Storming The Ivory Tower: An Invitation to The Caste of Merit

– The NotA Collective

Ajantha Subramanian,
The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India,
Harvard University Press (2019).

I remember reading Sandipan Deb’s The IITians: The Story of a Remarkable Indian Institution and How Its Alumni Are Reshaping the World a little over a decade ago, around the time my classmates and I were studying for the Indian Institute of Technology’s Joint Entrance Examination (IIT-JEE) in hopes that we too would one day join the ranks of those world-reshaping alumni. Breathless and hagiographic, the book crystallised the reverence with which IIT was viewed, not only by my peers but also society at large. To “crack” the IIT-JEE and become an IITian meant many things at the time. For some, it meant one was marked as a member of the intellectual elite, standing head and shoulders above the rest. For others, it meant one was guaranteed a high-paying job on graduation. Some even wanted to go abroad, and for them an IIT education was the surest path to a foreign graduate school admission. An imprimatur, a golden ticket, a lifeboat. This impression of the IITs has changed little in the decade since then.

Ajantha Subramanian’s recent intervention — The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India — is an impressive and welcome salvo against the all-pervading sense of exceptionalism surrounding all things IIT, in particular aiming to understand “how the democratic ideal of meritocracy services the reproduction of achievement.” Equal parts history, ethnography, and theory, her book traces the

“rise of engineering education in India in the context of older forms of social and economic stratification… illuminat[ing] the relationship between engineering education and caste formation.”1

Subramanian’s book begins by excavating the history of modern technical education in colonial British India, the development of which prompted debates surrounding “race, caste, technical aptitude, and the proper balance of mental and manual skill”, finding that

“By the transition to independence, the engineering profession had effectively displaced lower castes with histories of technical skill and knowledge in favour of upper castes who previously disdained hands-on labour.”

The story of how this sea change in the relationship between caste and technical knowledge came about — with upper castes entering into the colonial engineering service and lower castes shunted into industrial schooling — forms the bulk of Chapter 1.

With the push for and achievement of political independence in the mid-twentieth century, the status of technical education was enhanced by its association with the post-independence developmental state. Chapter 2 traces the founding of the IITs, in particular asking:

“Why was it thought necessary to add a new set of institutions to the existing ones? And how did India’s statesmen envision the place of the IITs within an existing social and institutional landscape?”

We believe these histories are important to study and learn from, since they have significant import for contemporary efforts to reshape academia. By way of illustration, consider the fact that institution building in India today is guided, as it was then, by the same logic: what is promised is always world-class excellence. In practice, this goal is an euphemism, since institutions consistently propose to achieve this world-class standing by remaining exclusive, autonomous, and insulated from socio-political ferment. These stratagems reproduce the social (class- and caste-based) inequalities, whether they are embarked upon by the state or by private enterprises. To this day, institutes deemed to be of “national importance” are not required to implement reservations.

In most conversations on reservations in higher education, caste serves as a metaphor or proxy for merit, with reserved category students deemed “unworthy” of admission to elite educational spaces. We learn in Chapter 2 that this equivalence was essentially baked into the foundation of the IITs. It is also interesting to note that criticisms of the IITs, in particular their failure to catalyse social transformation and enable social mobility and instead effectively reproduce the existing social conditions, had been circulating as early as the late 1960s. It is heartening to note that such criticisms are not new, and we believe that contemporary movements can be informed and are enriched by these histories.

Subramanian turns in Chapters 3 and 4 to a discussion of the socio-political context within which IIT Madras was set up, and how these pressures would inform Madras IITians’ understanding of themselves. The author notes that IIT Madras represented a unique testing ground for theory that attempts to understand the interplay between caste and merit, since the Non-Brahminism and Dravidian movements played a significant role contesting the value system that regarded Brahmins as superior to non-Brahmins. Further, as IIT Madras was set up with the assistance of West Germany, its curriculum prioritised practical, hands-on training in manual skills over theoretical, classroom-based learning. Both these forces (lower-caste assertions and West German tutelage) would challenge the largely Tamil Brahmin student body’s understanding of themselves, both as upper-castes and as engineers. Chapter 4 forms the ethnographic core of the book, and contains many excerpts from interviews with IIT Madras alumni from the 1960s. Subramanian skilfully teases out the roles that caste and class play in the making of the Tamil Brahmin. We quote at length:

“… the intimacy between class and caste is a pervasive theme in Tamil Brahmin self-representation… class is an identity that works discursively to efface the advantages of caste and transform Tamil Brahminness from the product of accumulated literacy, education, and professional advancement into a disability. In the process, lower-caste politics is faulted for denying Tamil Brahmins their rights, while upper casteness is made into a power-neutral form of identity.”

