The Manusmriti, or the Laws of Manu, the ancient legal text for Hinduism, explicitly states that “a Shudra is unfit to receive education” and adds that upper castes who violate this code and provide education to the Shudra will go to hell. In the eventuality of a Hindu Rashtra becoming a reality—the avowed future of India as desired by the Sangh Parivar—the possibility of the Scheduled Castes (S.Cs) and Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts) being excluded from education is real if one goes by what is currently happening in that space.
Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party government came to power in 2014, there has been a slow erasure of the right to education of the marginalised castes through various means even as the right-wing party woos the very same communities for electoral gains. In yet another instance of a rollback of a previously guaranteed access to quality higher education, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE) has barred students applying for the National Overseas Scholarship (NOS) Scheme in 2022-23 from studying Indian history, culture and heritage.
The fresh guidelines for the scheme state: “Topics/courses concerning Indian culture, heritage, history, social studies on India-based research topic shall not be covered under the NOS. The final decision as to which topic can be covered under such a category will rest with the selection-cum-screening committee of the NOS.” The government has said that it wants students from marginalised backgrounds to pursue these subjects from Indian institutions instead of those based outside India. Observers believe that the government has taken this step to keep control over the knowledge produced by these communities firmly with the Indian Brahminical classes. The spread of this knowledge abroad poses a direct challenge to the dominance of the Brahminical Indian class everywhere.
The NOS Scheme predates Independence: B.R. Ambedkar secured it from the Viceroy when he was a member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council in the teeth of opposition from some of its other members. The NOS was intended to provide financial assistance to students from marginalised backgrounds: the S.Cs, denotified nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes, landless farm labourers and traditional artisans.
In the 1950s, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru expanded its scope to enable these students to pursue a postgraduate or PhD course abroad with the aim to improve their economic and social status. On an average, every year, based on the availability of funds, 100 scholarships are given to students with 30 per cent earmarked for women candidates. The scholarship is intended to cover actual student fees, airfare, medical insurance and provide annual allowances that vary according to the country the student is headed to. For instance, for the United Kingdom, a student is provided an annual allowance of up to £9,900.
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Over the years, it has become difficult for students to secure what is promised to them through the scheme. Earlier, the £9,900 was paid at the monthly rate of £835, but now it is paid quarterly, according to a student who has received this fund in recent years. This amount is much lower than other scholarships where the monthly allowance paid is around £1,200-1,500. The amount for the NOS has not been revised in many years. Frontline spoke to Arvind Kumar, a scholar who is pursuing his PhD from Royal Holloway, University of London. He said: “Raising the allowance is important because low allowance creates a problem in getting visa.... Some universities decline admission if the allowance is low. Because PhD in the West is not study but … a job, so … by not raising allowance as per the global standards, the Ministry is reducing the choice of admission. I know an NOS student who was refused admission in Uppsala University [Sweden] due to low maintenance allowance. Somehow he managed to get admission in another university.” He added that £1,100 is a contingency allowance. But Indian High Commissions invariably create a lot of problems for students when they try to obtain this allowance.
According to Arvind Kumar, the recent changes in NOS norms would have twin impacts. Firstly, it would exclude prospective PhD scholars who have secured an admission offer letter from foreign universities on topics relating to Indian history and culture for the next academic year. For them such changes are harmful. Secondly, the changes could benefit students by pushing them to apply for emerging areas such as data science, artificial intelligence and finance where there are not enough students from S.C./S.T. backgrounds. These areas are rapidly growing in terms of their utility and job prospects. Arvind Kumar said: “But all these things are possible only when the changes have been done with good intent. The way the MSJE officials harass students in awarding the final letter after selection needs to be addressed urgently... there have been other changes too. For example, since last year the Ministry refused to pay maintenance allowance for fieldwork in India although there is no such condition in the scholarship. I too was denied it, so I filed a complaint with the Union Minister after which they agreed to pay Rs.35,000 per month for the period of fieldwork.”
According to Arvind Kumar, the issues of caste and Dalits have not been analysed honestly in Indian history writing so far. This can be done when students from marginalised backgrounds start working on history and culture with proper methodological training, he said.
According to the social justice activist K.M. Shaji, the educational level among most Dalits is still fairly low but is gradually improving mainly because of the provision of various scholarships. But it is worrying that the present government is set on a course of withdrawing or reducing scholarships for S.Cs and S.Ts, he told Frontline .
Outlining the various scholarships that have borne the brunt of this government’s apathy, he said: “Post-Matric Scholarship for S.Cs, introduced by Dr Ambedkar from pre-Independence times, has been helping the educational advancement of a section of S.Cs. But in the last few years, the government has been unwilling to meet the increasing demand for this scholarship from S.C. students, and therefore large numbers of them had to drop out of their studies. The outlay provided in this year’s (2021-22) Union Budget for this scholarship (Rs.3,415.62 crore) is less than last year’s (Rs.3,815.87 crore) and is grossly inadequate to meet the educational aspirations of large numbers of S.C. students. This scholarship, along with reservation for S.Cs, is a commitment made to Dr Ambedkar by the then national leadership in the Pune Pact 1930, which helped Gandhiji end his fast in Yeravda Jail, in return for Dr Ambedkar’s agreement to withdraw his demand for separate electorates for S.Cs. Therefore, the responsibility for this scholarship is with the national [Central] government, but presently State governments are made to incur part of the funds for this scholarship.”
