Editor's note: In 2020, the COVID-19 outbreak upended lives and livelihoods in myriad ways. The novel coronavirus threw up new and unprecedented challenges, especially for people from marginalised sections of society. In a multi-part series, Firstpost explores how individuals from different walks of life lived through the year of the pandemic. This is part eight of the series.
For Villupuram-based journalist Krithika Srinivasan, 2020 was a year of many realisations. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it dawned on her that challenges of reportage from a small district during such a situation would increase manifold. Over the first few months, she realised that it could nevertheless be done. Most importantly, she realised by the end of 2020 that no matter what a journalist does to bring to light wrongdoing, there is only so much that will come out of it in the face of caste hegemony and government apathy. Even when it involves something as simple, yet as important as access to education for a first-generation tribal student.
Journalism happened to Krithika while she was pursuing her dream of being a filmmaker. Her world changed colours quickly, when she moved from Chennai to Villupuram, on her first reporting gig. Within days of moving to Villupuram, it dawned on her that the foremost issue that the most marginalised tribes, be it Irulas or Kattunayakans, face in Villupuram is to get a community certificate.
Villupuram-based journalist Krithika Srinivasan. Greeshma Kuthar/Firstpost
Why is a community certificate important for students from marginalised Scheduled Tribe communities?
Roja, a first generation PhD student studying at Loyola College says that a community certificate for her is more important than any other certificate of identity. "This is 100 times more important than my degree certificate," she explains. Despite finishing her schooling with high marks, Roja had to struggle with college admission because her application for grant of this certificate wasn't being processed at all. After Roja, her mother and Irula leader Kalyani went from pillar to post, Roja had to finally join college through the 'other caste' category. This meant she had no access to scholarships or hostel facilities available to tribal students, something she needed to survive and to support her family.
While she studied, her mother visited the tehsildar's office almost everyday for a year, after which she was able to procure the certificate. Only then was she able to apply for the scholarship that she is eligible for. "It was also because the principal of that college empathised with me. This doesn't happen usually," said Roja.
That students like Roja face these issues routinely was something Krithika had documented much before she moved to Villupuram. In 2016, while she was interning with National Campaign on on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR), Krithika had compiled a whole docket profiling hundreds of students facing such issues across Tamil Nadu. "So when I chanced upon Dhanalakshmi's case, through the Irula Tribal Rights Association, I knew what I was getting into," says Krithika.
Dhanalakshmi, from T Parangini village in Vannur Taluk, is the first person from her family to go past tenth standard, just like Roja. She performed really well in her board exams and was preparing to study agricultural sciences, when she faced the same roadblocks that Roja faced. "But in the case of Dhanalakshmi, she decided not to go about it quietly. She decided to be loud about it," says Krithika, who by then had started to report on Dhanalakshmi's fight with the government for a community certificate.
The first step that Dhanalakshmi took was to submit a petition with 14 documents (including photocopies of community certificates provided to 10 of her relatives) to the concerned Revenue Divisional Officer (RDO), all supporting proof that she is Irula and that her fresh application for a community certificate should be processed immediately. She had already applied for the certificate twice, in 2016 and 2020, but they were still pending. One of the main reasons for urgency was that the deadline for applying to the graduate degree that Dhanalakshmi was interested in was less than a few months away. She had to apply for the degree by 31 August. As the days went by, there was no action from the part of the RDO.
When Krithika investigated why this is the case, she learned that the issue of a community certificate wasn't just about the person applying for it. It was about who else had a stake in the progress that an individual might attain, on accessing education through that certificate. "Within Dhanalakshmi's village, the dominant Vanniyars were vehemently opposed to her being granted an Irula certificate. It wasn't only that there was casteism, it was also that Irula's were performing rituals in the local temple. That these Irulas, who had entered their temple will now be classified as Scheduled Tribes was a matter of shame for Vanniyars. And this is why they have been opposing and stalling issuance of certificates to Irula's," says Krithika.
On one occasion, when Dhanalakshmi went to the RDO's office, the same Vanniyars told her that she should instead apply for a BC certificate, since her family had temple rights and it would be insulting to them if she were classified as ST. "Would you all marry into our family if we got a BC certificate?" she asked them. "They didn't let her go. In fact, they physically assaulted her for daring to ask such a question," recollects Krithika.
Unfazed with government apathy and dominant caste rage, Dhanalakshmi organised a sit-in protest at the RDO office on 13 August, with more Irula students like her, who are struggling to get a community certificate. By now, Krithika's reports on Dhanalakshmi and her actions against the RDO were being shared widely across Tamil Nadu. Activists and political leaders urged the District Collector Annadurai to not compromise on the issue, as it involved the education of a student.
