Once upon a time in my childhood, I remember my mother rejecting my wish to join a dance class, volleyball team, and school educational trips because we have to pay extra money other than school fee. She said, all of them don’t give you a job, or good career and we can’t afford to pay. So she asked me to join Martial Arts classes which were free. As a child, I disliked my mother and her decisions. I disliked and hated my parents for rejecting all those things which I’m passionate about.
After a point, I stopped asking them because their answer remained the same i.e “it’s not for us, we can’t afford it, focus on studies”. I accepted that we can’t afford to fulfill all our dreams, so I started living in the dreams far away from reality. I was made to accept that our fate was written badly by God, the hatred shifted from parents to God. I wished and prayed to God to change my fate, I did not want to live this life.
Meanwhile, my parents decided to send me to a boarding school where I got admission in concession due to merit, I somehow completed my +2 with lots of ups and downs (my experiences in boarding school can be written as a separate book, may not be a bestseller but a few people can connect to it). Later, I got admission into one of the top central universities in India. It was a shock to both my parents and me. We never imagined a college like that, with two thousand acres of land, diverse students and faculty, single room accommodation for me (my entire family was living in a similar room), free admission and a monthly stipend. It was a different world which we hadn’t even imagined.
I still remember that day of admission in 2009, my father and me ended up crying out of joy. Neighbours in the village and relatives were happy and were asking my parents, how did I get admission? Where is the university? What are all available courses? Who can all apply? How to get admission? What all books to read? the list continued. We had a small party at home, suddenly a happy environment surrounded our home. I moved to the campus and the journey continued.
I got an opportunity to learn to think critically, realised my rights as a citizen and also answers to my childhood questions. The reasons for my mother’s statement “it’s not for us, we can’t afford it, focus on studies”, was because of the caste system in our society. We belong to a Dalit community, that’s why we were treated differently from others, we must stand in front of the landlord (apparently from upper caste), and we were not allowed to sit in front of them. We must address them as Madam and Sir, we must respect their younger kids also, we should not play with them etc. These might seem to be very small issues but not for children.
The ill-treatment of people by the upper castes killed my childhood aspirations, gave bitter memories, hardship in everyday life and a constant war within myself. I must appreciate and be thankful to my parents because they realised that education is the best weapon to win the battle in our caste dominant society. They are fighting with the current patriarchal dominant system by letting us decide what we want in our life (irrespective of our gender), letting me explore the world all alone, travelling to unknown places, being myself, choosing a career of my choice, remain unmarried (still single at the age of 27, with my youngest cousin’s children going to school), respecting my choices and decisions etc.
They face tremendous pressure from relatives and neighbours for letting us go out of home, not marrying at the right age, not doing any job etc. But they stood by us and supported us by all means. All their sacrifices helped us (me and my brother) to be first generation learners and future hope for a dignified and respectable life. That gave us inspiration to pursue higher education in reputed institutes. My brother is pursuing graduation in Pharmacy and I’m in M.Phil., in public health. We are the golden assets of our parents, they broke their desires, bones, and flesh to make us stand in a respectable position in this world. I dedicate all the success to them and in fact they deserve all those achievements. I wish to make them feel proud of their choice of letting a girl child to live her life, by dedicating my Ph.D. award letter very soon.
Meanwhile, there was a heavy storm like issue in my academic career. The government changed the financial aid policies in the blink of eyelid. It cut down on fellowships/scholarships. Not releasing the funds on time and fund cuts, delay in notifications, sudden closure of courses/centres, decrease in the total intake of students, compulsory attendance for release of financial aids, increase in fee etc. these seem very small changes but they create larger impacts on vulnerable and marginalised sections of people like SC, ST, OBC (NC), PWD’S, LGBT community people both financially and socially. Students who aspire for higher education from these communities lack financial and social support, they are fighting against the social structures which ruined their lives for centuries.
That’s where reservation, affirmative action play a saviour role. The institute where I’m pursing my M.Phil. changed their policy by asking the SC/ST/OBC students who are eligible for GOI Post Metric scholarship to pay hostel and dining hall fee i.e 31,000 per year where the annual income is 45 to 60 thousand rupees. It’s a disastrous move from the institute because the fee structure will not let anyone of us think of higher education and dignified lives. The reason mentioned by the Institute for the fund cut is, increase in the deficit, and the direct beneficiary transfer scheme. Whatever the reason they are offering, the weaker sections are affected the most. Instead of exercising their power on students they must insist that the government pay the money (ideally, the state is responsible for meeting the affirmative action based on the constitution).
All these measures are creating fear among us and killing our aspirations before they bloom. We as a group of students are fighting for our constitutional rights, not only for us but for future aspirants also. Because of our raised voices, we are being targeted, every move inside the campus is video recorded, some students got a warning from the faculty etc. Unfortunately the institute’s vision is focusing on social justice and inclusion of marginalised in the mainstream. Most of the research work is conducted on us (marginalised communities). Where is social justice? For whom social justice is applicable? I really don’t understand. For people in the campus the fight started on 21st February 2018, but in reality, we are fighting the struggle since our birth and it will end with our last breath.
All these make us feel that we are others, not part of this society. Where is the value for all our parents’ and forefathers’ struggles for dignified lives? What has education brought to us? Jobs? Better social status? I really have great doubt and discomfort with all these questions, in fact, they are haunting me. It’s very painful to relive the bitter moments in life. At this point in time, all the changes around me make me rethink and accept my mother’s statements: “It’s not for us, we can’t afford it, focus on studies”. But we, the poor kids never die so easily, hope is part of our blood, the struggle continues till we reach the end.
Prashanthi Konday is from Andhra Pradesh, currently pursuing M.Phil., Public Health in Disability and Women’s Health from Tata Institute of Social Science, Mumbai. She is also, a Post-Graduate from the University of Hyderabad and an India Fellow Social leadership Program, 2015.