How Community Education Collectives Are Challenging Existing and Increasing Educational Inequality
First-and-second generation Bahujan learners are collectivizing under different initiatives to educate, agitate, and organize their communities
For Prashant Chavan, the journey from a nomadic tribe family in rural Vidarbha’s Yavatmal to the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai was highly eventful and eye-opening. Chavan, who passed his Class X examinations “by cheating, aided by the teachers and invigilators who just wanted to show that every kid had passed,” realized upon reaching Mumbai how there were very few people there like him. He decided that things needed to change.
In 2017, Chavan joined fellow TISS student from Vidarbha, Raju Kendre, in co-founding Eklavya. As time progressed, Akash Modak and Smita Tatewar also joined as co-founders. Named after the nishad (a forest-dwelling community) youth in the Mahabharat who masters archery on his own after being turned away by an upper-caste teacher, Eklavya aims to inspire and educate students from marginalized backgrounds to seek higher education at premier institutes.
Today, with Kendre serving as CEO, Eklavya is one among a handful of community-led initiatives that are trying to address the questions of access and representation in education.
India’s steady growth in literacy is often hailed as a post-independence success story. Indeed, from a literacy rate of 18.33% in the 1951 Census to 74.04% in 2011, the country has come a long way. However, these absolute numbers hide the many discrepancies that riddle the state of education in the country. There continue to be severe differences along the lines of gender, location (rural or urban), and, most significantly, caste. For example, SC, ST, and OBC communities in the country report a high dropout rate and low enrollment rate, translating to very few completing even high school education.
More often than not, marginalized community students are so cut off from information that they do not even know of the options that lie in front of them. These are the glaring gaps within the Indian education system that community-led initiatives like Eklavya aim to address. They are not only imparting new students with the required skills to be at par with their much more privileged peers but also hoping to ignite the spark to aim higher.
“A key part of our operation is just traveling to villages and towns and spreading awareness about higher education avenues and how to reach them. Most people in these towns go to their respective town or taluka colleges and never even get to know of colleges and career opportunities that lie beyond their village and their tribe. They do not know of the existence of these institutions, let alone apply for admission and finish all the processes. Their life begins and ends at their village,” Chavan explains.
Even when a marginalized-caste student is able to enter a reputed university outside their village or hometown, they have to struggle to be at the same level of information and awareness as their upper-caste peers. Throughout his Economics undergraduate degree in Delhi’s Shaheed Bhagat Singh College, Mohit Verma, hailing from a backward caste in Rajasthan, found himself completely clueless. “Half the class was formed by people who came from good schools in Delhi and other parts of NCR, who always knew what to do, how to get internships… They would get jobs in good places – places which at times didn’t even open applications – through referrals, contacts, and networks. They would make good use of all their cultural capital. And they would always look scornfully at reservations.”
A couple of years after finishing his graduation, in 2020, Verma came across Bahujan Economists (BE) on Twitter, a platform for students and professionals from marginalized and underrepresented backgrounds in the discipline. Verma signed up and soon discovered that he was not alone, that almost every Bahujan student that managed to make it to high school and higher education faced similar problems.
Related on The Swaddle:
BE was founded by Aditi Priya. Belonging to a Dalit family from Bihar, Priya made it to the Lady Shri Ram College for Women for her graduation, and the Delhi School of Economics for her master’s. In both of these institutions of great reputation, she repeatedly witnessed instances of discrimination against people from lower castes, tribes, and minorities. She describes in detail the daily ridicule and shame people from marginalized backgrounds faced, the isolation and ostracization they encountered on campus due to their small numbers, and the inferiority complex they subsequently ended up internalizing.
This intellectual apartheid that Priya encountered in her time led her to formulate a manifesto “for a Bahujan Economics” in 2019, where she writes: “the assertion of the oppressed seems like the only way to mark our presence in any field… the way ahead for us is to reach a stage and work for our community, take control of what impacts our lives and write our own story rather than becoming the subjects of study.”
The inferiority and shame that Priya mentions in her account is ingrained in many Bahujan students since childhood.
“I come from a backward caste. I was never told about our history and our leaders, so I ended up always believing what others told us about ourselves, the labels that they assigned to us. That affected our confidence. Only when we came across the Ambedkarite ideology, the ideology of the Phules, did we realize that what we faced wasn’t our fault. We want our children to know this right from the beginning,” explains Prasann Kumari, co-founder of Trutiya Ratna – a Bihar-based initiative that focuses on school education for first-generation learners from underserved communities.
