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More Dalit students going to Oxfords, Harvards. West now gets the caste divide

There are five primary factors driving an increasing number of students from marginalised communities entering the Western institutions.

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India has left China behind to become the largest contributor to the international student group in the US. Last month, the US embassy in Delhi informed that the country issued more than 82,000 student visas to Indians — and that is a record. Patricia Lacina, Chargé D’Affaires of the US Mission in India welcomed this trend. The embassy said that there were 167,582 students from India in the 2020-2021 academic year. It seems that floodgates have opened after the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions.

We don’t have any data to know the social composition of these students going to the US and other destinations such as the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and other European countries, but my Twitter timeline is full of comments from students belonging to marginalised communities, especially from the Scheduled Caste, who are heading towards the West to study.

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The emerging trend

These numbers might still be quite miniscule in comparison to savarna Hindus, but I see this as an emerging trend that may gather steam in coming years. Public intellectual and Ph.D scholar at the University of Oxford, Suraj Yengde recently tweeted that in the countries he visits, everywhere he meets “Ambedkar’s Children”. “Give it a decade or so and we will have a solid presence of Bahujans across the world.” He also mentioned the plan “to launch Dr Ambedkar International Students Association with country chapters.”

Going abroad to study is not a new phenomenon for Indians. Even during pre-pre-Independence era, many Indians sent their kids, mostly boys, to the Western world, especially the UK and the US.

Phoren Returned” (and now settled abroad) has always been a cherished marker for the Indian elites. Barring a few exceptions like B.R. Ambedkar, most Indians sending their wards to these countries were feudal lords, kings and nawabs, bureaucrats of Raj, advocates and businessmen. Ambedkar’s going abroad was facilitated by the Maratha ruler of Baroda, but with a rider that after coming back, he would serve the Baroda state. Most of the leadership of the Congress and, in a way, the entire freedom struggle came from the elite groups. Their tradition of sending kids to the West for higher education continued even after 1947. The spatial mobility increased after Independence and a new elite and powerful class took shape — teachers, bureaucrats and white collar workers. Europe and North America became the dream educational destination for this class. As class and caste seldom overlap in India, so we can easily fathom who the early migrants were.

Indian elite social groups migrating to the West for education and jobs has a historical social context. In her book Caste of Merit, Harvard Professor Ajantha Subrahmanian argues that due to accumulated cultural and social capital, it became easier for the caste elites to migrate to the West. She wrote that “Brahmins’ early exposure to English literacy and modern education, in part through the efforts of Christian missionary societies, became a significant advantage with urbanization. Despite being only 4 percent of the (south) regional population, Brahmins were overrepresented in higher education and government service, where they constituted 70 to 80  per cent of graduates and native employees.” When the initial wave of big exodus came in the late 60s, the caste elites were at the right pedestal to grab the opportunity. Obviously, the SCs and STs became the laggards. OBCs too were not in a position to go to the land of dreams and opportunities.

But things are changing, and there are five primary factors:

  1. The Union and many of the state governments are providing overseas scholarship to the marginalised and oppressed communities. Not that all the schemes are successful. While the Unionand state governments like Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Jharkhand are comparatively successfully sending students from marginalised communities abroad, Delhi’s overseas scholarship scheme is an utter failure because of its complicated and faulty preconditions.
  2. The composition of the Indian urban middle class has changed over the years,mostly because of the policy of reservation in government jobs and education and also due to opening up of the economy, which provided opportunity across the social spectrum. A large number of SCs, STs and OBCs have entered the space of education and attainment and now some of them are in a position to send their kids abroad for studies.
  3. The caste factor is now becoming increasinglyovert and visible in the Western world, especially in academia. More and more universities and education systems of the West are recognising caste fault lines among the South Asian diaspora. California State University, the largest university system in the US with 23 campuses has recognised caste as a protected category and included caste in its anti-discrimination policy. The impact of Cal State recognising caste can be gauged by the fact that it produces more than 1,32,000 graduates every year and attracts a large number of students from India. Other American universities, such as Harvard University, University of California (Davis), Colby College and Brandeis University, already recognise the caste-based discrimination in India. US academia and academics recognising caste may open new scope and avenues for the Indian students of deprived caste groups. With celebrated authors like Isabel Wilkerson writing on caste in India, the awareness on caste has increased. We have to see how this unfolds in the coming years.
  4. Some of the incidents and controversies in the US also raised the awareness related to caste discrimination in Indian. Foremost among them was the caste discrimination case in one of the top tech companies, Cisco. California’s employment regulator initiated a lawsuit against Cisco on behalf of an employee who accused two high-caste managers of discrimination and blocking his career. This grabbedinternational headlines. Then came the report in The New York Times that an US temple in New Jersey was employing bonded “low caste” labour. A more recent case is related to tech giant Google where Dalit rights activists Thenmozhi Soundararajan was not allowed to speak in a company initiated programme.
  5. More and more Dalit and Bahujan organisations and individuals are putting inefforts to equip students from marginalised communities with academic and other resources so that they can go abroad to study. Foremost among such institutions are the Nalanda Academy and Eklavya foundation. Nalanda Academy, started by Anoop Kumar, is presently mentoring more than 200 students on its campus so that they can go for higher studies in the finest institutions, both India and abroad.

Eklavya was founded by Raju Kendre, a scholar from the DNT (denotified tribe) community. The foundation is primarily mentoring students from Maharashtra’s marginalised communities. More than 125 tribal students are pursuing their dreams here. ThePrint reporter Nidhima Taneja visited this institute recently to see the work being done there. There are many more institutions and individuals who are working with similar goals and that is definitely creating impact.

Dilip Mandal is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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