Published: 07th June 2020
Shocked that I was appointed: How Sonajharia Minz became one of the first adivasi women to become the Vice Chancellor of an Indian varsity
Sonajharia Minz has just been appointed as the VC of Sido Kanhu Murm University in Dumka, Jharkhand, her home state. She is only the second adivasi woman to take over the reigns at the University
It was the winter of 1968. Sonajharia Minz was in the first standard. Now, when the teachers were busy, each student would take turns to hold the long cane that was popular in those days and point to the questions on the board with it and ask their peers to answer.
They didn’t have textbooks in those days, so their slate and the blackboard was the only way to keep the children engaged. It was one such day, the teachers were all busy with tabulating exam scores and it was little Sona’s chance to take over the cane. After she was done, as she walked back to her desk, she overheard her class teacher tell another, “That girl will make a great teacher.”
That girl is now set to become Vice Chancellor of the Sido Kanhu Murmu University in Dumka, Jharkhand, her home state. She is only the second adivasi woman to take over the reins of the University and while she herself is not sure, we can safely say she is one of the first advasi women to take up such a high post in the entire country. When you are a ‘first’ in posts that have existed for centuries, then it is almost a given that the path hadn’t been strewn with roses. Minz’s wasn’t. The realisation that she could be heading down a difficult path set very early on, even before she stepped into a school.
Minz was not given admission in an English medium school - one, because she was adivasi and second because her father was a Protestant priest - something that particular Catholic school’s administration was not happy about. “I was only about five years old but I understood that I didn’t get an admission in that school because I was adivasi. I’m not sure if I understood discrimination but I understood deprivation. I was aware that I was deprived of something because I was adivasi and so I knew that I belonged to a social sector that could face discrimination in the future as well. I knew there was a chance that I could be discouraged which was why I wanted to ensure that I could build and be confident of my ability. I resolved to prove them wrong.” So when she was in Class One and she overheard her teacher say that she would be a good teacher, she felt it was a prophetic statement, “I was good at Mathematics, so I immediately decided that I would grow up and become a Mathematics teacher.”
Minz says she had a lot of language problems when she joined school and it was a subject she struggled with. Mathematics, on the other hand, was easier. It didn’t require her to know Hindi, but so she enjoyed it and decided she would become the best at it.
Then in Class Two, she remembers how everytime the teacher asked the students to do some work, the first one to finish would always rush to the teacher’s desk to show them their work. The one who went first, was the ‘best’. She was never one to rush to the teacher’s desk but she was also the one to never have a single mistake in her work. But then the teacher told her that it wasn’t enough that she made no mistakes, “She told me that it was also important that I strive to be the first. That’s when I became competitive and wanted to get the first rank. This is a story that my parents recalled throughout my life. They were so proud.”
While she remembers these teachers who supported and motivated her from the very beginning. She has also had experiences that could have been discouraging. In another interview, she recalled an incident of a Mathematics teacher telling her ‘Tumse nahi ho payega’ (It’s not something you can do). If discrimination and oppression is a reality that students have to face even in 2020, it had to have been several degrees worse all those years ago, right? “My assumption is that students from the Scheduled Castes (SC) face abuse much more because they have a caste name attached to their identity. But for me at least, I felt that teachers would very easily dismiss my potential. They would think tribals are not capable, uncouth even. But I was aware that I would be prone to such discrimination, so I was very certain about making everyone see my potential, which was why I was very particular about always getting a good rank in class,” the Professor said.
Minz's family moved to South India hoping they would not face the same kind of discrimination they faced in their home state of Jharkhand, “Because of our appearance, my father though we would look more similar to the people here and would not face discrimination.” After completing her Pre-University course in Bangalore, Minz came to Chennai’s Women’s Christian College for her undergraduate degree and then a Masters in Mathematics from Madras Christian College. But she wasn’t only involved in academics here, she was able to also give other activities a try here.
So what activity interested her here? "Hockey," she says simply. But she was no ordinary player, just like with everything else - she excelled here too. When I ask her if she played just for fun or something she took seriously, she pauses for a minute. And then says with a smile, “You should go look into MCC’s records, you will find out how serious I was. I was good, I was selected to play at the University level and they were also considering me for the State team but I wanted to concentrate on my exams. I knew I wanted to be a teacher, so I didn’t want to pursue the sport.” Well, that is certainly a loss for the sports scene in India, but Minz says she was clear in her head about it, “In those days, pursuing a sport professionally was not at all easy and I figured sports would continue to be a part of my life. I knew wherever I went to teach I could also be a part of the physical education department. I have remained an athlete and sportsperson all my life,” she says, with pride. After MCC, Minz went on to get an MPhil and a PhD in Computer Science from JNU, Delhi.
