Not a single SC-ST student was selected for the foreign exchange programme since it began in 2014.

A pale green building in the TISS Hyderabad campus with trees in the foregroundTISS website
Voices Education Monday, May 17, 2021 - 14:37
Written by  Ashok Danavath Jyoti Bania

In a recent incident Dr Seema Singh, an associate professor at the IIT, Kharagpur, was seen abusing students, calling them “bloody bastards” for allegedly not standing up for the  national anthem during an online preparatory English course class meant for SC-ST students, and students with physical disabilities. This incident drew sharp reactions from the SC-ST-OBC student community across universities, and IIT Kharagpur alumni networks  who condemned her casteist behavior. SC-ST student groups pointed out that the issue was not about the national anthem, but rather her attitude towards those SC-ST students who dared to enter these so-called meritorious institutions. These issues are not specific to any one institution. This kind of caste-based discrimination can be seen across all so-called premier higher education institutions across the country. The complete lack of representation of students from the SC-ST communities in the foreign exchange programme (FEPs) at TISS, Hyderabad Off –Campus is a prime example of this kind of caste-based discrimination.

The Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), a public funded university, has three major off-campuses namely TISS Tuljapur Off-Campus, TISS Hyderabad Off-Campus and TISS Guwahati Off-Campus. Like many other premier Indian institutes, TISS has signed MoUs and established linkages with some of the best institutions and universities around the world. The TISS has a full-fledged Office for International Affairs (OIA) for the purpose of collaborating with various international universities to facilitate exchange of students as well as faculty members between TISS and other foreign universities. The two major objectives for organising the FEPs for students as mentioned in the website are to, 

  • “Progressively increase the scope of the Study in India (SIP) and Study Abroad Programmes (SAP).

  • Provide a base to assist International and Indian scholars for career advancement and contribute towards enhancing bilateral relations.”

The TISS, Hyderabad, established as an off-campus in 2011, provides international exposure for its students through Student Exchange Programmes (e.g., Erasmus Mundus (Sweden), Sciences Po (France), Edinburgh, Birmingham University (UK), and Monash University, Macquarie University (Australia).

FEP inaccessible for SC-ST students

However, we found that all FEPs organised by TISS Hyderabad campus are inaccessible for the SC-ST students of the institute. At the TISS Hyderabad campus, not a single student from the SC-ST community has been selected for the (MA & BA) FEPs since its inception. The student FEPs in India have been exclusively for the so-called upper caste or Savarna students who by default are considered more “meritorious” which calls into question the truth of the inclusive education policy claim made by TISS. 

We scoured through the list of the students selected for the FEPs from 2014 when the programme was launched and found that are exclusively from “upper caste” backgrounds as very clearly revealed by their surnames. The names of the students previously selected for the programmes can be found in the TISS annual reports. In addition to it, an RTI application was also filed with regard to the caste-wise data of the students selected for the FEPs in the previous academic years for which the institute responded by saying, “As per the Institute’s Office for International Affairs (OIA) guidelines, information regarding the category of the student (caste/tribe/religion) is not collected for the selection process of international exchange programs. The International Exchanges are purely on merit basis.” 

Below is the screenshot of the Institute's response to the RTI application. 

Ironically, the TISS’s response to RTI, “The International Exchanges are purely merit basis” could be debunked by the statement of a former professor from the same institute, who said,

“The current education system permeates discrimination in the name of merit. The idea of merit doesn’t take into account the social, emotional, academic, cultural and intellectual gap in students coming from diverse backgrounds,” said Govardhan Wankhede, former professor and Dean, School of Education, TISS.

By denying SC-ST students the opportunity to learn overseas, the institute is ensuring over-representation of upper castes which is a clear violation of the inclusivity of FEPs. Like other academic programmes, proper preparation is required for application to these FEPs. For SC-ST students mostly coming from a rural background, who lack the necessary language and communication skills, even gathering the courage to apply for these programmes is a very significant step. Universities seem to show indifference to SC-ST students in terms of providing encouragement and training to these students to help them prepare for the FEPs. 

