How Brahminism Killed Anitha and Delta

Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un

The agony of the loss of a child is felt most intensely by their immediate family. But when we look at the bitter, somber, grieve-stricken faces of Radhika Vemula amma or Delta’s father, or now, Anitha’s father, we, as a community, feel bereaved. The constant loss of our bright and young is an assault on our collective hopes and dreams.

But these are not accidents, and they are emphatically not suicides. These are the purpose-driven outcomes of a social structure that preserves itself by keeping learning and resources consistently impervious to the oppressed.

Anitha

Anitha was a young Dalit girl of only 17. Her background is not different from that of many young kids from marginalized communities in India. Poor, segregated, struggling. Her father is a daily wage laborer whose job is lifting and moving heavy sacks of goods on his back. Her mother passed away when she was young and was raised by her father and grandmother.

It is evident that Anitha tried to surpass the hurdles presented by her Caste, class, and gender with intelligence and spirit. She aspired to become a doctor. “A social-oriented doctor”, in her own words. “ I will become a doctor and come back and help my people”, she says in a video shot by activist Gowthama Meena. Taking a bus every day to school, sometimes arriving late because of housework, brushing off the insults, the insecurities, studying, being fierce and relentless meant that she scored 1176 marks out of 1200 (98%) in her high school examinations. Her focus and determination did pay off.

It is important to understand what this meant to Anitha at that time. She understood that her perseverance had given her a real shot at life itself. First, this meant she had secured an opportunity to pursue her personal dream to study medicine. Second, she had a chance to release her family from the transgenerational clutches of Caste. This is an incredibly inspiring and incredibly poignant moment. None of the doors had opened by themselves for Anitha — she had moved mountains out of the way first. At this point, Anitha should simply have gone on to university, become a practicing doctor, lived her life, and continued to make us proud.

So what happened?

In India, many states follow their own regional “State curriculum” for high schools. In addition to that curriculum, a “Central” (Federal) curriculum, is also made available throughout the country. Most students in the country, study under their state’s curriculums. The central curriculum is often seen as elite and presented by many as more “more thorough, more rigorous, more thought provoking” in its academic content. In reality, there exists no evidence to show that central-educated students fare better in their professional lives in comparison to state-educated fellows. Several states have also formally reaffirmed the same[1].

Key is the fact is that state curriculums often offer students learning in a language of instruction that accessible and is in the student’s mother tongue. In Anitha’s case, Tamil. Central curriculums demands instruction be either Hindi or English. Most Tamilians speak, read, and write only in Tamil. Both Hindi and English are almost just as foreign to Tamilians as German or Cantonese or Yoruba would be. What the language barriers effectively set up is a Caste-based class divide, where more urban, “upper” Caste and upper class students gravitate towards central education while a mass of lower Caste, rural, and lower class students, study within the state standards.

In this context, the central government abruptly instituted a singular policy that mandated all students looking to apply for medical school, take a national entrance exam. Senselessly, this National Eligibility and Entrance Test or NEET, includes content not taught in the state curriculum but taught in the central curriculum.

This gives central-educated students an advantage while state-educated students can’t figure out why they were being tested on syllabi they had never been taught!

When 88% of all the students that took the NEET exam in Tamil Nadu, were state-educated, this is, at best, a misguided policy.

“Upper” Caste and upper class students studying under the state curriculum could afford to pay for extracurricular NEET preparation courses after regular school hours to prepare for content they were likely missing out on. Students like Anitha, cannot. When NEET results came out, Anitha had suddenly not scored enough marks to qualify for a medical school admission. ( If her state board results were the only consideration for admission, Anita would have easily gotten into any of the state’s medical schools. ) However, she had scored enough to be eligible for admission to several prestigious engineering programs throughout the state.

Many well-meaning friends and family told her she should just join the engineering program and be done with it. But engineering was not what she had bled and toiled for. She had lost her mother because of their family’s inability to provide her with sufficient and timely medical care. By studying to become a doctor herself, she could ensure that that didn’t happen to anyone else in her community. And she wanted her rightfully-earned, well-deserved, place in medical school.

Anitha was among the handful of students who resisted NEET, ran campaigns against the policy asserting that NEET was Casteist and that it disproportionately targeted Dalit and Adivasi students for failure. She had personally met with and appealed to several politicians in Tamil Nadu and was part of a team of students who took the case all the way to the Supreme Court of India.

It was never that Anitha hadn’t fought or that she hadn’t fought enough. It is that everyone reaches a limit of suffering and she had hit hers. The worst thing in the life of a young person is to be denied the right to dream and hope.

So, Anitha, denied her own vision of her future, through circumstances that were grossly unjust and out of her control, felt at the end of her reserves, and took that final fatal step.

Delta

In the midst of Anitha’s passing, let us take a moment to remember another bright young 17 year old Dalit girl we lost in March of 2016. Delta Meghwal. Delta’s story is much like Anitha’s in that she was bright, she was motivated, and she fought tooth and nail to beat her circumstances.

Her father named her Delta — after river deltas — landscapes at the edge of the water, brimming with richness and bringing growth and abundance.

They had hopes for Delta who at a young age demonstrated incredible assertiveness, creativity, and intelligence. Her paintings won awards and were published in art magazines. She and her family poured everything they had into her education and finally admitted her to college to be trained as a teacher.

At the hostel, where she stayed, she was called into her instructor’s room and asked to clean. ( Dalit girls are seen as cleaners by default and such requests are utterly disgraceful but not common ) Here, her teacher proceeded to rape her and then drown her in the water tank on the roof of her hostel where her body was found.

