On the 4th of March, 2019, a 16-year-old girl was found hanging from a tree just outside the village of Rouni, nestled in the Sal-forested hills of Jashpur in Chhattisgarh, India. Manita had chosen not to accompany her parents to a meeting on caste certificates held in the village the day before, saying she’d rather stay home and study for her exams. After a few hours at home, she took the cattle out to graze, found a tree at the edge of the village, and hanged herself; the cattle returned alone.
Two days before it happened, on the 1st of March, Manita had been writing the first of her 10th standard board examinations in Pandrapat, around 10km away from Rouni. With just over 5000 inhabitants, Pandrapat is a beautiful little town perched on a hill in the Bagicha block of the Jashpur District. It is home to some of the best quality Bauxite in the country, and also famous for its gold deposits, but it gets its name from its January mornings; ‘pandra’, in Korwa, means ‘white’ and ‘pat’ means ‘plateau’– and in the winter, the hills are covered in a blanket of ice, turning them into a breathtaking white that stretches as far as the eye can see. In March, when the morning chill still carried the memory of winter, children from neighbouring villages travel to Pandrapat to write their exams. As Manita made the long journey on the first morning of March, the Palash trees were probably in full bloom.
That day, as the children were writing their exam, members of a flying squad barged into the room, and began picking out students to be strip-searched at random under the suspicion of cheating. Manita was one of these children. “The boys were taken into the corridor and the girls into another room. While the boys were made to take off their shoes and socks, some of the girls were also instructed to remove other articles of clothing – including their chunnis, sweaters and pants. Some of us were even made to take off all their clothes” says Munni1, one of the children who was made to take off some of her clothing. “Whatever we managed to write was before the search. After we were taken away and brought back, we were afraid and shaken, and were unable to concentrate”, she added. “Thankfully, it was enough for some of us to pass.”
Munni is from Bhadiya, a village around 15km away from Pandrapat. She tells us of another girl from Badhiya who was made to take off all her clothes – she too has spoken up about the incident, testifying to the ordeal. Munni is one of the few local students whose parents owned a motorbike, and her father would take her all the way to write her board exams. Some children were brought in by teachers who had transport, while others stayed with relatives in Pandrapat for the duration of their exams. Munni has just received her results, and has passed her board exams. She plans to study further. There is no higher secondary school in Bhadiya, so she plans to move to Jashpur and study at a residential school in the district headquarters. Her mother, Phulmaniya Yadav, is resigned to the idea. “What choice do we have? She wants to study further, and there is no school here, so we’ll have to send her that far.”
Manita, it would seem, had similar plans. “She would say, once I clear my boards, I want to go to Jashpur to study”, her mother Hiramuni said to us, the heaviness of loss lacing her words. Hiramuni had never been to school, but she would do all that she could to make sure her daughter was able to study. “So often I haven’t been able to help them…whether it was the admission, scholarship or examination forms, Manita’s mother would always be the one to do all the running around – making multiple trips to the block office and school”, said Laxman Sai, a close relative and husband of the village Sarpanch. “Sons get all the property – the house, the fields, everything. But what do we give our daughters? The least we could do was give her an education”, Hiramuni added.
The family belongs to the Pahari Korwa tribe, one of two Korwa tribes in the region. While the Pahari Korwas are classified by the government as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG), the Dihari Korwas are not. “Those who stayed in the forests got called Pahari, and those who came to clearances and started farming were called Dihari – but the fact is, we are all Korwas”, said Laxman Sai, suggesting that no attempt has ever been made to assess the socioeconomic capital or ascertain the educational status of any members, and account for trends of historical exclusion from access to education, healthcare and other basic resources in devising this seemingly arbitrary system of classification. His observation resonates with the fact that even base-line studies haven’t been done for many groups identified as PVTGs. Laughingly, Laxman ji also added “I’m the husband of an adivasi Sarpanch in an area that comes under the Fifth Schedule – and I can’t get my own self a caste certificate that declares my true tribal identity.”
