On 17 January 2016, PhD student and activist at one of India’s most prestigious universities Rohith Vemula hanged himself. In his suicide note, the 26-year-old denounced the system that reduced the “value of a human being to his immediate identity”.
Rohith was a Dalit, a member of the most oppressed caste in India, and an outspoken advocate for anti-caste and anti-majoritarian politics. The right-wing university administration, assisted by India’s ruling party, had deployed cruel and unjust means to curtail his ability to complete his education — a devastating consequence for this first-generation learner — until he could no longer bear it.
Rupa Viswanath is Professor of Indian Religions at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies (CeMIS) at the University of Göttingen, Germany, and a Fellow of Lucy Cavendish College at the University of Cambridge.
Karin Klenke works as a coordinator at CeMIS, facilitating research and attracting new student talent.
His tragic suicide reflected a deeper truth: namely, that the Indian education system is grossly uneven. While education is often understood as a great equalizer, in reality unequal access to educational institutions and the huge discrepancies in quality mean education in India reproduces social and economic inequalities. The groups most harmed are those pushed to the fringes of society on the basis of caste, class, ethnicity, gender, or other characteristics. Children and young adults from marginalized communities are frequently denied the right to education entirely, or provided with only the bare minimum. If they do make it to a better institution, they are likely to face severe discrimination.
Against this backdrop, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation initiated the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Scholarships for Modern Indian Studies in partnership with the Centre for Modern Indian Studies (CeMIS) at the University of Göttingen. In the run-up to the programme’s launch this October, Federica Drobnitzky spoke with Rupa Viswanath and Karin Klenke about the scholarship itself, structural inequality and unequal access to education in India, and what urgently needs to change in the country’s education system.
The CeMIS is starting a scholarship programme for members of marginalized groups from India in cooperation with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation this year. What is the aim of the programme?
RV: Not only has there never been universal education in India, but the education system is extremely unequal. In the last ten to 15 years, this inequality has worsened with the increasing privatization of education, with marginalized students suffering the most. Besides the elite mainstream, there are many different outsider groups in India who rarely have the chance to pursue higher education.
Children of descendants of Dalit landless labourers, children of Adivasis (tribal peoples) living in remote areas whose land and resources are under attack and who have little access to government services, or children of the millions of migrant labourers existing on the edge of survival, members of India’s persecuted religious minorities, especially Muslims — they all suffer from inherited forms of inequality, including in their educational opportunities, and they all face intense discrimination.
We at CeMIS work on the politics and economics of class and caste, on nationalisms and majoritarianisms, on global networks of activism, on exploitation, and more. We share a lot with the outlook of the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation. We’ve attracted many Indian students from marginalized communities, and over the last ten years, we’ve been able to grasp even more clearly the harsh reality of education in India. The CeMIS–RLS scholarship programme aims to address exactly this. By funding study for students who come from marginalized backgrounds, we aim to empower them to break with the injustices they face.
What does the programme look like in concrete terms?
RV: The programme comprises a two-year scholarship for a Master’s student with the prospect of an extension and a three-year scholarship for a doctoral student, including a monthly living allowance, travel expenses, as well as language courses.
It is primarily aimed at Indian students from marginalized groups who have demonstrated academic excellence. In particular, it targets students from Dalit and Adivasi communities, children of informal sector labourers, religious minorities, and first-generation learners in higher education.
Beyond that, it was also important for us that candidates were involved in some form of activism or demonstrable engagement with social or political movements and social critique in India. In this sense, students are also invited to participate in the activities of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.
In addition, the Centre for Indian Studies strives to create a programme within an institutional framework that makes a special effort to engage people in our international networks. Academia is largely based on networks — one of the worst things for marginalized students is that they lack them. Even if they make it to elite universities, they often lack social, longer-term connections. At CeMIS, and within our scholarship, changing this is therefore a top priority. Only in this way can marginalized students support each other, actively advance their careers, and break into elite academia.
So the CeMIS–RLS scholarship programme is the first-ever international programme established specifically for Dalit and Adivasi groups?
RV: Yes, it absolutely is. What’s unique about the programme is that it’s not just for Dalits and Adivasis, but also for first-generation learners and people who come from very marginalized backgrounds or religious minorities.
