The case of Raibidpura

An inherent desire for social engagement energizes a range of things in these places, away from the spotlight

There is a place called Raibidpura. It’s a large village of 5,000 people about 25km from Khargone in the Nimar region of Madhya Pradesh. Rich in history and economically poor in the present, it’s one of the more disadvantaged parts of the country.

Around 600 of the 5,000 people in Raibidpura play bridge. The expertise of many is so high that players are invited to the national-level championships from the village. Their trip expenses are sponsored by lovers of the game, who are fascinated by the extraordinary story of excellence in this urbane game in the middle of rural Nimar. If I hadn’t been there, I would have found it difficult to believe this story.

It started with Mohammed Zia Khan, a government veterinary doctor being posted to Raibidpura in 1965. Khan was a passionate bridge player, and was not letting anything stop him from playing the game. He started teaching the game to people in Raibidpura. Over a period of time, bridge took over the village.

There are legends galore of local players partnering Khan to play in the colonial era clubs in Indore and stunning the sharply suited crowd with their deftness. Mansaran Pipaldia is the tallest of such legends: picture this dhoti-clad, bidi-smoking, illiterate farmer running circles around the bridge-playing members of Holkar Club in Indore. There are also a host of stories as to how the reputation of the village and its people was changed by bridge. For example, the local oil seller was falsely implicated in an adulteration charge, and the judge dismissed it, confident of the man’s integrity, knowing of him through bridge circles.

There is a belief in that area that somehow Raibidpura is different, influenced by bridge, which has gone beyond being a game and has become a key sociocultural component of the village. These differences include lower levels of alcoholism and violence against women, the farmers being innovative with higher agricultural productivity, and the community being peaceful. Also, the people there are very engaged with the local schools.

While I did not investigate these claims and their association with bridge, I learnt more about the matter of schools. A large number of the dedicated bridge players are teachers; they form the nucleus of the Raibidpura Bridge Club. Teachers of many surrounding villages live in Raibidpura. I had gone there to participate in a meeting with government school teachers. The meeting was about how to form a professional support network for teachers. It started at 6pm and by 8pm, it showed no sign of ending. This was their first meeting on this issue, and having attended many such first meetings, I thought the energy was unusual.

This was in August 2015. Over the past year, the teacher network has got going. It is vibrant and supports the professional development of the members. The speed with which this has happened is unusual; it can’t be attributed directly to bridge, but the association is hard to overlook.

This is not a case for bridge as the new panacea for improvement in education or for broad-based human development. I have picked up Raibidpura as a dramatic example of something that I see, kasba after kasba, and village after village, something that anyone travelling there would see.

Few people in these places have an easy life. But however hard the struggle for livelihood, there is a need for sociocultural engagement within the community. Often, this need is served by religious rituals, festivals and groups. But for many people, this is not sufficient. They have an inherent desire for social engagement beyond religious ritualism, to quote the oft-heard refrain “kuch to samaaj ke liye karna hai" (must do something for society). This sentiment is what energizes a range of things that are visible in this India, away from the spotlight—for example, the sports clubs, the reading groups, the Kabir Mandalis, the paaniwalas and more. At its extreme, it finds an expression like the bridge culture in Raibidpura.

The loony fringes on the right and the left also tap into the same sentiment to build a base. You don’t need to be on any fringe to tap into this force. Developing a platform for sustained social engagement at the grassroots is an effective way of mobilizing people for a purpose. I am hardly saying anything new, but the pivotal importance of this seems to have faded from the consciousness of most political-cultural groups aside from the Sangh and Dalit groups.

Like in Raibidpura, in most such local social engagement platforms, teachers are often at the core. Perhaps because they are the local intellectual vanguard. And the ideas and inclinations from here find their way to our schools in practice and behaviour. Grassroots social engagement platforms are a key battlefield for the heart and mind of India. That is where the battle has to be fought—not on TV or in the academy.

Anurag Behar is chief executive officer of Azim Premji Foundation and leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.

Comments are welcome at othersphere@livemint.com. To read Anurag Behar’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/othersphere

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