When Selvam Muthukumar’s son completed his Class 12 studies a year ago, it should have been a time for celebration. But instead, an old burden resurfaced in Muthukumar’s life.
The family belongs to the Kattunayakar tribal community in Tamil Nadu’s Villupuram district. Muthukumar knew that to secure his son’s admission in a college under a reservation quota, and to access funding support, his son would need a community certificate, issued by the government. The document is essential for members of India’s marginalised communities to avail of government benefits meant for them, which include reservations in employment and, for students, scholarships and reservations in education.
But Muthukumar’s son did not have one.
Procuring the certificate would have been easier if Muthukumar himself had one – but he, too, did not have one.
In fact, Muthukumar, who is 42 years old, has been trying to obtain a certificate for himself for 30 years, with no luck.
The tribal community he belongs to traditionally reared pigs for a living. But Muthukumar works in construction and has never reared pigs in his life; neither had his parents. Yet other members of his community have often advised him to keep a few pigs in his house so that if revenue officers visit, they will believe he is Kattunayakan and issue him the certificate.
Indeed, he has seen revenue officers who have visited the homes of other members of his community in the past ask them similar questions. “I remember they would ask us details about the gods we worship, all our rituals, and would make us show that we knew how to handle pigs,” he said.
Krithika Srinivasan, a journalist based in Villupuram, said that officials regularly put people through such tests. She explained that these methods of verification were created in a different era and that lifestyles had changed over the years, but that there was little awareness amongst officials about this. “They ask them to show them how well they know the occupation,” including pig rearing and snake charming, she said. When it came to their religions, they are asked “if they know exactly what their worship process is, and are questioned on the intricacies of the rituals,” she added.
Muthukumar has not heeded the advice he received: he lacks the space in his house to keep pigs, and the time to rear them. Further, said, “My children have no interest in rearing pigs, I want them to study so that they can sit in an office and do work.”
For decades, Muthukumar has been made to run around in circles in government offices. (He and other applicants are referred to by pseudonyms for this article, since they feared reprisal from government authorities for talking to the media.)
In this time, whenever he and five members of his extended family who are also seeking certificates visited a government office, they repeatedly received some version of the same response: they were asked to return the following week, or the following month. Together, they have spent Rs 1 lakh so far on brokers who claimed that they would facilitate the process. “About three months ago, I spent Rs 20,000 on someone who promised to help me with the certificate,” Muthukumar said.
But the certificate never came.
The last time that officers visited Muthukumar’s home to verify his claims was eight years ago.
“They visited and confirmed that we would get the certificates. I was so happy,” he said. “And then they just forgot about us.”
After his son graduated from Class 12, Muthukumar visited six colleges to seek admission for him. His efforts were unsuccessful. At every college, he was asked for the community certificate, so that his son could secure a reserved seat, and avail of funding options.
Students check their hall ticket numbers ahead of an exam. At both the school and college level, community certificates help students access reservations and scholarships. Photo: Manjunath Kiran/AFP
Some colleges offered to give him some extra time to submit the certificate, but Muthukumar did not know when, or even if, his son would be able to obtain one. He had no choice but to ask his son to delay his college application by a year. “For the last year, my son has been doing odd jobs here and there and making a daily wage,” Muthukumar said. “If he had gotten his certificate by now, he could have joined a college.”
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Across the country, if a student wishes to avail of opportunities available to members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, they must at the very least furnish a community certificate with their application. These certificates are commonly referred to as “caste certificates”, though they may be issued to an individual from a Scheduled Caste or a Schedule Tribe. As Muthukumar’s story shows, obtaining this certificate is far from easy.
In August, Scroll.in spoke to students, and members of their families, from Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and other states, to learn about their efforts to obtain community certificates. The stories that emerged made clear that those who need these documents are frequently sent on convoluted trails to prove the most basic facts about themselves and their families to the government. Rather than serve as a path to greater social and economic mobility, then, the process of applying for these certificates often only serves to marginalise these individuals even further.
“It is true that students struggle to get community certificates,” said Paul Diwakar, chair of the Asia Dalit Rights Forum. “We hear of such cases all the time.” Diwakar argued that the onus should not be on students to prove their identity and that instead, the government should bear the responsibility of identifying those who are eligible and providing community certificates to them.
“It is unfortunate that even after 75 years of Independence, we still don’t have a system in place that allows for students to get their community certificates without any hassle,” he said. “We’ve been able to get the whole country Aadhaar cards but this we are still struggling with?”
Typically, a key requirement is that applicants have to submit their father’s or another paternal relative’s community certificate. They must then usually prove their links with that relative, with a document such as a birth certificate. They must also usually prove their own, or that relative’s, place of residence, with a document such as an electricity bill, a property tax receipt or a ration card.