Dalits comprise the most oppressed castes throughout India, historically providing unfree labour in the agrarian economy, and today are widely denied basic social rights such as access to adequate employment, food, water, and primary education. Only a tiny percentage may, with enormous struggle, access higher education. Adivasis, tribal groups within India, also face social exclusion and grinding poverty. And as for Muslims in India, they suffer exclusion and serious violence under a Hindu majoritarian regime that openly stokes hatred.
In fact, there are very few places that offer scholarships comparable to ours in India itself, but I am not aware of any international organization that is trying to target the talented among the marginalized in India.
KK: An important aspect is also that by facilitating education for people from marginalized backgrounds, one of the goals is to change educational institutions in India. It’s not just about providing access to education, but also about more and more people from marginalized backgrounds becoming professors and lecturers at Indian universities, which in the long run contributes to change in society and the establishment of a critical mass.
How does discrimination against young people from marginalized groups entering higher education in India manifest itself?
KK: There are many unspoken rules for students of marginalized groups, and in contrast, exclusive spaces for the elite groups. I have heard from people from marginalized backgrounds that their fellow students openly laugh at their English proficiency.
What these people don’t consider is that their level of English obviously depends on their social and cultural capital, their parents, access to a good English education, and opportunity — all of which goes far beyond the professional level. All this adds to the experience of being discriminated against by fellow students, but also vis-à-vis professors.
RV: Caste prejudice is openly practiced and widely accepted in India. In elite universities specifically, this can take the form of widespread stereotypes about lower caste and class students as less intelligent and less capable, and social exclusion and neglect from teachers is the result.
In addition, the rise of the Hindu Right in the last ten to 15 years has seriously worsened the situation for marginalized students, especially those who dare to raise their voices against injustice. Right-wing student groups are now very active on campus, and resort to violence and harassment to silence all voices of the dissent — with the complete support of the police and university administration who take the side of the ruling regime.
Back to the issue of teachers: there are, to be sure, wonderful, empathic, social justice-oriented teachers in higher education in India, but they form a minority and their institutions don’t support their agenda. More often, academic staff have no real knowledge of the lives and challenges of marginalized students and little empathy. Professors and lecturers routinely refuse to mentor students from marginalized groups, preferring to work with elites. Although this discrimination is plain for all to see, it is generally condoned.
This form of injustice is psychologically devastating for many of these students. Until last year, there were government-sponsored scholarships such as the National Overseas SC/ST Fellowships to provide a few lucky Dalits and Adivasis access to an international education. But the regulations were changed by the current government — now such students are not allowed to apply to go abroad to study any social sciences or humanities if their subject is India. The Indian government recognizes that while they have the tools to silence dissent and control education in India, it is much harder to suppress critique of India’s government abroad, and it wants to cut off avenues to this kind of education.
Meaning that on top of unequal access to education, Dalits are also denied equal political participation…
RV: Yes, this is the kind of hyper-nationalism that the Indian regime displays. There is an inordinate fear that India’s dirty laundry will be exposed. In fact, we at CeMIS knew this amendment to the law might be coming. We supervised a Dalit student who had received such a fellowship, and who wrote a brilliant Master’s thesis on how the postcolonial Indian state had failed to secure agrarian livelihoods for Dalits. An Indian bureaucrat pointedly asked him, before reluctantly and belatedly handing over the money rightly due to the student, why he had to leave India to study it.
The brutal targeting and incarceration of critical academics and activists is occurring at an alarming rate today. Any criticism of the government is likely to be branded terrorist activity, and many intellectuals and human rights defenders have been detained without trial under draconian terrorism laws on charges that they are linked to the Naxalite movement, a Maoist-inspired armed insurgency classified as a terrorist organization by the state.
Basically, anyone who holds a different opinion in India is now identified with the Maoists so they can be subject to anti-terror laws. At least one very famous activist, and no doubt many others, have died in jail. For many academics in India, this is a time of great fear and uncertainty, of looking over one’s shoulder and holding one’s tongue.
Laws that can be invoked in one’s defence if identified as a potential terrorist do not exist at all. We should actually take this massive political censorship as an opportunity to introduce something like a “scholars at risk” programme for India.
Hearing all these individual stories about the challenges faced by marginalized students, what was the selection process for the scholarship programme like?
