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Dr. Suryakant Waghmore: Subalterns have a role in making of civil society

Dr. Suryakant Waghmore: Subalterns have a role in making of civil society

suryakant waghmore


Dalit and Adivasi Students’ Portal

suryakant waghmore(First published in the ‘Dalit and Adivasi Students’ Portal’ in 2010)

Dr Suryakant Waghmore is an Assistant Professor, Centre for Social Justice and Governance, School of Social Work, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai. He has been recently awarded with his Doctorate degree from University of Edinburgh, Scotland where he was studying as one of the recipients of prestigious Commonwealth Scholarships.

In this interview, Dr Waghmore shares about the scholarship, opportunities for Dalit and Adivasi Students for higher education abroad together with his area of research – Caste, Civility and Civil Society in India.


First of all, let us congratulate you for the Doctorate degree that has been recently awarded to you at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, in Sociology.


You were a recipient of the prestigious Commonwealth Scholarship while pursuing your PhD there. Can you please tell our readers about this scholarship?

Commonwealth scholarship is an annual scheme made available to all Commonwealth countries by the Commonwealth Scholarships Commission. The India programme is managed jointly by the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU, UK); Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), Government of India and the British Council.

There are two types of scholarships in this scheme. One is general scholarships that are for those who want to pursue their Masters and PhDs. Other one is a six month fellowship for mid-career professionals/academics.

Then there is a split-site scholarship meant for those who are doing their PhD in India. It provides opportunity for such scholars to be based in UK for one year research. I had applied for general scholarships to pursue PhD in September 2006 and started my studies in September 2007.

For Indian students, it is the Department of Higher Education that brings out the notification. The interested students have to submit their proposals along with all the required documents to the department. The Department of Higher Education nominates around 60-70 applicants after a round of interviews.

All those nominated necessarily do not get the scholarships as nominations from various countries are further assessed by the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission in UK who make the final selections. The total number of scholarships varies every year for India, generally they range between 10 to 17 of which few are for PhD.

Did you apply for any other scholarships too?

I had also applied for another scholarship called ORSAS (Overseas Research Students Award Scheme), United Kingdom. It offers international postgraduate students the opportunity to carry out a broad range of research at well-established UK academic institutions. Here one has to apply first to the universities for admission and later for the scholarship.

How many rounds of interviews take place for final selection for the commonwealth scholarships?

There is only one round of Interview that happens in India. Once you are nominated by the Ministry of Higher Education, your proposal along with all other documents are sent to UK to the the Commonwealth Commission. The commission makes the final decision and informs you about your success or failure. In one sense it is good for us as final decision is also taken by non-Indians (smiles).

Do you have any idea about the number of Dalit scholars who have availed this scholarship? Anyone whom you know?

I have no data on this. But I am aware of SCs and STs who have availed other prestigious scholarships like Felix and Chevening.

How did you approach University of Edinburgh for admission?

I had secured admission at Edinburgh before being selected for the Commonwealth scholarship. In UK, generally the process is that you write to a faculty member who you think would be interested in your research area. So you write a small draft proposal and share it with the prospective supervisor sharing your interest in working with them.

Then they get back to you if they are interested and mostly they do because in UK, these days, there are increased pressures on the Universities to generate financial resources in the form of research grants or student fees. It is very important for you to identify some faculty who is in sync with what you want to research.

Once they have gone through your proposal and affirmed interest, then you apply for the admissions. You are required to provide your TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) scores, transcripts and recommendation letters. Most UK Universities don’t ask for application processing fees. This is a great benefit.

Then Universities provide you admission offer that can be conditional or without any conditions – they might want you to appear for some exams. For instance, I was asked to give TOEFL which is a test for your proficiency in English.

The good thing about UK Universities is that you can negotiate with them. For instance I managed to avoid TOEFL by informing them that I have been working in the English language environment for long. The University agreed to my reasoning and I did not have to appear for TOEFL.

Generally Commonwealth scholars can choose any University but if you have an admission offer, it makes things easier for the Commonwealth Commission, if not the commission helps you to get admission in the best Universities of UK.

What was your experience during the scholarship interviews conducted in India?

The panel was very encouraging. They asked me about my research and I answered convincingly. They seemed very pleased.

How does the final selection take place?

Once the nominations are made by the Ministry then the Commonwealth Commission decides based on your proposal, recommendation letters, work experience and they also look at what will be your contribution back to your nation. You therefore need to draft a good Statement of Purpose (SOP) as to how and why you need this opportunity.

What was the amount of commonwealth scholarship?

We got a stipend of 750 pounds per month and the commission also pays for everything else. Your entire tuition fee and other University expenses are taken care of. Stipend also increases every year. Apart from this, you are also entitled for regular grants for research and attending conferences etc. As a student you can live very comfortably.

As a student, what differences you saw in western universities vis-à-vis Indian ones?

In general the academic culture is much better. We are very hierarchal, I guess. The bureaucratic practices have percolated into Indian academics which is not the case there. I won’t say there is no hierarchy there but the environment is much more conducive for the PhD students in terms of facilities etc.

What was your PhD about?

I was working on the idea of civil society and its intersections with caste and the role of caste in the making of civility and civil society in India. This was explored through Dalit politics of course. I studied Dalit movements in Marathwada region of Maharashtra. Since I was also a field person, it had to be an ethnographic study as I enjoy doing field work.

I have critiqued postcolonial and subaltern scholars who consider civil society as an elite idea and also those liberal approaches who over-emphasise normative practices and procedures in civil society.

I have argued that civil society and civility are not necessarily elitist and subalterns have a role in making of civil society in India and this I have explored through historical role of Dalit movement and then rigorous field work. The substantive is also explored besides the procedural.

