ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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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.

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Updated On : 9th Dec, 2020

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