Saloni Todkari, The Teenage Activist Who Uses Gandhian Methods
to Fight for The Rights of Children

“The law of love could be best understood and learned through little children,” believed Mahatma Gandhi who always had a special place for children in his heart. His immense belief in children has, undoubtedly, inspired generations and the values he had advocated continue to guide the young minds even today. One such young mind following the teachings of Gandhi is Maharashtra’s 16-year￾old activist Saloni Todkari.

‘Non- violence is a successful strategy. It’s a tool that we use to fight for our rights such as right to education and right to healthy childhood’, shares Saloni who has just cleared her 12th exam. It’s heartening to see the young activist’s nod to the Gandhian methods of protest. Even though Saloni
has not read Gandhi as yet, she uses his methods. His principles and methods linger in the psyche of the nation; they are also used by various movements across the world.

Saloni is brimming with a lot of passion and energy and she is eager to share her story. Her journey into ‘activism’ began when she was just 12-year-old and had started attending the Baag Shala (garden school) organized by Rakesh Sutar and Sachin Sutar of ‘Maitrakul’ a boarding for students run under the aegis of ‘Chhatrashakti Sanstha’. The educational sessions conducted by the Sutar duo were fun filled and they used innovative methods to teach ‘difficult’ subjects such as maths, English
and science.

Maitrakul, is an abode for children from the weaker sections who find it difficult to pursue school education due to challenging circumstances at home. Here the boarders study in a local aided school and after school hours Kishor Jagtap, 55, the chief mentor and other functionaries attend to their studies and extracurricular actives. Besides regular studies, children are encouraged to read books and discussions and presentations on the books are organized frequently. The boarding has its own
library with over 700 books.

Kishor Jagtap, the brain behind Maitrakul realized that children’s academic performance is heavily affected by the socio-economic conditions of the family and they need support. Jagtap began coaching needy children from the neighbourhood in the early 90s. He exceled in teaching maths, science and English, the subjects dreaded most by many students. More and more children from different localities started attending his classes. Yet some children dropped out of school because the home environ was just not conducive for education. In the year 2014 Jagtap started the Maitrakul boarding at Bhapgaon, Kalyan, district Thane realizing the need for a shelter for the children from the depressed families such as Saloni’s. Originally from Virar, a town in Palghar district of Maharashtra, Saloni convinced her mother into giving her permission to relocate to. Saloni’s
mother Manali Todkari works as a domestic help and her father is a daily wage earner.

After moving to Maitrakul, Saloni started attending the local secondary school not very far from the boarding. While she was studying in 10th standard she learnt that out of school children wanting to appear for the Secondary School Certification (SSC) Board exam directly, had to fill the exam form no. 17 through a school. Although the charge for the form 17 is Rs. 400, the schools were overcharging these hapless adolescents to the tune of four to five thousand Rs per form. When Saloni noticed the exploitation she raised the issue with the school administration who summarily
dismissed her. Looking at the administration’s response Saloni and fellow students decided to launch an agitation against the SSC Board.

‘We tried to seek an appointment with the SSC Board officers but to no avail. We wrote several letters but didn’t receive any reply. Since our pleas were falling on deaf ears, together with my mates from the school and representatives from other organizations, we staged dharnas outside the
board office. Even after days of protests when the board refused to act, we decided to change our strategy. We created a trophy – an effigy of a beggar and called it SSC Board Officer – with a note pasted on its torso that read – ‘since the officers don’t get paid, they have turned to begging’ and
entered the office. We wanted to present the trophy to the officer but we were whisked away.

Although none of the office bearers met us, the SSC Board took cognizance of our grievance and acted on the schools which were overcharging the students for the form 17.

‘We had informed the nearest police station about our protests. We went by the regulations and used peaceful methods for our agitation’. Saloni and her compatriots follow the rules and procedures for agitation.

While the agitation was underway the errant schools had started threatening the protesters. They received phone calls warning them of dire consequences. But the activists were resolute and continued with their fight.

Immediately after Saloni started attending the local school at Kalyan, the class teacher informed her that Bindi and bangles were mandatory. Saloni and her friend Rekha (name changed to protect identity) wore neither the bangles nor the bindi and they failed to understand the teacher’s insistence while the rule book of the school didn’t mention it. Saloni and Rekha were reprimanded every day and the overzealous teacher who had a stock of
binids with her would offer those to the two ‘erring’ students, who would readily refuse to accept it.

