In June 2021, Dalit rapper and anti-caste activist Sumit Samos started a fundraiser to cover his tuition fees at Oxford University. Within four hours, a sum of almost INR 2.7 million (around USD 36,298) was collected to cover Samos’ tuition expenses for a Master’s degree in Modern South Asian Studies at the prestigious institution. Following his example, first-generation students from across the country, many from marginalised backgrounds – such as Archana Rupwate, a lawyer and the first person in her village to graduate from university, and Harshali Nagrale, a political researcher working on caste and gender-based discrimination – have started campaigns on fundraising platforms such as Milaap and Ketto. It may be easy to view these successful efforts in a self-congratulatory light. The power of social media, the heartwarming outpouring of support, and the sense of collective community were reflected clearly in the efforts to raise funds for the students. Yet, it is imperative to take a step back and ask: are the opportunities afforded to students hindered by factors beyond their control?
Pursuing an education overseas offers appealing possibilities to students in India – the chance to expand worldviews, earn social capital and, ultimately, achieve upward mobility. Yet, students from Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi (DBA) communities often find themselves at a significant disadvantage as they compete against upper-caste individuals who have had access to better education, a system that does not alienate them and a society that does not scorn them. Fundraisers like these require more fundamental questioning – an inquiry that probes the limitations of meritocracy, the problems plaguing the current educational system, and the continued systemic barriers to social mobility. Current reform proposals must be questioned too, to examine whether they account for existing structural inequalities due to caste.
Lapses in the system
When Harshali Nagrale began working at the Freedom School – a pioneering initiative by the Telangana Social Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society to provide high-quality education to students from underprivileged backgrounds – she became aware of the lack of quality education available to students belonging to marginalised communities at the primary level. Public schools in India are well-known for their skewed student-teacher ratios, under-paid and under-qualified teaching staff and poor quality of instruction. Students who can afford private education, a majority of them upper caste, possess a significant advantage when it comes to college admission abroad. Many of the processes involved in the application process, such as written essays and interviews, and require English-speaking skills that many students have not had the privilege of access to.
This systemic discrimination against marginalised students is only impressed upon the public memory when those bearing the brunt of it speak out.
Nagrale’s experience of fundraising for her position at the University of London, she told me, made her aware of these barriers and distinctions. The abject educational deprivation that marginalised students are subjected to means that it becomes doubly difficult for them to compete with upper-class, upper-caste, privately-schooled individuals for the same colleges, whether in India or abroad. Nagrale thus stressed that it is unfair to hold the same standards of so-called ‘merit’ when the hierarchical differences are so difficult to transform.
An obstacle course
The National Overseas Scholarship is centrally funded and aims to provide financial support to students from Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and other marginalised communities to pursue higher education overseas. Officially limited to only a hundred scholarships per year, the scheme proves to be very inadequate. Most state-funded scholarships are only available for those pursuing a master’s degree for the first time, with no provision for those looking to pursue a second master’s degree, as in the case of many of the students who started fundraisers, like Nagrale and Samos. Some criteria act as barriers to scholarships in the form of total family income and institutional rankings. Until 2020, the National Overseas Scholarship was only available to students with a total yearly family income of INR 600,000. This was raised to INR 800,000 from 2020-21 onwards. Another criterion dictates that scholarships will largely be provided for institutions that have a certain Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Ranking (an annual publication of university rankings, owned by a British for-profit company.) For example, the criteria for the Foreign Education Scholarship for SC students by the Maharashtra state government dictates that the selected university must fall within the top 300 institutions as per the QS rankings for students to qualify for a scholarship.
The current process of availing government-funded institutional support in the form of scholarships, funding and waivers, is riddled with tedious paperwork and delayed release of funds – impediments that ironically hamper the process of pursuing education abroad instead of facilitating it. The government must make provisions to not only streamline these current application processes, but also ensure that the scholarships are more widely available and easily accessible.
It is imperative to take a step back and ask: are the opportunities afforded to students hindered by factors beyond their control?
Unlike students from more privileged backgrounds, educational loans are often not available to many students who hail from marginalised communities. Students like Nagrale, whose father worked as a mill worker, can not afford to take on expensive educational loans. They do not have friends and family who can take up the responsibility of acting as guarantors. According to data from the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) for the period of 2016-2017, almost 70 percent of the loans under the Credit Guarantee Fund Scheme for Education Loans (CGFSEL) have been granted to students from the General Category. In comparison, the percentage of beneficiaries from SC, ST and OBC communities is dismal, being as low as 7 percent for Scheduled Castes and 3 percent for Scheduled Tribes. Furthermore, the representation of students from marginalised backgrounds in higher education remains abysmal; PhD programmes in premier educational institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Information Technology (IIITs) are mostly dominated by students from the general category.
As N Sukumar notes in his essay ‘Living a Concept: Semiotics of Everyday Exclusion’, first-generation learners suffer from a lack of familial support and guidance, relying instead on administrators or other students from the community to provide them with the necessary practical knowledge to navigate academic spaces, the hurdles of paperwork and the overall application process.
