Sonajharia Minz, professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, was elected as the vice-chancellor of Sido Kanhu Murmu University (SKMU) in Dumka, Jharkhand on 28th of May, 2020. She is only the second tribeswoman in the history of India to be appointed vice-chancellor.
The tribal scholar was a president of JNU Teacher’s Association. She is also a social justice activist and vocal supporter of Dalit and Adivasi rights.
Her Journey To The Top Was Not Easy
Minz’s journey and career has been filled with discrimination and prejudices.
She was denied admission in any English-medium schools as she was “an Adivasi”.
Despite being a good student with excellent marks in math, she was advised by her upper-caste math teacher to shift to biology, with the reason being “tumse na ho payega”.
She says, “The maths teacher, who wasn’t tribal, knew it was my strong subject and that I had scored 100 per cent thrice. Yet he told me not to study maths for graduation. That made me even more determined to study the subject further.”
Once her Sanskrit teacher asked her how she could be good at Sanskrit as “it’s the language of the Aryans”.
She recalls being constantly subjected to such offensive remarks and discriminatory comments by her upper-caste teachers – things that her other classmates never had to face.
Finally, her family decided to leave Ranchi and settle in southern India in the hopes that the discrimination would not follow them there.
“Because of the way we looked, our appearance could have resonated more with people in south India, and my father thought we would not be discriminated against. Hence, before I started college, we moved to south India,” she says.
The Odds Against Minz’s Appointment Were High
Minz’s appointment has been received with great cheer from academicians and social rights activists, but also great surprise. The fact that she is only the second tribeswoman to be elected as a vice-chancellor of a university highlights the obstacles tribal women face, right from their education to their work.
A study in northern Karnataka found that girls in scheduled castes and scheduled tribes face numerous macro and micro level barriers to education.
Macro-societal barriers include the societal and familial belief that there is no use in educating girls, fear of their “reputation” being ruined, harassment by teachers and boys, and lack of toilet facilities.
While government welfare schemes exist to encourage girls to go to school, the study notes that the schemes do not actually cover real and hidden costs, include problems of corruption and difficulty in accessing the schemes, and the girls’ families often using the scholarship money to cover household costs.
A large volume of tribal women work in the informal sector – from farming, fishing, and forestry. to mining and quarrying.
The employment of tribal women in the formal sector, however, continues to be dramatically low.
Minz’s appointment has therefore pleasantly surprised everyone, considering the high odds against her. Even within academia, the 2018-19 All India Higher Education Survey shows that there are 33,403 Scheduled Tribe teachers in India – of which only 3,574 are women.
Minz is aware of this. She admits, “I am extremely happy to be appointed as a V-C, but I also know how rare it is for a tribal woman to be elevated to such a post. First of all, there is no parity when it comes to women in academia, then it narrows down even further to tribal women.”
Her Tenure As Vice-Chancellor Is Sure To Be Path-Breaking
Minz asserts that the kind of access a child gets in their early days is detrimental in shaping their future.
As vice-chancellor, she intends to ensure they are given this access, and use her personal experience to better that of the students at SKMU.
Dalit activist N. Paul Divakar hails the appointment of Minz as vice-chancellor at a university that was started with the intention to get more tribal students to college.
“Sona (Minz) is somebody who has social justice and Adivasi rights at heart. She is a great choice to head a university meant to encourage tribal students,” he says.
Minz has said that her vision as vice-chancellor includes starting a Centre for Tribal Studies, as well as centres for multidisciplinary studies.
With her vast knowledge, intimate experience as a tribal woman, deep empathy, refusal to let herself or anyone else be chained down by casteist and patriarchal norms, and progressive vision, there is no doubt that Sonajharia Minz is going to lead the university, and a new generation of students, to great heights!
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