Prohibiting students from studying Indian history or culture in foreign universities is synonymous with irritability and prejudice
The new government guidelines which prohibit students applying for the National Overseas Scholarship (NOS) from studying Indian history, culture and social sciences in foreign universities are an irrational interference. The scholarship provides crucial financial assistance to low-income applicants from Scheduled Castes, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Denoted Tribes, and Landless Communities to pursue a Masters or Doctoral degree abroad. While the number of Indian students opting for education in overseas universities is large and growing, only a tiny number of students from disadvantaged communities make it through, given the daunting odds. Then suddenly putting conditions on the breadth of knowledge they have reduces their opportunities and caps their academic ambitions. This defeats the very purpose of the regime. Second, it is not for governments to decide what students can or cannot study; the academic autonomy of scholars cannot be so casually overlooked. Third, the specific ban deprives a wide range of inquiry of the scholarship of people from marginalized communities, whose lived experience and intellectual acumen can only illuminate the blind spots of these fields.
The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment justified the new guidelines by arguing that going “abroad was not necessary to study Indian history, culture or heritage”; and that foreign universities are better placed to acquire other, presumably more technical skills. This is an incredibly myopic and narrow view of knowledge, which cannot be carved into neat nationalist silos. Some of the most enlightening work on Indian history, politics and culture has been done by scholars abroad and at universities around the world – political scientists Paul Brass, Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph, international relations expert Stephen P Cohen; economist Amartya Sen and constitutional historian Granville Austin; literary scholars like Sheldon Pollock and Francesca Orsini, to name a few. Not to mention the research carried out in the Sanskrit and Indology departments of several European universities.
The illogicality of the government’s argument has sparked apprehensions that the new guidelines are a backhanded way of censoring controversial debates about the flaws in contemporary Indian life. It is no secret that scholars on foreign campuses have contributed to a strong and articulate anti-caste movement as well as anti-Hindutva mobilizations. But the government’s sensitivity to Western criticism should not be used to restrict academic freedom and restrict the academic careers of scholars from India’s most marginalized communities. This bar on the stock exchange must disappear.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition of February 23, 2022 under the title “Lowering the bar”.