Sixty years ago I learned to write Tamil alphabet on sand, in a remote Dalit village. It was at Bertram Hall, Loyola College, that I wrote my TOEFL (English test) in 1970 before I went on a Fulbright Scholarship to study in the US. It was a great privilege indeed to participate in this celebration honoring Dalit graduates along with their parents and eminent leaders and intellectuals.
Among the participants at the Dalit Graduation Celebration were five founding members of THUDI. Their Tamil poems with English translations are in press. One poet – Sebulon – a first generation graduate talks of the great jubilation in his family when he completed studies and became a teacher. Why this fuss and theatrics, he asks, and answers:
All this theatrics just for becoming a teacher!
This is no ordinary street play,
Venturing to teach
After sacrificing the thumb to learn!
This is a dance of defiance!
The Dalit Graduation was a celebration of the triumph of the spirit and body over nearly two thousand years of injustice and denial of education. It was as much an agitation as a celebration of hope; an occasion organized to remind ourselves that what was lost over the ages can be regained with perseverance and encouragement. The Bertram Hall exploded with Dalit drumming. This ancient sound touched every nerve; and the graduates, especially the young women, had to restrain themselves from wanting to get up and dance! This was a great treat for the 600 people who attended the Dalit Graduation Celebration. They included about 250 parents and guests, 130 students with their teachers from five schools, and 200 graduates from eight universities. The organizers had expected to honor only 100 graduates but their work and joy doubled! The audience was thrilled to see the Minister of Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare of Government of Tamil Nadu, Hon. N. Subramanian, on the stage to honor the graduates and Dalit achievers. The Minister was accompanied by the Secretary to the Government, Mr. A. S. Jeevarathinam, IAS.
Sangeetha was one among the 200 who were honored at the Dalit Graduation Celebration. It is by the triumph of her spirit indeed that she could graduate with B.A. and B.Ed. degrees in English literature. Father is mostly away in distant hills weighing tea leaves. At home near Pudukkottai, her mother earns daily wages by collecting cashew nuts. The cashew plantation is full of thorns and her mother would return every day with thorns poking her hands and legs. Sangeetha felt miserable as she removed the thorns. Sangeetha's eyes filled with tears; this graduation celebration was a unique honor that she never imagined could happen!
Asairaja dreams of becoming a college professor. He recalls how he was the only one among his friends who managed to join a college and obtain a B.Sc. degree in mathematics. The money his parents earned as daily wage workers was not sufficient to even maintain them. Asairaja supported himself by coaching school students. He was so happy that the organizers of the Dalit Graduation Celebration sent an invitation to his village welcoming him as well as his parents to participate in the celebration.
K. Anandhi could get a bachelor's degree in botany because of her father's determined encouragement. Her younger brother could not continue studies but worked hard to support her while she studied. Anandhi says she will surely help someone else to get an education. S. Ramachandran, a tribal student from Javvadhi Hills, graduated with a degree in history because of his brother's support; both his parents had died. V. Sakthivel is still in school, in eleventh standard, but was proud to be an observer at the Dalit Graduation Celebration. It is his grandfather, a coolie, who provids food, shelter and support so he could study. For most other graduates – A. Rajeswari, George Chiranjeevi, S. Pratheep, R. Jeyalakshmi and others – it was their mothers who must be thanked for ensuring that they get a college degree.
Life is hard for these first generation graduates. Poverty is real. It is a wonder that M. Amala could obtain a bachelor's degree in a family of four girls and illiterate parents. Father works as a coolie to support them. In the very city of Chennai, for school going A. Thirupathi, who wants to specialize in computer science, father must break stones in a quarry and mother must carry weight on her head in construction sites every day. At a tender age several students have experienced what caste discrimination feels like. K. Karpagam (B.A. History) still remembers how she was told to carry her slippers on her head in a village in Dharmapuri District. A brahmin priest near Vilupuram found out that P. Kannan was a Dalit and told him that he could not enter the Siva temple. Jeyalakshmi (B.Sc. Nutrition) found a job but was advised by a well wisher not to mention anything about her caste lest fellow workers will think low of her! He has B.Sc. and B.Ed. degrees but no upper caste folks will enter M. S. Manikandan's house in Vilupuram District!
