Merit as a Proxy for Ascription

Every established order tends to produce the naturalization of its own arbitrariness.

Pierre Bourdieu, “Outline of a Theory of Practice”

[For upper castes,] caste-qua-caste has already yielded all that it can and represents a ladder that can now be safely kicked away. Having encashed its traditional caste-capital and converted it into modern forms of capital like property, higher educational credentials and strongholds in lucrative professions, this section believes itself to be ‘casteless’ today.

Satish Deshpande, “Caste and Castelessness”

The examination of ‘others’, it is widely said, leads us to the examination of ourselves. What is not said often is that the opposite is also equally true. Anthropology from being a study of ‘otherness’ has, now, become a study of ‘oneself’. Ironically, ‘otherness’ was (and to some extend is) associated only with being unprivileged. There was a time when anthropology was fungible with the study of the tribes, the marginalized and the deprived. This is understandable since anthropology as a discipline emerged out of the colonial expansion project of the Europe. However, this is a moment of self-reckoning for Anthropology that the discipline, of late, is taking a closer scrutiny of itself and making noteworthy course corrections. The recent deluge of anthropological literature on white privilege and supremacy is a testimony to this commitment. There are two such important anthropological contributions to the anthropology of caste and caste-privilege in the Indian context: 1. Tamil Brahmans: The Making of a Middle-Class Caste (University of Chicago Press, 2014) by C J Fuller and Haripriya Narasimhan; 2. The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India (Harvard University Press, 2020) by Ajantha Subramanian.

The nexus between slavery and university-building are well documented in the north American context. The nexus between caste privilege and post-colonial nation building and the upper caste monopoly in Indian academia is not well explored. The Caste of Merit speaks to this and to much more.

Seen in the light of Indian caste system, which is divided based on four major occupational varnas, the artisan castes are the ones best suited to study and excel in the field of Engineering. However, ever since the inception of India’s technical institutes – the IITs – the upper castes tend to dominate the arena. Building on the works of Pierre Bourdieu and Satish Deshpande, Ajantha in her work – through archival research and ethnography – explores the eventful history of colonial technical education, the post-colonial nation building, IITs as islands of academic excellence with unfettered powers in administration and faculty recruitment, the upper caste dominance in IITs in general and the Tamil Brahmin monopoly in IIT Madras in particular, the upper-caste claims to merit on the face of efforts to democratize Indian engineering academia.

Unlike other parts of the Indian subcontinent the then Madras presidency and the now Tamil Nadu is a particular case in point known for its anti-brahminical and pro-backward-caste movement. Having defeated their places of dominance through communal GO and the caste-based reservations in higher education and state employment, the Tamil Brahmins started disassociating themselves as supra-regional and supra-caste group from the ‘parochial’ Dravidian movement. The founding of IIT Madras through German sponsorship had come at an opportune time for the Tamil Brahmins. Unlike other castes in the region their relative educational advancement helped the Tamil brahmins to secure admissions en masse into the IIT Madras. The Tamil Brahmins soon made IITM an island of their monopoly. Be it the expansion of reservation for Dalits and Adivasis in IITs in the 1970s or the Mandal implementation in the ‘90s or the proliferation of coaching institutes through which ‘other’ castes started getting admissions in the IITs through the mass entrance examination called the JEE, the Tamil Brahmins always resorted to foregrounding, what Ajantha calls, ‘uppercasteness’ through claims of merit. For Tamil Brahmins merit is admission through general category, being cosmopolitan, to be able to study in CBSE schools, in being able to clear JEE without having to resort to rote-learning, in being able to get IT department, and in being able to become a diasporic citizen and to work in the Silicon Valley.

Through this decade long stellar contribution Ajantha unpacked uppercaste claims to merit which is contingent not just on academic prowess but also on the historical advantage and socio-cultural capital as she had shown empirically. Caste of Merit is going to remain a go-to work for decades to come especially given the recent promulgation of reservation based on economic criterion, agitations by Maraths, Patidars, and Vanniyars in claiming reservation or special reservation, as the case may be.

The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India

Ajantha Subramanian

Harvard University Press, 2020.

Published by Egalitarians India

Egalitarians is a leaderless, voluntary, and not-for-profit group deeply committed to the principle of equality. We are a group of volunteers working with a common understanding for a common goal of creating a casteless egalitarian society.

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