Dreams shattered, aspiration extinguished, a young girl filled with hopelessness relinquishes nature’s most precious gift: life. In such a situation, it is near impossible to contemplate the reasons that may have led to S Anitha’s suicide.

Anitha, a Dalit (yes, her caste is important) fought a valiant battle against the unfairness of her birth, and if only she had succeeded we would have celebrated her spirit. Before I venture to de-thread the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test imbroglio, it is vital that I first express anguish at the insensitivity shown by a large section of upper caste, upper class India. They have hurled at this girl and her family aspersions of bad parenting and asked why she did not change her vocational path when she failed. This is a motherless child whose father toiled everyday as a labourer. She wanted a chance to be a doctor, her passion an obsession, and she hoped the system would understand her predicament. There is no doubt that the hysterical opposition to NEET in Tamil Nadu played a role in Anitha’s suicide but we cannot deny that the system failed her. The system unfortunately never cares. When there was no shoulder to lean on, she gave up.

For us, options always exist. Our thinking is driven by the variety of choices: if not this, there is always something else; even a compromise is a choice. When chance is rare, there is only one string to hold on to, one reason for living and one ambition that makes living palatable in the face of oppression. This was Anitha’s life. Upper caste India needs to realise that social and cultural privilege is a huge advantage. When young girls and boys from lower-middle class Brahmin families speak about how they too had to struggle to move ahead, I respect their point, yet they should be aware of the huge head start the accident of their birth awarded them.

Caste is the bedrock of this problem, and it starts at school. School education in India is based on an unwritten, rarely discussed segregation. Most children educated in private CBSE and ICSE schools belong to the forward castes or the top tier of the Other Backward Classes. Inevitably, state board schools, government and private, educate mostly lower caste Indians. Upper caste India rarely sends its children to government schools and for the lower castes upward mobility means moving their children to private convents (under state boards).

There is no doubt that the general standard of education in many government schools and private state board schools in Tamil Nadu accessed by the lower castes is terrible. I am sure there are exceptions where a dynamic principal inspires learning. The state board syllabus itself does not match up to the requirements of higher education. In some subjects, there is an enormous gap between the syllabus, teaching abilities and comprehension, and this is rarely bridged. There is widespread disinterest and incompetence, not to forget abysmal infrastructure, especially in rural schools.

In spite of my critique, it is important to acknowledge that Tamil Nadu’s government schools have done far better than those of most states in educating a diverse population because of the Dravidian movement. It is also true that many children enrol in colleges or skill development institutes. But the reality of Tamil Nadu’s low educational standards cannot be wished away. Numbers and statistics do not give us the complete picture.

Unequal country

There is a deeper malaise that lurks in our minds. Most of us from upper castes and class do not want our children to mingle with “that” strata of our society. We have stereotyped these schools as being unsafe and do not want our children to come under the influence of “those” unclean, unruly, crass children from the slums! Many parents are labourers, daily wage workers, farmers, shop vendors, auto drivers. They may not have the leisure to participate in parent-teacher associations, and this suits the schools. In a casteist society like ours this also means the parents in such schools have little power to demand better facilities or education. Parents are forced to accept whatever is offered; after all, they must be beholden to the state for even providing this. There was a time when standards of state boards were far better, a time when even forward caste boys and girls attended Tamil-medium state board schools. This makes us wonder if the shift in caste demography affected state board school education. In other words, would the Tamil Nadu government have been so careless if its schools were filled with upper caste and powerful OBC students? I think we all know the answer.

But CBSE and ICSE schools are no havens. They are sweatshops, successfully driving children to compete in and pass professional entrance exams. The standard of CBSE and ICSE syllabi demands a high level of tutoring and these schools fulfil that need. Their success is built around this numerical achievement, which includes the number of children who join the Indian Institutes of Technology. Students are treated like robots programmed to fulfil examination criteria. Most private tuition teachers come from such schools and convert their tuition centers into marks manufacturing shops. We cannot underestimate the pressure put on these schools by middle class upper caste parents who judge success in terms of marks and how equipped their children are to take entrance exams.

