New Policy Would Have Kept Me Out of JNU: Dalit PhD Scholar

My achievement as a student coming from a government school and from a deprived background from down south of this country is a matter of pride not just to me, my family and my community but also a moment of pride for my institution (JNU), imagined by the people of this country to be an inclusive university.


I am one of the fortunate PhD scholars lucky enough to study in JNU. I am a Dalit woman.  My mother is my family’s main breadwinner and my father struggles as a daily wager. I have two siblings who are younger than me. My mother is a low paid private school teacher today because of the education, which her single mother provided to her.

My maternal grandmother who became a widow at a young age, didn’t sit inside the house after her husband passed away, she works as a sanitation worker even today, a profession that is considered a taboo by her community people. It is the hard work of these two women that has helped me reach this position.

Because of my family situation my school education was scattered all over Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry. I never studied in one school for more than two years. So one can understand how many types of schools and people I have experienced with. I started my schooling in a convent in Pondicherry. Then I went to three matriculation schools before I completed my 6th standard; after that because of my family’s economic condition I was put in Government and aided schools from class 7 till the completion of class 12.

Irrespective of changing schools every alternate year I was good at my studies, I was always encouraged and motivated by my friends and by my teachers. I was always fortunate when it came to teachers: teachers stood by me in all my obstacles throughout my education wherever I went and JNU has been no exception to this.

I stood first throughout my schooling but my board exam marks were not sufficient for an engineering or medical seat. Since I liked English Literature and my marks in that subject were very high, I applied for a BA in English in Salem’s famous Sarada College for Women. When the results came, my parents looked for my name first in the SC list, but when they couldn’t find my name there, they thought I didn’t get a seat. But then my mother thought to look for it in the open category list, and found it at rank three there. My parents were very happy and I was admitted.  

During my graduation I stood first in curricular and co-curricular activities in the final year of my graduation and because of my achievements I was made the Secretary of the students union in the college. (I don’t think that an SC had ever been selected as a secretary of that college before me). Finally I graduated with a First rank in BA English Literature and with the honor of being the Best Outgoing Student of the year 2013.

My mother’s education made us aware of the facilities in Central Universities and helped her three children write entrance exams for Central universities. Admission to JNU had a huge impact on my life, and my family’s living conditions. Her first daughter (me) wrote the JNU entrance for MA in Linguistics and was admitted into JNU with the help of woman’s deprivation points, (a unique feature of JNU’s now scrapped admission policy) in the SC quota.

During my Masters in Linguistics at JNU, I was exposed to Chomsky’s generative linguistics, not usually taught in most other Indian universities.  I was always keen to apply whatever I learned from the courses taught to my mother tongue, Tamil, and my second language, Malayalam. As I progressed through my MA course work, my curiosity about these two languages led me to discover more about Dravidian languages and Linguistic theories.  The turning point in my career as a linguist was a research paper on Tamil that I wrote in a Chomskyan syntax course in the third semester of my Master’s degree, a topic that has grown into my PhD work.

When I appeared for the JNU MPhil/PhD entrance examination, with a first class degree in MA Linguistics from JNU, there was no seat cut; this Dalit woman, raised by the sweat and blood of her grandmother and mother, used her knowledge she got in her MA from JNU and made it through a highly competitive selection to the MPhil/PhD programme. She secured the first rank in the open category, and also a JRF. (Although the irregular disbursal of the JRF by JNU/UGC causes frequent tension, as I need the money to meet not only my own expenses but also the needs of my younger siblings’ education.  I am frequently forced to borrow money from friends and acquaintances, leaving me in debt for most of the year.)

This achievement by a student coming from a government school and from a deprived background from down south of this country is a matter of pride not just to me, my family and my community but also a moment of pride for my institution, imagined by the people of this country to be an inclusive University. Today I am a proud independent woman who shoulders the burden once carried by her mother and her aging grandmother. JNU and other such public institutions have played a huge role in making me.

Unfortunately the new admission policy in JNU has dictated that there will be zero admissions in my Centre, as in many others in JNU, for this academic year. This move, using the pretext of some UGC regulations, actually shuts the doors of social mobility for various students from deprived communities like me. Our success is not just an individual’s achievement but a brighter hope for our family and community. And given the fact that many PhD students in JNU are women, these new regulations will have a great impact on woman’s higher education in our country.

If such a seat cut was implemented in my time, what would have I done with my MA degree in linguistics? Given the high cost of education in other universities, I would have probably gone back to my hometown. Since I am a woman, society would have pressurized my parents about my marriage and my dream to be the first PhD in my family would have been buried.  Is this what we want the woman in this nation to do? Bury their dreams of a better life?

Rajamathangi S is a PhD Scholar at Center for Linguistics, JNU

This article was first published on  Kafila.



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