"If I die, I will fail. I shall live and win. I very well know how tough it is. Hearing people speak of this nation as a democracy makes me laugh, for isn't it this nation which witnessed the suicide of Rohith Vemula who had noted,"My birth is my fatal accident"? But I shan't choose that path, for I if I do, I will fail."
These words of Athira, an engineering student hailing from the scheduled tribe of Oorali, illustrate the fate of certain groups of people suffering for the mere crime of being born into a particular caste or tribe. They echo the very issues addressed by Rohith Vemula who was compelled to commit suicide, and which continues to haunt a large number of students in India.
Athira is the eldest of two daughters in a family in Vanchivayalil in Vandiperiyar in the district of Idukki. Her parents who work on daily wages (coolie workers) were determined to give their children good education despite their deplorable living conditions. She was sent to a school in Valady as their neighborhood had none. After learning for two years there, she was sent to study in Amaravati Government School from Grades III to IV and consequently secured admission to Modern Residential School(MRS) from where she passed Grade X. She was later sent to Ambedkar School in Trivandrum for higher studies. Her school encouraged her to appear for the entrance examination in line with her aspirations to study in Engineering College, Trivandrum(CET). It was either a B.Tech from CET or a (non-professional) degree from University College, she decided.
Fate had it that admissions to both colleges bloomed at the same time. Her dream of engineering, that too at CET, was thus realized, in the branch of Electronics which was her fourth option, in the first allotment. With the joy of getting her dreams fulfilled, she stepped into the world of CET, from the Reservation Category as her rank was (otherwise) low.
Came through reservation? Stay behind!
It was in 2004 that I joined CET. And yes, through reservation. But no, I don't consider it as anyone's favour. Though I had come from with a low rank, I intended to come forth. (You see) For students like me, it isn't easy to invest in expensive coaching centres. Yet, we have to compete with students who can. This is why students like me find it difficult to step on the scaffolds of higher education, and the system of reservation comes to our rescue then. No student can pass just because he/she secured admission through reservation. Potential is crucial. We too have got to study to pass exams. However, neither the students nor the teachers evaluate us on the basis of our potentials. There is some sort of a disdain: where we are seen as occupying undeserving positions.
I too was a victim of this scorn. Thinking it would be good to sit in the front row, as a step in coming forth from my current position and not remaining behind, I occupied a seat in the front. But I was backlashed with the same contempt. Each batch is allotted a staff adviser and the first piece of advice given by ours was aimed at the reservation students. We were told that the chances of our failure were high and we should hence study hard. I could easily understand the psychology behind this statement. Added to this, two of us (both from the reservation category) were shifted from the front seat, clarifying the discriminatory approaches towards us.
A Facebook post
Many instances of internal marks as a trump card in the hands of teachers have come in limelight lately. My case too wasn't different. I was given a mere 28 though the minimum internal marks given was 35. I was initially given an even lower score and while another student similar to me(in academic standards) was given 35, my staff advisor was not willing to grant me (marks I deserved).
I was certain I would pass the exams but my low internal marks gifted me seven backpapers. Under the presumption that I could give only three papers for re-evaluation, I applied for the re-evaluation for just three, and the results were favourable. I passed in those courses and I passed two others in the supplementary exams.
(By now) I had begun to feel I was not responsible for my failures. As though it was an external and deliberate force (that was responsible). I was then tempted to post a question in 'Cetiasn', a Facebook group which includes both teachers and students of CET. "What is your opinion about reservation for students in CET?" A question typed right from my heart. But I was forced to question myself as I was made to feel myself as a sinner. All the comments disapproved (the reservation). Some advised, while others scolded. I had committed an unpardonable mistake in every eye. Many teachers saw it as an act of defiance. Even my classmates couldn't understand me. I was isolated in a Ladies Hostel which had around 400 inmates. My seniors came to me with advice and questions to convince me of my mistake, and warnings that they still hadn't posted anything. I turned out to be an arrogant girl in the eyes of the Hostel Warden. All the while, I tried to hide everything from my parents for they would grow scared. I would be forced to stop my studies mid way. But my fears came true. The warden rang up my parents and told that I have some problems.
My parents caught a car and came all the way from Idukki to Trivandrum and met the Warden. They then (directly) went to meet the Staff Advisor who spoke to them in my absence. I was to stand outside. When they came out after the talk, I understood my mother had cried seeing her eyes red. I was right away asked to pack my books and clothes, and accompany them.
I have an uncle in Kazhakkoottam in Trivandrum. They first took me to a psychiatrist. It was then I realized the image the Staff Advisor and the Warden had built up about me to my parents. Even my parents were unwilling to pay heed to my words, because they saw teachers with utmost respect and obedience, placing them equal to God. Worthless were my words then. But I could speak with the doctor who sent me with my parents without any prescription, probably because he had understood me. I was however made to consult another doctor who found some disorder and prescribed medicines. I was diagnosed with Hyperactivity and was referred to another doctor. Consequently, I was taken to Mission Hospital in Kattappana. More medicines. These medicines put me to sleep almost all through two weeks. My parents even sought the help of astrologers, perhaps because they didn't take the psychiatrists into complete belief, wasting a good deal of money. I sensed myself losing my memory. I had no means of contacting my friends and I was not allowed access to my phone. Ultimately, I found recourse in my diary where I jotted everything happening in my life in my own language: incomprehensible to anyone else. It is from these pages that I now get to know all that I had undergone.
