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Does Merit Have a Caste?

The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India by Ajantha Subramanian, Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England: Harvard University Press, 2019; pp 374, 699.

Critical scholarship on the dangers of the discourse of meritocracy has flourished in the West, something that has not been explored rigorously in India. The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India by Ajantha Subramanian is therefore a welcome addition to the scholarship on caste and meritocracy in higher education. Subramanian compliments the studies on White privilege and Whiteness in the United States (US), with a focus on upper casteness and meritocracy in India. The book stages the conflict between meritocracy-upper casteness and democracy-reservations, locating Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) at the centre of her analysis, more particularly IIT Madras and Tamil Brahmins as cases to present the collective selfhood and “upper casteness” revol­ving around merit. It draws on archival research and qualitative interviews, and pushes Bourdieusian ideas of reproduction to radically reflect on the accumulation of caste-based cultural capital and its histories, and argues that class and caste are inextricably linked in the ­social reproduction of privilege.

The book provides interesting insights into the colonial history of engineering education and associated racialisation of caste and the making of IITs in postcolonial India as a Brahmin–upper caste space. The anti-caste struggles in Tamil Nadu and its role in democratising engineering education, the pre-reservation IITs and continued Brahminical preference for mental over manual in engineering education are engaged with. It also provides a critical reading of Joint Entrance Examination (JEE), the merit testing entrance exam for admi­ssion to IITs. The making of upper casteness and its inherent linkages with contesting reservations along with the making of IIT as a global brand and the caste basis of institutional kinship too are explored. Barring some sweeping generalisations and radical posturing, this book is a significant contribution to historical-sociology of engineering education in India.

Institutionalising Privilege

Chapter 1, while excavating the history of technical education during colonial times, examines how racialisation of caste under colonial government ended up channelling engineering education towards Brahmins and industrial schooling towards “lower” castes.

The institutionalisation of engineering education thus entailed, “marginalising groups with histories of skilled manual labor as the prerequisite of formal engineering education barred most artisans” (p 46). Petitions were raised by non-Brahmins against this institutionalisation of caste privilege.

Chapter 2 discusses the history and dynamics involved in the making of IITs in post-independence India, when engineering had come to be an upper-caste intellectual aspiration, intimately tied to nation-building. Engineers were the enlightened mediators between state and society who could guide India towards industrialisation. The engineer was to be the linchpin of the developmental state. The post-independence state with its zeal for building institutions of excellence ignored the idea of democratisation and represen­tation. The Sarkar Committee formed to review the state of technical education in 1948 suggested building higher technical institutions following the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) ­model. The ‘‘original’’ five IITs (Bombay, Delhi, Kanpur, Kharagpur and Madras) came to be
institutions set up with foreign partners. Indiresan, one of the dire­ctors of Madras known for his reactionary attitude against reservations saw the real contribution of the foreign partners was “in creating a world-class academic ambience, in terms of the autonomy of the teachers, the freedom to design your own courses, the credit system, examination reforms, the tutorial system and so on.” Democratising access to training would indeed be antithetical to excellence and ‘‘caste operated as a metaphor for merit’’ (p 75). This fuelled the popular understanding of IITians as the chosen ones, and also IITs informally bec­ame known as ‘‘Brahmin’’ institutes.

Chapter 3 takes us to Tamil Nadu and IIT-Madras. Despite being central government institutions, Subramanian suggests that the ‘‘immediate vicinity gave each IIT a regional1 cultural flavor’’ (p 81). The conflict between Vedic and non-Vedic cultural forms in Tamil Nadu was the ground for cleavage between Brahmins and non-Brahmins. In 1921, ‘‘Brahmins made up approximately 74% of engineering college students, despite being only 3% of the enumerated regio­nal population’’ (p 85), and expansion of technical education in many ways ‘‘hinged on the distinction between Brahmin and non-Brahmins’’ (p 92). Subramanian suggests that the caste census indeed aggravated realisation of caste. Col­onial rule further raci­alised caste as hereditary by considering Brahmins as ‘‘intellectually destined to lead’’ (p 96). The Justice Party, however, challenged the Brahmins and questioned their technological development as they ‘‘did not toil nor did they spin’’ (p 98). The Brahmins countered this by emphasising their advantage of brains over sinews and the mental over manual labour (p 107).