There are some smaller Central scholarships for S.Cs and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) such as the National Fellowship for S.Cs and OBCs, Top Class Education for S.Cs, and the Free Coaching Scheme for S.C. and OBC students. The outlay of Rs.545 crore provided in last year’s Budget for these Central scholarships was reduced to Rs.315 crore in the Revised Estimates, Shaji said.
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“This shows insincerity of intention…. This insincerity towards the weak and disadvantaged sections is also seen from the fact that the Rs.110 crore allocated for the programmes of Rehabilitation of Beggars and of Transgender Persons in last year’s Budget has not been spent as can be seen from the Revised Budget Estimates. Besides, this year’s Budget has entirely dropped schemes like S.C. Boys and Girls Hostels for which Rs.30 crore was allocated last year, and Pre-Matric Scholarship for Children of those Engaged in Unclean Occupations and Prone to Health Hazards for which Rs.25 crore was allocated last year. The diversion of all governmental functions towards capitalistic interests is clearly seen from the conversion of the scheme of National Overseas Scholarship Scheme for OBCs into Interest Subsidy on Overseas Studies of OBCs,” he added.
Instead of addressing these concerns and rectifying the problems in various schemes, the government is taking away even the little that students from marginalised backgrounds have recourse to.
Dr Luisa Steur, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences at the University of Amsterdam, feels that the research conducted by students from marginalised communities is important not just for India but also in a global context. She told Frontline : “The differences in the kind of research subjects that marginalised students pursue, as compared to more privileged [students], are subtle. Often, it’s not so much that it’s entirely different research subjects but that it’s more the way they approach their research project: whereas I see more privileged students often framing their project as rooted in an intellectual interest, a particular theory or philosophy they are fascinated by and want to extend, etc., with marginalised students their drive is often rooted more directly in injustices they have experienced and/or closely encountered in their own lives. Or, put differently, with privileged students one sometimes needs to really dig to find out what personal drive there is to tackle a particular subject … is this theory just a hobby, a way to signal their belonging to a particular intellectual circle, or is it supposed to be of use in the real world? With marginalised students that use is usually much more obvious, and they often bring a fresh perspective, partly because they approach theory with the urgency of the fast-changing realities of our world; they engage with theory not for the sake of theory itself but to gain insights of use to those dynamic realities.”
Moreover, students from marginalised communities tend to bring a fresh perspective to debates, she said, “namely because of their positionality—because they have been socialised in this world from a different position, so they’ve experienced the world differently than privileged students … this means they will be sensitive to other things, notice different things, come with different assumptions, interpret certain events or interactions differently. And what is really valuable for social science knowledge production in general about marginalised students joining academic debates, and especially also global academic debates, is that suddenly everyone is forced to be more reflexive about their own particular lenses, their own latent assumptions: if it’s only people from a particular, privileged background who dominate the debate, it’s easy for them to think their views are simply the norm and ignore how their supposedly universal views actually come from a particular position as well.”
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She adds: “And in social science that’s more and more seen as the only way to approach ‘objective’ or universal knowledge: not by pretending that some theories are ‘neutral’, disembodied, unrelated to those who developed them but by consciously thinking about how ideas are (re)shaped by the particular experiences, the particular positionality, of those who articulated them. So the many global theories that are attributed to upper-caste Indian thinkers—from Amartya Sen to Dipesh Chakrabarty, Partha Chatterjee, Akhil Gupta, Arjun Appadurai, Veena Das, Vandana Shiva, etc.—are sharpened and/or reshaped by the engagement of scholars with a different, marginalised background: their engagement in these global debates helps point to the limits of these global theories and thereby in fact helps to overcome these limits, make these theories more closely approach true universal relevance. That process of rethinking and strengthening some of these global social science theories coming from India has just started I think; it would suffer a major setback under the announced restrictions in the NOS.”
Several politicians added their voice to those opposing this move. Congress leader Shashi Tharoor said that it was a blatant attempt to censor work on “our regressive practices”. Prof. Manoj Jha, MP from the Rashtriya Janata Dal, wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi pointing out that the budgetary outlay was already inadequate given the size and aspirations of the constituency it sought to serve. He mentioned that the number of candidates selected each year had been going down and the final disbursal of fellowship was lower still. He found the revision “extremely odd and shocking” and said: “I fail to understand why the Ministry would especially prohibit bright Indian students from engaging with the topics related to Indian culture, history and social studies.” Terming the move an “assault on their academic freedoms”, he said that the new guidelines would stifle academic freedom and excellence and prohibit our youth from engaging constructively with their society, culture, heritage and history.
After Rohith Vemula, the Dalit PhD student of Hyderabad Central University who committed suicide on January 17, 2016, the caste discrimination that routinely occurs on Indian campuses is no longer a secret. For some students from marginalised backgrounds, securing admission in foreign institutions is one way to escape this discrimination.