So how was it to realise her life-long dream, I ask her. What did it feel like to walk into a classroom for the first time as a teacher? Minz’s first job was as an assistant professor at the department of Computer Science in Barkatullah University, Bhopal, MP, “They only had one programme in 1990 when I joined. Well, I don’t remember quite well but I recall that the class was mostly filled with boys. In those days, the teachers would teach in Hindi and I wasn’t very great at the language even though I studied in Hindi medium. But I was told that the medium of instruction was English, so I went in and started teaching. But the students told me later that they didn’t understand anything. So I told them they can ask me doubts as many times as they wanted in class and I would respond in English and outside class I would teach in Hinglish. And so they were happy,” she says. But Minz wasn’t too happy at the University because she had studied in JNU and seen how the professors there also work on their research at the same time. She wanted an environment that would allow her to do the same.
That’s when she moved to Madurai Kamaraj University in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. “I had a great time working there, but again, I wasn’t able to do much about my research. So when I saw an ad by JNU seeking professors, I immediately grabbed the opportunity,” the Professor tells us. She then spent 28 years in JNU. Starting as an Assistant Professor in 1992 to becoming an Associate Professor in 1997 and finally a Professor in 2005.
But Minz wasn’t just a Professor at JNU, she also went on to become the President of the JNU Teachers’ Association, one of the most popular, engaging and ‘political’ teachers’ organisations in the country. During her time, Minz also ensured she engaged with the marginalised students on campus and empowered them, helped them through their struggles. She would even be the local guardian of many of the students who studied on campus. She, however, says she was not somebody who thought she could lead a team like this. She wanted to engage of course, so she sat at every meeting and watched the proceedings. “From the pay commission to implementing affirmative action, there were a lot of issues that I engaged with and wanted to be part of. But I didn’t think I wanted to become a leader, so even though people urged me to take it up, I turned it down,” she said. But in 2018, she could not put it off any longer, “I was older then most of my colleagues and also they wanted someone to represent the minorities as well. So I figured it would be a good idea.”
The President is often at the forefront of agitations, engages with the media and makes representations. But none of this stressed out Minz so much. She calls her term as a President ‘eventful’. “It was an uneventful ten months. I have no regrets. I know we would have disagreements with the other staff but everything was good at the end. I believed that dialogues and conversation always would lead to a solution. I believed in the democratic process,” she adds. In one such event, Minz was also attacked by a right-wing group that hurled stones at her.
Sido Kanhu Murm University
When Minz applied for the VC’s post, she had no expectation that she would actually be appointed. She just casually applied when she saw the ad for a VC. In the past when she was asked to try for a post, she would dismiss it. “It was not in my scheme of things. Not till very recently. So I just filled up the application and submitted it. I was not expecting it also because of my association with the JNUTA and felt maybe they would not be happy to hire someone like me. I was absolutely shocked when I heard about my appointment,” she said happily. What was all the more unexpected, was the reaction to her appointment - wished poured in from all quarters. “A lot of Dalit Bahujan people reached out to me saying how happy they all are, so now I feel that my responsibilities have increased because the expectations of me have also increased. It has increased the weight on my shoulders but I have some plans. Three years is not enough time to accomplish great things but I think it is a good time to start on them,” the new VC said.
Student movements are growing bigger everyday across the country. Students are no longer accepting unfairness, they are reaching out to their administrators, the media and the public. The one issue that students often bring up is how detached they feel from the higher ups in their campuses. Does Minz think this will be a problem her students will face at Sido Kanhu Murmu University, Jharkhand. “Like I said I’m a firm believer in the power of dialogue, I think people can have a cordial discussion on issues and that is the way to resolve problems. I have a lot of trust in that process,” she says confidently. Probably, the greatest indicator of her potential success in her new role - besides her impeccable academic record, her work in the upliftment and empowerment of marginalised students - is a recent event where she strove hard to help bring some migrant workers back home to Jharkhand from places like Tamil Nadu. Because that's the thing - some people are all about remembering their roots and using that to be the change they want to see.