Dalit movement, though fragmented in Maharashtra, has a critical role in civic sphere, in repairing civil relations. I have also analysed Dalit participation in electoral politics, mobilisation around caste identities and caste politics.

What was the area you chose for field work?

I chose Marathwada region of Maharashtra for my studies, focusing primarily on Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Manavi Hakk Abhiyan in Beed district.

How much time did you spend in the field? What were your field work experiences?

My research was an ethnographic study of Dalit activism. I spent some 13 months for my field work. Field work is generally enriching experience and makes you more humble. You gain a lot in the field. I learnt from the passionate activism of Dalit activists in the field. I have my own passions for anti-caste politics so I enjoyed fieldwork thoroughly.

Fieldwork also involves writing field notes on daily basis. Data analysis thus begins when you are doing field work. It is not that one has wait till the end of fieldwork to analyse.

How was the writing up experience?

Writing was a challenge as there is so much you have collected and it is not easy to put everything together in consolidated small chapters. The best possible way out is to avoid using all the data, use only the stronger and focused bits which can best convey your analysis and arguments.

Apart from this, what other suggestions do you have for our research scholars for their field work?

One should always try to jot down or take notes pretty regularly based on your impressions during field work in which ever language one is comfortable with. Mine was an ethnographic study. In such a study, the idea is not to look just for regular patterns but to make it a rigorous exercise and move beyond what is visible to general eyes.

If you are researching social movements or trying to comprehend how caste and Dalit politics is changing, it makes lot of sense to follow these processes in the field regularly. This is true for most movements, whether it is tribal or women’s movement because we are talking about changes and politics which are not always visible and cannot be easily quantified.

Thanks so much sir for this wonderful sharing of your study, scholarship and experience of studying in one of the prestigious institutions. Can our readers know about your background?

I am basically from Karnataka. My family belongs to village called Kallotti, in Athani Taluka of Belgaum district. I was born and brought up in Mohane, near Kalyan, Mumbai; my father was a worker in a textile mill here. Both my parents went to school and were literate. I have two elder brothers. The eldest one is an ex-serviceman from the Mahar regiment and is now into agriculture back home together with the younger one.

So you are the only one in higher education?


You completed your schooling from Kalyan, Mumbai?

No, after my 8th class, we went back to our village in Belgaum and I was admitted there. Going back to village was a very different experience. Everything is much more visible and stark. It was difficult to adjust.

The class-caste relations are very different. I was looked up and as a different person because I came from a big city, Mumbai but also belonged to a particular class and caste background.

I remember about one of my school friend’s parents asking him not to make friends with Holeyas (Dalits) and Muslims. He was naive enough to share this with me. He is still a friend. I also vividly remember about a teacher telling me in the class, “Don’t forget what you are here and where you belong. This is not Mumbai”.

Now If I look back, I think I was struggling between identities. I would be very embarrassed to share the locality where I used to live. It was a Dalit locality with all its stereotypical labels. I think all this affected my studies and I failed in X.

We had a family practice of putting the school rejects to better use in agriculture. I was put to work full time on our agricultural land. I used to rear goats and we also had a buffalo. I thoroughly enjoyed doing that. I also simultaneously continued studying. For my post-matric education I was readmitted in a lesser school in a nearby village I hardy went there and whatever little I could I studied from home. I had decided to either join army like my brother or take up farming and leave studies.

One of my uncles, however, goaded me for further studies. He made me appear for the 10+2 exams. I cleared the exam and then joined college for graduation. I think this is where I picked up on my studies and started enjoying.

When did you graduate?

I graduated in 1999, with 56 per cent marks and then joined TISS, Mumbai, for my M.A.

How was TISS to you?

TISS is good for students. Most faculty members were encouraging and helped me consolidate my areas of interest. Good library, much space for politics, and good scholarships I must say. The Government of India scholarship takes care of your basic needs and there are other scholarships within the institute that students can access.

Finally, what are your suggestions for our Dalit and Adivasi students who want to pursue higher education in countries like UK and USA?

For admissions and scholarships, you need to prepare well in advance. Don’t rush at the last moment for your recommendation letters, statement of purpose, proposal etc. Be ready with all these at least few months ahead of making the admission and scholarship applications, so that you have time to make your best application. It is a competitive process and better you are prepared, the more chances you have.

One should also look for non-UK universities with good funding opportunities like Germany and other western countries. For instance, in TISS, there is Erasmus Mundus scholarship.

It is also important to have some work experience prior to applying abroad. I am not saying that this necessarily affects your chances as I have seen many young Indians studying there who had no work experience. But some work experience will bolster your chances.

One thing I really want to share with our students is that Master’s programmes are very different from PhD programmes. Most of the one year post-graduate programmes in UK are focussed towards money making from foreign students. These are not seriously interested in training you into anything. Go for these only if you have secured full or considerable chunk of funding. PhD can be a much more rigorous exercise as your supervisors are involved with you.

I had a very good experience as both my supervisors were keenly interested in the kind of work I was doing. It is always important to find someone who would be interested in your work, have regular meetings with you and support you.

Also caste issues are generating lots of interest in USA and UK Universities and there is funding available and commonwealth scholarship is one of such sources.

In UK, one can also look for fractured funding as you can get funding from various sources. For instance, if you get ORSAS in UK then you can combine it with 2-3 other scholarships from India or UK. There are various sources of funding that can be accessed and most information is available through internet.

If you get partial funding, you should not get disappointed. I have many foreign students studying in UK on partial scholarships and mobilising the rest from different sources.

Thanks and Jai Bhim!