Applications are processed at the level of the tehsildar, who has a great deal of discretionary power over what documents to demand. The tehsildar may also choose to pay a visit to the applicant’s home to conduct a background check, sometimes resulting in crude inquiries such as the ones Muthukumar was warned about.
For many students, the problem starts with the first requirement, of submitting proof that their father belongs to the community in question. Often, as in Muthukumar’s case, students are first-generation learners whose parents do not possess documents that can prove their community origins. Paternal family members, too, may not possess such documents. (In some individual cases, from different states, single mothers have gone to court to argue successfully that their community certificates should suffice for their wards to apply for certificates.)
Even when a student has their father’s certificate, they might stumble on the other requirements, such as proving their family’s place of origin.
Krithika Srinivasan, a journalist in Villupuram, said applicants for community certificates are often asked to prove their knowledge of the community’s traditional occupation, even if they have no links with the work.
In Anil Rajat’s case, a technicality nearly cost him his certificate. Rajat’s family had lived in Maharashtra all his life, and Rajat was required to submit a document, like an older relative’s school leaving certificate, or a land ownership or lease record, to show that his family had been living in Maharashtra on or before August 10, 1950.
Rajat’s grandfather had lived in a small village near Nagpur city till 1954, when he moved to the city for work opportunities. That year, the family settled on a piece of land developed by the Nagpur Improvement Trust, a local civic government body.
Nearly 70 years later, the family still has the lease document between the trust and Rajat’s grandfather as proof of residence in the city. “To bolster my claim, I had submitted the lease deed by Nagpur Improvement Trust dated May 5, 1954, which had mentioned that land on lease had been provided to the Scheduled Caste community,” Rajat said.
But the document was rejected because it was from 1954, four years after the specified cut-off date. At the office, Rajat was not given any assistance, and was just told to go to the tehsildar’s office to find any other land records that might help his case. “How is one supposed to know where to go and whom to ask?” he said. “It is such a difficult space to navigate when you don’t know anybody in the system.”
Rajat’s grandfather was illiterate and had no other document to prove that the family had been residing in Nagpur district since 1950. “Very few people went to school then,” Rajat said. “How was he supposed to have any land record?” He added, “I mean, imagine people who had no land or lived in slums. How are we supposed to prove that we are Scheduled Castes or Tribes?”
Rajat argued that the government should appoint dedicated officers to help students apply for community certificates.
Instead, Rajat recounted, when he visited government offices, he would often spot a line of brokers outside. “Brokers who were charging Rs 5,000 to get the certificate made,” he said. “But I was too scared to take their help.”
Rajat’s application was rejected many times. Eventually, one officer took pity on him. “My future depended on the mercy of the officers,” he said. “If that particular official had not decided to take my case into consideration, I may have never gotten my community certificate.”
Students seeking to apply for community certificates are frequently sent on convoluted trails through government offices, where they must face unsympathetic and even prejudiced officials. Photo: AFP
Raghav Kumar, who hails from Bihar’s Gaya district, also recounted undergoing an ordeal to procure his caste certificate.
“In Bihar, it is very difficult,” he said. “If you are left to get the job done on your own, then you just find yourself lost in the system.” At the tehsildar office, there was no one to explain to him how it was to be done. “Unless you know someone on the inside, it is impossible,” he said.
Like Rajat, he, too, was approached by brokers. “They know we are desperate,” he said.
Even entering these government offices was intimidating and frustrating to Kumar. “The tone of their voice is very noticeable when they ask you what caste you are, and is indicative of their attitude,” he said. “I’m anyway going to mention it in the form, why do they even have to ask me?” He added that it was “very difficult to find staff from OBC, SC and ST backgrounds in these offices.”
Sometimes, he would have to call a clerk three or four times before the clerk chose to respond to him. “They would keep asking me to come back next week,” Kumar said. “Sometimes they would wait until it was my turn and then say it was tea time.” Even when the certificate had been prepared, he added, “they would not tell us when it was ready to be picked up from the office.”
If obtaining a caste certificate wasn’t frustrating enough, students often also have to submit a caste or tribe “validity certificate” to prove that their certificates are authentic.
This is essentially a document that states that another document – the community certificate – is valid and true. Validity certificates were introduced about 20 years ago, ostensibly because a large number of fake community certificates had come into circulation.
In order to procure the validity certificate, a student has to submit to the authorities their own community certificate, along with some combination of various other supporting documents, including the father or a close paternal relative’s community certificate, and their validity certificate. Here, too, considerable discretionary power rests with the local official handling the application.
