Posted by Deepti Mary Minj
In January 2021, I received the fabulous news that I had been selected for the Masters in Philosophy course in Modern South Asian Studies at the University of Cambridge. It was a dream come true. Yet, more than happiness and a sense of achievement, the news made me anxious and desperate because without a sponsorship/scholarship it would not be possible to pursue this dream any further.
I had been trying to secure an admission at reputed universities abroad since 2018 and I knew that my anxiety was not without reason. Lack of social, cultural and financial capitals render one inadequate to even have the prior knowledge of the opportunities, scope, and processes. While it is difficult for global South Asian students like Indians to get into universities abroad; it is even more difficult for the deprived Indian communities such as the Dalit, Adivasi and Bahujan (DAB) groups.
For the DAB, the struggle begins way before the process of sending applications to universities. It begins from the preliminary stage of acquiring primary and secondary education. My parents were first-generation migrants to the city of Ranchi from a remote village of Banabira, (post office Tainsera, district Simdega); that has in the last two decades became the site of conflict and violence between the government and extremist groups. When I would wander away far into the forest crossing the brown marwa (millet) and yellow jatangi (blackseed) fields; my family would be scared out of their wits that I would be caught in the cross-fire of hara-wardi and jungle sena; as colloquially referring to the para-military and left-wing extreme groups respectively. Leaving such a tragic legacy behind, we migrated to the city with the hopes of receiving safety and opportunity. Alas, even that seems a distant dream for the DAB.
I recall the first of many instances of discrimination based on my identity. Despite acquiring passing marks in the entrance exam of the most reputed English medium schools, the principal, an aging British nun, told my mother (as I stood beside her), that giving me admission would be a waste of a seat. The principal justified herself, calmly speaking in perfect English accented Hindi, attempting to be as humane as possible—that firstly, neither of my parents knew English and secondly, an absent father (he was working in Guwahati) and a working mother would deny the required attention to an “inherently” dumb child. It was implied that my being an Adivasi was proof of inferiority.
My mother had no response. She held my hand and rushed outside where she spotted a bench in the reception area. We both sat down. Unaware of the gravity of the discussion that had just taken place, I assumed that my mother was just tired after the long journey from home to school via walk-bus-auto-bus-autorickshaw-walk. We had not even been offered the courtesy of a chair at the principal’s office. We were made to stand there—two brown faces, daring not to look into the eyes of the white face sizing us up. Tears gathered into a pond in my mother’s eyes. As a child, unaware of the competitive education system (and that I failed in the competition); I actually only felt hatred towards the nun for keeping my mother standing and tiring her legs.
Years later my mother told me that she was used to the back-breaking journeys and the exhaustion that came with it. What triggered her during the school admission interview was the memory of her treatment at the hands of fellow para-teachers who called her “hamara seat kha lene wali”. She had taught herself to be numb to the humiliation and the disrespect that people and colleagues threw at her. But that day she wept because the same repulsive attitude had followed her daughter. For the first time, she felt defeated that she could not ensure her daughter a better future—that her daughter was doomed to repeat the struggle and proving oneself again in the same structure—hopelessly wondering if there ever will be a break from this cycle.
Kindly allow me to retrace my steps even further in the past to tell how long is the struggle for DAB to find a foothold in education:
Despite scoring excellent marks in Teachers Eligibility Test (TET) and qualifying in the General category, my mother was “qualified” through Scheduled Tribe (ST) category. The upper caste grudged against her for being equally meritorious. The total number of seats reserved for the ST was not fully allocated. In the conflict between the dikus (referred to the upper castes) and Adivasis, state (government) enjoyed watching the blame-game from one community to another, as the political parties and bureaucrats shunned their responsibilities of improving educational and employment policies for what we collectively refer to today as “Jharkhandi”.
Limited scope of “merit-based” scholarship
This simple incident entails very many complex layers of historical and intersectional exploitation and violence against the DAB. After getting accepted by a world-reputed university, the real battle is the scholarship. Along with the application for the course, the application for the funding is equally difficult. It is worth noting that scholarships offered by India and the University are purely “merit” based. While some scholarships such as Commonwealth only prioritize the academics, other scholarships such as the Gates scholarship emphasize on all-round excellence. But no scholarship considers the hardships of a person or community as a criterion. The category for scholarship is simplistically and uncritically ignorant of the social background of an applicant which means that they do not provide a level playing field. The university is solely interested in picking the “best”, teaching the “best”, and rewarding the “best”. There is no thought given to the unequal forces that create, lead, and re-create the problematic section of “best” students.
The Government of India allocates scholarship through the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, called the National Overseas Scholarship for the Scheduled Tribes (NOS-ST). Similarly, the national scholarship for Dalit students is under the National Overseas Scholarship – Scheduled Castes (NOS-SC) provided by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. One of the debatable barriers to these merit-cum-means scholarships for the DAB is the family income. For NOS-ST and NOS-SC, the income category is just Rs. 6 lakhs per annum. If there are numerous applicants for the scheme, then income level is a good filter. But at present it is sending out the wrong message that “extreme” hard-working and “gentrifying” DAB are not subjected to socio-economic discrimination.