"As far as I saw, there was a teenager who just wanted to study. That is all she told me, that she wanted to study, especially because her sisters couldn't," says Krithika. Both of Dhanalakshmis's sisters had to cut their dreams of pursuing a college education short as they too got embroiled in this community certificate business. Since they couldn't get it in the same year after they finished their schooling, their family got them married. This is one way in which this affects tribal girl students specifically. "The RDO could have fast tracked this process, and helped her out. This is what is expected of him, to help students like her. But all these people took affront to the fact that Dhanalakshmi was openly questioning them and challenging them," says Krithika.
RDO Rajendran meanwhile constituted an anthropological team to investigate if Dhanalakshmi was in fact Irula and announced that a certificate would be issued to her only after they send their findings. "The usual process for issuance of a community certificate is to apply at the Tehsildar's office. The Tehsildar is supposed to visit and check, after which the certificate is issued. This normally takes 15 days," says retired IAS officer and former Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare secretary Christodas Gandhi. He adds that there are district vigilance committees set up to look into specific cases of wrongdoing.
"Dhanalakshmi put so much effort into highlighting this issue. Many from her community started looking at her like a leader. But on 31 August, the last date for her to apply for a degree, RDO Rajendran sent Dhanalakshmi a report that she won't be issued a community certificate as the anthropological team had concluded that she isn't Irula," says Krithika. This was in spite of all the documents submitted by Dhanalakshmi, such as Irula certificates that her relatives possess and a patta document of her father, classifying him as 'Hindu-Irula'.
Dhanalakshmi couldn't do much about her college degree after this. She had no community certificate to submit, which is a prerequisite even in schools now. Dhanalakshmi's helplessness and the fact that all the reportage led to nothing pushed Krithika into depression. Her mental health took a beating and she went into a shell herself.
What is this investigation process that tribal students are put through?
Christodas Gandhi explains that community certificates were misused by people from other castes, while colluding with officers from the government who issued these certificates. This was rampant in the 1980's, following which the Supreme Court issued guidelines to be followed while issuing community certificates to people from tribal communities.
Why should tribal students bear the brunt of wrongdoing by dominant castes and the government?
While multiple processes were put into place to make issuance of certificates stringent, the ones who were actually affected by this were people from tribal communities themselves, especially students such as Dhanalakshmi. "The process of trying to undo the wrongdoings related to fake certificates has actually resulted in making life miserable for us," says Roja. The report given to Dhanalakshmi said that she wasn't aware of certain ancient customs specific to Irulas and that it couldn't be established through her way of life if she was Irula. The manner in which these anthropological teams conduct their investigations has been called to question by many ST activists. Most of these teams comprise non-tribals, who have a bookish, dated understanding of what being tribal is. That many tribal families no longer lead their lives in the way the government defines their traditional roles is lost on them, says an ST activist, on the condition of anonymity. All of this only results in tribal communities not being able to avail basic rights that they are constitutionally entitled to, when they want to.
This is in-fact one of the foremost grievances of many ST communities at the moment. "Every time I meet a person from the ST community in Villupuram, two minutes into the conversation, they say 'We've not yet got our community certificate ma.' On the other hand, the ones who misused the law haven't been prosecuted. The ones with fake certificates still continue to use them to avail benefits, unquestioned," Krithika said.
After sitting it out for a month, Dhanalakhsmi submitted a reply to the RDO's report and has demanded that she be issued any certificate, so that she can go ahead and apply to a government college at least in the coming year. This reply was filed in October. She also submitted a letter to the Collector, bringing to notice the delay and her 'community-less' status and that she has lost a year, pursuing her right to an education. They are yet to respond.
Dhanalakshmi, while speaking to this reporter and Krithika in December said that she hopes to pursue the same agricultural sciences degree next year. If she is finally issued a community certificate, that is. Meanwhile, she has enrolled at a private college for a degree, where she has been told to submit her community certificate as soon as possible. RDO Rajendran refused to speak to this reporter, in spite of multiple attempts for a meeting and phone-calls.
"We have to make our reporting even more rigorous"
For Krithika, Dhanalakshmi's story is a sign of what she has in store for the years to come. That a 17 year old, a first generation economically, socially and educationally marginalised student was driven to despair by an unsympathetic government, only makes her resolve to keep reporting on how marginalised communities are not given their basic rights stronger.
"We've to break the rigidness of this system with continuous reportage. We cannot stop doing our journalism because we are putting the names of these officers on record. If not this year, then next year, or five or ten years from now, at some point this system will have to make way for change," she said.