“These validity certificates are harder to get,” said Rajiv Khobragade, a member of the Nagpur-based organisation The Platform, which provides students from marginalised communities support with admission and scholarship applications. “The number of documents that the students are required to produce to the government to validate their community certificates are so many, that students fail to gather these in time for their admissions or to meet scholarship deadlines,” he explained.
Khobragade said he knew of students who had lost out on opportunities because they could not procure validity certificates, or procured them late. Among them was Arvind Balaraj, who had applied for the National Overseas Scholarship – funding offered to Master’s and PhD students from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes to study abroad.
Balaraj recounted that the process was gruelling. As a supporting document, the revenue officer wanted his father’s transfer certificate from his school, which Balaraj did not have. They also demanded a proof of residence for the house that Balaraj and his family lived in. “But I did not have that either,” he said. Balaraj, who lives in Mumbai, had to go to his grandfather’s village in the Vidarbha region to try to find some proof of his ancestry. He wasn’t able to find any documentation, and so was unable to procure the validity certificate.
Sometimes, bureaucratic errors can shatter families’ hopes. This was the nature of the problem Pavithra Peter faced, which left her in despair after each visit to her son James’s school hostel, around 15 km from her home in Kodaikanal, in Dindigul district.
Peter and her family, who work on tea estates in Kodaikanal, belong to the Paliyar community, a formerly nomadic Dravidian tribe that lives in the Southern Western ghats. The community is categorised as a Scheduled Tribe. Decades ago, the family converted to Christianity, as did several other families living in the same settlement. Around ten years ago, after the Revenue Department officials conducted an enquiry in the village to determine residents’ castes, most of the residents of their settlement, including Peter and her husband, were issued Other Backward Class, or OBC, certificates.
When the residents of Peter’s village protested and demanded that they be given Scheduled Tribe certificates, the officials asked them to return their OBC certificates. They were assured that they would be given the correct certificates shortly. In the years since, the Peter family and several others in their village have approached officials repeatedly, demanding their certificates, to no avail.
When she was interviewed in August, Peter explained that she was distressed by her son’s repeated questions about whether he would be able to go to college or not – he was a good student and aspired to study chemistry. But with each passing month, she felt more and more concerned that the answer would be in the negative.
James started Class 12 three months ago. His school has informed him that he has to submit his community certificate as soon as possible – so that when his end-year exam results are issued, the marks certificate reflects his community origins, which will serve as a crucial proof for decades to come.
In fact, the school had also asked him to submit the certificate at the time of admission, for the government’s records of enrollment. The family managed to secure his admission with the help of an old copy of the OBC certificate. “Thankfully, I had taken a copy of the OBC certificate before they asked us to surrender it to them. With that, we have been managing,” David Peter, James’ father said.
But the family struggled to meet his schooling expenses because they did not have the Scheduled Tribe certificate. Up to Class 10, James was eligible for the pre-matric scholarship for students from Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities; and he is now eligible for the post-matric scholarship. But he could not avail of either without the certificate.
Now the family is despairing that they will not be able to procure the certificate in time to allow James to apply to reserved seats of colleges, and to fellowships.
Pavithra Peter broke down in the middle of the conversation.
“My son is so worried, and he shouldn’t have to be,” she said, through tears. “As parents it is our responsibility to get these documents for him. We are illiterate, but we wanted our children to at least study.”
Pavithra Peter earns Rs 250 a day and her husband earns Rs 350. Every time they have to visit the revenue divisional office, which issues the community certificates, the couple has to forgo their daily wage. “But whenever we can, we visit, and lose out on a day’s pay,” Pavithra said. “The last time, I was so desperate I cried to the officials there and begged them to save my son’s future. One officer promised to help. But we’ve been promised help so many times.”
The last time the family visited the office, they were told that they needed to have their community origins verified by the Tribal Research Centre in Udhagamandalam, a hill station in the Nilgiris district, more than 250 km away. Across the country, there are 27 such institutes, which fall under the Ministry of Tribal Affairs – in any case that they are dealing with, a revenue official, such as a tehsildar, can refer the applicants to the nearest such centre for a process known as “anthropological verification”.
Now the couple is confused about what to do next. “Just a few hours ago when I was visiting my son, he asked me again about the certificate,” Pavithra Peter said. “I just keep telling him that we are trying our best.”
The process is further complicated when students live in a state that is different from the one in which their ancestors lived. “That is one of the most distressing issues when it comes to community certificates,” said Juno Varghese, the national coordinator of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights. “In one state, they may be on the SC list and in another state they may be OBC.” In such situations, a student who is from a community that is classified as an Other Backward Class in one state may be forced to trace their roots across state borders to find proof of their ancestry in a place where it was categorised as a Scheduled Caste.
