A 19-year-old NEET aspirant appeared to have died by suicide in Tamil Nadu’s Salem district on Sunday, prompting chief minister MK Stalin to say that the legal battle against the national entrance exam was just beginning, and promised to bring a bill against it on Monday.
The National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) 2021 for admission in undergraduate medical courses was conducted across 202 cities on Sunday, after the Supreme Court recently rejected a plea by a group of students to postpone the exam. The top court said that it did not want to interfere with the process and it will be “very unfair” to reschedule the test.
The medical aspirant, who was the son of a farm labourer, was found dead in his room hours before he was slated to take the exam for the third time in a row, said a senior Salem police officer who asked not to be named.
“There is no suicide note, but circumstantial evidence points to suicide due to exam fear as he has failed twice in the past and couldn’t get a medical admission… His parents were compelling him to prepare and clear NEET today and not go for any other course. The family also says that he was under pressure,” the official said, adding that a case of unnatural death under Section 174 of the Indian Penal Code has been registered.
The death triggered a political storm, with the Opposition blaming the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), and the state government attacking the Union government.
Chief minister MK Stalin appealed to students to not lose hope and assured them that the DMK government will pass a bill in the state assembly on Monday, seeking permanent exemption from NEET. “Let the injustice end,” he said in a statement, adding that “our legal battle against NEET is just beginning.”
“The Union government’s indifference and adamant attitude over NEET continues to be the reason for suicide by promising students,” he added.
Since NEET was introduced in Tamil Nadu in 2017, at least a dozen aspirants have died by suicide in the state.
Former AIADMK chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami, however, blamed the DMK for not fulfilling its election promise to abolish NEET. “What happened to the promise of the DMK?” he tweeted.
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s state unit chief, K Annamalai, said that the DMK should stop playing with students’ lives when the Supreme Court has made the exam mandatory. “Students’ lives are being lost for playing politics,” he said. The BJP is the only party in the state that supports NEET.
The National Testing Agency (NTA), which conducts NEET, recently received approval from the Supreme Court to conduct it as per schedule. The court rejected a plea filed by some students, saying NEET was clashing with other exams.
Tamil Nadu abolished NEET for nearly a decade, saying that it puts children from rural and poor background at a disadvantage. Before NEET, the state considered Class 12 board exam marks for admissions to medical colleges. However, on August 2017, the Supreme Court directed the TN government to conduct MBBS/BDS admissions solely on the basis of NEET marks. The verdict came after the Centre informed the court that there was no ordinance in the pipeline to exempt Tamil Nadu from the ambit of NEET, even as a one-time measure.
Since then, the state has been trying to get exempted from the exam through an ordinance, inside the court halls and through negotiations with the Union government. Protests against the exam have spilt over to the streets, but to no avail. Tamil Nadu has one of the highest medical aspirants in the country–one in eight doctors from India is from Tamil Nadu, according to the data provided by former Union health minister Harsh Vardhan in Parliament in 2019.
The staunch resistance to NEET originated from the plight of disadvantaged students from Tamil Nadu’s hinterlands who have to compete with urban and affluent students who have more access to resources. Like any other exam, NEET, too, is marred by the tragedy of students dying by suicide. S Anitha, a Dalit teenager, who died by suicide in 2017 after failing in NEET though she was a school topper with 98% continues to be the face to rally against the exam for politicians.
Anitha’s death led to widespread protests across Tamil Nadu. On 22 August, 2017, the Supreme Court did not give Tamil Nadu an exemption from NEET in a case in which Anitha had impleaded herself.
Voices opposing NEET have argued that the exam has not led to more meritorious students but it has only helped to mushroom private centres charging exorbitant fees.
The AIADMK last year during its regime introduced a 7.5% horizontal reservation in medical colleges for government school students who clear NEET.
The DMK government after taking over in May constituted a committee chaired by Justice A K Rajan to study the adverse impact of NEET on socially and economically backward students. The state BJP challenged this in the Madras high court which was disposed of.
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