by Vijitha Rajan
This short note is a reflection on how I felt fractured being a Commonwealth Scholar, between my colonial past and post-colonial present. In the discourse of international development, a Commonwealth scholarship is symbolised as a gesture of the lasting commitment of the United Kingdom towards Commonwealth citizens. Yet its lesser projected colonial and post-colonial undertones made my engagement with the ‘prestigious’ Commonwealth Scholarship more complex than a straightforward experience of meritocratic achievement.
My doctoral research in University of Delhi explores migrant children’s every day experiences in urban spaces, with specific focus on their educational exclusion. During my third year of doctoral study I applied for the Commonwealth Split-site Scholarship which allows already registered PhD candidates from low- and middle-income Commonwealth countries, to spend up to 12 months at a UK university. I got selected for the scholarship and my tenure was in University of Leeds from October 2018 to September 2019. Around a year before I qualified for the scholarship, I remember witnessing a social media argument between two of my contacts, one a close friend and another a colleague and a former Commonwealth scholar. When this colleague posted on social media taking pride about an event that she was about to attend as part of being a Commonwealth alumnus, my friend accused her of ‘hypocrisy’ in glorifying the Commonwealth, which he argued represented our subjugation and colonial past. She in turn argued that it was he who was being hypocritical by criticising her achievement as a Commonwealth scholar and at the same time hoping to get such scholarships and higher education opportunities for oneself and striving for an education taught in English medium, which itself is the language of the coloniser. At that time, I found both of their position essentialist: one taking for granted the agency and autonomy of an individual; and the other disregarding how the structure of our present is never devoid of the politics of our past. When I qualified for the Commonwealth Scholarship a year later, I had to face this dilemma myself; between availing of the scholarship and thereby legitimising my colonial past and denying it and thereby dislocating my aspirational ethos of travelling to, and learning in, spaces beyond India. Certainly, my choice was to avail of the scholarship, as it was with that intention, I applied for it in the first place, and without the scholarship I could not have even dreamt of travelling beyond India in any near future. This in turn has made me a hypocrite by both of their definitions.
I accepted the scholarship being fully aware of my ‘hypocrisy’ in taking advantage of the patronising colonial past and postcolonial present that the Commonwealth embodied. Indirectly I was also becoming part of a minority elite who get access to such scholarships by virtue of knowing English, having studied in reputed institutions and becoming ‘meritorious’ in the higher education market. Although being born as a female in a rural village and growing up in a working-class family in India posed challenges to my education and social mobility, I had many ascribed privileges such as my birth in an upper caste family, growing up in a ‘developed’[i] state such as Kerala and access to premier education institutes in India. And most Commonwealth scholars whom I have met in the UK belonged to this minority of ‘meritorious’ students, and who in fact were from much more privileged backgrounds than I was from. Reflecting on these fractures that the Commonwealth scholarship brought in is not to discredit its possibilities and what it can offer to the ‘development’ of individuals and Commonwealth countries. The scholarship was in fact itself a luxury, I must say, especially for someone from my background, as it covered for all our small and big expenses of living and studying in the UK, including coverage for tuition, travel, accommodation, food, winter clothing and so on. Apart from the material benefits, it also gave me access to a reputed university in the UK and all the academic benefits and exposure it can offer to a doctoral scholar, most important of which was an understanding and knowledgeable supervisor. I also acknowledge with gratitude how my family, friends and teachers in India wished for my achievement of Commonwealth scholarship and supported me with great sincerity and selflessness.
Yet the more I tried to own my scholarship and living in the UK, the more it fractured me. I will give two examples to explain this point. One involves the experience of visiting a range of museums in the UK where archaic pasts of societies across the world were preserved. In many instances, lives on displays at the museums were my ‘present’ and not the ‘past’. Museums being symbols of colonial modernity are argued to be ‘rearranging cultures in hierarchical and evolutionary order and shaping the public imagination of history’. True to such an imagination, they made me and my way of life in my home country, India, as a thing of the past. Not just museums, but everyday life in the UK constantly evoked what we presumably don’t have in India and how we are supposedly living in the past. Even within academia, ‘quality’ of infrastructure and resources that is available to a doctoral scholar in UK is incomparable to what we have in India. While the definition of ‘quality’ itself is a matter of debate, mainstream definitions of quality and the absence of it in India pushes less privileged scholars into margins of academia. And the role of colonial history in the shaping structure and ethos of higher education spaces in such unequal and hierarchical ways cannot be unheeded. When in my research I critique the linear developmental narrative that modernity has trapped us in, why am I made to be felt lagging behind?
The second example involves an experience where a professor made me realise how I was seen as a ‘lesser’ person in academia. Participants of a workshop I attended were supposed to choose a book for themselves from a set of books on research skills, read it as much as possible and present its essence to workshop attendees. Before I could choose a book for myself like everyone else, the professor in charge offered me a book, which is ‘less challenging’ and ‘easy to understand’. It was only after receiving the book with an expression of gratitude, I started wondering if it was a kind gesture or an act of paternalism. I mused how my ability to read and understand was instantly judged without knowing me in person, as an academic or otherwise. It brought back to me how my mere existence in a white academic space as a previously colonised brown person makes way for differential sensibilities and ethical modalities. In many such instances I was worried if I was over-reading the narrative due to the inherent complexities surfaced by my colonial self. Such ambiguities and negotiations situated my everyday engagement with the scholarship.
There is no doubt that the Commonwealth scholarship has exposed me to new places, people, cultures, learning and ways of engaging with the world. Yet being an Indian citizen carrying a colonial past and being part of a privileged academic minority, the scholarship has significantly shaped my ‘hypocritic’ existence in academia and this world. The negotiations of this hypocritic self becomes even more complex as my research intends to highlight voices and experiences of marginalised migrant children. What gives me the authority to do so? And how might the identity of being a Commonwealth Scholar falsely legitimise my authority in representing the voices of the marginalised? All the while I ask myself if I am the one becoming the hypocrite in this post-colonial world; I am fully aware of my qualifications as a person and a researcher to be and become one.
Vijitha Rajan is a Senior Research Fellow at Department of Education, University Delhi. In 2018-19, she was a Commonwealth scholar at School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds. Her doctoral research explores everyday experiences of migrant children in urban spaces, with specific focus on their educational exclusion. Apart from being a feminist and an atheist, she likes to cook, travel and engage critically with both ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’. She cherishes people close to her life, the most important one being her life partner, Mohan, with whom she is never tired of fighting or so he thinks! She can be contacted at vijitha.rajan[at]apu.edu.in or at her not very active Twitter account.
[i] According to the 2007-08 Human Development Report released by Planning commission of India, Kerala stands first in human development index (having a value of 0.79) among all the states in India. It stands first in health and education index (0.817 and 0.924) and second in income index (0.629). Similar observations about Kerala’s high performance in development are also highlighted by various national and international agencies.