Such was the case with Prithvi Raj, a 27-year-old from Bengaluru, whose ancestors were from a village on the border of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Raj’s father had enrolled in a school in Andhra Pradesh and had a Scheduled Tribe certificate. So when Raj was admitted to school in Bengaluru, he was also enlisted under the Scheduled Tribe category. It was only when Raj changed schools in class eight, that he learnt that his community was on the Scheduled Caste list in Karnataka.
Procuring a Scheduled Tribe certificate by proving his origins in Andhra Pradesh was impossible. “We did not own any land there, so we had no papers,” Raj said.
After months of navigating the complex community classification system, Raj managed to procure a Scheduled Caste certificate for himself, based on the categories in Karnataka. “By the time I was able to understand all the differences and figure out where I belonged, I was very frustrated,” he said.
Raj said that the government should make special provisions for applicants who are in border regions. “Some communities are categorised as Most Backward Classes in Tamil Nadu, while the same communities will be listed in the Scheduled Caste list in Karnataka and in the Scheduled Tribe list in Andhra Pradesh,” he said. “So at least in regions that are on the borders, the communities should have the same status as in the neighbouring states, instead of tormenting the applicant by making him run around.”
Raj also faced other battles that many applicants face. For instance, since he had lived with his family in a rented house at the time of applying for his certificate, he was unable to produce any document as proof of residence. He had no bills in his family’s name either. “We needed to share expenses with the other tenants, so we were unable to produce any bills to show,” he said.
Eventually, Raj said he was forced to get his certificate through “indirect ways”. He explained, “I had to get the help of a broker because there was simply no other option. He demanded Rs 3000 to get the work done.”
In an apparent effort to smoothen the process of procuring certificates, many states have enabled online applications. But Rajesh (he goes by one name), an activist based in Kodaikanal, said that this was unlikely to be of much help to most applicants. “We barely get phone connectivity here,” he said. “How can they expect people to be applying online?”
The Peter family, for instance, has to travel over 20 km each time that they visit the tehsildar office. They have never consider applying online because they do not have stable internet access and are not familiar with online technology.
Christuraj S, an activist from Tamil Nadu, noted that the process of trying to procure a certificate “is worse for people who are socially and economically vulnerable. The struggle takes a huge toll on them.”
A 2019 paper found that poor marginalised women faced the greatest challenges. “Whether they are Dalit women facing higher caste men in Tamil Nadu, or poorer Muslim women facing Hindu men in Uttar Pradesh, bureaucratic processes are deeply embedded in the social reproduction of gendered inequality at the state-society interface,” the paper stated.
Another paper, from 2020, based on research in Tamil Nadu found that upper castes’ “control of state institutions remains the norm”. It noted that processes of applying for many cards and certificates lead to “relations of patronage, clientelism, and subordination, in which female and lower-caste villagers are routinely made to apply, wait, beg, and return”. Further, it added, these processes reproduce “inequalities of caste, class, religion, and gender, amongst others”.
Juno Varghese, the national coordinator of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, said that during the pandemic, accessing certificates grew even more difficult. Since government offices were shut, students could not get their community certificates in time for deadlines, and missed out on seats and scholarships. “We even did a small study to understand the extent of the impact,” Varghese said.
Among the 10,190 students from marginalised communities that the organisation interviewed, 10% said that they could not access scholarship opportunities because they were not able to get a community certificate or Aadhaar cards.
The study also indicated that students were overwhelmed by the procedures involved in accessing benefits, and that many were not even aware of all the benefits that they had a right to. For instance, when students were asked about the post-matric scholarship, the most popularly accessed scholarship among school students across the country, nearly 54% of the respondents said they did not know whom to reach out to in the government for information on the scholarship.
Christuraj S, an activist from Tamil Nadu, noted that the process of trying to procure a certificate is far worse for socially and economically vulnerable people. “The struggle takes a huge toll on them,” he said.
“I’ve met people who have been struggling for decades, generation after generation,” said Krithika Srinivasan, the journalist based in Vilupuram.
“I’ve known people who have gone through training, qualified for government exams, came so close to becoming sub inspector, officers, and then were deprived of the job because they could not submit their community certificates,” she added.
Srinivasan explained that in Tamil Nadu, Scheduled Tribe certificates were even harder to procure than Scheduled Caste certificates – this despite the fact that the former comprise only 1% of the state’s population. “There are only a few settlements in each district,” Srinivasan said. “Out of those settlements, there will be some five to ten children who need certificates. What loss will the government suffer by just giving them these certificates?”
The state “just wants to keep oppressing us and never wants us to enter a classroom and learn anything”, Muthukumar said.
About 360 kilometres away, in Kodaikanal, Pavithra Peter echoed the same sentiments. “They never want us to leave these estates,” she said. “If we end up getting an education, then they won’t have people to work here anymore. That’s why they won’t give us the certificates.”