Critical scholarship on the dangers of meritocracy has flourished in the West, something that has not been explored rigorously in India. The Caste of Merit by Ajantha Subramanian is a welcome addition to scholarship on caste and meritocracy in higher education. Subramanian compliments studies on white privilege and whiteness in US with a focus on uppercasteness and meritocracy in India.

The book stages the conflict between meritocracy-uppercasteness and democracy-reservations, locating IITs at the centre of her analysis, more particularly IIT Madras and Tamil Brahmins, as cases to present the collective selfhood and “uppercasteness” revolving around merit. It draws on archival research and qualitative interviews, and pushes Bourdieuean 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 social reproduction of privilege.

Subramanian provides interesting insights into the colonial history of engineering education and associated racialisation of caste, and the making of IITs in postcolonial India as an Brahmin-upper caste space. The anti-caste struggles in Tamilnadu and their role in democratising engineering education, the pre-reservation IITs and continued Brahmin-upper caste preference for mental over manual in engineering education are engaged with.

The book also provides a critical reading of JEE, the merit-testing entrance exam for admission to IITs and the politics of social reproduction that may be embedded in the idea of prestigious exams. The making of uppercasteness and its inherent linkages with claiming merit while contesting reservations and the making of IIT as a global brand along with the continued caste basis of institutional kinship too is explored. Barring some sweeping generalisations and radical posturing, this book is a significant contribution to the historical sociology of engineering education in India.

From colonial to contemporary

Chapter One excavates the history of technical education during colonial times and examines how racialisation of caste under the colonial government ended up channelling engineering education towards Brahmins and industrial schooling, towards “lower” castes. And Chapter Two takes us to into the history and dynamics involved in the making of IITs in post-independent 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 lynchpin of the developmental state.” IITs as autonomous and well-endowed institutions ran the risk of becoming closed institutions; “democratising access to training would indeed be antithetical to excellence” and “caste operated as a metaphor for merit”. In popular understanding the IITians came to be known as the chosen ones; IITs were also referred to as “Brahmin” institutes informally, suggests Subramanian.

Chapter Three takes us to Tamil Nadu and IIT-Madras, as “immediate vicinity gave each IIT a regional cultural flavour”. The struggle between Vedic and non-Vedic cultural forms in Tamil Nadu was the ground for a cleavage between Brahmins and non-Brahmins. In 1921, “Brahmins made up approximately 74 percent of engineering college students, despite being only 3 percent of the enumerated regional population”, and expansion of technical education in many ways, “hinged on the distinction between Brahmin and non-Brahmins”. The caste census indeed aggravated realisation of caste, suggests Subramanian.

Colonial rule further racialised caste as hereditary by considering Brahmins “intellectually destined to lead”. The Justice Party on the other hand challenged the Brahmins and criticised the technological development as Brahmins “did not toil nor did they spin”. The Brahmins countered by emphasising their advantage of brains over sinews and the mental over manual.

Chapter Four on the 1960s generation of IIT-Madras takes us into pre-reservation IITs. Before 1973, IITs constituted the upper caste meritorious world as students came from urban professional families. In Tamil Nadu, the oldest local college, College of Engineering, Guindy, followed state reservations (ST-ST-OBC) which meant limited seats for Tamil Brahmins. IIT-Madras, as a reservation-free space, turned therefore 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 uppercasteness as the very embodiment of meritocracy.

Chapter Five turns its gaze on IITs and their role in reproduction of caste and class inequalities. 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 Six is about reservations and the upper castes’ counter to reservations by focussing on Tamil Nadu, while the the last substantive chapter, titled “Brand IIT” explores the institutional kinship of upper castes in US to reiterate that caste does not vanish amongst the IIT diaspora.

The conclusion explores the support for the BJP amongst IIT-ians as a new expression of upper casteness within India. It suggests that Narendra Modi’s election has allowed for a retrenchment 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 labour that underpin the graded inequalities of caste.”

Interventions in inequality

However, recent trends in lower-caste mobilisation inside IITs, like the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle and the Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle and outside point toward a more “egalitarian” politics for Subramanian. (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 while undergraduate students are hardly interested or involved in political activism.)

“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? With a broad brush of radicalism, Subramanian tends to demolish both the meritocracy of upper castes and “representation”-based politics of subalterns simultaneously, and she tends to do this in a few chapters. Does education only reproduce privilege and uppercasteness? Have reservations in India also not ensured socially and economically diverse student bodies in elite institutions like IITs? Could the West possibly gain from a robust social justice policy of a similar kind in higher education?

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

“Tamil politics [...] did not have progressive taxation against the wealthy. Inequality has grown in Tamil Nadu [...] even as the rhetoric of caste rights suffused Tamil Nadu.”

Inequality in Tamil Nadu has indeed grown, but how does it compare with other Indian states? Even on a Multidimensional Poverty Index, Tamil Nadu fares far better than most other states, and is comparable to those from Eastern European and South American regions. 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, viz, Economically Weaker Sections (EWS), is the outcome of such a strategy. The social meanings of reservations have been fast changing and cannot be reduced only to upper caste (merit) vs 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 has now also come to be a matter of rights for those who claim it.

We see a similar rush in the chapter on testing merit which otherwise is an important chapter, where Subramanian works out a hierarchy in coaching – 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.

JEE, despite its limitations also works in favour of SC, ST and OBC candidates due to the caste-blind policy in assessment and selection (personal interviews increase chances of discrimination). Though upper castes may claim merit as innate, Kalpit Veerwal, the first and only candidate who managed to score a perfect 360 in JEE Mains in 2017 belonged to the SC category. While studying at IIT-Bombay, he has also become a brand in himself and has initiated a coaching company that provides affordable correspondence courses for JEE.

While qualitative interviews help, an in-depth ethnography on campus would have provided insights also into dynamics of student friendships beyond caste, caste profile of faculty (though some IITs fare better than others, most IITs have failed to implement reservations in faculty recruitment) and role of faculty in student politics. The conflict-without-dialectics model that Subramanian presents tends to have no plasticity and positive possibilities.

Looking for change

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, therefore. Bourdieuean ideas that Subramanian privileges could have gained in making Bourdieu speak to Paulo Freire, Ambedkar or Gramsci. In her sweeping analysis, Ambedkar becomes a Dalit icon and Dalit leader and the subaltern quest for education is reduced to ambition for jobs and reservation. But despite some of these limitations, The Caste of Merit is an excellent book that those interested in sociology of education and meritocracy in India cannot ignore.

The focus on inequality and not equally on self-respect and recognition means that in tackling merit and reservations as antithetical, Subramanian reverts to another binary, of inequality versus recognition. She also appears not to understand the unintended and indeed equalising contexts of reservations, even if the policy was set up by creating a divide of merit versus reservations rather than merit through reservations.

While Subramanian is convincing about the colonial sociology of caste which protected caste privilege, she does not adequately explain the complex transformations that are happening now. Caste privilege is reified, but it is also being broken down. And that is because both the definition and nature of the beneficiaries of reservation also keep changing.

Suryakant Waghmore is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Bombay.

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