While the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Amendment) Act, 2013 includes the Pahari Korwas as a tribe in addition to Korwa, recognising them as PVTG, and making special provisions for them, they face almost insurmountable barriers of access in attempting to acquire caste certificates. For many, the task of obtaining a certificate seems next to impossible. It would appear the fault lies not with individual members of the bureaucracy whose hands remain tied up in red tape, but within the letter of the law. The reluctance to grant certificates is hard-wired into the process, rather than the people responsible for receiving and approving requests made by applicants – under the existing set of rules, you are entitled to a caste certificate if you can produce any one on a list of documents that already identify you as Pahari Korwa. The most commonly demanded and accepted form of identification is a land-settlement record – which almost no member of the community is able to provide, since they have historically practised shifting agriculture and do not possess any documents of land ownership. Any attempt to submit one of the other identifying documents on the list may also prove futile, since most census activities or identification procedures have often categorised them simply as ‘Korwa’, denying them the rights reserved for the Pahari Korwas. How does one attempt to attribute the oversight to a logistical or bureaucratic error on the part of a counting official when it has happened time and again, on multiple occasions, in multiple states, across the whole country, and over decades?2
It isn’t about human error and the failure of officials within the apparatus of the administration at a personal or professional level, so much as a flawed system employed by the state, and the mechanism and machinations of governance evident in the manner in which it counts, categorises and certifies human beings. Power and existing social inequalities have everything to do with the certificates we are granted – whether they are caste certificates or “pass” certificates in examinations – used to denote and determine our educational or social standing, qualifications and achievements, protections and privileges, or even the rights extended to us as citizens – it is this, then, that points to the heart of the tragedy in Manita’s case.
Suicide or Institutional Murder?
Manita was the third of four children, the first and only girl born into the family. Her oldest brother, Budheshwar, was helping with a village event the day she died. Vinod, the second son, had left for Bangalore to work as labour on the bore drill at a construction site. The day she was strip-searched, Manita went home after the exam and told her younger brother, Santosh, that she felt like dying. This confession, made to a sibling in confidence, hours before she hanged herself, would only be revealed a few days later, when some journalists and leaders of political parties arrived to make inquiries, and spoke with Santosh and the rest of Manita’s family about her death.
In addition, the fact that students had been subjected to a strip-search by members of the flying squad as part of their ‘routine’ checking procedure had not been public knowledge until Manita’s untimely death. As news of the incident spread, leaders across the political spectrum began to respond to it – the Janta Congress Chhattisgarh (Jogi) formed their own investigation team, and promised to release a report; Priyamvada Singh Judeo from the royal family of Jashpur to which the revered BJP leader Dilip Singh Judeo also belonged paid Manita’s family a visit, and spoke with some of the other children who were strip-searched; in the face of mounting public pressure and scrutiny, the collector of Jashpur was moved to institute a special investigation team comprising of Sub-Divisional Magistrate Ravi Mittal, the Tehlsildar and a member of the Women and Child Development Department.
It is worth noting that while the investigation team constituted has allegedly submitted their preliminary report to the Collector, none of the powerful political groups that had raised the issue have pressed any further to ensure punitive action be taken against those responsible – within the education department, or the flying squad. Local journalists reported that examination centre-in-charge confessed to them that he had warned members of the flying squad not to remove children from the room to be searched, but later, on account of pressure from the administration, refused to comment.3 Several journalists themselves also received calls from District education officials urging them not to comment on the issue any further. The initial furore over the incident and the attention it received from members of the public and media did however force officials to offer something in way of defence. The District Education Officer has not only come out denying that children were strip-searched, but has gone one step further, and insinuated that Manita took her life because of a row at home about having to give up her mobile phone. Subsequently, members of the flying squad were given a ‘clean chit’ by the department. As is so often the case when a young person takes their life – particularly when it is a young woman – speculation about possible motives for doing so begins to circulate in the aftermath of the incident – and the easiest explanation seems to be that of love, or youthful passion. Talk of Manita having taken her life on account of a soured love affair and family pressure began to foreground the discourse surrounding the incident within the media – we even heard it whispered around every street corner in Pandrapat. Somehow, it would seem, such narratives make for better gossip, and such explanations are more palatable.
Despite the testimonies of several other students who also wrote their exams at Pandrapat on the same day as Manita, attesting to the conduction of a strip-search, recounting the particulars of the incident, and sharing how traumatic it was for them, the education department has maintained their official version of events; this blatant disregard for the truth, and the safety of children subjected to a strip-search under extreme duress seems particularly unconscionable under the circumstances. In the face of vehement and continued insistence on the part of education officials who deny the incident ever happened, the discussion seems to have steered towards whether or not Manita’s clothes were taken off to begin with. Between this debate and the rumours about her love life, the focus detracts from the facts of the incident, so the violence and malice at the heart of it become completely obfuscated.
