A large number of academic associations, Indian diaspora organisations and scholars from across the world wrote to the Union government to withdraw "academically regressive measures".
Representational image. Photo: Felicia Buitenwerf/Unsplash
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New Delhi: More than 20 international academic associations, research centres, Indian diaspora organisations and 350 scholars from across the world have taken exception to the Union government’s recent policy changes to National Overseas Scholarship (NOS) guidelines.
A new policy clause excludes students from the marginalised communities intending to pursue further education and research abroad on “topics/courses concerning Indian culture/heritage/history/social studies on India”.
Calling it a “regressive step for academic exchange”, the above-mentioned organisations and scholars have addressed an open letter to the Union minister of social justice and empowerment, Virendra Kumar, for the “immediate withdrawal” of the new policy clause.
“[It is] a regressive step for academic exchange, an unwarranted restriction of the academic freedom of scholars studying abroad on government bursaries, as well as an unjustifiable attempt to restrict international scholarship on India,” the letter stated.
The letter also argues that the amendments point to a lack of understanding of how interdisciplinary research is conducted in contemporary times, where scholarship cannot be restricted by national boundaries.
The signatories of the letter lament that female applicants, already disproportionately under-represented in scientific and technological disciplines, will be most severely affected by the policy changes by being denied eligibility for research in the social sciences and humanities.
Among the signatories are the American Anthropological Association and the American Sociological Association; the Centre for South Asian Studies at the University of Edinburgh, UK; the Centre for Modern Indian Studies at the University of Göttingen, Germany; academic unions in Scotland and Ireland; and nearly 20 civil society diaspora and national organisations.
Prominent individual signatories include international scholars of India such as David Hardiman, Barbara Harriss-White, Paul Eisenberg and Jens Lerche, and Indian academics in universities around the world.
Reproduced below are the open letter and the list of signatories.
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.
India Copy to:
Shri Vijay Sampla, Chairperson
National Commission for Scheduled Castes 5th Floor, Lok Nayak Bhawan, Khan Market New Delhi 110003, India.
11 March 2022
Open Letter Against National Overseas Scholarship (NOS) Restrictions (2022-2023 Guidelines)
To the Honourable Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment
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. 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 Irish Second-Level Students’ Union (ISSU), Ireland
Students Against Hindutva Ideology, USA Anti-Caste Discrimination Alliance, UK Dalit Solidarity Forum in the USA Women’s Against Caste, UK
Pen International, USA
Phule 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.
The full list of signatories can be found here.