Widespread protests broke out across Tamil Nadu on 13 and 17 September, led by students’ organisations and Dalit outfits, in the cities of Madurai, Karur, Thanjavur, Thiruvarur, Pudukottai, Kanyakumari, Virudhunagar, Veeloor and Chennai. The protests were in opposition to the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test, or NEET, an exam for admission into India’s medical and dental courses, which was held on 13 September. Since its introduction in 2017, Tamil Nadu’s students, civil-society groups and political parties have all condemned the NEET, arguing that it disproportionately disadvantages students from marginalised communities. Every year since then, the NEET has led to numerous deaths by suicide of medical aspirants from the state. The latest set of protests came in the wake of three student suicides on the day before the exam.
The last time M Jothisri Durga’s parents saw her, at 1 am on the intervening night between 12 and 13 September, the 19-year-old was still preparing for the NEET. She had spent the entirety of the previous year preparing for it. Murugasundaram, Jothisri’s father and a sub-inspector of police in Madurai, said that he and his wife knew that a lot was weighing on their daughter’s mind, but that was only expected with the exam right around the corner. “She seemed normal on Friday night, had dinner and went to her room,” Murugasundaram said. “In the morning, our room was locked from outside. With great struggle we managed to come out only to find our daughter hanging in the hall.”
In a moving voice note that she left behind, the 19-year-old said that she was scared that she might fail the examination although she had studied well. “If I couldn’t get a seat, everyone will be disappointed,” Jothisri said. “I am sorry Appa. I am sorry Amma. Appa, please take care of your health as you are a heart patient. Do not worry about me. Amma, Appa please don’t blame yourself. It is not your fault. It is solely my decision. Amma, I am going to miss you. Amma, I am sorry.” She could be heard sobbing. In a seven-page suicide note, she wrote, “I studied well … I got 590+ marks in the last mock test. But, Appa I am afraid of this exam.” A quote from her note came to be repeated widely during the protests that followed, “I am sorry, I am tired.”
The exam was initially scheduled to take place on 3 May this year, before the COVID-19 pandemic led to it being postponed indefinitely. Amid calls from students across the country to postpone the exam, including petitions before the Supreme Court that were ultimately dismissed, the NEET was held on 13 September. The NEET exam has led to at least 18 suicides among young, Bahujan medical aspirants in Tamil Nadu since 2017, five in this year alone.
Until 2017, Tamil Nadu, which has among the highest number of medical aspirants in the country, determined admissions to medical colleges on the basis of twelfth-standard board-exam marks alone. Due to the wide accessibility and comparatively good quality of government schools in the state, medical education became increasingly representative of marginalised Dalit, Adivasi and Bahujan communities. However, the introduction of the NEET, which is largely based on the syllabus followed by the Central Board of Secondary Education, made this entrance process incredibly hard for the state’s marginalised communities.