In a case filed in June 2020, the State of California alleged that two managers at Cisco Systems harassed a fellow Indian American employee for being a Dalit, or of a perceived lower-caste status. The case may help to recognise caste as new grounds for discrimination in the United States – a much needed intervention since Dalit Americans routinely face discrimination, including in the form of verbal and physical assault. While such developments demonstrate progress in recognising, if not addressing, caste-based discrimination, there is much work left to do. This includes unpacking how structures of caste privilege are sustained in Southasian institutions – including in establishments for higher education thought to be nurturing the region’s most gifted students.
In this interview we speak to Ajantha Subramanian, a Professor of Anthropology and South Asian Studies at Harvard University and the Chair of Harvard University’s Department of Anthropology. Her recent book The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India chronicles the rise of engineering education in India and tracks the relationship between meritocracy and democracy. Subramanian talks to Himal Southasian about how caste privilege is sustained through engineering education, how it migrates to the diaspora, how technical knowledge became integral to state power and nationalism in India, and how mass coaching and reservations challenge caste hierarchies.
Himal Southasian: In The Caste of Merit you argue that merit is a form of caste property. Can you expand on what that means and describe how caste privilege became merit in India? How does the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and engineering education contribute to caste privilege?
Ajantha Subramanian: The book narrates the process by which castes who historically enjoyed privileged access to land, labour, education and professional employment were able to transform these forms of inherited capital into a claim to merit. While there were many mechanisms through which privileged castes refashioned themselves as meritocratic, modern subjects, I look at the role of engineering education – and the IITs in particular – in mediating this process. Part of this story is about the ideology of technical science as an objective, politically neutral form of knowledge in which social identities play no part. I show how, in the Indian context, this ideology of objectivity and social disembeddedness obscures the role of caste stratification and caste distinction in shaping access to and experiences of engineering education. But I also look more closely at the role of three technologies of caste formation – affirmative action, mass examinations, and diasporic mobility – to show how each contributed to reinforcing the association between being upper caste and having merit.
HSA: How did technical knowledge become so integral to state power and nationalism? How did Indian statesmen see the IITs and what were the politics of India’s engineers around the time of independence?
AS: The IITs were part of a broader state commitment to technologically driven modernisation as the engine of national development. From the late 19th century, Indian critics leveraged arguments about ’underdevelopment‘ to point to the inadequacy and immorality of colonial rule. Part of the critique of colonial underdevelopment centred on technical education. Nationalists derided the colonial state for its meager investment in technical training and charged it with deliberately depriving Indians of the kinds of modern knowledge that would allow them to achieve economic and social progress. With the transition to Independence, nationalist ambitions were made material in the large-scale state investment in technical education. Although colonial India had a number of regional engineering colleges, the IITs were established as “institutions of national importance” that would form the uppermost tier of a stratified structure of postcolonial technical training. Funded at far higher levels than other colleges, the financial outlay was justified as the necessary cost for producing an elite cadre of nation-builders. So too was the social cost of exempting the IITs from caste-based affirmative action; equity, it was argued, would have to be sacrificed to excellence at this institutional tier.
HSA: What materials did you draw on when writing this book? What kind of methodology did you use to interpret the data?
AS: The book is a historical anthropology of caste in engineering education that relied on the use of various methodologies and sources. To understand the role of a colonial administrative sociology of caste in tracking groups into different tiers of technical training, I looked in regional and national state archives at the records of the Departments of Education and Public Works, and in the archives of colleges and schools in the southeast where technical training was first administered. To understand the colonial and postcolonial experience of upper castes inducted into professional engineering, I used the memoirs of Indians in the colonial engineering service and the life histories of IIT alumni from the 1960s through the 2000s. To understand the discrepancy between the stated goal of democratising access to education and the effect of further stratification, I looked into parliamentary debates over the structure and goals of postcolonial education, and the reports of various inquiry commissions tasked with reviewing the state of technical education.
The upper-caste embrace of engineering is surprising because technical skill was previously associated with lower castes.
