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Saturday, 11 February 2017

A tribal student is bullied and shunted out of govt engineering college in Kerala

“I will fail if I die. I want to win by living my life. And, I know how difficult it is here. I feel like laughing when I repeatedly told that this country is a democratic one; Is this the same country where Dalit research scholar Rohit Vemula had to end his life writing “my birth is my fatal accident”? But, I am not ready to take his route, because I want to live, because I will fail if I die.”

There are anguish, resistance and an uncompromising willpower in these words of an Adivasi engineering student from Kerala who was left to wage a war on her own. This was told by Athira, a student of the College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram (CET) who was targeted by the college authorities for raising questions against discriminating students from backward communities inside the campus.

And it is exact replica of several untold words of other hundreds of Dalit, Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe ( ST) students inside CET and outisde, who were compelled to keep calm thinking about their poor parents struggling to make both ends meet, and dreaming of a bright future which they believe to be erasing all their miseries.

Athira, a resident of vanchivayal, Vandiperiyar of Idukki district who belongs to Oorali tribe was humiliated, bullied, harassed, branded as a mental patient, expelled from the hostel and class room and denied permission to attend exams.

Now she is out of the campus, knocking all the doors to make her reentry to the campus possible and waiting for a day justice will be delivered to her.

What made life of this Adivasi girl, who scored 89 percent marks in plus two, this hard? Athira shares her story with SouthLive.

“I was born in a poor Adivasi colony in Vanchivayal, Vandiperiyar. Both my father Thankappan and mother Ramani are day labourers under MGNREGA project. Though they were uneducated, they were determined to give the best of education to me. I started schooling in Valadi, a neighbouring village, as there was no school in my homeland. I completed by tenth in Modern Residential School (MRC) in Idukki and passed out from Thiruvananthapuram Ambedkar school in plus-two with 89 percent marks.

After plus two, I got admission in College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram (CET) through ST quota for engineering. I was very happy as I got a seat in CET, a leading engineering college in the state.

But reality inside the campus was bitter. During initial days of classes, I occupied the first row of class room to get a better attention of teachers. However, after a couple of days, I was advised by one of the teachers to not sit in the first row since it was 'reserved' for brilliant students. What teacher told me was this:

“If you sit with them ( students with top ranks in the entrance exam) you will develop an ego towards them which will ultimately affect your concentration on studies. So, better to sit in the middle or back row of the class room.”

This “advice” was also given to an another Dalit student in my class. After that, we both started sitting in the back row.

This was followed by frequent 'free advices' by Staff Adviser and other teachers. It was mainly this:
“Since you got admission through reservation, the competition would be high. So, always focus on your studies and not intervene in other things.”

Suggestions on that lines were given to me and other Dalit students both in public and personal talks. This branding discouraged me and I started losing confidence.

In the first semester examination, I had seven supplementary exams since Staff Advisior reduced my internal marks without any explanation while my colleagues got good marks. I applied for revaluation in three subjects and passed in it and attended supplementary examinations for the rest winning two among them.

After failing in few subjects just because the Staff Adviser reduced my internal marks, I got tensed and had a feeling that I failed because of some outer interventions. This led me to take to Facebook to express my anguish.

“What is your opinion about reservation for students in CET?” I asked this in a secret Facebook group for CET. Though my intention was to commence a fruitful discussion on isolation of backward students in the campus, it was seen by authorities, staffs and students from the general category as an act of revolt and a coup attempt from my part.

I was bullied, harassed and warned for this one question.

“How dare you ask such a question in public?” that was the concern of teachers.

“Since we are here as your seniors, you don't have any right to outsmart us by such cheap attempts to become popular on the campus?” thus said, seniors.

The real reward for the question came afterwards; that was an allegation that I am a mental patient. Hostel warden, by the direction of Staff Adviser and some other teachers, informed my parents that I am mentally-challenged and I should be taken to any mental hospital very soon.

My parents took me to several hospitals and I was compelled to take a lot of medicines for mental illness. During this period, I missed several classes which forced me to produce my medical certificate which claimed that I underwent treatments for mental health in the college to attend third-semester examination.

Then I understood that it was a trap from the part of authorities to fasten their move against me, to get a medical certificate submitted by myself claiming that I am a mental patient.

Before the results of the third semester came in, the Staff Adviser informed my parents that my grades would not be impressive and there is no point in letting me study in the campus. Following this, my desperate parents decided to take me back to my house and to discontinue my studies in the CET mid way.

As I came back to my home and started applying for admissions in other colleges, one of our teachers called me back and told me that I can continue my studies in CET itself.

However, the college welcomed me with hundreds of technical problems and asked me to start my course from first semester itself or get a transfer to any college.

Now, I am staying in a private hostel at Thiruvananthapuram waiting for my transfer order to come. But, I still don't know why I can't continue my studies in CET and who wanted me to be out of the campus and for what?”

According to Athira's friends at CET, the discrimination against backward students in the campus is not a new thing. They said several Dalit students have stopped their education midway due to pressure and humiliation from the faculties.

A Muslim student at CET, who prefers to be not named “as he feared of a witch hunt from the authorities”, told SouthLive that the mood of the CET itself is casteist.

"The reason behind it is simple. Most of the students who get admission in the campus from general category would be from the upper caste, well off family. As they are products of leading private institutes they will be able to pick up things easily and thus excel in academics while students from poor families lag behind them, even after many rounds of home works.This is apparent. But, teachers, who are meant to bring backward students to the mainstream, instead of performing their duties, would discourage them and create a feeling in them that they are not in the right place." - An engineering student at CET

He also added that the students' union on the campus in the leadership of Students Federation of India (SFI) was reluctant to address the issue. “When we approached them asking to hold a strike demanding justice for Athira, the SFI leaders said that they will not conduct it and, instead, will take part in it if it was held by some other student's group,” he said.

Another friend of Athira, Gopi Kannan, former M.Phil student at University of Kerala, Kariavattom campus is also of the same opinion. He told SouthLive that there are many 'losers' with the same fate of Athira from backward communities in these colleges who gave up after they got humiliated.

"Athira got willpower and that is why she is resisting. Bu the ground reality is really alarming as most of the drop outs are from backward communities. Unfortunately, teachers have a huge role in it." -- Gopi Kannan, former MPhil student at University of Kerala

A teacher at CET, who also prefers to be quoted anonymous as “the months of transfer and promotion nearing” told SouthLive that she has done all that possible to bring Athira back to college.

She said that she first noticed her while clearing internal marks of students for two reasons. One, for her continuous absence and, second, for her tribe “Oorali”.

"Since I noticed no other student from her community ever before, I got a special interest in her case and called her parents asking the reason for her absence." -- A teacher at CET

She also said that she was the one who called her back to the college assuming that her reentry would not be as complicated as it happened. “I did all I can do for her reentry first and transfer later, and I approached all officials from the state education minister to the lower level employees to consider her matter,” she added.

Athira says this particular teacher also insisted her to get a transfer to any other college and to end her battle to get back to CET.

“Why should I leave CET as the college is obliged to allow me to continue my studies there. The teacher also urges me to compromise and live peacefully. This might be out of regard for me. But I am not ready to give it up. My fight is against injustice, and that is not only about me, but for thousands from my community, to prove that our lives are also matter,” Athira concludes.

(Source: South Live)

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