“When it comes to population, we are in big numbers, but if we are not educated, those numbers are of no importance.”
Chaos theory suggests that a butterfly flapping its wings in Africa can lead to a hurricane in North America. I view social justice similarly — that a small act of empowerment causes a ripple effect. This is why I admire Guruchand Thakur, a 19th-century Dalit activist in Bengal, India.
For thousands of years, people belonging to the lower castes of Hinduism were denied an education and could not advance in society. While many South Asian reformers campaigned against the caste system and in favor of educating the underprivileged, Guruchand stands out to me. This is not only because of my family’s connection to him but also due to the principles he preached. He helped give the Namasudra community of Bengalis, who were lower-caste and marginalized, a voice and an education. My family, who belong to this community, have long been inspired by Guruchand and his tireless campaign for reform through education.
Guruchand was the son of Harichand Thakur, who founded the Matua sect of Hinduism in the 19th century. This sect emphasized equal rights and education for everyone, especially focusing on the lower-caste people of Bengal. While he built the foundation; his son, Guruchand Thakur, carried the movement for equality forward. In 1880, after higher caste community leaders refused to allow their children to share classroom space with Namasudra children, Guruchand established one of the first schools exclusively built for the latter. This allowed many people, who previously had no way to advance in society, to access learning. He expanded this project, opening the door to education for thousands of people. In addition to building schools for boys, he also valued educating girls and created several all-girl schools- a rare priority for an activist of his time. In an 1881 speech, Guruchand said, “It’s knowledge and only knowledge that made the earth so beautiful in the universe”. This belief motivated his efforts to better his community.
Guruchand’s activism had a profound influence on my own family. Starting with my great-great grandparents, my family members sought out education, at a time when neither lower caste persons nor women were encouraged to go to school. My great-great-grandfather studied to be a lawyer because he believed that it was important for people to understand the law and to see justice as something achievable for them. My great-grandmother went to school and her husband became a doctor. Being a doctor brought a steady flow of income into the family, which allowed my great-grandparents to give back to their community.
Both of my great-grandparents had a deep admiration for Guruchand and wanted to carry out his legacy in newly independent India. Between 1947 and 1971, due to violence, millions of people were displaced from their homes and had to move between India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. During this time of hardship, my great-grandparents decided that it was their time to make a difference. Carrying out what Harichand had begun a century before, they helped refugees, particularly from lower castes, to access education. They helped youth escape the crushing caste system of rural India by helping them move to the large city of Kolkata to pursue their studies. With the help of friends, they were able to establish an NGO named Harichand Seba Sangha (Harichand Welfare Organization). This sangha built a residential facility for young men to live in while they were studying in the city. The sangha, which is still in operation, is not big; but makes an impact on real people by helping students. My great-grandparents also helped young people by hosting them in their own home.
My favorite story about my great-grandfather is when a young man came to his clinic to ask for guidance in a job interview. This man had been uprooted from his home; as a result, his appearance was disheveled. My great-grandfather simply gave the young man a small amount of money and told him to get a shave and a haircut before his interview. After hearing of this, my great-grandmother proposed the idea that every Sunday, she would open up their home so her husband could give young men a shave while she provided them with food. This would give them confidence while going to school or applying for a job. Decades later, this young man – now an older gentleman- recited this story to my mother, saying that this small act of kindness made all the difference to him and his family. This story is extremely touching to me because it shows how seemingly trivial actions can alter a person’s life for the better- a great example of the ripple effects of doing good.
Guruchand’s work is often overlooked when discussing activists and educators in India. Yet, his impact was profound. He emphasized the education of lower-caste men and women and empowered those who were historically shunned. Guruchand was a deeply religious man, as were my great-grandparents. Their efforts show the power of spirituality to build equality, instead of fostering divisions. We see, today, that religion can divide and polarize– but their legacy is one of reform through devotion.
Most of all, Guruchand inspired people like my great-grandparents to believe in themselves and in their capacity to change their environment. In schools, we often learn about the “big” people who introduced revolutionary changes that transformed our world – but Guruchand and my great-grandparents show the value of everyday service to the community. It is these changes that can ultimately lead to a social revolution. As I begin high school, I will continue their legacy by giving back to my community and by remembering that a quality education isn’t just about getting into college or finding a high-paying job. More than anything else, it is about gaining dignity for oneself and others.
Samara Desai is a 9th grader at Holy Names Academy in Seattle, Washington. In her free time, she enjoys playing basketball, listening to music, reading, writing, and rowing.