New overseas scholarship rules show govt's fear of Dalit scholars, say students

Weeks ahead of the application deadline, the government has announced that the National Overseas Scholarship for candidates from Scheduled Castes will not cover research topics based on India.
People reading at the National Library in Kolkata: New overseas scholarship rules show govt's fear of Dalit scholars, say students
People reading at the National Library in Kolkata: New overseas scholarship rules show govt's fear of Dalit scholars, say students
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Varsha*, a history student pursuing her Masters degree, wanted to research how the Namantar Andolan in Maharashtra – a movement to rename the Marathwada University after Dr BR Ambedkar that went on from the late 1970s till 1994 – impacted caste consciousness and the progress of education among Scheduled Caste communities in the Marathwada region in its aftermath. “I was discouraged by my teacher, who insisted there weren’t enough resources to do this, although I was willing to get firsthand accounts through field interviews,” says Varsha, noting that this is a pattern often experienced by students from marginalised communities who wish to study the history of their community through their own lens. Many social science and humanities students like Varsha aspire to go abroad for higher education, in search not just of better opportunities but also academic freedom to work on any subject, including caste in India.

But starting from this year, the National Overseas Scholarship (NOS), the only Government of India scheme that offered complete funding for Masters and PhD programs abroad mainly for students from Scheduled Castes, has decided to exclude “topics/courses concerning Indian culture/heritage/history/social studies on India based research topic.” The change was announced in the second half of February, weeks before the March 31 deadline, and has been criticised by several leaders from Congress, former IPS officer and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Dr RS Praveen Kumar, and many others, as a way of stifling research and obstructing critical scholarship.

Suppressing critical research on India in international institutions

Surya*, a sociology scholar, has received unconditional offers for PhD programs from four reputed universities in the UK. His research proposal was related to The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Going by the new NOS guidelines, which not only bar India-based research in social sciences, but also stipulate that the final decision on which topics can be covered under this category “will rest with selection-cum-screening committee of NOS,” Surya says, “I don’t think my proposal is going to get cleared at all, given the political environment we are in.”

Surya sees the move as a reaction to the growing acknowledgement of caste inequality in foreign universities and international forums, within and outside of academic spaces. Praveen Thallapelli, a PhD candidate at Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University and former President of the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association (BAPSA), points out the recent development of the California State University system adding caste as a protected category in its non-discrimination policy, and the reactions that followed.

“European and American universities are recognising caste as a result of sustained hard work and activism from students from marginalised backgrounds. Earlier, Indians abroad were benefiting from diversity policies and opportunities by claiming the ‘South Asian’ or ‘brown’ identity. Even in postcolonial and subaltern studies, hegemonic caste scholars benefit from most opportunities. But the caste discrimination practised by Indian scholars abroad is increasingly becoming a major discussion point in academic and public discussions, and legislative bodies in the US,” notes Praveen, adding that the BJP government seems worried about “internal issues” of India being revealed and dissected abroad.

“The Indian government seems afraid of SC, ST and OBC students going abroad and having their research papers published in reputed international journals,” he says.

Denying better opportunities, academic freedom

Justifying the new guidelines, the Indian government has said that there are enough resources and universities and courses within India on these subjects, suggesting that the Schedule Caste students hoping to study abroad with the help of NOS should instead study in Indian universities. According to Indian Express, R Subrahmanyam, Secretary, Social Justice and Empowerment Department, said, “We have made an estimation within the ministry of the capabilities guiding high-quality research within the country and felt that the scholarship for studying abroad was not needed to study Indian history, culture or heritage […] we felt that the resources could be better spent on gaining expertise in other fields in foreign universities.”

Refuting this argument, Praveen says that students in foreign universities have much better chances of having their work published in prominent journals. “They are taught how to write better, how to pitch a research proposal, and they get to publish a lot more. In JNU, thousands of PhD theses are submitted every year, but a very small number are published, whereas the chances of having your thesis published as a book are much better in foreign universities,” he says. Noting that while many important scholars shaping Indian academia come from Indian universities, Praveen says it is also undeniable that studying abroad helps scholars shape and present their arguments in a better way, and leads to better careers in academia, whether in Indian or foreign universities.

By screening research on India, the government is denying agency to scholars who have been selected for their ideas through a fair process by foreign universities, and who usually face caste discrimination in Indian universities, Surya says.

“Most social sciences scholars from Scheduled Castes are interested in researching caste and caste-based oppression in India, but we are discouraged even in major central universities in India with different excuses. Many of us are first generation learners, and our ideas aren’t easily accepted and supported by faculty. If we still choose those subjects, we end up being targeted. I thought I would have more academic freedom abroad but now the government is limiting us,” says Varsha, who has received admissions offers from two reputed UK universities.

She says that the new guideline is one of many ways in which research is being limited in an attempt to flatten and homogenise narratives on Indian history. “There are many attempts to change the narratives of historically important figures like Maharana Pratap and Shivaji Maharaj. Research on the Mughal era also tends to be one-dimensional, and any conflicting perspectives or nuanced research ideas are usually not welcome in Indian universities. Indian culture is made to appear as a homogenous, Brahminical culture, but every community has a different history, and if we can’t tell our histories, we are being denied our identity,” she says.

Not enough scholarships

This year, the number of slots under NOS were increased from 100 to 125, out of which 115 are for students from Scheduled Castes; six for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes; and four for landless agricultural labourers and traditional artisans. But only a small number of these are awarded to social sciences and humanities. Until last year, this number was 17 out of 100. Moreover, the number of scholarships that are actually granted each year is much lower than the total number of slots available.

Many applications are rejected each year because of the annual family income ceiling of Rs 8 lakh, which Surya says is impractical. “For someone who is awarded the Junior Research Fellowship (JRF), if they have even one earning family member, it is impossible to qualify for NOS. In any case, the assumption is that people who are earning just above Rs 8 lakh will be able to spend Rs 1.2 to 1.5 crore for a PhD abroad, which is very inaccurate,” he says.

The restrictions on research areas, introduced only weeks before the deadline for the first round of applications, has come as a major setback for social sciences scholars like Varsha and Surya who were hoping to avail NOS for the coming academic year, with many of the programs beginning around September.

In the absence of NOS, while there are a few scholarships available from state governments, scholars say that their selection process too is not usually very transparent. Last year, many first-generation learners from marginalised communities were seen crowdfunding fees for their higher studies abroad, which can cost as much as Rs 40 to 50 lakh per year. While there are a few other international scholarships and grant opportunities, Varsha says that here too, caste and social capital are likely to play a role. “Many of us worry we won’t get through because of our background. Besides, sometimes there are stringent work experience requirements, or the grants are awarded to students attending top universities while many of us apply to tier-2 universities where the application fees are much more affordable,” she says.

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