Rights (being put) behind bars
I was not prepared to bring my studies to a halt half way through. I persuaded my parents to let me continue and they ultimately obliged and dropped me at CET. These incidents took place in the latter half of 2015. It was time for me to pay the fees for the Third Semester Regular Examination in the beginning of Jan 2016 which my parents did. I was allowed to appear for the examinations after the submission of my Health Certificate. My S2 examinations were in the middle of the S3 examinations. And as the results of re-evaluation were out only after the Supplementary examinations, I had to waste money on Supplementary Exams too. Returning back to College, I had to face the same indifference, the same insolence as ever before. None were willing to speak to me. Being a highly social and interactive person, this was beyond what I could bear. One day, I just walked out of my hostel intending to go to my uncle's at Kazhakkoottam. However, I simply walked around the city. Meanwhile, investigations based on rumours of me having eluded the hostel had begun. However, they were unable to take any action against me as I had reached back before the deadline of 9o'clock. But my parents were informed. The staff and the advisor told them I had had several backpapers and that I would not pass in the coming exams either. They also convinced my parents it was useless in me continuing my education. Remember this was even before my S3 results were out and the Staff Advisor had already predicted a complete failure. Their prophecy was almost in vain, if not completely. Even with the adverse effect of my medicines, I had backpapers in three courses alone. But thanks to the unquestionable beliefs my parents had for the teachers' words, they took me home. They eventually decided to bring my studies at CET to a full stop. Thus, I planned to join for B.Sc. Mathematics under M.G. University. Noting my permanent absence, one of our teachers who teaches in fourth semester rang me up. She advised me not to quit studies and to boldly face challenges. She also asked me to not give up the opportunity. She succeeded in influencing my parents.
The obstacles ahead were nevertheless daunting. By then, CET had affiliated itself to Technical University. If I were to now study in CET, I had to study afresh right from semester one; which meant I would lose two years. I couldn't accept their criterion. They then came up with another suggestion. I would be re-admitted in August 2016 if I ace the exams of the first two semesters once again. However, those exams were not conducted on time and I could not join in August 2016. I later met Education Minister, Deputy Speaker, MLA and many others and presented my issue. But the autonomous university maintained an unfavorable stance. The Vice Chancellor argued that a student can't secure the same degree from two different universities (ours was the last batch of CET under Kerala University.) I guess Technical Education is even today one without clear rules and regulations or policies. At least a year would go by before an Academic Council finally arrives at a solution to a student's problem (thanks to their lengthy procedures). Examples are numerous. Isn't it unfair to ask a student who had to go on leave in the sixth semester-due to some legitimate reason-to go back to the first semester? How many years will the student be forced to lose? This is exactly what happened to me.
Misfortunes continued to follow me. The University brought in a new rule, stating that a student who loses his time due to absence or other issues can be re-admitted without losing any further, provided it is in the odd or even semesters. This decision was taken after admissions were closed(for me). The only option left was to get a transfer from CET.
I had decided to opt for Govt. College in Idukki if I were to get transferred. However, it was my teacher who prompted me to opt for Karyavattum Engineering College which I did, as she had reminded me that I will have to begin afresh since the former is also affiliated to Technical University. On the other hand, I can be admitted to the fourth semester in Karyavattom.
I have been trying for the last three months to get my Transfer Order and met every single person concerned right from the P.A (Personal Assistant) of the Educational Minister. However, the files moved slower than a snail. The Transfer Order was sent from the Department of Education to the Vice Councillor, who didn't approve it. It was then forwarded to the Syndicate Committee which took one month. After their approval, it has now been sent to the Affiliate Committee. I was earlier told the transfer would be given on February 6, however they now say I will be informed after February 10.
When I had gone back to the hostel, the warden kicked me out with the explanation that students with depression can't be allowed stay inside the hostel. (As per records) I am an inmate even now, yet I cannot stay. As of now, I am staying at a private hostel.
My purpose of narrating these incidents is not to blame the College of Engineering, Trivandrum or to place all the teaching faculty in a negative light. (I do acknowledge) there exists a handful of people at CET too, as elsewhere who can see humans as humans, with humane eyes, and it is due to their constant determination I have reached here. I still don't understand the crime I have committed. Is it that I wished to learn? Or that I pointed my fingers at certain matters?
I am merely an example of the fact that a number of students in India go through hardships faced by Rohith Vemula. I don't wish to die. I shan't die, for if I do, I will fail. I shall live and emerge victorious."
(This article was originally published in Azhimukham. It has been translated from Malayalam into English by Aaysha Humayoon Kabeer, a PG student at TKM Arts and Science College, Kollam, and published at The Companion)