Ansar Shaikh is the first graduate in his family, certainly the first civil servant and one of India’s youngest IAS officers.
The Maharashtra lad made headlines after he cracked the competitive Union Public Service Commission exam in his maiden attempt at the tender age of 21 and secured an All-India Rank of 361 in 2016.
If you’ve ever heard his speeches, you’d know the odds he fought to reinstate his family’s faith in the power of education. His father, a rickshaw driver in the drought-hit village of Shelgaon in Jalna district of Marathwada, struggled with alcohol addiction. He married thrice. Ansar’s mother, who worked as a farm hand, is his second wife.
Ansar grew up observing the social menaces of domestic violence and child marriage at close quarters. His sisters were married off as young as 15, and his brother dropped out of class six to work at his uncle’s garage.
And even though he was two years younger than Ansar, Ansar considers him bigger than himself in ways more than one. Why? You’ll know as his story unfolds.
While one would have thought that the pressure at home would eventually make Ansar drop out, he didn’t.
“My relatives would walk up to my parents and ask them why there was a need for me to study. When I was in class four, my parents approached my teacher and said that they wanted me to drop out, but my teacher was persistent. He told them, ‘Your son is a bright student, invest in his education. You will not regret it. He will turn your lives around.’ For my uneducated parents, a teacher saying that was a big deal,” he says, in one of his speeches.
And so, his parents decided to give education and Ansar a chance. He proved his merit when he scored an exceptional 91 per cent in his Class 12 boards.
He jokes about the struggles of studying in a Zilla Parishad School, saying, “I loved chicken growing up, but of course, it was a luxury in a home where a square meal was difficult to put together. Once in a while, we’d spot worms in our mid-day meals. So vegetarian food would automatically turn non-vegetarian,” he laughs.
Having studied until class 12 in Marathi-medium, the move to pursue a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science at Pune’s renowned Fergusson College was a difficult decision. While his father would keep sending small amounts from his savings to help him survive in the city, his brother would deposit his entire monthly salary of Rs 6,000 in Ansar’s account to fund his academic dreams.
When he first entered Fergusson College in 2012, all he had was a pair of chappals and two pairs of clothes, that he would wear alternatively. The fact that he came from a vernacular medium school and wasn’t fluent in English also created an inferiority complex. But Ansar wasn’t one to give up.
It was during his first year that his teachers exposed him to UPSC. By then, alongside his regular academics, he approached Unique Academy’s Tukaram Jadhav and requested him for admission to the course.
The big question, though, was how he would arrange the UPSC coaching fee which was to the tune of Rs 70,000.
He recalls, “I spoke to Jadhav sir and told him of the background I came from. He was gracious enough to accept me into the course and agreed to give me a 50% concession because he believed I had a spark. When I entered the class, most students who came there were in their late 20s and 30s, who had given two to three attempts. I was the only 19-year-old. I would often get intimidated and found it difficult to interact. I would sit in the back and crane my neck.”
But as the course continued, Ansar started becoming curious and began interacting with others. He says that the spirit of inquiry is essential to a UPSC aspirant.
“I was often mocked when I would ask silly questions. But I never really stopped asking questions. There were days when I would survive on vada pav and didn’t have the money to buy preparatory material. So I would borrow it from my friends and photocopy it. I pushed myself very hard. I would study for 13 hours a day because I knew that I couldn’t afford failure. I wouldn’t have the resources to give a second attempt,” he says.
He heaved a sigh of relief when he cleared the prelims, but the mains and interview were still to go. While he was preparing for his mains, his sister’s husband died of alcohol overdose. And suddenly, the responsibility of comforting the family had fallen upon his shoulders, since his father and brother were both working.
“But even in the difficult time, my sister who had lost her husband, as strong as she was, told me to return to Pune and prepare for the mains.”
The results came out, and he had cleared them yet again.
He still remembers his interview round with a panel where a retired IAS officer asked him about Muslim youth joining radical organisations. While he was impressed by the answers Ansar gave, at one point in the interview -they asked him if he belonged to the Shia sect or the Sunni sect. Ansar was quick to quip, “I am an Indian Muslim.”
He scored 199 out of 275, which is a remarkable achievement as far as scoring in an IAS interview round goes.
In his message to IAS aspirants, Ansar says, “If you think your competition is with other lakhs of aspirants who give the exam, you are mistaken. Your only competition is you. So get rid of all of your pessimistic thoughts and success will come your way.
Please remember, poverty and success have no correlation. All you need is hard work and determination. What background you come from, doesn’t matter. Marks might not define your intelligence. But for some, it is their only way to pull themselves out of the abyss of poverty. It is not easy and requires rigorous hard work to arrive at those grades and shouldn’t be disregarded.”