Undeterred by daughter’s murder, he scripts hope for girls

EARLY ON September 14, Umashanker Thakur’s teenaged daughter got on her bicycle and started pedalling towards his coaching institute at Patauri town in Bihar’s Samastipur, about 14 km away from her home in Karnauti village of Vaishali.

The Class 10 student was among 300 others, mostly girls, who saw Thakur’s Daughters Development Group as a gateway to a life of hope and success. But the 14-year-old, the only girl among Thakur’s three children, never reached where she wanted to. She was waylaid and murdered by a group of six men led by a man who, police say, had got into an argument with her days earlier.

Within the next 10 days, all the accused were arrested and jailed. And a week later, Thakur was back at the institute. “I see my daughter in all of these girls who cycle 10-15 km from their villages to the coaching centre,” says the 45-year-old.

Over the last 18 years, since Thakur left his job as a marine engineer in Mumbai and started this institute “to lift the education profile” of rural students from Samastipur and Vaishali, “DDG” has notched up an impressive honours board: 30 government jobs, four IIT seats, 10 NIT slots, three NEET successes, over 100 Army jobs, 70 police placements and about 40 Group-D jobs in the Railways.

“The list of successful students has more than 30 girls. We help all of them prepare for competitive examinations or just clear their school exams from Class 9-12,” says Thakur. “We also speak to the students about issues such as foeticide and dowry system, and try to create awareness among them.”

The centre charges Rs 300 per month for six hours of coaching every day, and employs five other teachers.

“This institute has filled me with so much self-confidence,” says Kriti Kumari, a farmer’s daughter who is pursuing a B.ED degree. “I have been coming here for a year. I am now confident that I can speak out anywhere,” says Neha Kumari, a Class 12 student and daughter of a private firm employee.

It was in 2002 that Thakur completed his marine engineering course from T S Chanakya and got a job in an MNC. “But I felt like going back home to be with my own people. I gave up the job, returned and started this institute in 2003,” he says.

The result is evident — in the words and deeds of his students.

“I used to cycle 12 km every day from my village Jalalpur in Samastipur to reach the institute. My cycle got stolen, but I ensured that I continued to attend classes riding pillion on my friend’s cycle. Uma sir’s innovative teaching style evoked curiosity and instilled a lot of confidence in us. I made it to IIT-Kharagpur in 2015,” says Dhananjay Kumar.

“When I look back, I feel a great sense of gratitude to the teacher who left a life of comfort for rural students. No one in my family imagined that I would get into an IIT. My father still runs a provision store back home,” says Kumar, who is now a software engineer based in Bengaluru.

Then there’s Ravi Roshan, who was one of Thakur’s early students and has now joined him as a faculty member at the centre.

Says Rahul Kumar, who got into the National Defence Academy in 2013 and is now a Lieutenant in the Navy based in Visakhapatnam: “Uma sir’s teaching style was very descriptive and evocative. He is an allrounder who teaches Physics, Chemistry, History and Geography. What I am today is because of teachers like Uma sir.”

And yet, all of them acknowledge that Thakur is now facing the biggest challenge of his life.

Maneesh, Superintendent of Police, Vaishali, says: “We arrested six persons in connection with the murder of the teenaged daughter of Umshankar Thakur. The main accused, who had criminal antecedents, had entered into an argument with the girl after she unintentionally hit him with her bicycle. He had been tracking her movement on that route since that episode.”

“Despite this tragedy, Thakur’s commitment to education is unwavering. I have been to his institute. He has been doing a great service to society. We need several people like him who can nurture rural talent,” says Anand Kumar, the Mathematics teacher behind Bihar’s popular Super 30 coaching programme.

At Patauri, 20-year-old Julie Kumari says DDG is not just about studies and social issues. “We also hold beauty contests, and painting and cooking competitions. This is something about this centre that draws students from far-off villages,” she says.

Looking at her with a faint smile, Thakur says: “My daughter has not gone anywhere. She is here, in every Julie.”

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