Mistrust and fear, both, lie at the heart of the education system in India. Cameras have entered classrooms because teachers cannot be trusted to teach and biometric logs have been introduced to monitor the attendance of teachers and students because neither can be trusted to tell the truth or even come to school. The response to every problem that arises within the education system (such as high rates of teacher and student absenteeism) seems to be characterised by a similar approach that involves the strengthening of monitoring and surveillance mechanisms instead of attempts made to address (or even acknowledge) the underlying causes. Fear, on the other hand, we are told, is what compels children to study, keeps children motivated, disciplined, and determined to do or behave a whole lot better – or so we are told. The most revered teachers, we are told, are the ones who are also the most feared by their students. In fact, standardised tests and detention are also rooted in fear and mistrust – the generally accepted rationale is that the fear of failure will motivate children to study , and teachers cannot be trusted with a fair assessment of their own students. In a caste-ridden society like ours, there is a certain value to objective standard measures of assessment in that they allow us to break free from being assessed or measured by those who wield power over us, and have historically been responsible for our oppression – but it must be be recognised that there is nothing objective about how fear and mistrust operate, about who is mistrusted and who is made to feel most afraid. Fear, like confidence and trust, has everything to do with the uneven distribution of privilege and power.
This begs the question – would the education department have granted a clean chit so easily to members of the flying squad if news of such strip-searches had surfaced in an elite urban private school? Would something like this even occur in the first place – would they dare disrobe a child from a more privileged location? There is another question that must be asked as well – if the investigation teams set up to investigate the incident did find that children at the school in Pandrapat had in fact been strip-searched, that members of the squad are in fact guilty of this crime, would the punishment and the discourse be limited to a handful of spiteful flying squad members who broke a rule, or does the real problem at the heart of the matter have more to do with the vulnerability of certain socio-economic groups that allows power to be wielded against certain children more than others – and the malice of a system that not only doesn’t have ways of protecting them, but can easily dismiss the death of a child who was strip-searched during an exam as mere slander?
From the refusal to grant her a certificate that speaks of the historical injustice done to her community to the time she is mistrusted to write an exam and strip-searched, Manita and many like her, are reminded time and again that they are forever suspect, that they must prove their worth to be included in the world, prove their worth to exist. Taking one’s own life is as much an act of individual will as it is a result of the forces that guide and shape us. But somehow there is a refusal to see the act of suicide as anything other than a moment of personal weakness – the state and society always have ready explanations for those who have taken their lives. Despite the astounding numbers, a farmer was ‘mentally disturbed’ and that’s why he took his life, a dalit student suffered from the pain of unrequited love or was at best bullied by peers or pressurised by family.
When Rohith Vemula took his own life in January 2016, his death ignited a heated debate surrounding his caste identity – the giants of the country’s political apparatus raged, ranted, railed, and began squabbling with each other over whether he was OBC or Dalit. They went to the vilest lengths to pull out certificates – those which were of course granted by the same state that counts and categorises with its caste-lens – in order to deny the fact that caste discrimination continues to plague the existence and experiences of Dalit students in spaces of higher education. Instead, students and young people are always told they have failed – in their work, their loves, their exams.
This compels us to take a look at who it is that is failing, falling short or being filtered out – in the context of schooling, for instance, consider what these numbers tell us – over 70 years after India’s independence, less than 5% of students enrolled in higher education are tribal, and more than 65% of tribal students drop out over the course of schooling up to Class 10. Is the burden of this failure – the failure to retain children from the most marginalised of communities within the fold of education – to be placed on the children and their families? Or is this a collective failure as a nation, one for which a state and society riddled with inequalities should be held answerable?
Is Manita’s death simply another suicide then? Is she alone responsible for it? Hasn’t she, like Rohith, been failed by us all, her life taken by the systemic ways in which children like her, who have reached Class 10 with all the odds against them, are pushed to believe they have no place there? There is an almost evil irony to the fact that the day Manita hanged herself, her parents and all the others in the village were in a meeting to discuss how to go about addressing the difficulty of obtaining caste certificates so that they could access the benefits of positive discrimination, which the government in fact claims, they have a right to. Manita, as mentioned earlier, had stayed home to study for her board exams.
