Vivekananda whose words, “Jeebey prem kore jei jon, sheijon sebichhe iswar” (Service to man is service to God) have been his motto in life.
Babar’s advice to parents? “Never underestimate the potential of children. At nine, when I decided to start a school of my own, a single word of discouragement from the part of my parents would have let me down. They trusted me. My call was to become a teacher. Your child’s might be to become a businessman or a scientist or a writer. Motivate them to do what they are passionate about.”
Babar graduated with a B.A. (Honours) in English and went on to do an M.A. (English Literature). He is now pursuing another post-graduate programme in History.
“I believe that if you are passionate about something then you can achieve anything. Age, finances, other hurdles, just don’t matter and eventually everything works out.”