Print edition : February 29, 2008

At a student Federation of India protest rally in Chennai, burning a copy of the Centre's controversial notification.-M.M. JAFFER

Students rise in protest against the Centres move to place restrictions on scholarships for Dalits.

At a student

A RECENT decision of the Union government to impose two restrictions on the grant of Post Matric Scholarship to Scheduled Caste (Dalit) students joining professional courses, has angered students in Tamil Nadu.

While one of the conditions is to limit the scholarship to those chosen for free seats in both government and private professional institutions, the other is to raise the scholarship eligibility mark in the qualifying examination to 60 per cent in the case of Dalit students who study in private institutions that do not hold entrance examinations. At present a pass in the examination is enough for a student to get this scholarship.

Dalit students condemned the decision and staged protest demonstrations and rallies in many parts of the State. Leaders of student organisations, including the Students Federation of India (SFI), deemed the decision unjust and unwarranted, given the abysmal conditions in the schools run by the government and municipalities, which are the ones that mostly admit Dalits. Two of 40 demonstrators from Salem attempted to commit self-immolation in front of the State Secretariat in Chennai. Irate students burnt copies of the controversial notification issued by the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment.

The notification dated September 27, 2007, says, the Government of India had decided to continue the Centrally sponsored scheme of Post Matric Scholarships to students belonging to Scheduled Castes during the 11th Five Year Plan (2007-08 to 2011-12) with some modifications. The modification in the Scheme is to the extent that (a) in [the] case of professional courses it is available to only those students who are admitted against free seats whether in government or private institutions and (b) in [the] case of private institutions where admission is on the basis of 12th Standard examination marks there shall be a bench mark of 60% for availing the scholarship.

Leaders of most political parties, including the Left parties, Dalit organisations, the Dravidar Kazhagam and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam have demanded that the proposed modifications be dropped.

Some of them appealed to Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi to press the Centre to get the proposal dropped. Karunanidhi told the State Assembly on January 31 that he had written to the Union government suggesting that it drop the 60 per cent bar eligibility mark it has proposed. However, he said, his government would maintain the status quo in granting scholarships to Dalits in the State.

Stating that the decision was against the norms of social justice, the Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) observed in a statement, The Finance Ministry and the Planning Commission who are instrumental in pushing for this decision are trying to impose their flawed understanding to cut subsidies, in this instance at the cost of Dalit and tribal students. The party said that the percentage of students from oppressed sections in professional institutions was already dismal and the governments decision would only lead to further marginalisation. It wanted the government to withdraw the decision and also bring private institutions under social control at least in respect of admission and tuition fees.

In a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, D. Raja, national secretary of the Communist Party of India and Member of the Rajya Sabha, termed the proposal retrograde. He said that all skill development institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology should be made accessible to Scheduled Caste youth.

Student leaders said that if they were denied access to institutions of higher learning and professional colleges particularly at a time when information technology had thrown up enormous job opportunities, they would be left out of the race. When even graduates and postgraduates fail to get jobs, it would be foolish to expect Dalits to stop studies at the matriculation level. The government move would adversely affect those seeking to enhance their qualifications for employment.

SFI State secretary G. Selva deplored the governments move to block the entry of Dalits into professional colleges. A government that had no qualms about abandoning its responsibilities to provide even the minimum requirements for a school, such as clean classrooms and qualified teachers who were free from caste prejudices and corruption, had no moral right to deny scholarships on the grounds of low marks.

The notification has apparently created a sense of insecurity among not only Dalits but also other deprived sections such as the Most Backward Classes. The MBCs fear that what happened to Dalits might also happen to them because the entire exercise is seen as part of a neoliberal agenda. The Dalit resentment can be better understood if the issue is seen against the backdrop of their socio-economic profile.

The hierarchical caste system, which is based on ones birth and occupation prescribed on the basis of birth, is by its very structure exploitative, socially and economically.

This arrangement, says Bhalchandra Mungekar, Member of the Planning Commission (who looks after Education, Labour and Employment, Tribal Affairs, Social Justice, Culture and Youth Affairs and Sports), proved to be a divine privilege for the upper castes enjoying exclusive rights to education, agriculture, industry, trade, commerce, and so on. On the other hand, it spelt disaster for the lower castes. This is because the latter were assigned tasks that involved only menial labour.

Dalits were thus prevented from earning, leave alone accumulating wealth. Besides, the upper castes also stigmatised the work allotted to them. Thus, absence of freedom of occupation, low earning (mainly in kind), implicit restrictions on needs, and the stigma on menial labour destroyed the economy of the lower castes, says Mungekar, in a paper presented at an international conference on Dalit human rights. Thus, Dalits, who are in fact outside the caste system, were made absolutely dependent on the upper castes. The caste system made them socially outcasts, economically dependent and politically powerless, Mungekar says. In his perception, the single factor to which the appalling miseries of Dalits can be attributed is the denial of right to education to the untouchable. Centuries of untouchability have had a disastrous impact on their lives.

In a highly unequal and inegalitarian society, stratified and differentiated by class and most importantly by caste, education appears to be the only surest wayto Dalit progress, says Mungekar.

Today, Dalits in India number 16.66 crore and constitute 16.2 per cent of the total population. After centuries of being suppressed and denied education, they are now more organised and determined even to win back their rightful place in society. But they still have a long way to go, and the hurdles they have to cross are numerous. Over 60 per cent of Dalits are landless agricultural workers and nearly 50 per cent of them are below the poverty line. Just 31 per cent of Dalit homes have electricity as against 61 per cent of non-Dalit homes. Only 10 per cent of their households have access to clean drinking water.

As for education, the Constitution mandated that the state had to provide free, compulsory and universal education to children up to 14 years of age within 10 years (1950-59), giving special care and consideration to promote economic progress. But even 50 years after the deadline, universal education remains elusive.

Because of their economic condition, 99 per cent of Dalit students study in government schools, most of which lack basic infrastructure. Although the drop-out rate among Dalit students in schools has registered a small decrease in recent years, it is still substantial.

It is in such abysmal and oppressive conditions that Dalit boys and girls pursue their studies. Teachers in several places are unfriendly to and prejudiced against Dalits, the students often complain.

Although a good number of Dalit students score high marks and get selected to professional colleges in the open quota, they cannot join college for want of money.

In 2007, hundreds of seats in engineering colleges remained unfilled for this reason and were later allotted to students from other categories. Many Dalits cannot afford expensive coaching or special tuition. And yet they, driven by sheer will, move ahead. More Dalit students are now able to enter the portals of professional colleges and more aspire to tread this path, full of hope.

B.R. Ambedkar was convinced that education, particularly higher education, was a powerful instrument of social change that could liberate the marginalised from centuries-old prejudice, atrocities, discrimination, denial of access to common resources and public facilities, and economic exploitation.

That was why he founded the Peoples Society of India in 1945, much before the Constitution was adopted. Ambedkar played a key role in the making of the Constitution, ensuring that it included provisions banning untouchability, offering safeguards to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and paving the way for affirmative state action to ensure education and employment for them.

According to Mungekar, the entire post-Independence generation of Dalits in Maharashtra is the creation of the Peoples Society of India.

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