The Sieve of Standardised Testing: Exams and Elementary Education
On the day we met Manita’s family, the headlines of the Jashpur Bhaskar read – ‘7685 students pass class 12, College seats 3660: More than half the student population will be left wandering in search of higher education opportunities’. Our system of education is like a pyramid, with a broad base at the level of primary school that tapers to a relatively and regrettably small number of students at the pinnacle of higher education. Capitalist society requires a diverse workforce with a diverse set of skills – it needs to have both workers and managers, technicians and academics in order to function properly – and so it is not necessary, in fact not possible, in such a society that everyone be put through college or pursue an academic path. Capital cannot afford to have those who specialise or engage in abstractions alone, it needs those who specialise in technical labour, the applied sciences and very importantly, it needs those who are unskilled. And so a pyramid in (academic) education is in this sense inevitable. But, this also means that it is a systemic necessity then to pick and choose, to filter – and fail – students at each stage of the educational ladder, since the system of education is inextricably linked to the labour market – and people are believed to be “free” to choose their careers.
It would not matter as much if there were opportunities of dignified living even for those who do not make it through high school, or onto institutes of higher learning, if the state provided for basic needs irrespective of the work you did, whether or not you had a college certificate and followed the academic path. But, the story is far more complicated – in fact, even those who are qualified and hold several certificates, find themselves with few or no opportunities of work. Unemployment is at a historic high in India, and even the most educated and qualified are severely affected by the job crisis. So the problem of the pyramid needs to be analysed and understood in a larger economic context. Budget cuts in education across the globe point to an even deeper problem, revealing that under the aegis of capital (and its complicated relationship to unemployment), people from across the social and economic spectrum are affected by the current crisis in a myriad of ways.
While a diverse workforce may be a systemic necessity, and not everyone is able to pursue academic careers, the problem arises when the way in which the system to filter is designed, results in the reproduction – and perhaps also reinforcement – of existing social hierarchies; in the current scenario, diversity is also hierarchy, and while the crisis in capital affects people across the spectrum, those who bear the brunt of the problem most severely are inevitably from the most vulnerable sections of society – over 55% of SC and over 65% of ST children drop out of schools over the course of schooling upto Class 10. Students from socio-economically disadvantaged groups are discriminated against and pushed out of the education system in a myriad of ways 4– it has been established by those working in the area of sociology of education that discrimination begins at a primary level, with a curriculum that reflects the morality and interests of a world inhabited only by the middle class and ruling elite – one that is shaped by the experiences, needs and demands of individuals from dominant social groups, putting children from lower socio-economic backgrounds at a disadvantage, as textbooks and classroom discourse, among other things, begin to seem inaccessible to them. This discrimination continues to inform the experiences and lived realities of students within the system, by seeming to determine who is subjected to a ‘random’ strip-search by members of a flying squad – and where – during the process of writing a standardised test, against staggering odds, under an immense amount of pressure, and the supervision of a board-appointed invigilator in a timed and controlled setting; based on the illusion of ‘merit’ and an inaccessible curriculum; these tests are purported to treat all children as equal , regardless of whether or not they carry the disadvantage of being the first generation within a community to enter the fold of education, bearing the historical burden of exclusion.. It is these same children, as C.N. Subramaniam reminds us, who also attend schools that are the worst-equipped in terms of infrastructural and academic support, where even the minimal norms of the Right To Education (RTE) Act have been violated. It is clear then, why children from socially and educationally deprived backgrounds take longer to acquire and master the basics of literacy and numeracy, and have significantly lower ‘learning levels’ than children from other social groups, as data from the National Achievement Survey conducted by the NCERT suggests. So, as Subramaniam convincingly argues, if children were to be failed for under achieving, it is these marginalised children who would be failed. And in order to help them overcome the disadvantage they have been historically subjected to, they not only need more time in the school system, but also a host of other efforts to ensure that the ‘deficit’ in their learning which is a result of generations of exclusion is addressed in the teaching-learning process. Evaluating and failing them early on then, he rightly points out, is equivalent to throwing them out of the school system.