To get at administrative, curricular, and social changes in IIT Madras’s over 60-year history, I gathered material from the college archives, did interviews with administrators, faculty, alumni and current students, sat in on classes, and attended campus functions. To understand the social impact of caste-based affirmative action, or reservations, I looked at the most important Supreme Court judgements on reservations, media coverage of anti-reservation protests, and social media debates on reservations. To get at how wider social aspirations underwrite the status of the IIT students, I had conversations with aspiring students and their parents during campus events open to the public. To understand the social impact of the expansion of exam coaching, I looked at media coverage and did interviews with students and graduates of different coaching centers. Finally, to get at the role of the diaspora, I did interviews with US-based IIT alumni, perused documents of IIT alumni associations, attended a pan-IIT alumni conference held at IIT Madras, and followed media coverage of the IIT diaspora.
HSA: The Caste of Merit challenges several assumptions about meritocracy in India, using the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) as a window. How has the book been received by IIT graduates? What have you found to be the more surprising responses to your book?
AS: I have been invited to discuss the book at several IIT campuses so there is clearly interest in its arguments. At the same time, most of these invitations have been made by faculty and students who already have a critical perspective on the IITs, which suggests that the book is mainly circulating among sympathetic readers. Still, I am hopeful that others affiliated with the IITs will also read it. So far, I would say that the most surprising response has been from a reader who interpreted my advocacy for broader structural transformation aimed at addressing the stark economic inequalities of Indian society as an argument against caste-based affirmative action.
HSA: You note that the IIT is a feeder school of sorts and that many of its graduates seek opportunities in the United States. How did caste privilege migrate to the diaspora through engineering education? How has the response to your book been different among such diasporic groups?
AS: It is important to understand that caste operates as a filter: first, of which groups have access to education; second, of who can succeed in elite higher education; and third, of who can use higher education as a stepping stone to the US. The caste stratification of Indian society has ensured that the most well-regarded and competitive institutions of higher education, like the IITs, continue to be spaces of caste privilege and pathways to diasporic success. While there has been some shift in the social composition of such institutions because of reservations, these changes have yet to make a noticeable impact on the most elite institutions and on patterns of transnational migration. When reserved quotas have been implemented in elite public education or in public sector employment, a typical response by privileged castes has been to move to the private sector or abroad. The specific form of capital that they have – academic and professional credentials – has made for easy exit. Since this is a transferable form of capital, exit has also contributed to the further accumulation of capital. This is most dramatic in the case of IIT alumni who have used their caste capital to come to the US and accumulate even more capital in the US technology sector.
The reservation system identifies caste as the basis of historical disadvantage but not of historical privilege.
The response to my book in the US has been shaped by its publication alongside the State of California’s caste-discrimination case against the tech giant, Cisco. Since the individuals involved in the suit are all IIT alumni, I have been asked to speak at various forums about the role of caste at the IITs and in the US technology sector. My hope is that the Cisco case will make it easier to connect the dots between the operations of caste in India and the US. Even a cursory look at the pedigrees of Indian immigrant professionals reveals that the vast majority come from a handful of institutions in India, which also happen to be institutions whose student bodies are disproportionately upper caste and where caste discrimination is rampant. This makes the entry of caste into the American home and workplace not in the least bit surprising. The visibility and status of a select few Indian institutions and the Indian professional networks that play a role in American university admissions and corporate job hiring, guarantee that there is de facto caste discrimination at work. Despite this reality, the only educational institution in the US that has added caste to its non-discrimination policy is Brandeis University. The Cisco case has the potential to force the technology and academic sectors to recognise and prevent caste-based discrimination.
HSA: In Caste of Merit you write about how technical knowledge, previously the domain of lower-caste artisans, became a sign of upper-caste merit and education, how did that happen? How is India’s pre-independence past linked to engineering’s elevated status today?
AS: The upper-caste embrace of engineering is surprising because technical skill was previously associated with lower castes. This counter-intuitive embrace of technical knowledge is best understood as a result of the wholesale transformation in the status of engineering during the colonial period. The rise of engineering rested on practices of distinction separating low from high, the manual from the conceptual, and artisanship from the professions. Moreover, the impact of colonialism in “racialising” caste was particularly significant for the upper-caste turn to the technical sciences. Earlier, changes in practice could lead to expulsion from the caste fold. The racialisation of caste under colonialism as a social form rooted in birth, heredity, and endogamy allowed for a new level of flexibility. As a result, even dramatic changes in practice, like the adoption of ritually prohibited occupations, came to be accommodated within the same caste category. Together, the distinctions that underwrote the rise of engineering and the association of caste with heredity, not practice, allowed upper castes ease of entry into a new profession. By the mid-20th century, artisanship and engineering were poles apart, with engineering perceived as a coveted, high status profession best suited to the high-born. In this sense, the value of engineering as a profession was intimately linked to its disassociation from the ’tainted‘ technical labour of lower castes.
