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Tribal woman becomes vice-chancellor of Indian university

Christian leaders say the appointment of Sonajharia Minz will inspire more girls to pursue education

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Tribal woman becomes vice-chancellor of Indian university

Sonajharia Minz (left) and other tribal leaders attend an event to celebrate World Indigenous Day in New Delhi on Aug 8, 2018. (Photo: Bijay Kumar Minj/UCA News)

Church leaders and activists have hailed the appointment of a tribal Christian as vice-chancellor of a university in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand, saying it will inspire many more women to study.

Sonajharia Minz, currently a professor at New Delhi’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), was appointed vice-chancellor of Sido Kanhu Murmu University in Jharkhand’s Dumka district on May 28. She is the second tribeswoman to be elected a vice-chancellor.

“It is indeed good news for the people of Jharkhand, especially for tribal people, because it will inspire many more girls to study who are otherwise neglected by society. Girls are overlooked for studies compared to the boys,” said Father Vincent Ekka, who heads the department of tribal studies at the Jesuit-run Indian Social Institute in New Delhi.

“It will be a morale booster for other women as well as for students in the state as Minz is very experienced and respected as well as a learned educationist who even has worked closely with the UN on tribal issues.

“Minz has held many important positions in Delhi such as president of JNU teachers’ association. She was also on the committee selecting professors and teachers for reserve categories."

Father Ekka, a former JNU scholar who has worked with Minz, said she was neglected when she was young but her determination made her what she is today and he has great respect for her achievements.

“The maths teacher who was non-tribal knew it was my strong subject, yet he told me not to study maths for graduation. That made me even more determined to study the subject further,” Minz, an Oraon from Gumla district, said in an interview with The Telegraph.

"I couldn't get into an English-medium school as I was an Adivasi [tribal]. But I did well at a Hindi-medium school with mostly tribal students and teachers."   

Her passion for mathematics led her to graduate from the Women's Christian College in Chennai and pursue a master’s degree in science at Madras Christian College. She later changed her field and took up computing science to "take on a new challenge and to come to JNU in 1986."

She returned to teach at JNU in 1992 after short stints at universities in Bhopal and Madurai. Staying at JNU ever since, Minz was injured when right-wing activists went on the rampage across the campus in January.

Minz is the daughter of Lutheran Bishop Emeritus Nirmal Minz, who founded Gossner College in Ranchi. He won the Bhasha Samman award in 2016 for his contribution to the development of Kurukh, the Dravidian language spoken by the Oraon.

“We welcome the appointment of Minz wholeheartedly because, being a woman and tribal, it will be easy for her to understand the difficulties people face in the state. She can handle the situation easily compared to someone from another community,” Ratan Tirkey, a member of the Jharkhand Tribal Advisory Council, told UCA News.

“It is a privilege for the Christian community here because Minz comes from a well-to-do, educated family as her father was a founder of Gossner College in the state capital."

Shanti Beck, president of Chotanagpur working women’s forum, said there is no discrimination in educating girls in the tribal community "but girls are more encouraged to do household work rather than pursue education, so Minz’s appointment will change that trend.” 

Jharkhand has some nine million tribal people, who form 26 percent of the state’s population. About 1.5 million people in the state are Christians, at least half of them Catholics. Christians account for more than 20 percent of Gumla district’s one million people.

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