Anitha suicide: Death of innocence busts NEET myth as the great leveller of India's medical education
In quiet death, Anitha has left us with a deafening indictment of caste, education, and what it means to be a nation.
Death is a silent, sombre affair. When it comes by the taking of one’s life, however, the silence is speculation. What is it, it is asked, that makes life so unliveable that to live is to take it away? The tragic suicide of S Anitha, a young girl who came to represent the discontent and anguish of Tamil Nadu against the National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test (NEET), makes the silence of death too rarefied to gauge the profound meaning of the tragedy. The death of a promising Dalit woman, sired by a marginalisation that compelled her to kill herself, speaks most unkindly of a world where voice needs death to carry meaning.
In quiet death, Anitha has left us with a deafening indictment of caste, education, and what it means to be a nation. One now awaits being told, as after the death of Rohith Vemula, that it is grief that took Anitha, that activism has, as Manu Joseph has ventured to suggest in a recent essay, become a ‘Blue Whale Challenge.’ But Anitha’s grief is political sorrow, created not by biology but structural inequality, an education policy whose exclusion is purposeful, and corrosive ideas of excellence. A republic that treats this death as silence does it the greatest injustice. It is, as Anitha would testify, a broken republic.
The daughter of a labourer, a coolie, from Tiruchi, Tamil Nadu, Anitha, all of 17, wanted to study medicine. In an impassioned interview, she says, "It is…my ambition. I want to work for the society as a doctor. (…) My dear friends, could you please help me for studying medicine?" With four other siblings and one earning member, her father, in the family, Anitha conquered her fatal accident of birth to secure 1,176 marks out of 1,200, including perfect scores in physics and mathematics, and thence a remarkable cut-off score of 196.75 out of 200. She mentions this with exultant pride -- "I am the only student scoring (such) marks in the district."
However warranted the pride, it was to be ominously short-lived. In the tussle between Tamil Nadu and the Central government on the NEET, the Centre emerged triumphantly. In May, 2013, the NEET was conducted for the first time, dislodging the All India Pre Medical Test (AIPMT) and threatening the state educational boards of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Andhra Pradesh, where it consequently met virulent opposition. In July, 2013, the Supreme Court declared the NEET unconstitutional. As recently as February, 2016, former chief minister (Late) J Jayalalithaa wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi forewarning the Centre of Tamil Nadu’s opposition to purported attempts to reintroduce the NEET in the state, dubbing it an infringement of federalism and an inegalitarian measure towards the students of Tamil Nadu who could not, given their academic training in the state, fare as well as students of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) on a national eligibility examination.
The objection was ignored as the Supreme Court approved the NEET for admission to MBBS and BDS courses, now dislodging the prevalence of ‘Plus Two’ marks awarded by the state educational boards. On 24 May, 2017, the Madras High Court passed a restraining order against the CBSE, stalling the declaration of results – an order that the Supreme Court subsequently stayed. The issue of the NEET became a linchpin in the politics of the state, marked by a scrimmage for power in the political vacuum created by Jayalalithaa’s passing in December, 2016.
Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswamy approached the Centre requesting an exemption for Tamil Nadu students and an ordinance was delivered to that effect but eventually failed to secure clearance by the unwieldy intervention of the Attorney General of India, KK Venugopal. On 22 August, 2017, the Supreme Court ordered that medical admissions be initiated in Tamil Nadu through the NEET. Anitha, who had represented this plight by taking her petition for exemption to New Delhi, was defeated in the triumph of the NEET, her dismal score of 86 out of 700 devastating her dreams of studying medicine. Unwilling to study aeronautical engineering or veterinary sciences, Anitha found refuge in death.
While Anitha’s suicide has inspired an outpouring of mournful protest in and around her village, Ariyalur, it has, in certain quarters, evoked the rhetoric of merit and excellence, a trenchant burden placed on students of Tamil Nadu, particularly marginalised and backward Dalit students like Anitha. Designed by the CBSE, however, the NEET is a skewed measure of scientific knowledge, let alone a genuine examination of merit, excellence, and other axioms that determine who deserves access to education in a country that has consistently failed to ensure equitable access and made universal access a distant, lofty dream.
The NEET’s design is starkly favourable to the CBSE syllabi – in fact, it is tailored to the advantage of students of the CBSE, creating an educational imbalance unfavourable to students from state educational systems. It was devised in English, extended tardily to Hindi, and disadvantages students educated in the vernacular. From the moment Anitha and students like her — poor and unable to afford the exorbitant training required to engage with national examinations with mechanical expertise, lower-caste, vernacular-medium — were coerced into writing the examination, their failure was premeditated. Far from being a measure of excellence, the NEET is an unpalatable index of privilege. Yet, in India, this is unexceptional.
Ever since affirmative caste discrimination reluctantly made its way into educational institutions, excellence became their gospel. As upper-caste parents and their children have painstakingly attempted the dissipation of caste as identity in the orotundity of being meritorious individuals, excellence has become a regime, even a new untouchability, to marginalise lower-caste students in an insidious structural inequality. Such representations, when normalised, capture the spirit of students from marginalised backgrounds, persuading them of their inadequacy. "They describe us," writes Salman Rushdie in The Satanic Verses, "that is all. They have the power of description, and we succumb to the pictures they construct." It would be myopic to premise Anitha’s suicide on the NEET – her death invokes an ancient history of power, oppression, violence, and its everlasting descriptions.
How are we, then, to remember Anitha? Her reification in the laundry lists of poor, Dalit, village-girl would be too incomplete, too dishonest. She cannot, as Rohith Vemula reminded us, be reduced to the immediacy of identity and its nearest possibility. Anitha was a lover of science, a formidable student who fought both hardship and a national regime, and a political being who ended her interview with ‘Jai Bhim!’ Her tragic death threatens not only the basis of a federal polity but the foundations of the national. The Central government, in its unrelenting insistence on forcing a draconian examination on students ill-equipped to engage with it created the theatre.
The Tamil Nadu government, in its uncertain assurances to students like Anitha and expressed its inability to prepare them for the stage. Anitha’s indefatigable crusade against the NEET is her own idea of India, a damnation of the hollowness of unity in diversity that government after government has unswervingly failed to address. Remembering Anitha must begin with interrogating our inimical fears of diversity and our pasts and presents of excluding the diverse and the different. A nation that refuses to do this abdicates critical responsibility, its grief-stricken prayers and transient smatterings of mourning notwithstanding.
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