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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 24

The Scheduled Castes in Higher Education

Saturday 2 June 2007, by Sujit Kumar Choudhry


Caste and class in Indian society and polity have been the subjects of a long-standing and ongoing debate. A number of perspectives have been brought to bear upon the issue. Some sociologists have gone beyond a community and looked into the question of status and power relations among different groups and sub-groups of various castes. However, the caste system in India is still relevant in all fronts of human life. It is not only manifested in the social discrimination but also in the educational attainment. This paper concentrates on the detailed analysis of the different determining factors in education and its linkages to caste in general and the Schedule Castes in particular.

The Indian social system suffers from the in flexibilities of a rigid caste system. For centuries, caste had been a determining factor in education, work and employment. Shah rightly points out, ‘higher education is still mainly open to the higher castes.’ (Shah 1960) Large sections of the population belonging to the lower castes were denied education and also access to high income yielding and power imparting occupations. Hence, in India, caste has been the determinant of class positions resulting in acute inequality in the distribution of wealth and incomes. (Mehta and Kapoor 1998:37)

The acquisition of educational qualifications has come to the fore as the prosperous sections of the dominant castes (Srinivas 1987) have engaged in intense competition for greater job opportunities and better educational facilities. They have sought elected posts for themselves at all levels in the village from panchayats to cooperatives. As the importance of educational qualifications, which have become necessary for employment, has been realised, the demand for education has grown. Politicians and caste leaders have patiently catered to caste sensitivities while promising the setting up of schools and colleges to ‘better’ the lot of the people belonging to their own castes. They have strongly used ‘caste associations and caste appeals to rally people behind them for influence in education, employment and other concessions’. (Gail Omvedt 1982:29) However, they have ensured that any such activity entails profit for themselves, and at the same time, they have utilised all caste associations and resources to further their own social, political and economic interests.

In the Indian situation, where there have been several forces operating simultaneously, the pattern of class and caste convergence has been unstructured and complex. A rich Lingayat industrialist for instance, may use caste sentiments to start an all-Lingayat-managed private college for profit motives. (Kaul 1930:20)

The system of higher education is virtually a monopoly of a select stratum of urban society which is a passport to high occupational and social status. The institutions of higher learning are highly selective as far as the socio-economic background of the student is concerned. Students in such institutions are predominantly drawn from among the families belonging to the higher strata characterised by high educational, occupational and income backgrounds. (Jayaram 1987:124)

ALTHOUGH the independent significance of caste in bestowing social status has become weak, caste still continues to be a significant factor influencing admission to urban higher education. It is observed that Brahmins, who had been traditionally a privileged caste group and who were the first to respond to modern education, still seem to be the dominant caste in the field of education, being the single majority caste group in various institutions of higher learning. This is in spite of the various attempts, both formal and informal, at limiting their predominance. (Ibid.)

In the words of Shills, ‘no other country can quite match this picture of a continuing intellectual tradition carried so long by a single section of the population.’ (Shills 1961:21) The representation of the Scheduled Caste, Tribes and Other Backward Castes (OBCs) in institutions of higher learning is minuscule. (Gore et al. 1970:62-5). In some institutions, like the Indian Institute of Technology, during certain years, not a single Scheduled Caste/Tribe student was enrolled. (Rajagopalan and Singh 1968:1-5) B.V. Shah found that the Hindu Gujarati male students of the University of Baroda ‘largely belong to upper and middle socio-economic strata’. (Shah 1961:41) In Mysore, Siva Kumar found that undergraduate women students from the upper strata had greater opportunities for higher education than those from the middle or lower social strata. (Kumar 1982:39-62)

The other face of higher education is that it is used as a means of socio-economic improvement, although interest in the study of education in relation to social stratification and mobility is comparatively recent in India. One of the studies on the Scheduled Castes observed that a majority of them, belonging to lower educational backgrounds accept the importance of higher education in leading to the achievement of better and fair jobs, while for those with highly educated and professionally qualified backgrounds its importance lies in removing the drawbacks of the community and improvement of the socio-economic status in society. (Pandey 1988:96-7) On the whole, it was found that the higher the education among the Scheduled Castes, the greater they realise its importance in socio-economic improvement. When they are cross-examined in terms of their income, it is found that the higher the income, the greater they realize the importance of education in the interests of their community. This study of the Scheduled Castes of Varanasi confirms that higher education, higher income and urban living among the Scheduled Castes have enabled them to evolve new personality patterns out of the old ones. In David Riseman’s terminology of ‘personality description’ it can be seen that they are being transposed from the “tradition directed” personality type to “other directed” and “inner directed” personality types. (Riseman 1950)

