While the Adivasi community of Kerala has always been at a significant disadvantage in secondary and higher education, the various issues Adivasi students face have been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools and colleges in Kerala have increasingly begun teaching through digital classes, which are often inaccessible to Adivasi and Dalit students. The pressure that this put on marginalised students was most evident in the case of Devika Balakrishnan, a 14-year-old Dalit student from Malappuram district who died by suicide on 1 June, after she was unable to attend an online class.
Since 28 September, over a hundred Adivasi students have been protesting outside the civil police station in the town of Sultan Bathery in Wayanad district. The student protesters argued that various attempts by the state government to address this, such as the distribution of free laptops and the broadcast of classes on state-owned television channels, has not eased the inaccessibility of education for Adivasi students. They also pointed out that the lack of access to online classes is only a part of a broader system of exclusion that includes opaque admission procedures, the lack of reserved seats and exorbitant fees that push Adivasi students out of the secondary and higher education system.
“There are tribal homes which still do not have electricity, let alone a television, a laptop or a mobile phone,” Sathysree Dravid, a volunteer with a student’s collective called Adishakthi Summer School, who also participated in the protest, told me. Adishakthi has led the protest. “More than half of tribal students are outside the purview of the online education system. I can say this without a doubt,” Dravid said. “The government has suddenly introduced a new education system without any attempts to collect data.”