Her dream, her family’s dream, their hope for a better future — all snuffed out in a day. Delta’s case is, unsurprisingly, still pending and no real progress has been made towards justice in a year and half since her murder.

Delta’s father sits alone and broken, showing anyone who will see, his daughter’s old paintings and pictures of her speaking at school gatherings where she stands in front of a mic, arms raised, her face scrunched in earnest seriousness, full of spirit. He cries because he has no one to talk to anymore. “All I want is someone who will listen to me. But no one cares about what happened to Delta anymore.” [2]

Brahminism[3] Kills

If one sees Anitha’s or Delta’s passing as specific to only Anitha or Delta — or even only as a failure of India’s education system — we will not be able to understand why things took a turn as they did. The problem that all of these details highlight, is the problem of Brahminism pervading throughout the structures of education in India.

Hindu scriptures have stated for millennia that formal education, reading and writing, were to be strictly religious in content, rote, limited to “upper” Caste men, and violently punishable to women and the “lower” Castes who dared to attain it[4]. The vast body of knowledge generated and held by women and the “lower” Castes was trivialized, erased, and even actively destroyed[5],[6].

India’s marginalized students, Dalits, Adivasis, the other oppressed-Castes, and religious minorities — continue to feel the persisting effects of these ancient laws.

Leave aside the fairly prevalent feeling that students from marginalized communities are considered fundamentally unworthy of education and parasitic to ruling Castes’ interests. The “upper” Castes feel constantly resentful of, and wronged by, Reservation (Affirmative Action) programs that exist for students marginalized by Caste and tribe.

Photos from Indian Atheists (https://www.facebook.com/IndianAtheists/posts/10154878784118372)

Frankly, there is a great deal more to a marginalized student’s experience of education than Reservation.

Many of our children don’t even make it to school. Their Caste, tribe, and religion, means they are poor, they are malnutritioned, they die young of disease[7]. As in Gorakhpur and Malkangiri, they are killed by the lack of healthcare and the neglect of the state [8]. They are killed in wars and pogroms against their communities[9],[10],[11]. They are lynched by mobs[12]. They are burnt alive.[13] They are maimed by their disproportionate vulnerability to the effects of climate change[14],[15].

And if they surpass all this and survive and enter into a school at all, they are segregated by Caste in the classroom[16]. They are denied food , a midday meal [17]. They are forced to clean the school toilets[18]. They are ridiculed, they are labeled “unworthy of merit”[19]. They are disappeared[20]. They are falsely accused [21] and assaulted by the police[22]. They are tormented by their school and college administrations[23]. Their spirits are burdened by the Brahminical right and left on campus[24]. They are raped by their own teacher like Delta and yes — driven to death, like Anitha.

How can any of our students emerge alive from the hellishness ? It is no less than a miracle when they do.

What Anitha and Delta have taught us is that in the face of this onslaught, our students are fighting back heroically .

To them, we owe our firmest allegiance and care.

********

[1]http://www.livemint.com/Politics/QgYD6W50rev6VcHmGs9GKP/NEET-protests-More-states-join-the-fight.html

[2] Personal conversations with Afroz Alam Sahil, senior reporter, Twocircles.net

[3] Brahminism refers to the existence of a religiously sanctioned Caste system that manifests as deep social, economic, geographical, spiritual, cultural, and political inequity in India, larger South Asia, and in the South Asian diasporas throughout the world.

[4] Manusmriti XII-4

[5] Manusmriti 5 III — 6

[6] Narada Smriti 2 XV-22–27

[7] http://twocircles.net/2016nov21/1479747133.html

[8] https://www.geo.tv/latest/156545-49-children-die-due-to-lack-of-oxygen-at-india-hospital

[9] https://www.easterneye.eu/fifteen-years-bloody-riots-indian-muslims-struggling-escape-gujarat-ghettos/

[10]https://scroll.in/magazine/830588/they-wish-every-day-to-be-dead-the-struggles-of-children-in-gujarats-riot-rehabilitation-camps

[11] http://www.countercurrents.org/wsws051115.htm

[12] http://www.dailyo.in/voices/lynchings-junaid-khan-muslims-modi-bjp-hindutva-india/story/1/18039.html

[13]http://www.firstpost.com/india/ugly-face-of-caste-violence-despite-police-protection-dalit-children-burnt-alive-in-haryana-2476088.html

[14] https://thewire.in/162901/bengal-flood-situation-improves-toll-mounts-31/

[15] http://punemirror.indiatimes.com/pune/cover-story//articleshow/50410585.cms

[16]https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/breaking-caste/untouchable-in-the-classroom/article4234733/?ref=http://www.theglobeandmail.com&

[17]http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Government-school-students-divide-mid-day-meals-on-caste-basis/articleshow/43032900.cms

[18]http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/dalit-students-forced-to-clean-toilets/article7124826.ece

[19] https://thedeathofmeritinindia.wordpress.com/

[20]http://www.timesnownews.com/india/article/jawaharlal-nehru-university-jnu-student-najeeb-ahmed-cbi-delhi-hc/70634

[21] http://twocircles.net/2017apr03/407173.html

[22]http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/police-brutality-at-hyderabad-central-university-rocks-telangana-assembly/

[23] http://twocircles.net/2016dec16/1481876591.html

[24] https://thewire.in/100488/rohith-vemula-letter-a-powerful-indictment-of-social-prejudices/

[25] http://twocircles.net/2017jan25/403525.html