95% disabled, JNU scholar battles huge odds to get PhD

Akshsansh Gupta wrote his thesis on ‘brain-computer interface’.
NEW DELHI: At a special convocation in the vice-chancellor’s office recently,  Jawaharlal Nehru University awarded a doctorate degree to Bunty Dada. The proud student struggled to grasp the degree being handed to him by VC S K Sopory, though his eyes shone and his hands moved animatedly towards the document that signified a tremendous victory of mind over matter.

The name inscribed on the doctorate degree was “Akshsansh Gupta”. But he is Bunty Dada on the campus of India’s top university.

Gupta’s lower limbs are of no use, his slurred speech is difficult to decipher and his arms have the stiff, awkward flailing of someone not quite in control of his movements. In a system that insensitively rates disability in terms of percentages, the 32-year-old is deemed 95% disabled – he grew up with cerebral palsy.

More equipped people would have quailed at the extraordinary hardships Bunty Dada faced in trying to get a “Dr” as a prenomial, but he persevered and that is why the university honoured him with the special convocation, months in advance of the formal ceremony next year.

From his room in the Kaveri Hostel, Gupta braved the odds for five years to finish writing his thesis on “Brain Computer Interface”, in between travelling to Malaysia to present a paper on his chosen subject of computer science. “I opted for computer science as it is easier for me because of the nature of practicals and laboratory work it entails,” says Gupta. Of course, when stated like that, it sounds like a fairly easy achievement. But the words do not reveal that even getting admission into a primary school in his hometown of Jaunpur in east Uttar Pradesh was a challenge. “When I saw my siblings go to school, I wanted to do likewise. But in my condition, which school would admit me?” he says. Then, with admirable lack of rancour, he adds, “In general, in our country the attitude towards people with disabilities is quite negative. The first thing people ask is, ‘Kya karega padhke (What will you gain by studying)?'”

In his small hostel room, you see a wheelchair, radio set, laptop, piles of books on computers, and in a corner, a garlanded photograph of his mother among statues of Lakshmi, Saraswati and Ganesha. It is with justified regard that he places the picture of his mother, whom he lost in 2011, among the divine beings, for she was one of the two  women who determined his destiny. She was the one in the family who insisted the tot who couldn’t walk be given an education. The other was Meera Sahu, a teacher who finally got him admitted to school.

Gupta is also eternally grateful to Mahajan, the rickshaw puller who ferried him every day to Umanath Singh Institute of Engineering and Technology in Jaunpur, where he pursued a BTech degree in computer science. An illiterate rickshaw puller and a student with physical limitations dreamed an unimaginable future when they travelled the 15 km between home and college every day. “Mahajan and I talked about the world beyond Jaunpur and that is when I decided I want to step out. My family was reluctant, but they eventually agreed, and here I am in Delhi,” he says.

Piyush Maurya, an MPhil student and his hostel mate at JNU, knows the sort of person Gupta is. “He has an extraordinary mind. He always wanted to prove that disability was a myth,” he marvels. And while Maurya says that Gupta mostly refuses to take the help of others, the scholar did benefit from JNU’s policy of having two helps in every hostel for those like Gupta who might need their assistance.

Gupta, a freshly minted doctor now, is hopeful of getting a job, preferably in the university itself. If JNU obliges, he will be overjoyed. “JNU’s atmosphere is such that anyone would like to always live here,” he says with a grin. He does grudge the government, though, for framing disability policies without consulting the affected people. “Because we are not vote banks,” he explains.