With Kerala revelling in the formal start of academic year on 1st June itself, even amidst the Covid crisis, Devika, a Dalit girl left in the periphery of the new learning mode, left her parting words in her note-book "I'm going". A bright student, with dreams of high scores in the tenth std, the teenage giril from the Dalit colony in Mankeri, Malappuram district got into an anxiety that the new online stream would be beyond her dream, and put herself on flames. But as a matter of fact, shouldn't that flame put on fire our social system?
The inferiority feeling and mental tension that the topper of the class would have experienced on 1st June should have been really horrifying. Crying with her head resting on the table holding a defunct TV set, she presented the tragic picture of a life that had finally to quit this world – an image of one from the marginalised life that Kerala would like to hide.
Around the same time, another final cry "I can't breathe" by George Floyd was reverberating among the oppressed across the world, only because it was the voice of a huge section in whose larynx that message got stuck because of white racism and was denied its breath. And in Devika's words "I'm going" there was the agony of the nearly 2.5 lakh students of Kerala destined to be left out of the stream of online learning, due to poverty and deprivation. In a way, Devika was a scapegoat of the hurry to declare that the academic year started on 1st June itself and that the state was creating history by being fully geared for digital education.
'Samagra Shiksha Kerala' had discovered as early as in the first week of May that there were 2.62 lakh students in Kerala who had no facilities for online education. Even as technological preparations were under way for digital education, the order by General Education directorate to class teachers to identify students who had no facilities for e-learning and to ensure access for them, was issued only on 29 May, and 30 May was a Saturday. Thus, the education directorate cannot absolve itself of the guilt of delay in ensuring the facilities for households that did not have them, at the time the project was being launched.
The majority of students who grieve about lack of online access, and sink into inferiority, are adivasis, coastal communities and those living in under-provided colonies. Devika, daughter of a daily wager Balakrishnan living in the Scheduled Caste/Tribe colony, is a symbol of that section. Ipso facto, dismissing the death of that promising but poor student, as a capricious act of suicide, would be an injustice not only to that girl, but to the entire lot of 2.5 lakh students left outside the purview of general education. Only if her death is classified as 'system suicide' would such deaths will be prevented in future.
As a matter of fact, Devika's death haunted us at a time when Kerala should have celebrated the strides it made in public education. The collective opinion of educationists that onlline education cannot fully achieve child-focused, activity-oriented and process-related educational concepts, can be set aside for the time being when the world is caught in an extra-ordinary situation. But in such circumstances, the fact that learning was made possible at the scheduled time should have raised the prestige of the state. Out of the 45 lakh students in public stream education, that 42.5 lakh students had the facility to acquire online education should elate us, but Devika's departure sounds an alarm that even then the section left out of the mainstream should have been given greater focus. For equality and care lie not in merely starting the academic year on the 1st of June itself – thereby boosting the confidence and morale of the privileged majority – but in addressing the concerns and grievances of the ones who are denied that, and in deferring e-learning until they also get on board. That epitomises the lesson imparted by Devika by sacrificing her own life.
The heartburns of the population that constantly gets expelled from history eludes the comprehension of the people and the ruling establishment because the Keralite society at large remains enamoured of middle-class privileges. This 'entrance festival' achieved through digital revolution, was being celebrated beyond limit by the legacy and social media via live telecasting and other channels. It may probably be at the sight of this overwhelming celebration, and feeling terribly let down in the process that Devika would have lost her last hope and left this world saying "I'm going". The ones to hold their heads low are not only the government, but all Malayalis steeped in middle-class cultural value system – which represents an approach that needs to be questioned.