This is the second Dalit Graduation Celebration. We organized the first one in 2009 when more than 500 people gathered to honor 100 first generation college/university graduates. Dr. Ruth Manorama (recipient of the Right Livelihood Award) was the chief guest, and Ms. Florence Maduro, from New York, who was with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his 1963 March on Washington was a honored special guest.
Why do we celebrate Dalit Graduation? Two thousand years ago the Tamil country had widespread literacy. Learning was cherished and very learned people were held in high esteem. Who were these learned people? Sangam literature reveals that there were about 40 women poets. There were great poets among all sections of people – potters, hunters (kuravars), kings, traders, brahmins, warriors (mallars), astrologers (kaniyars), medical doctors (maruthuvars) and carpenters (kollars). The discoveries of Tamili and Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions in some 90 rock surfaces, 470 potsherds, and other objects such as rings, seals, coins and hero stones have established that more than 2000 years ago all groups of people had access to and enjoyed learning. (Two such potsherds have also been discovered in distant as Egypt). It is a sad part of our history that over the last 1500 years a large part of humanity has been denied opportunities to learn and express their talents and make their contributions to society in arts, sciences and technology. Dalits are a significant component of this deprived humanity; as are tribals and many backward communities.
The Dalit Graduation Celebration is a time to recall that Dalits did and will continue to overcome all obstacles before them and take their legitimate place in the society, in ever increasing numbers. It is an affirmation that Dalits will transcend all divisive forces and stand in solidarity with all people to help create a society free from inequalities and discrimination; a society where all people will be enabled to express their full humanity. This celebration is also a tribute to the greatness of India's democracy, its Constitution and the visionary author of the Constitution, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar.
The Dalit Graduation Celebration is not a caste event. Dalits do not have caste, and Dalits should be the first ones to stand alongside Babasaheb Ambedkar to annihilate caste where it exists! Astonishing findings of modern science reveal all humanity as one family, with original home in Africa, and with a saga of great migrations and settlements throughout the world. Indeed the story of evolution is a story of grand unification of all life, not just the human species. Those sections of people who still cling to archaic ideologies that divide and discriminate people are indeed a shame and a blot on the panoramic canvass of humans and a planet alive with possibilities.
Dalits are aware that fellow tribal brothers and sisters, and large numbers of people among other backward communities are also struggling to liberate themselves from the past structures of bondage and present inequities. Dalits will claim for all what the great Constitution of India promises, which is promotion of the welfare of the people by securing and protecting a social order in which justice, social, economic and political, informs all institutions of the national life: "The State shall, in particular, strive to minimize the inequalities in income, and endeavor to eliminate inequalities in status, facilities and opportunities, not only amongst individuals but also amongst groups of people residing in different areas or engaged in different vocations." (Art. 38).
We are now witnessing some welcome changes in education. The Right to Education is one such change. Concerned about the low Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) of only 13%, the government hopes that the number of universities will increase to at least about 1000, and the number of colleges to about 40,000 so that the GER can be increased to 30% by 2020. (At present there are about 500 universities and 26,000 colleges). The fact remains that the GER of Dalit students is only 6%. Also only about 6000 of the 26,000 institutions (23%) are recognized by UGC for government assistance. Education of the youth does not happen merely because there are institutions or enrollment. Students need support and facilities, favorable environment, enlightened teachers, and encouragement from families, community and the government. We must envisage a Dalit Graduation Celebration as an expression of strong support to the enlightened educational policies of the Government. Educating students is not merely for increasing the GER; but also to ensure the progress of our nation. A vast number of educated youth who share their talents is the need for the present and future of India. Ours is a land of a million possibilities provided we overcome blind and prejudicial worldviews that grind the growth and creativity of the youth.
One of the glaring injustices and unconstitutional practices in our country is the division of students into two classes of citizens - those studying in Government and aided colleges, and those studying in selffinancing colleges. A brother may study in a Government or aided college, pay less fees or no fees at all and benefit from the various programs of the Government and funds that UGC provides to such institutions. But his unfortunate sister may study in a self-financing college struggling to pay fees, with the UGC and other bodies totally denying any benefit from the public funds at their disposal. With such discriminatory division of students into two categories there is no hope that we can achieve all the goals that UGC, Planning Commission or National Knowledge Commission desire.
