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Academic Casteism: Caste-oppressed students barred from studying 'Indian culture' in the West

New guidelines of the National Overseas Scholarship must be questioned and retrieved

The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE), Government of India (GoI) offers National Overseas Scholarship (NOS) to low-income students from the scheduled castes, denotified nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes, landless agricultural labourers and traditional artisans to pursue higher studies such as a Master’s degree and PhDs in universities abroad. Indeed, the NOS is crucial financial assistance for low-income students who otherwise can't think of joining postgraduate courses in top-ranked foreign universities.

However, the recently revised guidelines of NOS for 2022-23 have come as a shock to students from the SC, denotified tribes, landless agricultural labourers, and the entire Dalit and Ambedkarite intelligentsia. The new clause introduced by the MSJE says, ‘Topics /courses concerning Indian Culture/ Heritage/ History/ Social Studies on India based research topics 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.’


This cannot but highlight caste-based discrimination against students belonging to the SC, denotified nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes etc.

The increasing surveillance and censoring of these caste-oppressed students’ choice of opting for research topics/ courses are signs of academic casteism. This is a deliberate attempt to maintain the hegemony of Brahmins-Upper Caste in academia, especially on South Asian studies abroad and further exclude the caste-oppressed students from higher education by suppressing their radical voices. Moreover, the new guidelines forbidding caste oppressed students’ to study topics/ courses concerning Indian culture, heritage and history have resonated with the sexist and casteist Brahmanical laws rooted in Manusmriti and Dharmasutras


Some of the infamous verses are:


Manusmriti (IV-78 to 81) declares“A Shudra is unfit of receive education. The upper varnas should not impart education or give advice to a Shudra. It is not necessary that the Shudra should know the laws and codes and hence need not be taught.”


In addition to denying education to Shudras, verse 18, Chapter IX of Manusmriti prescribes, “Women have no business with the text of the Vedas.”


According to the Gautama Dharma Sutra, one of the Dharmasutra (Dharma text) says:


“Now if he listens intentionally to (a recitation of) the Veda, his ears shall be filled with (molten) tin or lac”

“If he recites (Vedic texts), his tongue shall be cut out. If he remembers them, his body shall be split in twain.”


The effects of such Brahminical notions persist in the present time and have been rationalised with some new forms of guidelines by MSJE.


What does RTI’s data show?


The MSJE has completely failed to fulfil the constitutional mandates of sending 100 students to foreign universities every year under NOS. This seems like a deliberate endeavour for the key officials in the MSJE, mostly headed by brahmin-upper caste personnel. 


About the NOS awards, the data indicated in recent articles on mainstream news like The Wire does not give a clear picture about the number of students with final award letters travelling abroad to join their courses.


Source: Information obtained under RTI by Mr A. Meshram.


Same data has also been mentioned in other mainstream news, The Telegraph, ‘the number of scholars awarded by MSJE in the last few years were ‘46, 65, 50, 46, 73 and 39 for 2016-17, 2017-18, 2018-19, 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22, respectively.’


Following RTI (registration number: MOSJE/R/E/21/00693, Name: ASHOK DANAVATH, Date of Filing: 06/08/2021, Request filed with: Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment) -- indicates the budget allocation, the number of students selected for NOS and gender-wise division of the selected candidates.


Table: The details of the allocation of Budget, the number of applications received, and the candidates selected for NOS and gender-wise division of selected candidates (from 2016-17 to 2020-21)


It's important to note that there is a huge margin among the numbers of students selected for NOS, the number of students receiving the final award letter and the number of students travelling abroad to join their programme in universities. In other words, the number of students who actually travelled abroad with a final award letter is much lesser than the number of students selected for the NOS. This is evident in the Right to Information (RTI) application – (registration number: MOSJE/R/E/21/00785 Name: ASHOK DANAVATH Date of Filing: 29/08/2021 Request filed with: Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment) - that the number of candidates travelled abroad with final award letter to join the course is lesser than the number of students received the final award letter for the NOS scholarship.


Table: The number of selected candidates travelled abroad with the final joining report under NOS from 2016-17 to 2020-21.


To clarify, the number mentioned in mainstream news like The Wire and The Telegraph is the primary number of final awards MSJE issued to the students. It is mentionable that there are three phases of NOS awards:


  • Confirmation Letter of Selection - where a student receives the confirmation of being selected for the award.
  • Final Award Letter - where the student receives the final confirmation of the reception of the award after all verifications to join the university.
  • Joining Report or Letter - after joining the university abroad, the student submits a report of their physical joining to the designated course to the Indian embassy of the university's country. And this confirms the actual joining of the students awarded with the NOS.

The final number of students who have fully completed these three phases indicates the success of the objective of the NOS scheme of benefitting the scholars from the Dalit and other marginalised communities in a true sense. And this final number of students who have joined their universities abroad completing these three aforementioned phases has been less than the higher number of primarily selected students for the NOS. Though MSJE has scholarships for 100 students, despite selecting 100, it has been failing to send even 50% of the students abroad. Looking at the aforementioned RTI, 500 students are supposed to go for higher studies abroad in five years (2016-17 to 2020-21). But only 240 students, that is only 48% of students on average went for final study abroad. 