After days of persuasion the class teacher finally reported the ‘unruliness’ of the students to the principal. The principal summoned the duo and asked for an explanation for not following the dictate of the school. She spent the next ten minutes in brainwashing the girls into conforming to the ‘good practices’ of the school. ‘Bindi is part of our culture, plus there’s a scientific reason behind it’. She tried her best to convince the agitating girls.
‘Where does the rulebook of the school mention the bindi and the bangle? I have not seen it. If it’s not there, why are the students asked to wear those?’ Saloni replied. The principal then decided to get in touch with the parents of the two students.

‘Why is your daughter so headstrong? She argues a lot and refuses to wear bangles and bindi’, the principal asked of the erring students’ mothers. ‘She tried to incite my mother. But my mother understands my point of view. she has given me freedom and never compelled me to do things’. The duo was not shaken by the calls and their parents stood by their daughters. After the meeting with the principal, many other girls joined the cause and voiced their opinion. The principal finally conceded and informed the students- ‘not mandatory to wear bangles and bindi and the students may follow their wish in this regard’. The girls’ agitation had paved way for a big
change.

Saloni was not against the rules. ‘Cleanliness, hygiene, clean uniform and clean shoes, adherence to school timings and rules for maintaining order have to be honoured. But the school should not try to execute nconstitutional commands’.

From where does Saloni get her ideas and strength to fight for the rights? Did Maitrakul inspire her into action?
‘My mother is also a fighter. She can’t put up with injustice. I have inherited the fighting spirit from my mother. Of course Maitrakul and other activists must have shaped my thoughts. Maitrakul gives you voice. I was able to express my inner thoughts because of Maitrakul and I derive a lot of strength from it’.

Saloni was entrusted with the responsibility of reaching out to the neighbouring Katkari wadi, under Maitrakul’s ‘Chiranjeevi’ programme. The Katkaris are an aborigine forest tribe who live in abject poverty. On the brink of extinction today, their exploitation is total and absolute. Parents go for work leaving behind young children at home. Schools in and around the area have limitations in meeting the educational needs of Katkaris and almost no katkari child was enrolled in school.

When Saloni entered the hamlet she was welcomed with mud and stones, hurled at her by older children. Saloni persisted and tried to broker a truce with the children by proposing to play games.

Soon the children old and young were playing games with Saloni. In a month’s time she was able to hold an exercise on alphabets with the children in the Katkari Wadi (hamlet). From there on Maitrakul activists hold regular Baag Shala in the wadi.

Saloni’s grasp on social concerns and the problems of the deprived children is remarkable. Her eyes sparkle with the youthful energy of her 16 year as she speaks passionately about the plight of child beggars. On her way to school Saloni would often see child beggars begging and stalking the walkers on the street. She felt sorry for these children who were almost abandoned or kidnapped and made to beg by adults.

‘As a society we have failed our children. Our sensibilities are numbed. We feel nothing for the children whose childhood has been robbed’. Saloni was swayed by the issue and she decided to act.

Maitrakul backed the decision and Saloni staged a protest outside Kalyan station and went on to fast for 3 days against the insensitivity of the administration, police and public regarding child beggars.

Her Dharna and fast against child begging attracted the attention of the administration, media and political leaders.

Saloni was just 15 when she launched the agitation and fast for the cause. But how did she cope with the pangs of hunger?
‘When I decide, I act. There were friends from Maitrkul who joined my agitation and they took turns to fast for a day with me. When my mother came to see me she was shocked and broken, she cried a lot. My parents were worried as I used to be a binge-eater at home. But mother didn’t discourage me. ‘Since you have decided you will be able to fast for three days. You are doing this for a good cause, you have all my blessing’.

On the third and the last day of the fast the local Corporators and members of political parties, came to meet Saloni and promised to address the child beggars’ issue. The fast was undertaken in the second week of March after which the Covid Pandemic had set in and a total lock down was announced in the state of Maharashtra. Saloni has not been able to pursue the issue of child beggars since the lock down. But she keeps the issue alive by fasting once a month. Other children at Maitrakul also join her in fasting for a day in a moth for the cause.

‘Saloni is not all agony and anguish, she’s fun loving and easy going. She’s a good actor and a performer. Her coordination skills are great; she plans the schedule, helps in contacting the resource persons and seeks police permission for the camps’, shares Ashish Jadhav a student of Jagtap now
one of the functionaries of Maitrakul.

In June this year, Saloni successfully completed her 12th standard exam and after her graduation she would like to study law. This adolescent from Maitrakul boarding tries to keep alive the spirit of the father of the nation by using his satyagraha methods for her agitations aimed at safeguarding the rights of children.

Alka Gadgil