When Shanmugam Anitha hung herself in her home early this September, she had already accomplished the impossible.
The 17-year-old had recently obtained a near perfect score (1,176 out of 1,200) in her state board exams and was the only student in her district to get a perfect score in physics and math.
She was a remarkable student, whose academic excellence distinguished her above millions — perhaps even tens of millions — of students across India. But it was her story of overcoming incredible adversity that impacted me the most.
Anitha was the sole daughter of a Dalit day laborer from an inconspicuous village in Tamil Nadu, India. She grew up without a mother, and was raised by her grandmother in a cramped shack of a house shared with half-a-dozen other family members. The house lacked a working toilet and, for that matter, most of the basic essentials. Her four brothers struggled with finding stable employment, and her father’s meager wages were spread thin to put food on the table. School was the one thing Anitha loved, and she gladly walked barefoot to attend class.
Still, facing poverty wasn’t Anitha’s only problem. She also had to deal with the fact that she had been born a Dalit or “untouchable.”
In India, caste and poverty often come hand-in-hand. In the case of Dalits, the nearly 300 million Indians in the lowest rung of the caste system, this has been the story for centuries. Even 70 years after India’s independence and the framing of individual rights in the constitution, Dalits are often still considered and treated as second-class citizens. Dalit women are especially vulnerable to sexual violence and exploitation.
In a nation where the young promise of democracy and freedom is still taking its early steps, being a Dalit sometimes means having constitutionally protected rights that have not yet taken root within everyday social life. It means knowing you’re equal, yet living in a place where you’re constantly treated like you’re not.
Anitha knew all of this, yet she wouldn’t let it stop her from pursuing her childhood dream. She’d wanted to become a doctor since she was a little girl. Now, after graduating high school and getting one of the top scores in her state, it felt within reach.
Her dream came crashing down Tuesday, Aug. 22. That day, the Supreme Court allowed the central government’s case for the implementation of NEET in Tamil Nadu. The NEET (National Eligibility Entrance Test) was put forth by the central government with the intention of standardizing admissions to medical school. This would’ve been a fine idea, if school curriculums across India were actually standardized. The NEET disproportionally favors students who’ve been trained in mostly private and expensive schools which follow the Central Board of Secondary Education’s (CBSE) system.
Anitha’s home state of Tamil Nadu, along several other states, objected the implementation of NEET. They argued that their students were not prepared for taking the examination. The schools did not offer tutoring for NEET, and most students couldn’t afford to hire private tutors. Several students, including Anitha, signed a petition asking the Supreme Court to exempt Tamil Nadu from from the test requirement in their medical school applications. In a video, Anitha said, “I want to work for the society as a doctor … My dear friends, could you please help me for studying medicine?”
Anitha committed suicide Friday, Sept. 1 — 10 days after the Supreme Court’s decision.
Despite her exceptional performance in the school system she had been trained in, Anitha could not perform well in the NEET examination. She scored 86 out of 700.
India’s disparate and inequitable education system dashed the dreams of Anitha and of thousands of other bright minds in Tamil Nadu. As it stands, NEET acts more as a filter to sift out students who don’t have the means to afford private English education or tutoring to prepare for the examination. It perpetuates discrimination and hurts the poor and marginalized most.
The fact that Anitha resolved to commit suicide is tragic, yet it shouldn’t come completely as a surprise. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people in India, including the highly educated. Every hour, one Indian student commits suicide.
There’s a vacuum of hope in India, stealing our children from us. And unless we do something about it, we’ll miss the invaluable contribution they offer our society.
I lead a movement of English medium schools for poor and marginalized students called the Good Shepherd Schools. We’ve started more than 100 schools across India, through which nearly 26,000 children receive access to a high quality English education that would otherwise be outside of their reach. It’s truly a dream factory: one of our students, a girl, is finishing her PhD, and several others are studying to become doctors.
Our goal is to one day have 1,000 self-sustainable yet not commercially-driven schools like these. We want to help reform India’s education system, raising the quality of education for everyone, not just the privileged.
Anitha taught us that neither poverty, circumstance nor one’s birth should determine a person’s potential. Now it’s our responsibility to make sure every Indian child has the opportunity to pursue her dream.