Of course, some non-Brahmin castes have recently found their way into the field of education. But it is only the dominant among them who have benefited from the educational expansion as also from the formal measures to break the Brahmin monopoly in education. At least a part of this trend is explained by the political power which they have been able to wield and exploit. The progress of education among the lower castes, especially among the Scheduled Castes, seems to be painfully slow and halting. While the government has taken up the cause of ameliorating the educational situation among the Scheduled Castes and Tribes the response has been far from satisfactory. (Chitnis 1981)

In fact, the social and educational problems of a deprived population are interlinked and inter-related. Although education has proved to be the best means for their development, it has not reached to the majority of the Scheduled Castes. Besides, education carries inherent handicaps, both structurally and functionally. In this sense, social problems obstruct the motivation level, quality and utility of education. (Wankhede 1999:399)
Education is supposed to lead to upward social mobility and positive change in a modern technological society. It has been revealed by various studies (Chauhan 1975:168-75) that the role of education is very crucial so far as the Scheduled Castes and their development is concerned, despite limitations. For them, other means like political and economic power have proved to be failure compared to education. As a result, a new educated middle class (Ram 1988:117-20)—although a numerical minority—has developed among the Scheduled Castes. It is largely urban based, due to forced migration for education and employment. Nandu Ram concludes on the basis of his study that a majority of the respondents have improved their status in the class and caste hierarchies separately. Since they had improved their status in a multiple status hierarchy (Ibid.), they had acquired ‘complete’ social mobility.

EDUCATION is regarded both as the foundation and vehicle for the emancipation of the deprived sections of the society in general and the Scheduled Castes in particular. A national study (Chitnis 1981:37) has revealed that the overwhelming majority of the Scheduled Caste students come from backgrounds that may be considered disadvantageous for education. That most of them happen to be first-generation entrants to colleges or high schools in the family would indicate positive returns from the investment on the education of the Scheduled Castes. A majority of them aspire to study up to graduation and do not consider themselves bound to their traditional occupations. They display a tendency to move out of the caste defined confinement to low status occupations. These findings seem to reflect a trend in the orientation towards upward social mobility among the Scheduled Caste students. Ram (1995:124-5) is satisfied with the level of higher education, including scientific and technical ones, among the deprived communities in the country. However, he accepted the low level of achievement of higher education among them mainly due to reasons like failing in examinations, heavy drop-outs and stagnation caused by their poor socio-economic background and educational training, lack of proper guidance, etc. Even most of those who stay in colleges and universities usually do not do well in their studies and secure comparatively poor grades or percentage of marks in examinations. In recent years some quantitative but not much qualitative changes have occurred in their educational achievements. In fact, there are variations in social adjustment and educational performance of students of those communities depending upon variations in their socio-economic background, nature of institutions they join, and type of courses they opt for. Thus, the factors broadly relate to the social background of these students and their social and academic environments. But on the other hand, Gail Omvedt argues that caste assigns definite roles and occupations to specific social groups. (Gail 2000:337)

Unlike the situation described above, Ram further says that there are some institutions of higher education which have shown considerable interest in education of students from minorities and other socially and economically deprived sections of society (Ram 1995). The Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) is one such institution. In fact, it was established in 1969-70 with the broad objective of promoting “the study of the principles for which Jawaharlal Nehru worked during his life time, national integration, social justice, secularism, democratic way of society”. More precisely, the University has stood for pursuing academic excellence through research and teaching, in the national interest of the socially, educationally and economically deprived sections of the society.

In addition to it, there is a general feeling that majority of the Scheduled Caste and Tribe (SC/ST) students have aptitude for general education. It has also been proved by a number of empirical studies (Chitnis 1981) that a large majority of the SC/ST students go for such subjects of study, even at the higher level of education, that require less hard work and provide less lucrative jobs in the market. But this fact also cannot be denied that such students are usually discouraged, in one form or the other both at the time of seeking admission and pursuing their studies in a more specialised course. This is done on the ground of their supposedly having ‘low’ level of aptitude and ‘less’ ‘merit’ (Singhi 1979:279-82) and thus this encroachment on ‘merit’ denies them lucrative jobs in the market. (Ram 1981:20-4) This is also done in the name of a heavy rate of drop-outs and stagnation among these students and thus the argument of wastage of public money. But it is found beyond question that the situation was contrary to the general impression about low aptitude among the SC/ST students. (Pandey and Ram 1978:279-98)

Historically, the vulnerable groups of the Indian society, namely, the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes and women have suffered deprivation in all walks of life including education. The government in the post-independence period has been trying to promote the educational status of these groups through several measures but the progress made in their case is well below the targets envisaged. During the post-independence period, the Government of India inherited the legacy of educational backwardness in addition to many other drawbacks. (Khajapeer 1996:143-52) The Constitution of India is a Magna Carta for the SCs, STs, OBCs and women in respect of the special provisions made for them, for example, reservations in jobs and educational institutions and the provisions against discrimination. (Ibid.) Article 46, a Directive Principle of the Constitution, suggests that the state shall take special care of the educational interests of the weaker sections, particularly the SCs and STs. Even Article 15 (4) in the section on Fundamental Rights states that nothing shall prevent the state from making special provision for the socially and educationally backward classes, particularly the SCs and STs. (Choudhary 1998:437-8)