Speaking from my personal experience, with both employed parents, my income limit exceeds the designated criteria. This is the case with many first and second generation migrant DABS. With employed parents, we are better-off than the single employed parent (or none), or agricultural/landless labourers. However, this puts “privileged” DABS in unfair competition with the non-DAB students. The strategy should not be to remove the income limit, rather, increase the recognition of such aspirational groups of DAB who are relatively better off economically than the poorer/first generation learners; but still worse off than the non-DAB community. The “meritorious” scholarships that only consider the “merit” of a person conveniently ignores the journey or the level of progress a person has made. These scholarships should have a component to score a person based on the steps they have had to climb to come to a reach that level of competition.
The objective of National Overseas Scholarship- Scheduled Castes (NOS-SC) is “to facilitate the low-income students belonging to the Scheduled Castes, Denotified Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes, Landless Agricultural Labourers and Traditional Artisans category to obtain higher education viz., Master degree or Ph.D courses by studying abroad thereby improving their Economic and Social status.” The scheme mentions that the awards are “subjected to availability of fundings” that raises the question as to why the scheme is unmotivated. Is it not of prime importance to ensure there is full allocation of resources towards this scheme? I feel agitated that as always, DAB are given less importance in the national budget and especially in a policy that is made for their empowerment.
While there are problems with NOS-ST portal, the condition of NOS-SC portal is worse as that is hardly engaging and user-interface friendly. This speaks volume of the poor human resource and IT investment for the goal of “empowerment” of DAB. Apart from promoting the national/political leaders, the website should be developed as a resource and platform to acknowledge, enrich and assimilate the stories, achievements, and opportunities for the DAB. The funded scholars should be encouraged to write columns relating to their lives and field of study and work. There should be an encouragement of resource-centre and solidarity among the scholars and aspiring students.
More DAB students are acquiring higher education due to support of affirmative actions. The need is to increase investment in public services specially to provide safety nets. The Government of Jharkhand under the leadership of Jharkhand Mukti Morcha has launched a state scholarship to enable tribal students in obtaining higher studies abroad. The Marang Gomke Jaipal Singh Munda Overseas Scholarship fully sponsors ten Adivasi students. The scheme is named after the Adivasi political leader (and Jharkhandi) of India who was the first Adivasi to study at the University of Oxford. It is a commendable step and more state governments should create such policies.
Conflict Of Individual And Community Identity
Once a person of DAB gets admission with full scholarship after much hardships, the battle doesn’t end. Campus life comes with its own set of challenges in terms of locating one’s identity in the local and global context. Friendships, associations, and solidarity is an important element of student life. While international and global interactions itself poses a stark cultural shock, the DAB students face another level of dis-association from the “Indian” community. There is a strong presence of the Indian community in the university, but the cultural and social practices of the DAB remain uncatered to. The DAB, especially the tribal/Adivasi/indigenous culture is based on a strong sense of solidarity. No example can better illustrate this than the communitarian dance we perform. The dances of Chottanagpur plateau like jhumar, paika, karma, chua, and santhal dances are all collectively performed on festivals or special occasions. None of these dances can be performed alone; unlike Bharatnatyam, Kathak or even Ballet! These can be done only by holding each others arms and grooving harmoniously to the beats of mandar (drums) and other folk instruments like flutes. The “group” element of these dances is based on the communitarianism and solidarity of Adivasi communities. With the few (and mostly, scattered) Adivasi students on campus, it remains difficult to represent our culture internationally.
As a person from DAB community, one is always conflicted about their identity. While I identify as an Indian, “Indian-ness” doesn’t fully capture my essence and my journey. When I first submitted an application to the University of Cambridge in October 2018, I encountered an emotional conflict when the form asked me about my ethnicity. I stared at the screen, scrolling through the options, of “Asian or Asian British- Indian; Other Asian Background; Other Ethnic Background” as I traced the history and status of my tribe in Indian sub-continent. As a person from an ethnic community from an Indian background, it becomes tricky to identify which racial/ethnic category to put oneself in as the categories are limited.
The stories of Adivasi students are marked by exceptional hard-work. Their journeys show the importance of structural support system. Sita Kumari, a Munda girl from Ormajnhi, Jharkhand represents how structural support of finance, capital and resources contribute towards fulfilling one’s goals. Sita has been a student of Yuwa School in the state, who has received immense support such as mentoring, guidance, resources such as laptops, English training, networking and encouragement to enable her to now study at Asian University for Women, Chittagong (Bangladesh). She has worked against the structural injustices of poverty and discrimination originating from her Adivasi identity. While there are exceptional Adivasi students, they are not a norm as discrimination and lack of support denies them opportunities.
After facing a set of personal challenges and after interacting with other DAB students, I have come to the realisation that merit is not located in the birth of a person. Rather, the journey to a topmost university is aided by opportunities, platforms, and resources. Excellence is easier with an ecosystem of social and economic privileges. In addition, more than merit, it is the “unaffordability” of these top universities that makes the persons studying there exceptional. Once you get admission and scholarship, top international universities provide an incredible platform to speak freely to a wide audience. They promote critical thinking and make you ask difficult questions that contribute towards development. Presence of more Adivasi students in these universities will certainly allow them to pose challenging ideas and questions.
Deepti Mary Minj is a graduate in Development and Labor Studies from JNU. She researches and works on the issues of Adivasis, women, development and state policies. She is currently pursuing her Masters at Cambridge University.
This article was originally published on Adivasi Lives Matter and has been republished with consent.