Adivasi girl in Kerala college branded mentally ill; ostracised for speaking against discrimination

By Shafeeq Hudawi,

It is no secret that students from the marginalised communities have been at the receiving end of casteist abuse across the country, and Kerala is no different. While the tragic death of Rohith Vemula in January 2016 was a painful reminder of the same, it is also a fact that little seems to have changed since then.

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A few days ago, we had reported how SFI members have been attacking Dalit and Muslim students in Kerala colleges, but this time, it is the college authorities who have been accused of discriminating against an Adivasi girl.

Athira, a second-year student of College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram (CET) underwent mental torture and a social boycott after she dared to raise voice against the discrimination towards students belonging to SC and ST. In a conversation with, Athira said, “Rohith (Vemula) chose to die. But I won’t. I will fail I die. I have decided to stand up.”

Athira, hailing from a tribal hamlet at Vanchivayal in Idukki district, has been denied entrance to college hostel after she was portrayed as mentally disturbed. The issues started after she asked “What is your opinion about reservation for a student in CET?”  in a Facebook group of the college students and staff.

“I was treated as a criminal. Seniors along with teachers started to irritate asking “why do you come up with unwanted questions?’. This is the approach of educational institutions in the state, towards reservation,” Athira said.

Being a year-out student, Athira has been forced to leave the college since the norms of Kerala Technical University don’t allow a year-out student to continue her studies. She lost some months in the college while she underwent treatment for mental depression after she was branded as a mental patient.

Even before this incident, the casteism was visible in day-to-day affairs of the college. Athira, along with another Dalit girl, was told to go back and find a seating in the back row when Athira sat in front of the row of the class. “One of the faculty members told me that ‘you will try to perform like meritorious students if you sit with them. But you will fail to do.’ He added that this would lead to ego issues and lead to depression, affecting my studies,” Athira alleged. Faculty members used to comment that tribal students can perform well only if they are given special tuition,” she added.

“How can a tribal student from backward conditions perform like others, who studied at leading schools and were given coaching by experts? I couldn’t even attend entrance coaching classes,” Athira, who is from Oorali tribe, said.

To make matters worse, Athira also got frequent ‘free advice’ by other teachers. “They used to say that since I got through reservation, the competition would be a tough task. So, I should focus on your studies and not intervene in other things.” This might appear harmless on the face of it, but Athira says that these ‘suggestions’ were a polite way of reminding the Dalit students that they should not try to expose the college’s casteist attitude. “We can also perform well. But such advice ruins our confidence,” she said.

One of the faculties, according to Athira, even advised her family to take her to a psychiatrist. But these suggestions soon turned into action, and Athira’s father and mother came from Idukki to Thiruvananthapuram and took her to a nearby hospital following the college orders.  Athira’s father Thankappan and mother Ramani are day labourers under MGNREGA project.

“They told my parents that I was sick and unfit to carry studies. The first doctor in Thiruvananthapuram said that I was was perfectly normal. My parents took me to our hometown, where doctors prescribed medicines for hyperactivism and depression. I missed most of my classes due to treatment for the disease that I didn’t have,” she said. But the troubles did not end here.

When she came back, Athira was told she could not stay at the hostel and continue at CET.

The teachers were trying to get her a transfer to the engineering college in the Kerala University campus in Thiruvananthapuram.  The university senate granted her transfer. But she has refused the transfer. “I don’t want to go to a lower rung college. I know I can complete BTech from CET if they allow me,” she said.

On Friday, February 10, she appeared for a supplementary examination as she had failed to clear seven papers due to long absence and discrimination in granting internal marks. “The college administration shows its true colours in allotting internal marks,” she says.

Athira has to clear three papers in order to continue in CET. “If I fail to do so, I will have to either go to any other college under Kerala University or start from the first semester,” Athira said.

Athira has decided to approach Kerala Technical University seeking steps to exempt her. And college principal Vrinda V Nair has ordered a probe into the incident following media reports and social media agitation.

Meanwhile, SC and ST students say that Athira’s case is not an isolated one. “The plight is almost similar in Kerala campuses, where students undergo discrimination. Teachers give less internal marks to these students and thus they struggle while others easily clear papers,” says Binesh Balan, a tribal student. Binesh was denied opportunity to join London School of Economics for a year due to the deliberate laxity by officers in giving him financial assistance.

“Students who got admission through reservation are considered second-class citizens. But no one dares to complain,” he says.