By Ila Ananya
“What is your opinion about reservation for students in CET?” Athira, a 20-year old student of College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram (CET), asked on ‘Cetiasn’ a Facebook group for teachers and students of CET. Ever since, she writes that the discrimination she faced in college on account of being an Adivasi student who had got into CET on reservation, multiplied manifold. Students accused her of using “cheap attempts to become popular on campus”, and the teachers, Athira says, asked her how dare she ask such a question in public.
Athira’s story hasn’t been in the news enough. She grew up in an Oorali (Scheduled Tribe) family, and her parents are day laborers, working under MNREGA. In the few interviews she has given, she talks of remembering how on the first day of class, she sat in the front bench, until a staff advisor came in and asked both Athira and her friend (also a student who had got in on reservation) to go and sit in the last row. “He also had a special word of advice for us, and said that those who get admission through reservation can get failed in exams easily, so we have to study well,” Athira said to The News Minute. These comments came after CET’s principal reportedly told Athira on her first day that she had got admission out of luck, and was warned to be careful. In another interview with South Live, Athira also says that her teacher said, “If you sit with them [students with good ranks in the entrance exam] you will develop an ego towards them which will ultimately affect your concentration on studies.” The same advice was given to another Dalit student in her class.
Infuriatingly, this was just the beginning. When the exams came around, Athira writes that she was given extremely low internal marks, which meant that she didn’t pass seven of her exams. Not knowing that she could give more than three papers for re-evaluation, she gave only three and passed in all these. Suddenly, a little while after her Facebook post, her hostel warden called her parents (from whom she had kept all these problems a secret because she believed it would make them force her to stop her studies mid-way). The staff advisor spoke to Athira’s parents while she was made to wait outside the room. When her parents came out from the talk, she was taken to a psychiatrist. She was prescribed medicines — “I was diagnosed with Hyperactivity and was referred to another doctor. Consequently, I was taken to Mission Hospital in Kattappana. More medicines. These medicines put me to sleep almost all through two weeks… I sensed myself losing my memory. I had no means of contacting my friends and I was not allowed access to my phone,” Athira writes.
When she was finally allowed to go back to college, Athira says that even though she managed to pass all her exams (except for three papers despite all the medicines), her parents came back to take her home and end her studies at CET. At this point, one of her teachers convinced her parents not to pull her out of college, but when she returned there, she found that CET had been affiliated to Technical University. It meant that if she was to continue studying there, she would have to begin her course from the first semester all over again. After a series of new rules coming into place that stopped Athira from continuing her education at CET, she moved to Idukki Engineering College.
Her piece, which was first published in Azhimukham, and was translated from Malayalam to English. As she writes in it towards the end, “I still don’t understand the crime I have committed. Is it that I wished to learn? Or that I pointed my fingers at certain matters? I am merely an example of the fact that a number of students in India go through the hardships faced by Rohith Vemula.”