Apart from that, there are various educational schemes/programmes made by the state for promoting the education of SCs and STs. The general policy guideline under the National Policy on Education (NPE), 1986 aims at the ‘removal of disparities’ and ‘equalisation’ of educational opportunities in regard to the SCs. The central focus here is on ‘their (SCs) equalisation with the non-SC population at all stages and levels of education, in all areas and in all the four dimensions—rural male, rural female, urban male and urban female’ (MHRD 1986:11).

The above constitutional policies reflect the good aspirations intended for the cause of SCs and STs. But, to what extent these intentions have been translated into practice is suspect. This fact can be seen in Table No. 1—that the enrolments of SCs at various levels of higher education at an all-India level (as on March 1, 1992) varies from top to bottom. The data show that the percentage of enrolment of SCs at the doctorate level is negligible compared to the other levels of higher education. (See Table 1)

Table 1: Enrolment of SCs at Various Level of Higher Education at the All India Level (as on March 1, 1992)
Course Boys Percentage Girls Percentage Total Percentage
Ph.D/D.Sc/D.Phil 724 0.0001 208 0.28 932 0.28
Post-Graduation (MA+M.Sc.+M.Com.) 27,341 10.59 6494 8.87 33,835 10.20
Under-graduation (General) 2,07,799 80.46 60,943 83.03 2,68,742 81.09
Under-graduation (Engineering+ Medicine +Education) 22,371 8.66 5515 7.53 27,886 8.41
Total 2,58,235 100 73,160 100 3,31,395 100

Source: India, 1993, Selected Educational Statistics: 1991-92, MHRD, NewDelhi.

In fact, the enrolment of SCs has not increased much in higher education in the last two decades. Their enrolment is stuck at around eight per cent to the total enrolment—7.5 per cent each at under-graduate and post-graduate levels in 1976-78 and 8.5 per cent in 1994-95. It increased from 9.3 per cent in 1976-78 to 12 per cent in 1994-95 at the high/higher secondary level. The percentage of SCs to total enrolment at graduation level varied from 5.35 in B.Com. to 11.23 in BA; and at post-graduation level from 7.13 in M.Sc. to 13.47 in MA in 1995-96. It is also noticeable that SC girls lag behind the SCs boys in higher education in general; but their ratio is slightly more than boys in some important professional courses, namely, BE (Boys : 6.43 per cent; girls : 7.95 per cent) and MBBS (boys : 8.83 per cent; girls: 9.36 per cent). (Choudhary 1998:444-5)’

Categories Total SC Percentage
Teaching post
Professors 2133 13 0.61
Readers/Associate 3261 34 1.04
Lecturers 5341 169 3.16
Research Associate 674 71 10.53
Ministerial Posts
Group A 3525 118 3.35
Group B 4833 221 4.57
Group C 14,811 1686 8.51
Group D 17,607 2628 14.93

Source: India 1985-86: 28th Report of the Commissioner for SC/STs, New Delhi.

Table 2 represents another aspect of the failure of the constitutional policies of protective dis-crimination. The given Table shows that despite 15 per cent reservation of the Scheduled Castes, very less number of academic and ministerial posts is occupied by the SCs in the universities. The Table gives the representation in teaching and non-teaching posts in 41 Indian universities. (See Table 2)

IN fact, the SCs of today are also facing a lot of problems so far as the policies and practical situation is concerned. In fact, the situation is more worrying in higher education. The National Policy on Education 1986 (NPE 1986:24-6) ignores completely the educational interests of the SCs. The policy aims at attaining excellence but no pretence is made to promote equity in this case. Emphasis is placed on consolidation and expansion of facilities in the existing institutions. Provisions for making new facilities is minimum and admission is ‘regulated according to capacity’. (Ibid.: 25) Not even a passing reference is made regarding the promotion of education of the SCs in the section on higher education in the National Policy on Education (NPE). In connection with technical and management education as well, the NPE shows no commitment to cater to the needs of the SCs. (Ibid.: 28-30) It talks of the economically and socially weaker sections in general for whom appropriate formal and non-formal programmes of technical education (not management education) would be devised. (Ibid.: 30)

The current policy is clearly reflected in concrete terms in the Programme of Action 1986/1992 of the NPE, in the spheres of higher education and technical and management education. Just a passing reference is made about measures to be initiated to popularise the scheme of community polytechnics for extending the benefits to the under-privileged and disadvantaged sections of the society. The SCs are not specifically mentioned even in the section on higher education through open/distant learning. (NPE 1992:71-3 and 80)

To sum up, higher education in India is found to be urban-biased and pro-rich. As we know, a majority of the SCs live in rural areas and hence are deprived of so-called ‘better’ education; the lack of urban, modern exposure makes them unaware and ignorant of many basic things which are important for their motivation and aspirations. Moreover, the SCs, being economically dependent on the upper castes, have to survive by a hand-to-mouth existence. Consequently, their level of self-perception is low and their life is mainly reduced to struggle for survival. (Wankhede 1999:406-7) Hence this paper intends to underline that it is not education as such which determines one’s position, rather it is the social existence of the people which determines accessibility to education.