We are, therefore, grateful to the Hon. CM of Tamil Nadu for her recent announcement that SC/ST students in payment seat category studying in self-financing colleges will also get full fee reimbursement. We thank the Hon. Minister for Adi Dravidar & Tribal Welfare and the Secretary for their efforts and appeal to them to help implement this Government Order immediately and in the most student-friendly manner possible. If there is one man responsible for taking up this and several such issues with single-minded devotion it is Dr. Christodas Gandhi IAS. I am aware of no other single Government officer who has helped hundreds and hundreds of poor students – not just Dalit students, but anyone who came to him - to succeed in school, college or professional education. Just a handful of officers like him who take our Constitutional provisions and commitment to education and progress of students seriously can transform the course of education of the poor in no time in our State.
The second Dalit Graduation Celebration of 2012 was a one-day event. From registration to the end of the celebrations people felt an all-pervading sense of energy, solidarity, camaraderie and joy. From painting and banners to the elegant backdrop of the stage were the symbols and faces of the Buddha and Babasaheb Ambedkar merged in the blueness of the vast sky and the deep ocean. The drumming opener was followed by Dalit leaders, educationists and activists engaging the school and university students with contemporary issues of interest. The topics ranged from current status of Dalit education and financial assistance available for their education (Profs. Suresh Babu and Mohan Raj), higher studies and research (Prof. Armstrong and Dr. Deepthi Sukumar), role of students in social emancipation (Mr. K. Armstrong) and the challenges that Dalit students face (Ms. Sherin).
The afternoon session was a time to honor the graduates and Dalit achievers. The stage was animated by the presence of Fr. B. Jeyaraj (Principal), Fr. MJM Mahalingam (Director, LEADS), Dalit Ratna Bishop M. Azariah, Dr. R. Christodas Gandhi IAS (Addl. Chief Secretary / Development Commissioner), Dr. Jerome from Tanzania, and educationists Dr. K. Shivaram Selvakkumar and Dr. P. Dayanandan. The Minister honored 15 Dalit men and women for their achievements and service: establishing educational institution (Dr. K. Shivaram Selvakkumar), human rights (Rajinikanth), art (Nataraj), social justice (S. Umashankar), human rights and activism (S. Palniammal), entrepreneurship (Susi Emu Gururajan), education (T. N. Thangasekar), social liberation journalism (Yakkan), Ambedkar thoughts (Gouthaman), journalism (Punitha Pandian), sports (Radhakrishnan), emancipation and progress of society (G. Israel), spreading Ambedkar ideals and film on Babasaheb (Dr. P. Padmavathi), film and music (Velmurugan), law (P. S. Amalraj).
The 200 Dalit graduates, dressed in brilliant blue robes with elegant white borders were beaming with radiant smiles. The students had come from many universities: Alagappa, Anna, Annamalai, Bharathidasan, Bharathiyar, Madras and Madurai Kamaraj in Tamil Nadu. The graduates had traveled from Andhra Pradesh, Chennai, Coimbatore, Cuddalore, Gingee, Kanchi, Madurai, Namakkal, Pondy, Pudukkotai, Thanjavur, Thiruchi, Thirunelveli, Thiruvannamalai, Thiruvarur, Vellore, Vilupuram and other towns. They had bachelor, masters, B. Ed., M. E., M. Phil, Ph.D. and other degrees including diplomas. The Hon. Minister honored them with medals and certificates. The organizers knew that the Minister had to rush to another meeting and thought he would have time to honor just 15 students. The Hon. Minister was moved and overjoyed and stayed on to honor all 200 graduates! Some parents in the audience wept with joy! Ms. Shanthakumari, a student who participated in the first 2009 Dalit Graduation Celebration, came on the stage to share her joy and how she was encouraged to pursue her studies and obtain an M. Phil. degree from the Madras University.
