Looking back at Tamil Nadu’s anti-NEET sentiment in light of NEET-UG 2024 row

The DMK has been fighting hammer-and-tongs against NEET even before it came to power in 2021, and called for the exam to be banned several times
Tamil Nadu and the anti-NEET sentiment
Tamil Nadu and the anti-NEET sentiment(Pic: EdexLive Desk)

On September 1, 2017, S Anitha, a Dalit girl from Tamil Nadu, died by suicide because she was not able to meet the cut-off marks for the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance exam for Undergraduate (NEET-UG) admissions, strengthening the anti-NEET sentiment in the state led by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). Today, with the exam mired in controversy and legal tussle, this sentiment seems to have spread across India. 

While NEET is no stranger to controversy, it seemed that things were not going well in the exam from the get-go in 2024. Candidates complained of various discrepancies, like being given the wrong question paper in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, and eventually, a paper leak. The latter resulted in an FIR registered by the Bihar Police and the arrest of 13 individuals. 

As the results of the exam were released on June 4, 2024, and students found discrepancies between their marks and ranks, MK Stalin, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and leader of the DMK, took to X to say that his party was the “first to foresee the hazards” of the exam, and “undertook a large-scale campaign against it”.

The DMK has been fighting hammer-and-tongs against NEET even before it came to power in 2021, and called for the exam to be banned several times. It terms NEET “anti-poor”, and claims that the exam only benefits coaching centres. 

“Since day one, we have been saying that NEET is against the society's poor, marginalised, and downtrodden sections,” states CVMP Ezhilarasan, Member of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly and Secretary of DMK’s Students’ Wing. He further alleges that the exam is nothing but a ploy by the Central government to help coaching institutions make hefty profits out of students. 

The DMK has also been accusing NEET of being against India's federal structure. “Even though education falls under the concurrent list, control and regulation over the state universities falls on the states. However, through NEET, admissions to state medical colleges are overseen by the Centre,” explains Ezhilarasan. 

In 2021, the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly passed the Tamil Nadu Admission to Undergraduate Medical Degree Courses Bill, which seeks exemption of the state from NEET. The Bill is currently awaiting ascent from the Tamil Nadu Governor RN Ravi. If cleared, the Bill would facilitate admissions to undergraduate medical, dental and homoeopathy courses in Tamil Nadu based on Class XII marks.

It is worth remembering that Anitha, who secured who scored 1,176 out of 1,200 in her Class XII exams, petitioned the Supreme Court against NEET, claiming that the exam discriminated against rural students like her. If her petition was not rejected by the Supreme Court, she would have become the first doctor from her village. 

Relevance of the AK Rajan Committee Report

Submitted to CM Stalin on July 14, 2021, a high committee report by retired Madras High Court judge Dr AK Rajan found that there was a drastic difference in enrollment of students from weaker socio-economic backgrounds to undergraduate medical courses across government and self-financed medical colleges in Tamil Nadu post-NEET.

According to the report, the number of enrollments of students graduating from the Tamil Nadu State Board of Secondary Education (TNSBSE) fell from 95 per cent in 2017, to 64.27 per cent in the academic year 2020-21, with students from Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) schools enrolling in disproportionately high numbers.

Further, the report concluded that NEET did not offer a holistic assessment of a student’s aptitude for medical education, and made no effort to measure their learning capabilities. The report termed its scores being the only criterion for admission into medical courses as exceeding “all scientific forms and principles of an entrance exam”.

Most strikingly, the report stated that the mechanism behind NEET has failed to test itself for its validity and biases in light of evolving times. It compares the abolition of mandatory Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores by the University of California and other American universities for admissions, due to a 2019 lawsuit which deemed it biased against low-income students, particularly from Black and Hispanic communities, to the inaccessibility of NEET among non-English medium, rural, urban-poor, and state syllabus students. 

As a result, the committee recommended the elimination of NEET from the admission process, as it has “undermined the diverse societal representation in MBBS and higher medical studies”. Further, it recommended that the students’ Class XII scores be used as admission criteria, and normalised across all boards. 

It was based on these findings and recommendations that the Tamil Nadu government introduced the Tamil Nadu Admission to Undergraduate Medical Degree Courses Bill. 

Foresight of Tamil Nadu?

When asked about how he sees the national furore against NEET UG 2024 today, including from the political sphere, DMK spokesperson Saravanan Annadurai told EdexLive, “We have been talking about how NEET – and centralised entrance exams in general – are discriminatory towards marginalised students for over a decade. Now, the whole nation realises it.”

He then mentioned how the Tamil Nadu Government in 2006 passed the Tamil Nadu Regulation of Admission in Professional Courses Act, which abolished the Common Entrance Test for admissions to professional courses like Engineering, Medicine, Dental, and Agriculture for students who cleared Class XII Board exams in the state. 

The Bill received the President's ascent, and was upheld by both the Madras High Court, and subsequently the Supreme Court of India in 2011. However, Annadurai claims that despite this, the Bill was eventually "brushed aside". 

As recently as January 3, 2024, the Supreme Court dismissed a plea by the DMK, which sought the abolition of NEET. Today, however, the conduct of the exam and the alleged malpractices are being subject to a Supreme Court hearing. 

“What the rest of India does in education today, Tamil Nadu did 15 years earlier,” Annadurai quipped. 

“We started raising our voice against NEET when one girl died by suicide. Today, suicides of NEET aspirants are a norm,” he adds. 

Echoing this sentiment, Ezhilarasan says, “NEET has become a huge inconvenience to the students, where even those who can afford to go to coaching are succumbing to the pressure. Even their clothes are subject to heavy scrutiny when they go to the exam centre. Doesn’t this add to the humiliation and anguish of our students?”

Further, he adds that sentiment against NEET has been spreading across India, with several opposition parties questioning the National Testing Agency (NTA) about the conduct of the exam. 

When asked whether this backlash against NEET is a cause of vindication for the DMK, Annadurai says, “Of course it is! Today, even the Maharashtra Government is seeking the cancellation of NEET.”

He adds that with a stronger presence of Opposition Members of Parliament after the 2024 Lok Sabha Elections, especially 22 MPs from DMK, the issue will be discussed greatly in the Parliament. 

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