On the 28th of July 2016, the tribals of Car Nicobar did something they’d never done before — they set out on a peaceful march protesting the expulsion of eight Scheduled Tribe (ST) MBBS students from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Institute of Medical Sciences (ANIIMS) on grounds of ineligibility after having attended over six months of classes. These eight tribal students had qualified for admission in the medical college on the basis of a gazette notification issued by the Andaman and Nicobar Administration lowering the qualification percentage to 35 on their own prerogative as opposed to the Government of India notification of a minimum 40 percentage of marks for ST candidates.
The Medical Council of India during a routine inspection uncovered the anomaly and asked for them to be expelled. This past week 737 tribal school students boycotted public institutes in the islands on a directive of the Tribal Councils of Car Nicobar and Nancowrie islands soon after the expulsion and the tribal leaders say this withdrawal will continue until the eight students are reinstated with dignity and honour. In the written petition to the Lieutenant General, Andaman & Nicobar Administration, the tribal leaders point to the injustice and state that “If the future of our children cannot be guaranteed by the Administration, then their efforts to progress in life through education is futile. It will be in the best interest of the students to stay home and help their parents in agricultural works, rather wasting time and their parent’s hard earned money on pens and books”.
These statements and actions from the Nicobarese tribal community are absolutely heart wrenching. How can and why does a law created to help people be used to punish them? These eight students are being penalised for a mistake the state made which is not only against the spirit of reservation but also against the spirit of a people. This not only is unethical but is unlawful too. And then this case gets no publicity or garners no public outrage from mainland India as the students and citizens in question are tribals.
This impunity of the state just shows how and why tribals instead of being first citizens of this nation are nothing but second-class citizens. The only saving grace of this not becoming news across the country is that we’re kept from the anti-reservation tirades of merit, unworthy candidates and the like; something those eight ST students or any student availing reservation enshrined in our constitution don’t deserve to hear. But now is as good a time as any to actually talk reservation and how the tribes have fared with it.
Being Adivasi doesn’t automatically qualify one to avail the quota. Being born Adivasi doesn’t immediately guarantee a government job. One has to be eligible to benefit from reservation — which immediately leaves out a sizeable percentage of Adivasis who only have access and opportunities of a sub-standard education with irregular to no classes, from a curriculum and language that are alien to them.
The disparity in standards of education in rural or urban areas is so large that we cannot make the cut, cannot crack entrance exams or interviews despite the reservation provisions. These gaps translate to opportunity gaps. How can someone qualify from vacuum? Even if you make the grade, discrimination plays out also in work places where Adivasis have earned their right through these affirmative measures. Non-Adivasis will dissuade others from being treated by Adivasi Doctors, for example, because “they are doctors on the basis of concessions and not merit”. Nothing is more far from the truth than this. One, you have to be an ‘eligible tribal’ to get into college but the concessions stop there — thereafter every exam you clear is on the basis of merit and that’s all. So the package of reservation is a chance to be mainstreamed in an environment of hostility and bias. Can reservation stop me from being discriminated against despite performing and doing ‘better’ than the general candidates?
Two years ago, Meera Ekka, in response to a vacancy applied for a permanent position after completing her Post Graduation, senior residency and related research work at the All India Institute Of Medical Science (AIIMS) but was shunned along with two other applicants and the seat was left vacant because “they couldn’t find suitable candidates”. A senior AIIMS doctor said “... Her work experience and publications are equal to many of the general candidates selected in the interviews. I do not know why she has been denied an opportunity.”
But every tribal knows. You will never be good enough. You are actually set up to fail. You are given access to an education that makes you redundant in society and when you do manage to break the glass ceiling, other ways to contain you are devised.
The systematic vocational training offering to STs as a consolation or viable option reeks of prejudice where you deliberately do little to ensure equal, quality opportunities of education as the foundation to making careers in fields which ‘backward people’ are not deemed fit; thus creating a market force of a working class needed to keep the capitalist, oppressive wheels turning.
That the Nicobarese tribals are taking a stand now is for real empowerment, for justice; a way to protect another generation of our children from being left behind. This is a necessary step to ensure that the rules, features and mechanisms of domination don’t reproduce themselves endlessly.
Ruby Hembrom is founder-director of Adivaani, an archiving and publishing outfit of and by Adivasis