My selection should not be viewed from a ghettoisation perspective: Sonajharia Minz

The new vice-chancellor of Sido Kanhu Murmu University in Jharkhand on climbing the academic ladder as a tribal woman and what her appointment means for social justice

July 11, 2020 04:01 pm | Updated July 12, 2020 01:56 am IST

Illustration: R. Rajesh

Illustration: R. Rajesh

It’s rare that the appointment of a university vice-chancellor stirs up much discussion, outside of high-profile, highly politicised environments such as Jawaharlal Nehru University. But it is rarer still to see a woman from a tribal background appointed to such a post. So when in May, Raj Bhavan in Ranchi issued a notification naming Sonajharia Minz to the position of vice-chancellor of the little-known Sido Kanhu Murmu University (SKMU) in Jharkhand’s Dumka district, her name immediately caught the eye of academicians, tribal rights activists, and the intellectual world.

“We have a woman like her who marks the beginning of the representation of tribals in important academic positions. It is a moment for celebration. Her achievement will be helpful in motivating and boosting the confidence of students from backward and marginalised communities to enter the world of education,” says Swapnil Dhanraj, an assistant professor at O.P Jindal Global University in Haryana.

For her part, the 57-year-old wasn’t expecting it. “I was very surprised to be selected as VC. During my student and teaching career, I have seen people with excellent academic careers becoming VCs. It may have so happened that my academic achievement was good enough for a State university,” says Minz, with disarming modesty.

Weighty responsibility

Did her tribal ancestry and non-academic activities bolster her candidacy? While Dumka is indeed the heartland of Jharkhand’s tribal-dominated Santhal Pargana, where the brothers Sidhu and Kanhu Murmu — SKMU’s namesakes — once led the Santhal Rebellion (1855-56) against British colonial authority and the zamindari system, Minz prefers to point to the academic ladder she has had to climb, and the challenges she faced while doing so. “My selection vindicates social justice. But it should not be viewed from a ghettoisation perspective because I am a tribal and woman and I have to work in a tribal-dominated region. The appointment is not a challenge for me, but a responsibility,” she says.

Minz, who comes from the Oraon tribe in the Gumla district — one of the least developed districts in the country — was fortunate in that her father Nirmal Minz, a Lutheran Bishop Emeritus and social thinker who has worked for the development of tribal languages, had made her realise the importance of education very early on. But her journey was not without its share of hiccups brought on by prejudice.

As a second-generation learner, she was conversant in English but couldn’t get admission to an English-medium school. She was forced to study in a Hindi-medium school in Ranchi despite having trouble following the language. Nevertheless, being a bright student, she excelled in every subject. However, non-tribal teachers did not encourage her. “My mathematics teacher once told me not to study mathematics for graduation despite knowing well that I was strong in the subject. It made my resolve stronger. I chose mathematics for my higher studies,” she recalls.

Facing prejudice

Apart from academic challenges, Minz was wary of the discrimination she could face for her skin colour and ethnic identity. After she finished school, she moved to Bengaluru to complete a pre-university course in 1980, and then to Chennai the following year. “One of the pertinent reasons behind my shifting out of Bihar was that the discrimination was more blatant in north India. We were subjected to humiliation for our identity, our physical features. I did not face discrimination in Chennai,” she says.

Minz got a mathematics degree from Women’s Christian College, Chennai, then an MSc from Madras Christian College, and went on to complete her M.Phil and Ph.D. in computer science from JNU. She was a professor at JNU’s School of Computer and Systems Science for 28 years before taking charge as SKMU’s VC.

She has never been one to confine herself to purely academic activities, however, and has raised her voice on a host of issues. When the nation went into lockdown with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, she entered the Twitter sphere for the first time — not to engage in intellectual or academic discourse, but to help coordinate the safe return of Jharkhand’s stranded migrant labourers. She remained on the site only for as long as it took for their return to be streamlined. And in 2018-19, when she was president of the JNU Teachers Association, her vociferous protest against the introduction of seat cuts, compulsory attendance and online entrance examinations was well known. The new VC, however, insists that she should not be bracketed in any ideology. “I believe in working for the marginalised without affiliation to any ideology,” she says.

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