So ST students have it easy? See what Kerala's Binesh Balan braved to get to London
The passage to England, a matter of ease for students from privileged classes, was a hard-fought one for Binesh Balan who fought a casteist bureaucracy for four years, that was determined to fail him.
KASARGOD: Last week, Binesh Balan (25) touched down in London to pursue a master's degree in anthropology at the University of Sussex. It was a dream come true for the son of daily-wagers from a community classified as a Scheduled Tribe in Kerala.
The passage to England, a matter of ease for students from more privileged classes, was a hard-fought one for him. For four years, Binesh Balan fought a casteist bureaucracy that was determined to fail him. But his resolve carried him through.
When New Indian Express reached out to him on phone, it was 5.30 pm in London, and Balan was unwinding in his hostel room after his third day at the university. "In the end, everything fell in place. It is liberating to be here," he said.
Balan, a member of the Mavilan community from Kolichal village in Kasargod, is in London today on a National Overseas Scholarships for Scheduled Tribe students given by the Union government. The scholarship is given to only 20 students and Balan was the only one from Kerala to get it.
It had Balan’s dream since 2014 to go to London to study. He first got admission in the University of Sussex in November 2014 for classes starting in September 2015. He approached the Directorate of Scheduled Tribe Development for financial support.
The department funds students from ST communities going to study abroad. "I came to know of it when I saw an order of the directorate sanctioning Rs 20 lakh to the son of a PSC (Public Service Commission) member. That student’s family was well-off but he still got public money to study in France. So I knew I was deserving," says Balan, whose parents were daily wage labourers and had to give up work because of bad health.
But the section officer in the directorate rejected Balan’s application, saying he would not get more than Rs 5 lakh. "When I mentioned the PSC member's son’s case as a precedent, the officer told me they had ‘influence’ to pull it off," he recalls. And the file was closed.
Not one to give up, Balan met the then minister for the welfare of Scheduled Tribes P K Jayalakshmi with the help of the then MLA V S Sunil Kumar, who is now a minister. "She was encouraging and cleared a Rs 27 lakh scholarship for my education and other expenses," he says.
But the officers refused to accept the minister’s recommendation and sought clearance from the cabinet itself.
As classes were to start in September, Balan wrote to the university seeking more time to secure funding, and was given an extension till January 2016.
On October 15, 2015, the Oommen Chandy cabinet took up his application as a special case and cleared the minister's recommendation of Rs 27 lakh. But the higher officials in the directorate knew how to stonewall even the cabinet’s decision and Balan did not get any money.
More than the denial of funding, the officials’ sniggering and casteist remarks were wounding to Balan. "I met all their conditions for funding. Yet they could not help smirking at me because I was an Adivasi," Balan said.
The student lodged a complaint with the Kerala State Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. "But when I went to the directorate to ask about the status of my file, the undersecretary was derisive. He wanted to know why I had approached the commission," Balan said.
The undersecretary reportedly told him he knew how to reply to a notice from the commission. Later, he called the section officer to his chamber and "the two officials together harassed and humiliated me".
After denying him the opportunity, the officials reportedly told him: "Now that you cannot go to London, why don't you try in some local universities?"
Balan went home and applied again, and got admission for the next academic year in the same university.
By then the LDF had replaced the UDF in government but the attitude of the officials did not change. He missed out on going to London again.
Then Binesh Balan decided to give it a go to land the central government's National Overseas Scholarship. "I attended the interview in Delhi on February 12, 2016 and the result came out in the same month. I was among 20 persons selected."
This time, he applied to the London School of Economics. He had scored only 55 per cent in his bachelor's degree against the requisite 70 per cent. "But I had published a paper in the Asian Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies, and had a few unpublished works in my kitty," he says. That could have made a difference and he got admission in LSE for 2017.
But he had to change his home university to Sussex as his overseas scholarship of Rs 47 lakh per year was falling short of the expense he would incur in the city.
By then the media had taken up his cause and minister for Scheduled Tribes A K Balan immediately cleared Rs 1.5 lakh for his IELTS training at the British Council in Chennai and for his air tickets to London. "I could not use the money for the air ticket because my visa was cancelled again," he says.
This year too Balan was not expecting his visa to be cleared, but it came through on July 21, a Friday, and he had to join classes on July 31. "A well-wisher in Wayanad booked me an air ticket to Delhi. Officials in the Ministry of External Affairs were very supportive and cleared my papers in four days," he says.
The same well-wisher, who Balan calls Amachi he never met, booked him an air ticket to London too.
Balan had a tough childhood. Rice was a luxury, and jackfruit seed was the staple food at home. "I started working to support myself in class 4 by picking arecanut for farmers. I did labour work till my under-graduation," he says. Only when he joined MBA did he have the confidence to give tuitions to students to earn money.
He says he was discriminated against on a daily basis by teachers, neighbours and schoolmates. "No one noticed me in my school. But once after class 7, I happened to stumble on an internet cafe during a vacation and that changed my life," he says.
After the vacation in class 8, he was a star because he ‘knew computers'. "I used the internet to learn programming and even Michael Jackson's moves," he says. He realised technology was a great leveller.
After class 12, when he wanted to pursue computer education in Bengaluru, a local politician scuttled his hope of getting funding and he joined St Pius X College in Rajapuram to study for a degree in development economics.
Now, Balan says, he will return to India only after getting a PhD from Harvard or Oxford or from any of top universities of the world. "I do not want their money. I will come back and hope to make a difference."