Thus, in brief, in the aforementioned article in The Wire and The Telegraphs, the promising awardees number indicates only the initial phases of one of the NOS receptions. However, it does not indicate how many students have reached the final phase or finally joined their intended universities.


Biased Funding: Is the current allocated budget sufficient for providing 100 NOS scholarships every year?


The MSJE allocated funds (i.e. INR 20 crores as per the recent RTI) is not enough for offering scholarships to 100 students every year under the NOS scheme.  The budget allocated for 100 scholarships is far below the average fees of any post-graduate programme in top-ranked universities abroad.


According to the MSJE’s NOS guidelines, not exceeding 1 per cent of the total budget is allocated for administrative expenses like NOS publicity, portal maintenance etc to run the scheme efficiently. However, MSJE seems indifferent to advertising NOS effectively to reach wider sections of students from the scheduled castes, denotified nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes, landless labourers and traditional artisans. Very often, the Ministries announce their short notice; by the time students come to know about the notification, only a few days are left for them to apply for NOS applications.


The Burden of Verification


The Ministry of Social Justice is supposed to cut down the further bureaucratic challenges for the SC and other students. Ironically, the MSJE puts the major burden of verification on marginalised students, affecting selected students to receive final award letters and finally join their universities. MSJE guideline says,


“If in case Confirmation of Award letter is issued to an awardee, he/she has to complete all the procedures like verification of original documents, submission of Bonds, Solvency Certificates etc. within SIX (6) months from the date of issuance of Confirmation of Award Letter, otherwise the award letter will be automatically cancelled. No further time will be granted for completion of these formalities.”


The submission of Bonds, Solvency Certificates signed by district collectors, block-level officers, and other gazetted officers is a long bureaucratic process that marginalised students struggle with.


Why is MSJE headed by Brahmin-Upper Caste officials?


The MSJE is headed by Brahmins, and the selection committee is not transparent and is dominated by Brahmin-Upper Caste members; one must question their intention or systematic bias against the SC applicants.


With regard to the new guidelines, R Subrahmanyam, the Secretary of Social Justice and Empowerment ministry, who is a Brahmin says “There is a rich repository of resources and excellent universities and courses within the country on these subjects. 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. In any case for such subjects, the majority of the fieldwork would have to be within the country and 3/4th of the time a student spends would be in India. So, we felt that the resources could be better spent on gaining expertise in other fields in foreign universities.”


The above statement of a Brahmin Secretary cannot but bureaucratically rationalise the way of excluding or depriving Scheduled castes, other marginalised communities to pursue higher education in the areas of their choice.


Another Brahmin professor, Badri Narayan Tiwari, the director of GB Pant Social Science Institute made a similar statement in support of the new guideline by saying that the decision would not affect Dalit students negatively. “Most of the resources for these particular subjects are available in Indian universities, which have a robust stock of literature. Any archival research or fieldwork on these subjects needs to be necessarily carried out in the country itself. If the ministry has decided to better utilise these funds in other subjects, it should not be an issue.” It is mentionable that, Prof. Tiwari himself whose area of interest includes Dalit, subaltern and identity formation issues, has benefitted from different fellowships under several acclaimed foreign universities.

This proves the brutal form of academic casteism, legitimised and rationalised by the Brahmins Upper Caste professors to reproduce brahminical mindsets and maintain the brahminical hegemony in academia. It also indicates Brahmin academics’ support for maintaining the dominance of Brahmins-Upper Caste on South Asian studies in foreign countries and to prevent marginalised students from entering into higher education abroad. It’s the manifestation of fear or threat Brahmin academics sense when caste-oppressed scholars produce knowledge based on their lived experiences and raise their voices for themselves and their communities. 


Moreover, the Brahmin- upper caste domination in MSJE affects the proper implementation of the NOS scheme and its selection patterns. There are unspoken bureaucratically rationalised caste discrimination rampant in the implementation of the NOS.

Where is Academic Freedom?


Academic freedom is the collective right of scholars to undertake research of their choice without external interference. However, the restrictions placed by the MSJE on students belonging to scheduled castes, denotified nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes, landless labourers and traditional artisans destroy the very idea of academic freedom. Therefore, there is an urgent need for the MSJE and the screening committee of NOS to be headed independently by the representatives of scheduled castes. Moreover, in order to implement the NOS scheme effectively, funds should be allocated in accordance with the current fee structures in top-ranked universities abroad and the major burden of verification should be placed on the MSJE rather than on selected students.


The MSJE has increased the number of NOS awards from 100 to 125  for the year 2022-23 which can be appreciated but one must ask: How can the ministry send an increasing number of students abroad without increasing its budget?

About the author

Ashok Dhanavath (L) is a Tribal graduate from TISS, Hyderabad. He is currently pursuing a Master’s degree at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Netherlands. 

Jyoti Bania (R) is a PhD research scholar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad, hailing from the SC community in Assam.