1. A dominant caste, according to M.N. Srinivas, not only exercises a preponderant influence economically and politically, but is also numerically the strongest in the village or local area. See M.N. Srinivas, The Dominant Caste and Other Essays, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1987.

2. Chauhan, B.R., “Special Problems regarding Education among the Scheduled Castes”, in M.S. Gore and others (eds), Papers in Sociology of Education. And Chitnis, S., “Education of the Scheduled Castes”, Journal of Higher Education,UGC, New Delhi, (2), 1975.

3. Chitnis, Suma, A Long Way to Go …, Allied Publishers, New Delhi, 1981.

4. Choudhary, Kameshwar, “Dalits in Higher Education: Cooption or Domination”, Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 21. No. 3, Monsoon 1998.
5. Gore, M.S., I.P. Desai, and S. Chitnis, Field Studied in the Sociology of Education, All India Report, NCERT, New Delhi, 1970.

6. Jayaram, N., Higher Education and Status Retention, Mittal Publication, Delhi, 1987.

7. Kaul, Rekha, Caste, Class and Education, Sage Publication, New Delhi, 1993.

8. Khajapeer, M., “Democratisation of Higher Education in India with Special Reference to Weaker Sections, Minorities and Women”, in Journal of Educational Planning and Administration, Vol. X, No. 2, National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi, April 1996.

9. Mehta, B.C. and Kranti Kapoor, “Caste, Education and Class Relationship in India”, Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 21, No. 1, spring 1998, UGC, New Delhi.

10. Multiple status hierarchy, according to N. Ram, refers to social status in class and caste hierarchies through a comprehensive index of subjective, composite and corporate criteria.

11. National Policy on Education 1986, Department of Education, MHRD, Government of India.

12. Omvedt, Gail (ed.), Land, Caste and Politics in Indian States: A Project of Teaching Politics, Department of Political Science, University of Delhi, 1982.

13. Omvedt, Gail cited in Social Action, Vol. 50, October-December, 2000.

14. Pandey, J and Nandu Ram. “Changes in Locus of Control of Upper and Lower Caste Students”, Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 104, 1978.

15. Pandey, P.N., Education and Social Mobility, Daya Publishing House, Delhi, 1988.

16. Programme of Action 1992 (National Policy on Education), Department of Education, MHRD, Government of India, 1992.

17. Rajagopalan, C. and J. Singh, “The Indian Institute of Technology: Do they Contribute to Social Mobility?”, EPW, 3 (14), 1968, And A. D. King, “Elite Education and the Economy—IIT Entrance: 1965-70”, EPW, 5 (35), 1970.

18. Ram, Nandu, “The Limited Education”, Seminar December 1981.

19. Ram, Nandu, Beyond Ambedkar—Essays on Dalits in India, Har-Anand Publications, New Delhi, 1995.
20. See Riseman, David, Lonely Crowd, Yale University Press, New Havon, 1950.

21. Shah, B.V., “Gujarati College Student and Caste”, Sociological Bulletin, 10 (1), 1961.

22. Shah, B.V., “Inequality of Educational Opportunities”, Economic and Political Weekly, August 20, 1960.

23. Shills, E., “The Academic Profession in India”, in A. Singh, and P. Altbach (eds.), The Higher Learning in India, Vikas Publishing House, New Delhi, 1961.

24. Shiva Kumar, C., Education, Social Inequality, and Social Change in Karnataka, Hindustan Publishing Corporation, New Delhi, 1982.

25. Singhi, Education and Social Change, Rawat Publication, Jaipur 1979.

26. The middle class as a conceptual category emerged in the European societies sometimes in the 18th century. There it was used for the nobility, chief courtiers, landed gentry, money lenders etc. In India, according to N. Ram, the concept of the new middle class has been used specifically for the better-off sections of Scheduled Castes. See Ram, Nandu, The Mobile Scheduled Castes—Rise of a New Middle Class, Hindustan Publishing Corporation, Delhi, 1988.

27. Wankhede, G.G., “Social and Educational Problems of Scheduled Castes: Some Critical Insights” in The Indian Journal of Social Work, Vol. 60, Issue 3, July 1999, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

The author is a Doctoral Fellow, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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