Trigger Warning: This story contains mentions of violence and torture

At an educational center in Lumding, Assam, children from local tribes faithfully come every day to take part in a plethora of activities such as reading, writing and listening to stories told by village grandmothers. Some of these children live in the center itself, with their food taken care of by the attached community kitchen. There are also facilities for mothers who are victims of domestic violence to stay here.

The center is the focus of laughter, chatter and progress. Similar to this center in Lumding, 160 other centers have been set up across Northeast India, West Bengal, Karnataka and Goa. Chief among these is Ananya Paul Dodmani, founder of Tribal Connect, an organization that works tirelessly for the upliftment and empowerment of indigenous communities, such as the Kunbis of Goa and Uttar Kannada, the Siddis of Karnataka and the Karbi, Dima and Kuki tribes of Assam.

Ananya is a story of courage, a journey that continues every day to ensure that India’s tribal communities finally get the safe space and respect they deserve.

“It started when I was in school.”

The communities Ananya works with have a long history of marginalization. For example, the Siddhi community remains among the most neglected tribes in India and has spent generations in abject poverty. In addition, many tribes in northeastern India lack access to basic amenities such as education.

Ananya recounts her early school years in Assam, where the majority of her friends and neighbors hail from the Santals and other tribal communities. “There was a certain discrepancy between their lifestyles and our ways,” she notes.

It wasn’t until she was in the eighth grade that these incidents started to become more apparent. Ananya shares that most of her friends who stayed in the school hostel are not coming back after summer break. Their parents were telling the school that they had contracted malaria during the holidays and died. Ananya has been hearing these stories with dread, all the while feeling guilty about her own privileges.

On a certain day, she becomes more aware of these perks while in a store with her caretaker. A woman from the local tribe was buying a product that cost 10 rupees. But when I handed the shopkeeper a 20-rupee note, he stubbornly insisted that it was actually a 10-rupee note, and refused to change it. “I realized that these people need to be taught at least basic things like recognizing denominations of money, writing their names, reading bus numbers, train times, etc,” says Ananya.

And this is the moment when I realized that if they couldn’t access these lessons anywhere, you would create a space where they could.

Ananya's work includes empowering and uplifting the tribes in northeastern India, Goa
Ananya’s work includes empowerment and upliftment of tribes in Northeast India, Goa, Karnataka, etc. Image Credit: Ananya

“I started looking for loafing kids and would ask them to come to the local school, as I found an empty space where I could get them to sit and learn basic subjects. I would read stories to them, too.”

Ananya was soon joined by other colleagues who were also eager to pass on their knowledge to the local tribesmen. The team you formed will travel through the villages of Northeast India on weekends, raising funds through cultural activities, football matches, and more.

When Ananya left school and went to college, she began convincing her teachers to conduct exchange programs that would also make it easier for these children to travel and learn. But then, an incident shook Ananya’s world and forced her to make tribal ascension a goal to which she wanted to dedicate her life.

“My father has been kidnapped.”

Although Ananya grew up hearing about kidnappings of people from local tribal communities, she only realized the seriousness of the situation when her father was kidnapped one day in 2002, she said. “You never know the heat of a fire until your house is on fire.”

“It was painful,” she recalls. For seven days, he was tortured and beaten and only managed to escape when he jumped from the third floor of the building where he was being held hostage. He ran several kilometers to the nearest railway station to reach his home. This incident had a huge impact on my mind.”

Through Tribal Connect, Ananya teaches children skills like basic reading, writing, and storytelling for them
Through Tribal Connect, Ananya teaches children skills like basic reading and writing, and tells stories to them. Photo credit: Ananya

While she was concerned at the time about what happened, she now says, in retrospect, that a lack of education forces people to resort to kidnapping others for money. “These unconstitutional people have been brainwashed into doing these things. It is only when one has no money to put food on the table for their children that they do unconstitutional things.”

Ananya knew that while she was teaching those around her the basics of education, there was a great need for her to increase in numbers and size to see the visible impact. Driven by this fire to make a difference, she starts her first education center in the same village where her father was being held hostage after he was kidnapped (a name she avoids mentioning).

She started small, with the resources she had at the time. She explained her plans to create a center where children can learn, and young people can get job opportunities Buddha grams (Chief) of the village. But she noticed that they could not visualize her dream. So I started Under the Banyan Tree in 2003 with five kids eager to learn.

Today, the same concept is applied in 160 educational centers across India, albeit in a more structured form. Although these centers have existed for years, Ananya officially established the organization in 2019.

Ananya Paul Dudmani, Founder, Tribal Connect
Ananya Paul Dudmani, founder of Tribal Connect. Photo credit: Ananya

A welcoming space for all

In learning centers, language is not a barrier. Ananya frequently hires local youth so that they can teach the children in a language they understand better. “I collaborate with any NGO or foundation that can help us make a difference,” she notes.

In 2019, when Ananya got married and moved to South India, she found many tribes facing the same issues that she had seen in the North East. “I started working with tribes like Sidi, Halaki and Kondi.”

She explains that education in educational centers is free, as well as meals three times a day. There is also a community farming model in which children and men grow their own food, which then goes into meals. The unique concept is that the grandmothers live with the children so they can take care of them. Ananya says this benefits both of them. At the same time, 35 children can be accommodated in the center.

There are also community centers for men who do not have jobs. Here, they practice community farming to grow produce and sell it in markets, while leftovers are used in community kitchens. Each learning center is headed by three local youths, Ananya says so that the centers can continue to thrive even while she is away.

This was always something you wanted. “My work is mostly in conflict areas and I don’t want the community center to stop in case something happens to me.”

The community centers also welcome women who are victims of domestic violence, men who have lost their jobs, and the elderly
Women who are victims of domestic violence, men who have lost their jobs, and the elderly are also welcome at the community centres. Image Credit: Ananya

“I will continue no matter what.”

Apart from the work that Ananya does for community centres, she also creates awareness related to menstruation and has reached “more than 90,000 tribal women” through her workshops. This includes teaching women how to make sustainable sanitary pads at home, distributing pads to women in villages and even introducing the concept of eco-friendly menstrual cups.

With 700 volunteers, Tribal Connect is making a difference in the lives of people in marginalized communities across the country. Ananya received the Karamveer Chakra Award for her work in 2019.

Sometimes I see children who come from broken homes to the centers just for food. But within 10 days, they switch to seeing the surroundings and we inculcate good learning habits in them,” she explains.

She goes on to narrate a case in which one of the girls stopped coming to the educational center when she started menstruating and the family did not want her to leave the house. “I sat outside their house for two nights, catching a cold and a fever during it, but I didn’t back down until they promised she would come back to the center.”

Twenty-two years of persistence and Ananya is still going strong.


“It’s your willpower,” she asserts. “Our community center does not always consist of walls. Sometimes it is just a tent, washed away every year by torrential rains or trampled upon by elephants at other times. But what sets us apart is that we rebuild every time.”

She adds, “Everyone experiences trauma. It’s how you make it change your life that makes all the difference. I could have chosen to be a victim because of what happened to my dad, but instead I looked the fear in my eyes and chose to start a center right here.” In particular.

“You have to be your own cheerleader. Always.”

You can learn more about Ananya’s work here.

(Edited by Divya Sethu)


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