Chapter 4 on the 1960s’ generation of IIT-Madras takes us into pre-reservation IITs. Before 1973, IITs constituted upper-caste meritorious worlds as students came from urban professional families. While most of the alumni of the 1960s

privileged nation and sometimes class as forms of collectivity while vociferously disavowing caste and casteism however, one set of students … who were willing to talk about caste: Tamil Brahmins. (p 129)

The Tamil Brahmins at IITs were a mobile diaspora and did not necessarily come from Tamil Nadu; they were spread all across India, mostly Delhi. The oldest local College of ­Engineering, Guindy followed state reservations (Scheduled Caste [ST], Scheduled Tribe [ST], Other Backward Classes [OBC]), which meant limited seats for Tamil Brahmins. Therefore, IIT-Madras as reservation-free space turned into a Tamil Brahmin bastion. Subramanian also unravels the mutual constitution of Tamil Brahmin-ness and middle class-ness. Arguments about class became a way to reconcile their ascriptive identities as members of caste groupings with claims to achievement. IITians thus constituted upper casteness as the very embodiment of meritocracy.

IITs and Entrenched Caste-power

Chapter 5 turns its gaze on IITs and their role in reproduction of caste and class inequalities. The social meanings of JEE (JEE, the qualifying exam for admissions to B Tech programmes at IITs) and its role in constructing distinction and reproduction of social hierarchies are elaborated upon. Drawing from Bourdieu and Passeron, Subramanian historicises exams (civil services) in colonial and JEE in postcolonial times to reiterate how prestigious examinations conceal social ­selections.

Chapter 6 turns to reservations and upper-castes counter to reservations by focusing on Tamil Nadu. The history of Tamil Brahmin opposition to steady growth of OBC quota, which was upheld by the high court and Supreme Court, is instructive. While the petitioners equated Tamil Brahmin educational capital with rights of citizenship, the high court too agreed that Brahmins have ‘‘a greater aptitude for certain types of education than other classes.” This was the first attack on reservation which B R Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru countered swiftly through the First Amendment to Article 15 of the Constitution.

Other well-known cases like Indra Sawhney v Union of India and Thakur v Union of India too are discussed to unravel the limits of judicial action and their role in undermining accumulated caste privilege while maintaining an ­upper-caste meritocratic norm (p 218). Further, reservation policy, ‘‘by marking only its beneficiaries as caste subjects, underwrote the status of upper castes as emblematic of meritocracy’’ (p 255). This sentiment was only aggravated by Mandal I and II, suggests Subramanian.

The last substantive chapter titled “Brand IIT” explores the institutional kinship of upper castes in the US to reiterate that caste does not vanish amongst the IIT diaspora. The continued racialisation of caste in the acceptance of upper-caste Indians in the US (as opposed to continued discrimination against the Blacks) is also linked to IITians playing an imp­ortant role in associating Indianness with intellectual prowess and entrepreneurial success. This chapter presents the institutional kinship and branding process adopted by the IITians to put IITs symbolically on par with institutions like MIT, Stanford, and Harvard through the IIT Alumni Network. Brand IIT stood against reservations and also pushed for market deregulation and privatisation in India while celebrating their ‘‘entrepreneurial’’ capabilities in the US, forgetting that they were a product of public education and privileges of their caste. Tamil Brahmins, on the other hand, evoke a new hierarchy and disdain against the obsession with entrepreneurship and want “Brand IITs’’ to stand for research skills instead of blatant embrace of accumulation.

