India and its society is a conundrum that has baffled scholars from national and international forums alike. The regional diversities, ethnic variations and their socio-cultural manifestations in a space where wealth is compounded in the hands of a few is just the tip of the iceberg when trying to describe Indian society. What lurks behind the scenes of one of the largest democracies in the world and an appealing destination for economic investment as touted by present leadership in the country are the ugly scars of a social order that is divisive and degrading – Caste.
Caste as a system of social stratification has existed in South Asia throughout modern times. To create a definition of this social stratification is impossible and depends on the point of view adopted. It could be economic, social, cultural, feminist etc. What binds the narrative of these different views is the effect the division based on caste produces. The caste system is a system of division that discriminates and disempowers a certain group of people on the basis of their birth. One of the cornerstones of this discriminatory system has been the monopoly of knowledge by the upper caste groups in India. The four-fold varna systems that divides people in India into groups like the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras.
The upper caste groups especially the Brahmins have established a monopoly on education and access to it while relegating lower caste groups to a life of servitude and impurity. This right to reading and writing was what was often used by Brahmin folk to establish their supremacy over the rest of the caste groups – one way of doing so was to maintain full control over the learning and reading of the Vedas. These ancient texts were read only by the Brahmins and due to this control, they were successful in setting up close ties with the British and missionary education when the colonial rule arrived in the subcontinent. The cozing up of the Brahmins to the British resulted in them accessing education in universities abroad and access to Western education in a much easier way than the lower caste groups in India who were fighting for the basic right to read and learn, a matter greatly stressed by Dr B.R. Ambedkar.
The brahmin control and easy access to education is evident at the national domain with the terrible figures of Dalit and other lower caste groups at the IITs and IIMs in the country and the systemic oppression members of these caste groups face once the enter these domains as well. Students and professors alike face discrimination in these institutions.
Caste and its effect have also spilled over to the students studying at international universities as well. Indian students have been welcomed all over the globe from the Ivy league universities to research institutions and groups alike. The Ministry of External Affairs reported that more than 1.6 Lakh Indian students were enrolled in European universities till July 2021. India has replaced China as the largest student diaspora in the country and record visas have been issued to students as reported by the US Embassy in New Delhi. The question however remains as to how many of these students are lower caste and groups and how many upper caste?
The numbers remain abysmal for lower caste groups getting access to higher education in universities abroad. Classrooms are still dominated by upper caste members from India and other South Asian countries and there remains a general sense of brushing the issue of caste discrimination under the carpet once in Western spaces. It is as if to say caste cannot enter the classrooms of Harvard or Oxford. The representation of upper caste ideals and views is well represented in these university spaces where one can engage in debates around economic growth and geopolitical clout of the country but lacks severe reflectivity when it comes to acknowledging caste-based discrimination and disempowerment.
The issue faced by Dalit and Bahujan students in the universities abroad can be seen from two vantage points. The first is the struggle to get to these spaces and second, the farce that exists within these university spaces that are defined and conceived of by brahmin socialisation and viewpoints that can be alienating for the non-Brahmin students.
There exist two central scholarships that are designed to get students from the Scheduled Castes and Tribes scholarships to fund their studies in universities abroad. The National Overseas Scholarship (NOS) offers complete funding for master’s and PhD programmes. These scholarships are limited in number and offer merely 20 students from ST groups and 90 students from SC groups which in no way is remotely enough to cover the number of aspirational students and scholars from the country. The SC community makes up around 16.2% of India’s population and the ST community over 8.2%. This stands in sharp contrast to the number of scholarships that exist for general students. A recent RTI investigation shower that in the academic years from 2012 to 2017, these scholarships assigned for the ST population was not accorded to them. This raises glaring questions to the government as to out of the 8.2% of the population they were unable to find 20 students who could be funded in their wish to receive an education?
The second point to note would be subjects and topics on the basis of which scholarships were denied to SC & ST students within these schemes – Indian polity, Indian society, Indian history. True to the narrative of its hard-line nationalism the government believes that these topics would be best studied in Indian universities and that students need not study these topics abroad. Two questions arise from this firstly, are similar restrictions being placed on the eligibility of students for other scholarships or this parameter of judgement reserved only for this particular scholarship? Secondly, does this seem like a ploy of the government to preserve the imagination created of India abroad by the upper caste diaspora which feels comfortable talking about sustainable development, development and policy studies but refused to lens of critical thinking to the social system they benefit from immensely. If Dalits and Bahujans are allowed access to the resources that most western universities offer, then social destabilisation and criticisms of a severely unequal society would be evident.
Even when entering these university spaces, the picture is not ideal. The social and cultural capital that the upper caste groups enjoy in the country are carried on to these classrooms as well. The denial of caste as determining the lived reality of an individual can only happen when one is privileged from the existing system. The misrepresentation of activities carried out in developing societies like India makes for fascinating analysis. Two-three weeks of field work is represented as community interventions and social upliftment. Students who work tireless at home to bring about social change and development do not offer the same courtesy to the non-Brahmin students within their fore. The “desi” imagination created remains oblivious to acknowledging and addressing critical issues like caste in these universities. The preoccupation with other interests and important subjects and the general silence on caste in the walls of these universities rings loudly.