The Minister acknowledged his Dalit origins, and spoke from his heart about the challenges that Dalit and Adivasi students face, and the lack of facilities and support they deserve. He assured them that the Government will come to their aid and offer them the support they need. The Minister was emphatic that only through education Dalits and poor people can make significant progress in life. The sentiments expressed by the Minister were equally shared by the Principal, and other speakers. Dr. Jerome was a special guest from Tanzania. He recalled how in his country and in the continent of Africa of great human diversity there are many human communities, but in a horizontal relationship; in India people are stacked vertically! He congratulated the graduates, encouraged them to pursue studies and appreciated the role played by the Loyola College in emancipation.
The students, their parents and families who participated in the second Dalit Graduation Celebration of 2012 will ever be indebted to the Rector, Secretary, Principal, Vice-Principal and Father Mahalingam of LEADS for organizing this celebration. Loyola College stands foremost among the few progressive minded colleges in India committed to a vibrant academic program as well as to equity and social justice in education. Loyola shares with Jesuits all over the world the Christian ideal of preferential option for the poor and marginalized. It also shares the sentiments of a "second freedom struggle" expressed by the Catholic Church in India in its "All India Catholic Education Policy (2007)".
Energized by these core Christian values Loyola has been a pioneer in walking together with the poor towards the goal of liberation. Loyola gave effects to its bold proclamation of justice and preferential option to the poor and marginalized by introducing a substantial percentage of reservation for Dalits in admission and recruitment. In doing so, Loyola demolished a great myth about education: quality of education depends upon caste status of students! It is fitting therefore that the Second Dalit Graduation Celebration was held at Loyola College, jointly organized by LEADS (Loyola Emancipatory Action for Dalit Students) and THUDI. Dalits and Adivasis throughout India salute Loyola College and all the administrators and faculty for being enlightened leaders promoting equity in education. I hope that other institutions, groping in the dark, not knowing how to humanize education, will learn from Loyola.
The Dalit Graduation Celebration is fashioned after the 'Black Graduation Ceremony' that is celebrated in many universities and colleges in the United States, starting about 40 years ago. This popular event is encouraged and sponsored by the institutions or other bodies such as departments of African-American studies, Minority Affairs and Black Student Affairs. I witnessed one such joyful celebration in 2005 at Pomona College in California when Black students from the five Claremont Colleges celebrated their achievements. I wrote about it in "Dalit Murasu." A Dalit Graduation Celebration is not a function where we give degrees or diplomas. Only universities are authorized to do so. Instead, we invite those who have already received degrees, diplomas or certificates at any level and congratulate and honor them and their parents, families, teachers and friends, and encourage them to pursue further studies. We invite young school students to witness this happy celebration so they can be motivated and develop the confidence that they too can be graduates and achievers. We also honor Dalit achievers who have excelled in their fields and made significant contributions to society and the uplift of the poor and marginalized.
We appeal to the Government, Dalit leaders and NGOs to encourage such graduation celebrations throughout the State and Country. This will motivate Dalit students, and especially our Adivasi brothers and sisters to pursue higher education. Tamil Nadu can be a leader and pioneer in providing a model and inspiration for the rest of the country. We are confident that Loyola will make this an annual event. This year we had a large participation of women students. In future we hope to gather even more women graduates and also ensure the participation of Adivasi and transgender students and others who are now finding higher education beyond their reach.
Many well-wishers and student volunteers helped make this celebration a meaningful and successful event. Although they are part of the team, I must record the extraordinary contributions of Dr. Christodhas Gandhi, Fr. Mahalingam (LEADS) and Bharathi Prabhu (THUDI) and thank them for their indefatigable work and faith in the future.
Dr. P. Dayanandan, in his own words:
I retired as a professor and chairman of botany after teaching for 38 years. I have a Ph.D. from University of Michigan. I also post doctored for NASA. I have carried out many funded scientific projects and 10 Ph.D. scholars have studied with me. My interests range from all aspects of botany to Pallava art history, Tamil literature, Dalit issues, education, space biology and spending time with young people to explore social consequences of oppression and empowering them to pursue studies in India and abroad.
Ten years ago I helped organize a student and youth group called 'THUDI' involved in educating, agitating and organizing.