Government schools too love to show off their achievements in terms of the number of students who pass the Class 12 exam, and Tamil Nadu’s education department revels in displaying extraordinarily high pass percentage. This usually means that correction is lenient. Many teachers will tell you that in state board schools, learning is almost entirely by rote and that the exam can be aced by memorising the questions and answers in the textbooks. Consequently, the students are duped by both sides. They are taught little, but looking at their marks they are deluded into believing they have learnt.

Adding to this is the huge chasm between state board schools in cities and in rural areas. The neglect of rural children is far more and you can be sure that no CBSE or ICSE school is interested in opening a branch in such areas. At least children in cities have some chance of upgrading their skills through private learning. For those from small villages and towns, even this opportunity is unavailable.

It must be mentioned here that the Right to Education Act requires private schools to reserve 25% seats (in the earliest class they offer) to children from marginalised sections of the society. Unfortunately, in Tamil Nadu, there is ambiguity about the rules enabling this process and the government has not actively pushed for what is an important social initiative. A state that champions social equality and inclusiveness seems disinterested. On the other hand, many private schools have circumvented this condition by remaining below the radar or using various legal loopholes to avoid admitting students from weaker sections of the society. Caste and class bias continue to prevail.

Oppressive system

Indeed, the entire education system in India is warped and does not contribute to the making of sensitive, creative, productive human beings. In fact, it does exactly the opposite. Anitha’s suicide is connected to this lacuna in Indian education. People who grow beyond the limitations imposed by their education do so of their own accord or due to other influences.

NEET has to be assessed with this in mind.

Considering the varying standards of state education in the country, it seems unfair to have a compulsory national exam based on syllabi of boards that cater mostly to upper caste and upper class India. The discrimination is not only in the syllabus, however, but also form. The entire NEET structure is based on the CBSE model, which does not take into consideration the diversity in ways of learning across the country. Right now, in the way it is being imposed, NEET is homogenising, discriminating and infringes upon federalism.

This is where the Supreme Court failed Anitha. It should have asked for a more participatory approach in the framing of NEET and pushed states like Tamil Nadu to raise the bar. Without this sensitivity, the court forced this test on under-prepared, scared students. Such a test becomes a terrorising experience.

It is not right, though, to put the blame entirely on the central government and the courts. We must hold the Tamil Nadu government equally, if not more, responsible, for they have been unconcerned about their schools, infrastructure, quality of teaching and well-being of students. While they fight NEET, they show scant interest in helping the children. The opposition to NEET in Tamil Nadu may also have to do with the number of private colleges that dot our landscape. Many such institutions have political backing and I wonder if a centralised selection process will adversely affect personal profitability. It is interesting that Kerala, our neighbouring state, did not oppose NEET. This gives us something more to think about education, politics and economy.

But do we need a central exam? This is a debatable point. I would argue that if such an exam improves the standard of learning then it is welcome. But it cannot be conducted unless students have been helped on the way up, and the states must shape this change. Some in Tamil Nadu argue that we are a state with one of the best healthcare systems in the country, where great doctors have emerged without having to write NEET. While this is true, it would have been an enormous struggle for many medical students to make that jump from school to college education. Upgrading class 11 and class 12 learning to aid NEET preparedness will only help improve college education. I do not see why we must reject the idea of a central exam entirely.

Anitha was trapped between an incompetent state and an uncaring Supreme Court and a bullying central government. We cannot allow this debate to be caught in a for-against mode. We must work towards improving the quality of government schooling, creating teacher training institutes and tightening evaluation standards. Should education be a state or concurrent subject is also on the table for discussion. However, irrespective of the constitutional placement of education, unless the political class, in the state and at the Centre, shows intent and objectivity, nothing will change.

Beyond this singular discussion, we must re-evaluate the idea of education. Anitha’s death was not only a result of the NEET mess, it was as much caused by education being reduced to marks, admissions and professional success. If we do not want more Anithas to die, this needs to change urgently. Hence, I hold all of us collectively responsible for her death.