Digital divide worsens social exclusion: Anti-caste activists on Devika’s death

Devika, a class nine student from a Dalit colony in Malappuram district, allegedly killed herself because she was not able to attend virtual classes that government started for student.
Representative image of student attending online class
Representative image of student attending online class
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On June 1, when lakhs of students in Kerala sat in front of their televisions, computers and smartphones for the first time in their lives to begin an academic year through virtual classes, a Class 9 student from a Dalit colony in Malappuram district took her last breath. The student, Devika, is alleged to have killed herself, reportedly dejected that she did not have the resources to access the virtual classes launched by the state government due to the coronavirus-induced lockdown.

The girl’s parents have stated that she was very much worried in the days leading up to the start of the virtual school year that she would not be able to attend classes. The family has reportedly found a suicide note, suspected to have been written by their daughter, saying, “I’m leaving”. Despite this, it is not entirely clear why Devika killed herself.

However, the death of the young and promising student has led to outrage in Kerala. Conversations around the already existing digital divide have, once again, come to the fore. This is also due to the fact that Devika was not the only one who was left out when the much-celebrated virtual classes kicked off.

Over two lakh students, a majority of them from Dalit and Adivasi communities, were left behind without resources to access classes, which government has claimed to be a trial-run.

Social exclusion and digital divide

The fact that a Class 9 student allegedly took her own life because of this reason has jolted the state.

The Kerala government has stated that urgent measures will be taken to provide resources to those who are excluded. But Dalit and tribal activists, scholars, and many others who have been working closely with historically oppressed classes, say that the incident is a tragic illustration of how the digital divide works as an extension of social exclusion.

Despite the fact that the Left government in Kerala has garnered praise for its work in combating the pandemic, the state’s failure to prioritise students hailing from marginalised communities, while showing the urgency to start classes on June 1, has drawn flak.

“Devika is a victim of government disparity. It was already a known fact that a large section of students do not have access to resources to access these virtual classes. A majority among this are students from Dalit or Adivasi communities. The state government’s approach that things for these students can be rectified slowly, in result, has come as a disparity. In fact, the already existing digital divide has now come as a practical form of social exclusion, because the ones who get left out in this are a particular section of students— those hailing from geographically marginalised or those from socially oppressed class and caste,” says M Geethanandan, activist and leader of the Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha.

Observing that many, including opposition leaders in Kerala, have come out following Devika’s death, launching ‘challenges’ aimed to provide digital devices to students without resources, experts in the field point out how devices do not combat the digital divide.

“It is not only about having a smartphone or a television. The problem is much deeper. What is the use of a phone for a student, if the family does not even have money to buy rice? How are they supposed to recharge these phones? Is the government even considering those tribal families who do not even have a proper house or electricity?” asks Chithra Nilambur, an activist closely working with tribal communities in Malappuram district. She also mentions that many families of tribal colonies live in make-shift sheds after last year's devastating floods.

Chithra was returning home in Nilambur after meeting people from tribal hamlets in the region, when this reporter contacted her on Wednesday. She says students from the communities she met were unaware that their classes had started virtually.

“It is heartbreaking to see our children loitering around when their counterparts are sitting in front of televisions and computers to take lessons. The children here were not even aware that their classes had started. Whatever little has been achieved over the years to make sure students from tribal communities receive continuing education, has been flipped by virtual learning,” says Chithra.

Scholars and activists also explain that mere emotional outbursts will not help solve the problem.

“Devika’s death was a painful incident and I am sure that there will be none who will not mourn the death of a child. But this should not be confined to just an emotional outburst. Only changing one's profile picture on social media or being sad is not enough. The time is ripe to ask and analyse whether historically, there has been social justice in the educational sector of Kerala. If a genuine solution needs to be sought for the problem, one should start from this question,” says Dalit-feminist thinker and activist Rekha Raj.

Rekha adds that the effect of digital divide among students in a society who are already excluded from receiving quality education, will be catastrophic.

“Because of our social structure, the existing disparity between students from different social strata, in terms of 'merit' defined by a section of people, is large. So now, by bringing in this online learning, which is not accessible for students of oppressed classes, are they saying to these kids that they need to only follow what their ancestors did for a living, and they remain to serve others?” slams Rekha.

Bhim Army chief Chandrasekhar Azad had also come out criticising the Kerala government for non-inclusivity.

“The Kerala government is taking these measures keeping in mind well-to-do families and those from economically backward classes. The students from minorities, from Dalit backgrounds, they are not able to afford these facilities. This is a big discrimination against them. If the government wants to teach online, then all students should be given the facilities for online studying,” he said in a Facebook live.

He also alleged that Devika’s suicide was because of a mistake committed by the Kerala government.

“Kerala had started online classes from June 1 but 40% Dalit-Adivasi population in Kerala do not have TV, smartphone or tablets, and therefore they cannot attend online classes. Devika was very good at her studies, but unlike other students she could not attend the classes. Upset about this, she killed herself, a promising Dalit student Devika has lost her life, this is the mistake of the Kerala government,” said Azad.

Need local learning centres

People like Chithra, who work on the ground for marginalised sections of society, say that virtual learning— which the government has kickstarted due to COVID-19— will only further widen the gap between students. They say that virtual learning should only supplement and not be core learning practice.

“We totally understand the importance of online learning in present times and also looking at it futuristically. But, only a section of students getting access to this is not fine with us. The government should take measures at local levels to start centres where there are these facilities and moderators to check on students,” suggests Chithra.

She says that students from tribal communities, who mostly stay in government hostels while they attend schools in towns and cities, should at least be called back to hostels. “The government can arrange common facilities there and tuition teachers are already there in these hostels. So someone will be there to moderate the students too,”  Chithra adds.

A group of Dalit and tribal activists from Kerala have given a petition to state officials including Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. One of their main demands is to start ward-level learning centres in local bodies.

“There are already existing services of mentors in tribal colonies for students. This service can be widened to form local learning centres. This is the only alternative possible to our classroom education. Virtual or online learning should only be supplementary,” says Geethanandan, one of the signatories of the petition. They have urged the state government to stop the virtual classes until arrangements are made for excluded students.


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