KK: Among the 51 complete Master’s and 50 PhD applications we received, it was relatively easy to compile a shortlist. But interviewing the shortlisted candidates and hearing their personal biographies was truly heart-breaking. After learning so much about personal backgrounds and struggles, the final decision about who would ultimately get a place in the programme was difficult to take.
RV: We all know how needy people are in India. But when you hear the stories of people working so hard to get such basic things as education or a scholarship, it often leaves you speechless. One woman we finally chose as our MA scholarship recipient literally woke up at 3:00 every morning to study, as that was the only time of day that it was possible in her one-room house. Stories like these underscore how much harder marginalized students have to work to even reach the stage where they can apply for a scholarship like this, and how many people deserve to be supported in their educational endeavours.
We meet with both the finalists we chose, as well as those who didn’t make it. We make sure all of them have access to new informational materials and connections to new people. One of our MA candidates who ultimately didn’t get the scholarship will still come to CeMIS and be supported by a student assistantship. This makes me genuinely happy.
There is often an consensus that scholarships are an antidote to inequality. But can unequal access to education also be reflected in international scholarship programmes?
RV: There are, of course, different types of scholarships. For India, many students from elite universities receive international scholarships and have a chance to study all over the world. But they obviously constitute a very tiny demographic, in which marginalized students or those who have difficult conditions do not find a place.
The main source of inequality in this kind of a scholarship has to do with what we already talked about — the abysmal state of primary and secondary education in India, which means there are more marginalized people who would not even be able to reach the stage where they could qualify to do a Master’s or PhD at CeMIS. There is nothing we can do directly about that — except hope that some of those we educate will work towards promoting a politics of equal access in India.
To what extent can an international scholarship programme like yours counteract structural inequality in the country?
RV: Scholarships for marginalized people from India, like ours, actually counteract a lot of the inequalities that people are born into. Rather than just giving advantages to people who already have them, which is what most fellowships do, this scholarship allows different kinds of Indians to come to the West, which itself is a huge marker of status and privilege. One of the things that has enabled our marginalized students from CeMIS to obtain professorial positions in India, for example, is that they come with the status of having completed an international degree outside of India.
By continuing to focus on academic excellence, is there a risk of actually contributing to brain drain?
KK: I am very ambivalent about the concept of brain drain. I find it hard to think of people only as national subjects who have a duty to contribute to the development of their nation, which brutally oppresses them. Why should they do that? If they have a desire to get out and instead conduct critical work on India from Europe, what’s wrong with that?
After all, this would be just like someone in Germany who comes from a disadvantaged region having an absolute obligation to go back to that region and work there. I understand the global inequalities and the economic power that countries have to attract people, but who can blame a Dalit or leftist activist who doesn’t want to live under those conditions in India?
Ultimately, of course, we hope that these people will change Indian universities in the longer term and revolutionize them from within. But why should they sacrifice their careers, their wellbeing, their entire lives to make India a better country?
RV: I think the particular situation in India today means studying abroad provides a rare opportunity to debate and discuss India critically and in terms of concrete research, in an environment without fear of reprisals. This is a much more relevant issue, I think, than brain drain, which in any case is a critique that is not usually applied to the kinds of fields we study. The number of elite Indians who study the natural sciences, medicine, business, etc. abroad is far greater than scholars coming out to study the social sciences and humanities.
Looking beyond scholarships, what concrete changes are needed in India’s education system to further address the country’s unjust social conditions and unequal access to education?
KK: It would probably be too simple to say that by changing the educational system you will directly abolish the class and caste system. The origins of the unjust social conditions in India are complex and probably can’t be tackled by changing the educational system alone. But guaranteeing universal access to quality education would be a good start. Combating caste discrimination within educational institutions would then continue to follow as a second step.
RV: Even compared to other developing countries, India spends a very small amount on public education. The decision not to invest broadly, not to invest in the poor, has been taken since the beginning of Indian independence. Since then, no government has ever considered that it should provide education for all. This is a terrible injustice — as has been powerfully written about by Anand Teltumbde, a brilliant Dalit intellectual and activist who is now among the indefinitely incarcerated.
Thus, the very act of investing and providing access to proper education to all is what is needed. In today’s world, moreover, it must be guaranteed that education is provided in English for all, instead of using it — as is currently the case —as a means to exclude the less-privileged. Education is and remains a pathway, however uncertain, out of the social inequalities that prevail in India.