Casteism in academic spaces
Beneath a veneer of progressiveness and inclusivity, India’s educational institutions are rife with casteist discrimination. While most discriminatory behaviour is covert and gradually alienates students, casteist discrimination also manifests itself in overt ways, such as harassment. In April 2021, a video emerged depicting an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) professor hurling unabashed abuse at students in a preparatory class that largely comprised students belonging to Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes communities. It showcased the deeply entrenched prejudices in India’s academic structures that continue to manifest in a variety of ways. This systemic discrimination against marginalised students is only impressed upon the public memory when those bearing the brunt of it speak out. Take the case of Vipin Pudiyadath Veetil, an assistant professor at IIT-Madras, who in his resignation letter of 2021 cited discrimination from those in “positions of power”, or more drastically, when it claims promising young lives – most recently in the case of Dr Payal Tadvi, who died by suicide in 2019 after being harassed by seniors about her caste background. The entrenchment of Brahminical hegemony is not confined to just higher academic institutions but is deep-rooted even at the elementary school level, as was seen in the case of Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan (PSBB) and other schools in Chennai that were recently exposed by former students for promoting a culture steeped in sexism, casteism and sexual misconduct.
In an interview with the digital platform Feminism in India, Suraj Yengde, a Dalit scholar and a post-doctoral fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School stressed the importance of having anti-caste discrimination cells in universities and for making academic spaces safer by appointing ‘diversity officers’ and organising sessions that sensitise students to existing caste discrimination. In the past, Yengde has been critical of India’s premier institutions – the IITs and IIMs (Indian Institute of Management) – for being exclusionary and promoting savarna dominance.
It cannot be understated that conceptions of a meritocratic system require more critical examination.
Many of the students who did choose to put out a fundraiser were also at the receiving end of disparaging comments and messages. But aside from online trolls that, unfortunately, are a common presence on social media, many questioned the motives of the students and demanded accountability. In an interview with the online media platform The News Beak, Samos remarked that he received messages on social media that cast aspersions on his merit and motivations, asking him what he planned to do with so much money and why he felt the need to study abroad. Moreover, there were queries regarding his post-graduation plans – scrutiny of exactly how he would return to India and give back to society, reflecting a concern that is almost transactional in nature. A similar sort of unsolicited interrogation was faced by Nagrale, and reflects the unreasonable standards, she notes, which students from marginalised communities are constantly held to.
The flaws in meritocracy
The idea of a meritocracy as a flawed concept is radical but not new – in recent years political philosopher Michael J Sandel has explored it in his book The Tyranny of Merit, and Daniel Markovits in The Meritocracy Trap – but is gradually asserting itself in mainstream debates. While Western scholars have explored the ‘delusion’ or the ‘myth’ of merit by recognising the pervasive influence of white privilege, and the exclusion of the middle-class from social mobility, presenting an almost dystopian view of meritocracy, academics such as Ajantha Subramanian – whose new book is titled The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India – have been exploring it in the context of India’s deeply polarising caste politics. These debates have caused social and political polarisation around the ‘pro-merit’ and pro-reservation positions. In August 2021, the National Testing Agency (NTA) – a government-appointed body in charge of conducting the National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test (NEET), an intensely competitive examination that allows admission into undergraduate medical courses – announced 27 percent reservation for the OBCs and 10 percent for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS). Meanwhile, the country’s lower house Lok Sabha witnessed the unanimous passing of the OBC bill on 10 August, which restored the right of the states to identify and give reservation to persons belonging to the OBC category. These developments have renewed a longstanding discourse around merit. Those who support meritocracy and criticise reservation-based policies –most of them upper caste – fail to understand that capability is not separate from their position in the hierarchical structure of society. A merit-based system would fail to consider that the achievements of upper-caste students are supported by significant financial, cultural and social capital, all of which are conferred by dint of their ranking in the social order.
Beneath a veneer of progressiveness and inclusivity, India’s educational institutions are rife with casteist discrimination.
In 2020, India’s Ministry of Education released the New Education Policy (NEP) that aimed to overhaul the current education system by introducing various pedagogical changes and improving the existing syllabus. While the policy mentions transforming education to make it more multi-disciplinary, experiential, holistic and equitable, emphasising that “education is a great leveller”, many critics have argued that it provides no tangible solutions towards greater equality, with some even arguing that putting forth a vocational learning structure is actually reinforcing structural inequalities and caste-based hierarchies. With the government still laying the groundwork for NEP’s phase-wise implementation, it remains to be seen whether the policy will bring about meaningful change to the country’s educational system. Meanwhile, it cannot be understated that conceptions of a meritocratic system require more critical examination, and the pervasive influence of caste in the academic journeys of marginalised students must be recognised.
Eshna Sharma is a writer and poet from Lucknow, India. Currently, she is a mentee at Write Beyond Borders, a literary mentorship program for emerging South Asian writers. She won the Wingword Poetry Prize in 2019.