HSA: You write that “Brahmins made up approximately 74 percent of engineering college students, despite being only 3 percent of the enumerated regional population.” How did the IIT become a Brahmin space and how did caste become racialised in India?
AS: Caste representation in the IITs varies across regions because histories of caste are regionally specific. In colonial Madras Presidency, Brahmins were overrepresented in higher education and the modern professions, which is why when the IITs were established in the postcolonial period, Tamil Brahmins were the most favourably positioned regional population to enter IIT Madras.
HSA: How does the reservation system, a mechanism of distributive justice, prop-up conceptions among upper-caste individuals that their merit is the result of talent, not history? Can you describe how regions with strong caste-movements were able to contest these notions?
AS: The reservation system identifies caste as the basis of historical disadvantage but not of historical privilege. We see this in how groups are classified. While those who qualify for employment and educational quotas are included in the Reserved Category on the basis of their caste affiliation, those who do not qualify are simply classed under the General Category of ‘merit-based’ admissions. This absenting of caste from the General Category has profoundly shaped the debate around educational equality in India. The categorical distinction between the meritorious/casteless and the reserved/caste-based has allowed upper castes to argue that their merit is due entirely to their innate talent and hard work and that it is the system of reservations that produces inequality and undermines the modern republican ideal of equal citizenship.
Exam coaching and reservations were two phenomena that challenged the upper-caste dominance of elite education and the professions by expanding access to new social groups.
However, in regions with longer histories of lower caste rights politics, merit is understood as a product of privilege and not simply of innate ability. Tamil Nadu is a case in point. The region’s Non-Brahmin and Dravidian movements highlighted Brahmin privilege, making it less possible for Tamil Brahmins to claim merit on the basis of casteless, individual talent. Instead, they did so on the basis of caste belonging, an identitarian stance that was at odds with more universalistic conceptions of merit. As lower caste rights politics has expanded across India, such claims to merit on the basis of caste belonging have also become more widespread. In this sense, regions like Tamil Nadu are an important precedent for the proliferation of meritocracy as an upper caste identity politics.
HSA: How have the Indian upper-caste adapted to challenges to caste privilege like mass coaching and reservations? What drives this kind of adaptation? Do you see merit in retaining or redesigning the reservation system?
AS: Exam coaching and reservations were two phenomena that challenged the upper-caste dominance of elite education and the professions by expanding access to new social groups. In response, upper castes have asserted their claim to merit through recourse to new languages of distinction and strategies of discrimination. Reservations have given rise to the distinction between the General and the Reserved and the stigmatisation of students who gain admission to institutions like the IITs through reserved quotas. Exam coaching has produced the distinction between the gifted and the coached, with those trained in the big coaching centres in Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh seen as less conceptually skilled. It is important to recognise that these practices of distinction are not just symbolic claims. They are arguments about merit as upper-caste property that are leveraged in order to protect the conditions for capital accumulation from the pressures of distributive justice.
The rise of engineering rested on practices of distinction separating low from high, the manual from the conceptual, and artisanship from the professions.
HSA: You write that the IITs are predominantly male, and that as a result the IITs are an interesting place to study the relationships among upper-caste men and between upper- and lower-caste men. How do you think such relationships have shaped the meaning of masculinity?
AS: I see the privileging of conceptual knowledge and intellectual one-upmanship that pervades the IITs as an expression of upper-caste, homosocial masculinity. Upper-caste IITians characterise themselves and their peers as intellectually gifted individuals whose natural talents are honed but not produced by the IITs. This notion of upper castes as oriented towards the conceptual expresses a sense of collective identity and destiny. It also expresses a sense of distinction from lower castes who are thought to be more oriented towards manual skill and rote learning. These assumptions about caste difference play out in the everyday practices of stigmatisation that typecast lower-caste students as not of the same intellectual calibre, as not deserving the status of IITians, and as diluting the pedigree in a way that threatens its standing both nationally and globally. We see from these dynamics that masculinity is always constituted through other forms of hierarchical difference, with caste in this instance being integral to its formation.
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