When was the last time India celebrated a success story of a woman coming from a Tribal community in Indian academia? If we think about the manner in which Indian education system has dealt with the issues of Dalits, Tribals and other marginalised communities, it appears that those issues have been represented and discussed in poor light and without giving any kind of academic significance. The sociological category of caste still remains insignificant for many those who don’t understand the necessity of annihilation of caste. Moreover, along with the reality of caste, Indian academic institutions should reflect on the composition of their faculty members by focusing on the lack of representation of women, especially from Tribal communities. Because academic representation and opportunities for women from marginalised communities in the Indian universities are significant not only to foster gender equality but also a democratic culture in higher education. The Indian institutions of higher learning should not ignore the vast disparities that exist between the representations of women from mainstream society and marginalised communities.
Though various institutions in our country claim to have given representation to the women from Dalit and Tribal communities, their visibility and upward mobility to higher positions in these institutions pose a question mark on the conditions of equality. Moreover, their lack of representation in significant administrative positions magnifies the ceaseless process of exclusion they experience. Therefore, to bring structural and democratic changes in the institutions of higher learning our institutions need a new kind of thoughtful and strategic intervention. It will also reflect the confidence of these institutions to create equal opportunity for these women in the academic corridors. The recent news of the appointment of Professor Sonajharia Minz as the Vice Chancellor of Sido Kanhu Murmu University, Dumka, Jharkhand has raised a whole array of expectations and enthusiasm among Bahujan students. With this new responsibility on her shoulders, she has become one of the first Tribal women to get this honour in the history of the Indian education system. Currently she is working as a professor at School of Computer and Systems Science. For others it might look like a regular appointment. But for the people who have been waiting to enter educational institutions for thousands of years, the achievement of Professor Sonajharia Minz remains extraordinary. The Indian academic institutions have to realize that their democratization demands the inclusion of women from marginalised communities.
We need to understand that there is a strange silence on the representation of Tribal scholars and intellectuals in academia. There is a deeper truth to be understood. Why does it happen? First of all we have to understand that very few students from tribal communities get an opportunity to be a part of university education system in the mainstream society. Once they get entry into a prestigious university the system takes a lot of time to accept them and their academic calibre. Often they remain ignored and neglected even in the simplest practices of everyday communication with the teachers and university administration where they have to live with unrecognised power dynamics, prejudice and stigma related to their ethnic identity. Therefore, they witness the process of distancing themselves from the circumstances where there is an absence of social empathy. While discovering the newer facets of academic life, girls from Tribal communities have to face racial discrimination and verbal abuses because of their appearance in university spaces. As a result of this, many of them choose to leave the institutions. Therefore, not recognising the absence of Tribal women in the academic spaces remains injurious to the discourse of empowerment of marginalised communities in Dalit Bahujan politics today. It is true that as of now only men from marginalised communities have been visible as scholars, public intellectuals and critics of injustice in Indian academia. Though they too have to face various instances of discrimination, the absence of marginalised women in this context remains too hard to ignore.
Moreover, the hegemonic structure of administration and its discriminatory character never create a scope for justice and equal opportunity for students from marginalised communities. We have not forgotten the institutional torture that Rohit Vemula had to witness before he ended his life due to lack of cooperation by the university administration of HCU. This exposes the hollowness of the system when it comes to dealing with the struggling students from marginalised communities. Therefore, it’s important to have democratic voices in the university administration that can support and represent the tyranny of the Dalit and Tribal students in campuses across the country.
During her tenure as the president of the JNUTA (Jawaharlal Nehru University Teacher’s Association) in 2018, Professor Minz vehemently addressed the issue of seat cut and how it affects the students coming from socially deprived communities. Most importantly, though she is not directly associated with the discipline of social sciences, she still made her presence felt by articulating the problems faced by Bahujan masses in our country through her public speeches during various protests which were full of ideological anecdotes. In that sense she is more than just an academician who is also living a life of an activist. The fact that we have a woman like her who marks the beginning of the representation of Tribals in important academic positions is a moment for celebration. It’s indeed a proud moment for all us. Her achievement will be helpful in motivating and boosting the confidence of the students from backward and marginalised communities to enter the world of education. Let us wish her success for her new responsibility as the vice chancellor of the SKM University.
Swapnil Dhanraj is an Assistant Professor at O.P Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana. He has done his PhD from Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
Picture courtesy: the internet.