In their organization, thus, Kumari and co-founder Sunita Vishwas make it a point to not just mentor their children but also teach them about their community history and engage them with ideological politics. They hold regular discussions and sessions on the revolutionary ideologies of Bahujan figures like Dr. Ambedkar and the Phules. BE, too, is clear about their commitment to the Phule-Ambedkarite ideology: a portion of Dr. Ambedkar’s signature forms part of the BE logo and a mural of Savitribai Phule is displayed prominently on their home-page.
However, this wave of Bahujan solidarity-building comes at a particularly bleak point in the history of public education in India. These organizations are increasingly faced with newer, more uphill adversities even as they continue their resistance against existing ones.
Since the mid-2010s, the state has been slowly stripping public universities and institutions of their funding and pushing them to generate their own funds, resulting in massive fee hikes in several institutions. Naturally, these fee hikes discourage those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds – often students from SC, ST, OBC, and minority communities – from pursuing education in these institutions.
At the same time as public universities are losing their state funding, private universities are also increasingly occupying the higher education sphere in the country. With the New Education Policy (NEP) 2020 that encourages privatization in the education sphere, this number is expected to rise. Private universities do not have to follow reservations and other affirmative action provisions while granting admissions. Their increasing normalization, then, aggressively pushes out the right of the marginalized to avail higher education. “Additionally, the NEP does not mention any other safeguards or policies that protect or promote diversity, inclusion, or equity, in the university space,” Chavan explains.
In addition to the increasing privatization in the domestic academic sphere, the state this year also limited the scope of the National Overseas Scholarship Scheme – a policy that granted scholarships to a handful of students from SC, ST, and landless agricultural laborer families – discontinuing support for “topics/courses concerning Indian culture/heritage/history/social studies on India.”
In a space where both domestic and international spaces are increasingly out of reach, then, seeking out international scholarships, grants, and fellowships, or crowdfunding through community-driven fundraisers, and overall encouraging and training students to apply for overseas admissions, becomes a direct challenge to the state’s increasing inequalities.
Related on The Swaddle:
Since its inception thus, BE has been organizing online workshops and mentoring sessions to help students write their CVs, learn to program complicated statistical software, and apply for admissions abroad. The last part is especially important to BE. Verma explains, “the percentage of people from the community (to people from Upper Castes and Classes) going outside is even lower than the proportion of people studying here. It’s almost always the economically and socially privileged who are able to go out. We want our students to also feel confident and empowered enough to go out, to be able to realize their potential to the fullest, just like Babasaheb Ambedkar did.” In the 1920s, Dr. Ambedkar received doctorate degrees in economics from the London School of Economics and Columbia University.
Eklavya also launched a “Global Scholars Program” this year to specifically train students from marginalized communities to seek international scholarships and fellowships for studying abroad. Beyond wanting to have members of the community seen and represented on the global stage, perhaps there is also a more urgent and pressing reason behind encouraging students to seek international fellowships and scholarships: the shrinking spaces for students from marginalized backgrounds in higher education within the country.
The NEP also plans to introduce mother tongues as mediums of instruction at the elementary level, encouraging government-run schools to move away from English. Dalits and Bahujans have always seen the English language as a tool for liberation because of the number of opportunities expertise in the language throws up.
The move to switch to vernacular languages in government schools will hurt children from marginalized backgrounds disproportionately. The privileged already have access to English literature and media, and on several occasions also a practice of communicating with each other in English. To combat this, Vishwas and Kumari are trying to regularize their students’ and mentors’ engagement with English. “We are introducing our children to English literature early on. We are teaching them through graphical books – with fewer words – and they are steadily catching up to the language,” Vishwas says.
Organizing together, then, is not only a way to challenge the structures that kept them away from education, but also an assertion against the people and systems that denied them basic dignity and made them feel alone, isolated, and humiliated even when they were able to cross those barriers.
These organizations in spirit thus retrace their origin back to Dr. Ambedkar’s historic call to Educate, Agitate and Organize. In July 1942, while addressing attendees of the All India Depressed Classes Conference, Dr. Ambedkar told the crowd, “For ours is a battle, not for wealth or for power. It is a battle for freedom. It is a battle for the reclamation of human personality which has been suppressed and mutilated….”
Engaging with history, though, can be meaningful only when there is also a resolve to prevent it from repeating. Chavan displays this resolve, as he asserts, “This time, Eklavya will not part with his thumb.”
Amlan Sarkar is a staff writer at TheSwaddle. He writes about the intersection between pop culture and politics. You can reach him on Instagram @amlansarkr.