Image: Dalit History Month Editathon at UC Berkeley, April 15, 2017 (CC BY-SA 4.0)
In March 2022, Indian students of humanities and social sciences fields, who were applying for the National Overseas Scholarship (NOS) administered by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE), Government of India were made aware of a new clause that would strategically question the intended objective and utility of the scholarship.
The NOS is intended for students from India’s historically marginalised and oppressed communities: those considered ‘lower’ in the hierarchical social order of the still prevalent caste system and now referred to as backward castes. These include the scheduled castes (SCs), as well as India’s indigenous and nomadic peoples (the scheduled tribes (STs) and Nomadic Tribes (NTs)), and the historically criminalised communities (now called the denotified tribes (DNTs)). The historical caste discrimination has led to severe and persistent socio-economic inequalities and thus long held back students from these communities from pursuing higher education abroad.
Apparently, there had been no evident consultation with the SC-ST scholars or the public before the new clause was made effective for the academic year 2022-23.
Dr B R Ambedkar, the chief architect of the Indian constitution himself came from a marginalised caste that is now included in the scheduled castes. He received a doctorate in economics from Columbia University and also from the London School of Economics after he was awarded a scholarship by the then ruling authority. The scholarship enabled him to break the barriers of the caste system that restricted access to learning to only the privileged upper castes—the savarnas—especially the Brahmins, who formed less than 8% of the population, while the majority of Indians were systematically excluded from access to education and resources.
Similar to Dr Ambedkar’s scholarship, the National Overseas Scholarship (NOS) was initiated by India’s first Prime Minister Jawarhar Lal Nehru in the 1950s to facilitate educational opportunities for students from the marginalised SC/ST/DNT/NT communities, who are severely under-represented in the sciences, technology and engineering in the best international universities. In 2012, in a groundbreaking policy change, the scholarship was extended to cover all fields of research and education.
In the NOS guidelines for the academic year 2022-23, clause 10(ii) under the mandatory conditions states that, “Topics/courses concerning Indian Culture/heritage/History/Social studies on India based research topic shall not be covered under NOS. The final decision as to which Topic can be covered under such a category will rest with Selection-cum-Screening Committee of NOS” [our emphasis].
The amendment to the policy is a violation of academic freedom and clearly at odds with the scholarship’s stated objective to improve the economic and social status of the scholars, for which they need to explore the socio-cultural roots of discrimination and solidarity in Indian society, via rigorous academic research using the wide range of research tools available in the best universities and centres anywhere in the world. Only then can scholars highlight the loopholes in existing administrative policies and work towards their mitigation. Such research, when applied on the ground would also contribute towards the objective of developing the marginalised communities to which scholarship recipients belong. However, this very objective of the scheme is contradicted by the aforementioned newly introduced mandatory condition restricting the area of social sciences research on India in centres outside the country.
If these changes had been implemented during the time of Dr Ambedkar, he would have been denied that vital scholarship to Columbia and LSE. His doctoral thesis for Columbia, Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development would have fallen into the category which the MSJE has now made ineligible for the NOS.
Following the news reports of this sudden restriction of academic freedom, more than 20 international academic associations, research centres and diasporic organisations and over 370 scholars endorsed an open letter jointly issued by International Solidarity for Academic Freedom in India (InSAF India), the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights – Dalit Arthik Adhikar Andolan (NCDHR-DAAA), and the DBAV Womxn* Collective and addressed to the Union Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment, demanding immediate retraction of the policy change. The letter pointed out that the policy change ignores the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of research today, in which international collaboration and production of knowledge “cannot be restricted by national boundaries.” The letter further stated that “in universities around the world with thriving South Asian departments and research centres, it is vital that scholars and researchers from marginalised backgrounds in India contribute to and participate in these international networks and conduct research freely without any conditions attached.” The disproportionate impact on female applicants, who are under-represented in scientific and technological disciplines” was also raised.
Even though a large number of Indian scholars and researchers currently work in most international universities, the majority come from the dominant castes who comprise less than 20% of the Indian population. The international community thus sees India only through the dominant narrative of what the upper castes portray as Indian culture. In order to understand the actual socio-cultural multilinguistic whole that is India, it is essential that people from diverse caste backgrounds are represented abroad and can communicate their stories and research about India. The dominant caste narrative erases the caste aspect from their research and discussions, and the international community largely remains unaware of the 3,000-year-old social hierarchy that oppresses billions of Indians. The current attack on the NOS will ensure that the upper caste narrative goes unchallenged in the international community and they can reap dividends as experts.
This issue of policy change is just the tip of a massive iceberg of challenges and problems encountered by students while applying for and being awarded the scholarship.
The amount of money that is earmarked for the NOS has been slashed over the past few years so that funds are insufficient to support the number of officially designated studentships. Even if funds are allotted, there is a persistent practice of delaying funding and awarding scholarships to far fewer numbers of students than stated in the policy despite sufficient applicants. Although on paper the number of NOS awarded is 100, the actual number of students who are successful is fewer than 20.
These irregularities do not occur in isolation. Recent research by the NCDHR-DAAA points to a systematic attack on scholarships and financial grants that are meant to be awarded to SC/ST/NT/DNT students (e.g. the Post-Matric Scholarship). There is also a persistent lack of diversity and inclusion among both the faculty and students in India’s elite educational institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs).
Policy and decision making bodies in the public services lack adequate representation from the marginalised categories and savarna dominance in these institutions excludes many of these students from educational opportunities. From the application stage to the timely disbursal of scholarships, students experience a humiliating and exhausting journey that makes them wish they had never even applied. In 2020-21, the eligibility grade was arbitrarily raised from 55% to 60% by (primarily upper caste) officials. Students from rural backgrounds studying in vernacular medium schools find it hard to obtain 60% in their bachelor’s or master’s programmes, which are more likely to be in English. Also, an income criterion has been put in place, which goes against the goal of social justice.
Officials often do not clearly state all the required application documents, making it harder for students who have to travel to the ministry’s office in New Delhi from remote locations of the country. Even when students clear the process, they are often not provided their final offer letters in a timely manner, which can lead to anxiety, distress and possibly the loss of the offer. This casteised harassment and hostility is accompanied by a lack of transparency and accountability from the authorities who control the fate of these students and their scholarships.
This latest restriction on academic freedom has unofficially been implemented for the last few years by the ministries. Students have been asked to change research proposals or topics even after they have been admitted to a university and have support from a supervisor.
Following his extraordinary educational journey and achievements, Dr Ambedkar became the beacon of social justice and icon of resistance in India. Since then, the legacy of Dr Ambedkar’s exceptional intellect has empowered millions of people from the oppressed castes to demand justice and their rights. The current attack on NOS is a casteist move to restrict students from gaining education and become champions of social justice.
On 15 March 2022, Dr. Thol. Thirumavalavan and D. Ravikumar, members of the Indian parliament, submitted memorandums to the Prime Minister and the MSJE, highlighting several concerns “in the interest of these communities for upholding the spirit of social justice.” One of the major requests put forth by them is increasing the number of NOS awards to 2000.
The issues highlighted here indicate a clear need for a timely and focused review of the National Overseas Scholarship policy formulation and implementation. The revised guidelines should be rescinded and students should be allowed to pursue their research interests freely. The process of application and fellowship disbursal must be made transparent and easy for students. The number of fellowship awards should be increased to 2000 students each year. Adequate representation of women and LGBTQI+ from marginalised communities should be ensured. A complaint redressal mechanism should be set up and action should be taken against authorities who harass the students and create hurdles in the scholarship.