Merit is a myth

When SC-ST students are not selected or systematically excluded from the selection process for the FEPs, it reflects the inherent casteist nature of premier institutes like TISS. It is important to ask why a premier institution like TISS assumes that SC-ST students do not have the required skills or merit to qualify for these FEPs or conversely, what is the assumed merit of the Savarna students that makes them automatically suitable for these exchange programs. On what basis does an institution like TISS come to that assumption? The very idea of ‘merit’ that these predominantly Savarna institutions propagate has no scientific basis, in fact it is false and nothing more than a myth.

In a caste based society, merit is decided on marks obtained; the greater the percentage of marks obtained the greater one’s merit. But world over this meritocracy argument, at least the way that merit has been evaluated so far, in terms of performance in examinations, getting high scores has been completely destroyed. The underlying condition for evaluating merit first and foremost is that, without equal access to opportunities and resources the whole merit argument falls flat. For people who have for generations had access to education, and a solid support system in the form of socio-cultural capital, there is nothing surprising that they will perform better than a first generation educated person, with little or absolutely no support system or access to resources. So instead of encouraging students from underprivileged backgrounds that are making the effort to enter the mainstream, what these so-called premier institutions do is discourage them on all fronts: socially, economically, intellectually, by denying them opportunities.

Benefits of selecting SC-ST students for Foreign Exchange Programme

Clearly, for the SC-ST students, who have had to face discrimination and inequality at every step, any opportunity to broaden their knowledge and to improve their skills is significant and should be appreciated. The FEPs will have many positive benefits for these students. When SC-ST students represent their country internationally, it offers positive benefits for them, as it enhances their confidence and belief in themselves and their abilities, and it makes them more competitive in a global world. Also, for the programme itself and from the perspective of the sending institution, it presents a picture of inclusivity, diversity, and equality in education through equal representation of all sections of the student community. By repeatedly sending only elite, “upper caste” students, it demonstrates a homogeneous, biased representation of the student community in the institute. Moreover, it is based on an unsubstantiated, false notion of merit which has no credible basis.

It cannot be denied that premier institutes like TISS, pretend to be diverse and inclusive while being inherently casteist by nature. The caste-based discrimination against SC-ST students in TISS Hyderabad campus is a common feature. The SC-ST students are often name-called and bullied as GOI (Government of India) students, which is not just derogatory but outright casteist. The GOI student tag refers to the fact that these students receive reservations from the government, and therefore, are meritless and don’t deserve to be in these elite institutions. The tag then becomes their primary identity, and hence many SC-ST students refuse to be identified with the tag.

There have been initiatives to help SC-ST students to improve their academic writing and language skills like “Mata-Manthi” (a discussion forum) taken by the TISS, Hyderabad. But, these initiatives have failed, because these spaces which were meant for students from underprivileged backgrounds were also appropriated by Savarna students causing the SC-ST students to not feel confident about opening up to such initiatives. 

Coming back to the FEPs, the students are not aware and oriented towards applying for the programmes. Generally, TISS, Hyderabad forms a panel to conduct interviews to select students for the FEPs. However, whether the selection committee is inclusive or not is also a big question.

In order to improve inclusivity and diversity in FEPs at TISS Hyderabad, the selection panel should be transparent and unbiased along with the inclusion of members from SC-ST communities. The institute should ensure that the students coming from the SC-ST communities, at least, are provided with proper orientation for applying to these exchange programmes. They need motivation and encouragement to apply for such programmes which should be taken care of by the institution’s diversity and inclusion policies.

A Dalit graduate in MA PPG from TISS Hyderabad said,“With respect to exchange programs, students from SC-STs communities are not aware (not made aware) of the process ...Our students do not  apply to these programs due to the conditions they live in, thinking that they don't have required money for these exchange programs and many times we don't even have passports. On the other hand, students from ‘upper caste’ backgrounds use every opportunity available (made available) by the Brahmanical system. Educational institutions need to understand that students from SC-ST communities need to have a share in these exchange programs to represent their voices.”

Jyoti Bania is a PhD research scholar at TISS, Hyderabad, hailing from the SC community in Assam. Ashok Danavath is an Adivasi (ST) graduate from TISS, Hyderabad, currently working in the Development Sector.