Scholars at Risk joined more than 20 international associations and organizations and 350 scholars in endorsing International Solidarity for Academic Freedom India’s open letter to India’s Union Minister of Social Justice & Empowerment. The letter outlines numerous objections to recent policy changes to the guidelines for India’s National Overseas Scholarship, including restrictions on what scholarship recipients can study while abroad at foreign academic institutions.
Shri Virendra Kumar
Union Minister of Social Justice & Empowerment
Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment
Shastri Bhawan, C-Wing, Dr. Rajendra Prasad Road
New Delhi 110011
Shri Vijay Sampla, Chairperson
National Commission for Scheduled Castes
5th Floor, Lok Nayak Bhawan, Khan Market
New Delhi 110003
We, the undersigned, are deeply concerned about the recent amendments to the guidelines for the National Overseas Scholarship, which excludes students intending to pursue further education and research from working on “[t]opics/courses concerning Indian [c]ulture/heritage/[h]istory/[s]ocial studies on India”.
As members of the international academic community, as scholars of India, as scientists who stand for academic freedom and the importance of affirmative action, we are dismayed that the Ministry for Social Justice and Empowerment has taken such a unilateral and unjustified decision. We strongly object to these restrictions and call on the authorities to use the powers at their behest to retract them with immediate effect, to ensure students from marginalised communities can pursue education and conduct research in all fields and in universities around the world.
The National Overseas Scholarship was instituted in 1954–55 as a reparative justice measure against the exploitation and exclusion enforced by the caste system which is deeply codified in the Indian sub-continent and in existence for centuries. When first designed, the scholarship only covered the natural sciences, but a ground-breaking policy change in 2012 opened up the scholarship to students from across the academic spectrum. This has ensured that international scholarship of Indian culture, history, and society includes and reflects the voices, experiences, and domains of knowledge that have been historically excluded from or been largely secondarily represented in the canon in these fields. The scheme helped internationalise studies on India, as scholars could make new connections across cultures and histories that were not earlier visible. Not only did this enrich scholarship about India but lessons learned here could be applied elsewhere and thus advance the social sciences, arts and humanities more broadly.
The argument that one need not go abroad to study India is intellectually flawed and will only serve to isolate Indian scholarship from the rest of the world. International scientific networks are highly globally integrated. Universities around the world have thriving departments and research centres on South Asia, and it is vital that scholars and researchers from marginalised backgrounds in India contribute to and participate in these international networks and research centres. In fact all knowledge of India’s cultures and traditions is inextricably indebted to the perspectives of those who belong to India’s historically oppressed communities.
It is crucial that scholarship on India retains an international character, not least because Indian migrants have travelled across and settled in all the continents, and the study of Indian languages, cultures, histories, art forms, societal and political developments can never be territorially cut off from India’s interactions with other parts of the world.
The amendments also attest to a lack of understanding of how interdisciplinary research is conducted today, where natural sciences, law, history, sociology and the humanities work together beyond national boundaries. At the same time, it is to be noted that female applicants for the scholarship, who are already disproportionately under-represented in scientific and technological disciplines and tend to more easily find opportunities in the Social Sciences and Humanities, will be affected the most by the policy changes. Denying National Overseas Scholarship holders the possibility to study “topics related to India” is an unwarranted and unacceptable restriction of their academic freedom. Scholars of the Humanities and Social Sciences have enriched the international academic communities at their host institutions, playing the role of cultural ambassadors and cultural translators of contemporary India.
The current reversal of the policy comes at a time when we are also witnessing other developments to push back the gains from the various reparative justice and affirmative action measures that have been in place for the past seven decades. A high percentage of reserved posts across faculties of Indian central universities and other higher education institutions such as the institutes of technology and management are vacant, ostensibly because no suitable candidates applied. Doctoral posts also remain similarly unfilled. In addition both students and faculty from Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe backgrounds have reported caste-based discrimination resulting in forced resignations and several deaths.
Increased privatisation of education as per the New Education Policy 2021 also means that reservations will increasingly reduce as private institutions are not obliged to participate in this scheme. The NEP2021 is also designed to push students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds back towards ‘hereditary’ occupations. Recent reports show a significant backward trend in the state of education in Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe communities due to, for example, reductions in the educational budget including scholarships, and the push towards more online education in the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
The scholars who have so far been the beneficiaries of the National Overseas Scholarship have contributed to the growing body of rich, multi-faceted, critical scholarship on India. Rather than being restricted and limited in their possibilities, and having to face various institutional and structural barriers, they deserve all the support and freedom possible. Their increasing visibility and participatory parity in academic spaces abroad and within India would only be an indication of India’s democratic potential and seriousness to make world-class education accessible to all Indian citizens.
The National Overseas Scholarship offers India’s most brilliant minds the opportunities to produce the critiques that are vital for establishing a just and inclusive society in India, one that in fact would raise our international prestige, rather than lower it.
We urge you to take into consideration these points and call for the immediate withdrawal of this policy change.
Institutional and Organisational Signatories
International Solidarity for Academic Freedom in India (InSAF India), global
National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights – Dalit Arthik Adhikar Andolan (NCDHR-DAAA), India
DBAV Womxn* Collective, global
Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Edinburgh, UK
Centre for Modern Indian Studies, University of Göttingen, Germany
American Anthropological Association, USA
American Sociological Association, USA
NYU Department of Anthropology, New York University, USA
University and College Union (UCU), Glasgow Branch, UK
Scholars At Risk, USA
Irish Second-Level Students’ Union (ISSU), Ireland
Students Against Hindutva Ideology, USA
Organising Bureau of European School Student Unions, Europe
Anti-Caste Discrimination Alliance, UK
Dalit Solidarity Forum in the USA
Women’s Against Caste, UK
Pen International, USA
Fule Ambedkari Rastriya Student-Parents Organization, India
Scottish Indians for Justice, UK
South Asia Solidarity Group, UK
The Humanist Project, Australia
Coalition of Seattle Indian Americans, USA
Boston Study Group, USA
Hindus for Human Rights, USA
Indian American Muslim Council, USA
Foundation The London Story, the Netherlands
Coalition Against Fascism in India, USA
India Civil Watch International, North America
International Coalition for Justice, global
Boston South Asian Coalition, USA
CAR Twin Cities Chapter, Campaign Against Racism, USA
Northwest New Mexico Campaign Against Racism Chapter, USA