Home Equality & Justice Tribal woman overcomes India's caste system, becomes university vice-chancellor

Tribal woman overcomes India’s caste system, becomes university vice-chancellor

In a big boost to India’s tribal people, scholar Dr. Sonajharia Minz has been appointed vice-chancellor of a university in the country’s eastern Jharkhand state.

The computer science professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi was appointed as the new vice chancellor of Sido Kanhu Murmu University last month.

 “I am a bit surprised but very happy by the honour,” said Minz, 57, who belongs to the Oraon tribe and hails from Gumla district of the state. The Oraon or Kurukh people are an ethnic group found in the states of Jharkhand, Odisha and Chattisgarh.

It is a historic moment as she is only the second person with a tribal background to be honored, said Dr. Vivek Kumar of JNU. The first was Dr. Indu Dhan who was vice chancellor of Sido Kanhu Murmu University from 2001 to 2004.

“This appointment should not be seen as a triumph of a tribal alone. For Minz has an ‘inter-sectionality aura’ one that cuts across caste, class, region, gender and community. She represents aspirations of all especially the marginalised,” said Kumar, a professor of sociology from the Center for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences.

Another colleague Neelima Mondal said: “We all are very happy. The university is lucky to have her. A very experienced and affable person.” 

Minz has taught at JNU for 28 years; she has worked in various capacities such as dean of the computer sciences department, a chairperson of an equal opportunities group that takes care of marginalised groups while also being the president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers Association (JNUTA) in 2018-19.

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“Minz won the JNUTA presidential election by a huge mandate that speaks volumes for her popularity in the campus,” said Mondal who teaches cellular biology at the School of Life Sciences.

During her tenure, Minz was never shy of opposing any detrimental policies.

“Though quiet and unassuming, Minz boldly tackled any situation. Dealing with the strong leftist and rightist leaning elements at the campus is no easy task,” Mondal said.

“She was never afraid of going against the tide,” the biology teacher said.

Dr. Sonajharia Minz is the new vice chancellor of Sido Kanhu Murmu University in India’s eastern state of Jharkhand. (Photo supplied)

‘Truth and justice’

Minz, who is married to pastor Dr. Batuel Ekka, said God created man in his image and nobody, whatever their social status, can be seen as a lesser human.

On the changes she would like to bring about at Sido Kanhu Murmu University, she said she saw her role as vice chancellor as one of being an enabling agent.

“I stand for the principles of truth and justice. You cannot shy away from delivering justice,” Minz said.

“My top priority would be to see that the aspirations and dreams with which the university was set up get fulfilled first. Every university has an ecosystem, some dynamics, some aspirations,” she said.

“I would like to usher in a culture of research. Explore areas hitherto left unexplored. I would like to start a centre for tribal studies, as well as centres for multi-disciplinary studies.”

Vowing to help uplift both women and tribal people, Minz said her 3-year tenure is not enough time to accomplish great things but she aimed to set a foundation for them to be established upon.

Sido Kanhu Murmu University was founded as Siddhu Kanhu University in January, 1992. A little over a decade later in 2003 it was renamed as a tribute to legendary Santhal freedom fighters, Sido Murmu and Kanhu Murmu, who led a rebellion against British colonial rule.

The Santhal Revolt took place in 1855-56. Santhals are a tribal group concentrated in the state of Jharkhand. This was the first peasant revolt against the British that occurred in India. The rebellion was led by the four Murmu Brothers — Sidhu, Kanhu, Chand and Bhairav.

A journey

Growing up, Minz said her father, Lutheran Bishop Emeritus Nirmal Minz — a doctorate in anthropology from Chicago University — emphasized the importance of education. Bishop Minz also founded Gossner College in Ranchi, the capital city of Jharkhand.

Minz’s three sisters have also befitted from this appreciation of education. One of them is now a doctor at the Christian Medical College Vellore, while the second sister is a pastor with a doctorate in education from Minnesota University. The  youngest sister is a state coordinator of the National Health Mission.

But Minz’s education journey began with many hurdles. While she was conversant in English she could not get admission into an English-medium school.

“I was a tribal and daughter of a protestant pastor while convent schools were run by Roman Catholics,” she said. “Also, the fees were too high and my father, then a pastor, could not afford them.”

From left to right; Dr. Ivy Hansdak of Jamia Millia University, Delhi, Dr. Fr Vincent Ekka Indian Social Institute, Dr. Sonajharia Minz, Dr Batuel Ekka (Minz’s husband), and Dr. Gomati Bodra from Jamia Millia University. (Photo supplied)

“So, I enrolled at a Church of North India-run Hindi medium school. Though I excelled in my studies, due to caste bias some of my teachers would deliberately humiliate me,” she said.

“A Sanskrit teacher told me you cannot do well in Sanskrit as you are not an ‘Aryan’,” Minz said referring to a term derived from the Sanskrit word ārya, which means one of noble birth. The concept of an Aryan race emerged in the late 19th century and was used to describe people of Indo-European heritage. It is the self-designation used by the Vedic-Indic people who migrated into the Indian subcontinent around 1,500 B.C.

“I liked maths as there was no language involved only dealing with figures which I mastered,” Minz said. “The upper caste teachers did not like to see us ‘adivasis’ (tribals) excelling in any subject.”

Despite such discrimination, Minz graduated from college majoring in mathematics and then went to further post-graduate studies at JNU in computer science which became popular during the 1980s.

After gaining a Master of Philosophy and a doctorate in computer science she took up brief teaching stints at universities in Bhopal and Madurai before returning to her alma mater as assistant professor in computer science in 1992.

Minz has also been involved in the Catholic-run Indian Social Institute (ISI) where she has played a part on its governing body.

“Her appointment to the post of vice-chancellor is well deserved and a matter of great pride for us at ISI,” said Father Denzil Fernandes, the institute’s executive director.

Father Fernandes said given Minz’s vast experience and her human touch, Sido Kanhu Murmu University will definitely be richer with her at the helm.

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