This is significant, the author argues, because “it has informed an expanded politics through which IITians as a whole have come to define themselves in more explicitly identitarian terms in opposition to lower-caste rights,” a theme that is explored extensively in the subsequent chapters that deal with challenges to the exclusivity and claims to meritocracy of the IITs from lower-caste and lower-class groups. In telling the story of colonial-era civil service examinations in the early parts of Chapter 5, for example, Subramanian draws evocative parallels between them and the IIT-JEE, in particular the response of privileged groups to the burgeoning coaching industry and changing examination patterns.

In Chapter 6, the political, legal, and social histories of affirmative action policies (commonly known as “reservations”) are discussed, both across the nation in general and in Tamil Nadu in particular. This is done first through a discussion of three landmark Supreme Court cases that pertained to sites of upper-caste hegemony: (i) The State of Madras v. Srimathi Champakam Dorairajan (1951) (pertaining to regional government education), (ii) Indra Sawhney v. Union of India (1992) (pertaining to central government jobs), and (iii) Ashoka Kumar Thakur v. Union of India (2008) (pertaining to central government education). In the remainder of the chapter, Subramanian discusses aspects of the anti-reservation debate both within and without the IITs, underscoring the “efforts to rein in redistributive processes through recourse to a meritocratic status quo.”

Finally, Chapter 7 discusses the making of “Brand IIT” and the role diasporic IITians have played in strengthening the association between caste and merit, noting that:

“… the absence of caste as a public identity in the diaspora does not preclude its structural and affective workings. If anything, the institutional kinship within the overwhelmingly upper-caste IIT diaspora has become an even more potent form of capital. Diasporic IITians have been at the forefront of efforts to sustain and consolidate their affective ties and to make the IIT pedigree into a globally recognised brand.”2

A confluence of factors were responsible for this, the rise of the IT sector and the Silicon Valley boom among them. The entrepreneurial success of the IIT diaspora has further bolstered this association, masking their caste privilege and the fact that they were in fact beneficiaries of the developmental state. (For example, in the 1960s, educating a student at an IIT cost the state the an amount almost equal to the annual per capita income of forty people.) Given this, Subramanian notes the contradiction in their subsequent advocacy “of economic liberalisation and private sector growth, and of limiting the developmental role of the state and public sector.”

The Caste of Merit is refreshing for its focus on the making of upper-casteness and its dynamism in the face of socio-political changes. As she writes, the “leveraging of merit… must be seen as an expression of upper-caste identitarianism that attempts to forestall progress towards a more egalitarian society,” as opposed to the “widespread assumption that identitarianism is principally a politcs of the marginalised.” More explicitly: it is often the case that caste is discussed as if it were a uniquely subaltern attribute, with upper castes treated as “post-caste” or “casteless” moderns. This understanding of caste renders recent developments — such as the demands by upper-caste groups (Patidars in Gujarat, Marathas in Maharashtra, Jats in Haryana, etc.) for reservations of their own — inexplicable. Subramanian clarifies:

“These demands for inclusion of reclassification within the reserved category rest on a key assumption: that the quota as a right to education and employment can be distinguished from the longer historical experience of social and cultural marginalisation and stigmatisation. Instead, such claims are leveled against the more recent history of redistribution, which they argue have disenfranchised upper castes of their rightful due. What we are witnessing is the appropriation of the language of injustice and redress by groups who have been the historical beneficiaries of caste… By substituting a longer history of unequal material and symbolic capital with a focus on more recent efforts at redistribution, these upper caste groups argue that they themselves are the victims of injustice who deserve redress from the inequities of reservation.”

In the final estimation, The Caste of Merit is an important, timely, and thoroughly researched book. We recommend it strongly to to those who, like us, are attempting to understand the dynamics of caste in spaces of higher education spaces.

  1. All quotes in this article are taken from Subramanian, A. (2019), The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India, Harvard University Press. ↩︎

  2. Caste in the Indian diaspora, despite no longer being a public identity, continues to affect the lower-caste diaspora. For a recent example of this, see Mukherji, A. (2021). California’s Legal Ground in Battling Caste Discrimination Takes Centre Stage in Historic Cisco Case. The Wire. ↩︎

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