The conclusion explores the support for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) amongst IITians as a new expression of upper casteness within India. It suggests that Modi’s election has allowed for an entrenchment of caste power in IITs and polari­sation in other central institutes and further raises questions of structural inequality;

Tamil Nadu is a sobering reminder of the limits of a politics aimed at expanding caste representation within middle class that is not accompanied by efforts to address the structural reproduction of poverty. The lower-caste ambition to enter the professions has kept in place the hierarchies of labor that underpin the graded inequalities of caste. (p 322)

However, recent trends in lower caste mobilisation inside IITs (like the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle and Ambedkar Phule Periyar Study Circle2) and outside point towards a more ‘‘egalitarian’’ politics for Subramanian;

From the claims of Tamil Nadu’s farmers to higher support prices and loan waivers to Dalit land claims in Gujarat, new forms of political ferment augur more effective challenges to structural inequality.

Are these claims new to ‘‘low’’ caste politics? Subramanian with a broad brush of radicalism demolishes both the meritocracy of upper castes and ‘‘repre­sentation’’-based politics of subalterns, and tends to do this in a few chapters. The short concluding chapter suddenly introduces the BJP and Hindutva and has no connection with the ideas that run through the book. Is the subaltern challenge and protest limited to reservations? Does education only reproduce privilege and upper casteness? Reservations in
India have ensured socially and economically diverse student bodies in elite institutions like IITs and these institutions have no choice but to follow the constitutional requirement. Could the West possibly gain from a robust social justice policy of a similar kind in higher education?

Conflict without Dialectics

Subramanian lays bare her ontological preference for politics of redistribution over politics of recognition in Chapter 3, and almost poses them as antithetical. The limits of caste-based quotas and politics of social justice are obvious for Subramanian:

[...] But instead for pushing for an end to caste based recruitments in government jobs and professions, they [Justice Party] argued that the application of communal quotas would make the composition of these spaces better reflect regional demography. (p 100)Tamil Politics [...] did not have progressive taxation against the wealthy. Inequality has grown in Tamilnadu [..] even as the rhetoric of caste rights suffused Tamil Nadu. (p 106)

Inequality in Tamil Nadu has indeed grown but how does it compare with other Indian states? Even on multidimensional poverty index, Tamil Nadu fares far better than most other states in India. The Oxford Poverty and Human Deve­lopment Initiative in its Global Multi­dimensional Poverty Report (2018) observes,

In Tamil Nadu (and Kerala), most district-level headcount ratios hover around 10% or less—rates that are comparable to those of Eastern European and South American regions. (p 27)

Also, Subramanian fails to recognise that the discourse of reservations is based on recognition and representation, and not merely redistribution. It is the non-reserved who use the discourse of class and redistribution, and the recent reservation policy for upper castes—Economically Weaker Sections (EWS)—is an outcome of such a strategy. The neat and polarised distinction and conflict between reserved and un-reserved that Subramanian offers ends up constructing a form of conflict without dialectics.

Reservations, on the other hand, have come to be both the source of conflict and a solution to this conflict. For instance, the cut-off marks for the State Bank of India (SBI) clerical grade exam (2019) in Tamil Nadu for EWS were 28.5 as against the cut-off for General (61.25), SCs (61.25), STs (53.75) and OBCs (61.25).3 Increasingly, we also notice in several state-level exams the cut-off for SC, ST and OBC candidates is higher than that for the General candidates (Kumar 2019). And as Subramanian fears, the general quota is increasingly seen by upper castes as de facto quota (p 352), and not indeed for the ‘‘meritorious.’’ Would the EWS candidates be dep­ressed or humiliated for their lower marks? The social meanings of reservations have been fast changing and ­cannot be reduced only to upper caste (merit) versus lower caste (reserved). IITs have already begun the implementation of quota for EWS, and the supernumerary quota for women too was introduced in 2018. Reservations have now also come to be a matter of rights for those who claim them.

A similar rush is seen in the chapter on testing merit which otherwise is an important chapter. Subramanian rightly argues that JEE like other prestigious exams seeks to capture “innate intelligence” and is increasingly failing to do so because of coaching classes. Coaching for Subramanian is a postcolonial version of crammer and the call for JEE reforms are reminiscent of the reforms of the ­colonial Indian Civil Service exam. Subramanian, however, works out a hierarchy in coaching, where the Brahmins with innate intelligence attend ‘‘boutique’’ coaching and the castes with new aspiration for education attend ‘‘coaching factories.’’ There may be overlaps, however, and such clear distinction and neat hierarchies may not always work, and the distinction may itself be flawed. I have researched a residential coaching for JEE run by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) which is meant for the “poor” from OBCs, SCs and Brahmins and coaching is provided by a ‘‘coaching factory’’ as part of their “corporate social responsibility.”