It is with this understanding, that, more than 60 years after India’s independence, the Constitutional commitment to the universalisation of elementary education was finally taken up as a legal responsibility. The Right to Education Act was passed in 2009, ensuring that every child, irrespective or class, caste, ethnicity or gender, between the age of 6 and 14 years, has a right to free and compulsory education, with the specific clause that no child can be detained until the completion of elementary education, and no child would be required to pass any board examination of any kind.
In a blatant violation of this clause, the Chhattisgarh government began conducting board exams for Classes 5 and 8 in 2017. However, the sacredness of exams overrides any attempt to make up for a historical injustice – even when it is clear who it is will be labelled a ‘failure’, and why this is inevitable. But what’s even more dangerous than this, is that less than 10 years after taking on the legal responsibility of educating all children, the state – which, even after 70 years of independence has still not succeeded in providing proper access to school to all children – is already trying to pass the onus onto children themselves by branding them ‘failures.’ In January 2019, the Bill to amend the clause of No Detention in the RTE was passed in Parliament, allowing the state to fail those students whom schools didn’t manage to teach even the basics of literacy and numeracy.
The policy of No Detention resulted in a lower rate of dropouts at the elementary level. Yet, so sacred is the place occupied by examinations (and failure) in our imaginations and lives, that across the board there is no consensus on the regressiveness of this step – there is simply a refusal to recognise that it will set us back by decades, continuing to push out those children from the fold of formal education who come from communities that have always been excluded. Reflecting the deep-rooted cultural acceptance of exams, we found that every single person we spoke to, and almost every news report of the incident said that the checking procedure in Pandrapat was unfair because it ate into writing time – as though to say, it’s okay to humiliate and mistrust students, as long as it is not done during the exam – that makes it unfair.
Nearly 60% of tribal children in India drop out of school before Class 8. In Bagicha, there is also a 19.27% gap in male-female literacy; as Laxman Sai reminds us, only a handful of Pahari Korwa children make it to class 12 – for girls, the number is even smaller, and the odds against them seem to be stacked higher still. “It would be difficult to find even 10 boys from our community who have passed Class 12 in the region, let alone girls”, he says. Maybe Manita would have been the exception. Beti bachao, beti padhao – save the girl child, educate her, the government tells us, the slogan screaming down at us from billboards, or painted on walls around every other street corner.
A mother’s support and her own will, made Manita not just the first girl, but the first person in their family to have ever reached Class 10. But look at what happened to Manita who reached class 10 despite all the odds of history and geography stacked against her. The real challenge is – how do we guarantee a dignified and meaningful education to our children, or reconcile the aims and agenda of a repressive state with the interests of the children who are supposed to be its future – a state that chooses time and again not only to fail and filter, but also mistrust and murder them?
As we get up to leave from her home in Bhadiya, Munni says, almost as an afterthought – ‘I wonder what would’ve happened if they conducted such a search on more than one day. Maybe more of us would’ve done what Manita did.’ Her words echo through the hills as we make our way back at dusk on the 15km stretch between Bhadiya and Pandrpat. Soon, these lands are going to witness a major transformation – hundreds of MoUs have been signed for the mining of bauxite and gold. Helicopters and company officials have begun to hover… surveying, measuring, mapping. Local activists tell us of helicopters dropping flyers promising employment. One wonders who these jobs will be for, when few children in the region ever seem to make it past school. Manita is one of the very few who managed to survive a system designed to push the likes of her out – and she made it to the first day of her board exams at the end of Class 10. But to what end? Despite the disagreement across the spectrum on exams and detention, given what happened to Manita, can we dare to ask ourselves to imagine an alternative to the current system of assessment and evaluation?
Shreya K (with inputs from Vaishnavi, Pushpa, Shankar and Shrikha. Shreya K is a teacher at Shaheed School in Raipur, which was set up by workers in 1996 in the industrial area of Birgaon and is run by the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (Mazdoor Karyakata Committee). She was part of a fact-finding team that visited Jashpur to look into the incident, comprised of members from the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Chhattisgarh.
Extremely informative and brilliantly written. Many of these facts are unknown to the urban citizen. It is certainly a sad state of affairs and needs to be corrected with more such facts coming to the knowledge of the people in power, as well as the common man, in order to bring pressure on the government to correct this.