Possibilities Overlooked

“JEE despite its limitations also works in favour of SC, ST and OBC candidates due to the caste-neutral policy in assessment and selection” (personal interviews increase chances of discrimination). Though upper castes may claim merit as innate, Veerwal Veerwal, the first and only candidate who managed to score a perfect 360 in JEE Mains in 2017, belonged to the SC category and the preference for ‘‘meritorious’’ may not be built in the very idea of exams. While studying at IIT-Bombay, Veerwal has also become a brand in himself and has initiated a coaching company that provides affordable correspondence courses for JEE.

The clear distinctions and polarised identities that Subramanian works out could undermine the dialectics of evolving selfhood on campuses and also leads to overlooking non-caste issues. For instance, this chapter dwells in detail on the case of Abbas, a non-Brahmin alumni of IIT-Madras, from a difficult social and economic background. He makes it to IIT through coaching factory and undergoes trauma and depression upon joining IIT-Madras. Most students come to IITs via coaching and are worn-out due to excessive preparation and hard work. Facing stress and anxiety on campus is thus not necessarily a problem that reserved category students face, and is certainly not confined to them. Subramanian also overlooks the radical role of the reservation system in countering the ‘‘social’’ selections that may be in-built in exams.

An in-depth ethnography on campus would have provided insights into the dynamics of student friendships beyond caste, caste profile of faculty4 and role of faculty in student politics beyond JEE ranks. The conflict-without-dialectics model that Subramanian presents has no plasticity and positive possibilities. In this model, engineering education cannot be made caste and social issues sensitive, upper castes cannot change and the possibilities of change have to be sought outside these institutions of higher learning. Bourdieusian ideas that Subramanian privileges could have gained in making Bourdieu speak to Paulo Freire, Ambedkar or Gramsci (Zene 2018). In her sweeping analysis, Ambedkar becomes a Dalit icon and Dalit leader and subaltern quest for education is reduced to ambition for jobs and reservation. Despite these limitations, this is an excellent book that those interested in sociology of education and meritocracy in India cannot ignore.


1 The regional flavour of IITs is fast eroding, especially after the coming in of reservations for OBCs in IITs since 2006. The original five IITs are very diverse in terms of their student population and may not necessarily have strong regional culturalism. A cursory look at the current B-Tech students of Computer Science Department at IIT-Madras throws up 24 Tamil Brahmin names. Of the total 282 students, North Indian students comprise 66 students. Non-Brahmin students from Andhra–Telangana number 80 and other non-Brahmin South Indians are 93. Of the 45 faculty members only 16 are Tamil Brahmins.

2 Bodies like APPSC in IIT-Bombay are not “lower” caste student bodies and progressive Savarnas outnumber Bahujan students. Most of these students are postgraduate students and undergraduate students are hardly interested or involved in political activism.

3 Same is the case in several other exams; for details, see the news report (Reddy 2020).

4 Though some IITs fare better than others, most IITs have failed to implement reservations in faculty recruitment.


Kumar, Arvind (2019): “Why Civil Services Exams in Some States Have Had Higher Cut-offs for SC/ST and OBC Applicants,” Print, 11 October, https://theprint.in/opinion/why-civil-services-exams-in-some-states-have....

Reddy, R Ravikanth (2020): “EWS Cut-off Marks in Civils Likely to be Lower,” Hindu, 26 January, https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Hyderabad/ews-cut-off-marks-in-civi....

Zene, Cosimo (2018): “Justice for the Excluded and Education for Democracy in B R Ambedkar and A Gramsci,” Rethinking Marxism, Vol 30, No 4, pp 494–524.


Updated On : 25th Nov, 2020


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