In early September, India surpassed Brazil to report the second highest Covid-19 cases in the world after the United States. Despite the threat of contracting the infection, more than 160,000 aspirants sat for the Joint Entrance Examination–Advanced to gain admission into the elite Indian Institutes of Technology, held in the last week of September.

Seven of the top 10 institutions of higher education in India are IITs and nine of the top 10 engineering colleges in the country are also IITs, according to a June government ranking of universities. More than one in three students (37%) in professional courses in India are enrolled in engineering, according to the Centre’s Household Social Consumption on Education in India report.

But “mass examinations like the JEE with their finely ranked outcomes reinforce the perception of merit as a measure of individual and relative ability divorced from social structural factors”, said Ajantha Subramanian, professor of anthropology and South Asian Studies at Harvard University. “This conception of innate capacities is a way, not just of individualising merit but of naturalising it.”

In a 2019-book titled The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India, she looked at the “relationship between meritocracy and democracy in India in order to understand the production of merit as a form of caste property and its implications for democratic transformation”.

While it has been nearly three decades since economic liberalisation, “rather than curbing the power of caste, then, economic liberalisation has exacerbated caste differences”, she said. In 2019, the government introduced reservation for economically weaker sections among dominant castes. But to classify this category based on a purely economic basis “reinforces the perception of dominant castes as casteless”, despite poor dominant castes having “access to caste networks that are not available to even economically better-off marginalised castes”.

Ajantha Subramanian

Subramanian has been chair, department of anthropology, at Harvard since 2018. She also published Shorelines: Space and Rights in South India in 2009. In an interview, she talks about caste and meritocracy, race and caste in India and the US, and the Cisco caste discrimination lawsuit in the US.

Edited excerpts:

In your book The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India, you noted that “racialisation of caste under colonialism as a form rooted in birth, heredity, and endogamy allowed for a new level of flexibility” and helped Brahmins and dominant castes move into technical sciences [ritually prohibited practices could now be accommodated within the same caste category. While continuing their traditional dominance in other branches of knowledge, dominant castes were now considered intellectual leaders in technical sciences as well]. Why have such tendencies sustained despite introduction of reservations and affirmative action, and after nearly three decades of economic liberalisation in India?
Keep in mind that reservations are limited to public institutions funded by the government and that, since the 1990s, there has been an expansion in the number of private engineering colleges, which have [also] become key sites of dominant caste technical science education.

In general, the expansion of the private sector has allowed for a retrenchment of caste privilege, a trend that is particularly evident in the IT industry where dominant castes monopolise the managerial tier. Rather than curbing the power of caste, then, economic liberalisation has exacerbated caste differences because it has exacerbated inequality in a society stratified along caste lines.

Moreover, the supply chains of the 21st-century global economy have reinforced ascriptive understandings of skill by recruiting populations on the basis of perceived racial, caste, and gender traits [as seen in the IT and services sector which are dominated by the dominant castes].

The concept of meritocracy seems to be a challenge in addressing inequities in society across the globe. You mention that since the courts in India accepted the idea of reservation, education in India has been shaped by “meritorious and casteless” versus “reserved and caste-based”. Would you consider the individualisation of merit as a way of justifying inequality?
It is certainly the case that in liberal democratic societies, the formal equality of individuals serves as a convenient alibi for obscuring collective histories of advantage and disadvantage. We see this playing out in evaluations of merit in which the individual is treated as a person with certain innate capacities rather than as a person who has been afforded structural advantages.

Mass examinations like the JEE with their finely ranked outcomes reinforce the perception of merit as a measure of individual and relative ability divorced from social structural factors. This conception of innate capacities is a way, not just of individualising merit but of naturalising it.

But it is important to keep in mind that, ultimately, the individualisation of merit supports an understanding of hierarchical group differences as objective and power-neutral. This is the true power of meritocracy: It is an ideology of individualism that justifies the reproduction of collective inequalities within democratic societies.

The data on caste in India is nearly a century old. Much of the reservation policy in India including those for the elite IITs and Indian Institutes of Management are based on these data. How do you assess the impact of affirmative action/reservation in India over the years and how would you contrast affirmative action in India to that in the United States of America?
In many ways, India and the US have moved in opposite directions on affirmative action.

While in India, the scope of affirmative action has expanded to include new groups, US affirmative action has been systematically scaled back to the point where now, the only basis for targeted admissions or hiring is diversity. As a practice, diversity entails selecting uniquely talented individuals from underrepresented groups to make institutions more heterogeneous. This is a far cry from affirmative action as a mechanism of redress for collective historical disadvantage.

The ramifications in the two contexts are clear. While Indian public education has witnessed the entry of marginalised caste groups in large numbers and the erosion of dominant-caste hegemony, US public education is becoming more unequal with university systems like the University of California and the University of Michigan no longer serving as a means to non-white, working-class social mobility as they once did.

The issue of dominant-caste overrepresentation is seen in faculty positions in IIMs where only five of 642 faculty positions in 13 IIMs were from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and the rest were from “Others”. The issue of meritocracy that is observed in higher technical education can be seen in faculty positions and other employment. Your comments?
There is no justification for implementing reservations in student admissions and not in faculty hiring. The argument behind this discrepancy is that reservations undercut “excellence” and, therefore, should not be permitted at the faculty level.

But this is a casteist assumption that simply does not have a basis in fact. What is more obviously true is that the discrepancy between a more broadly representative student body and an unrepresentative faculty body is itself clear evidence of discrimination in hiring.

The absence of SC/ST faculty also makes these campuses even more hostile and isolating for SC/ST students whose life experiences and struggles are not understood by dominant-caste faculty. The presence of SC/ST faculty would profoundly shape these students’ experiences as well as their aspirations.

The IITs led the charge in protesting against reservations in the 1970s. Now the government has introduced quotas for the economically weaker section in the “general” category altering the idea of reservation in India from social justice to economic justice. Your comments?
This is a false distinction because caste is both a social and an economic category. Moreover, to say that the EWS classification is purely “economic” reinforces the perception of dominant castes as casteless.

On the contrary, poor dominant castes have access to caste networks that are not available to even economically better-off marginalised castes. They also do not suffer the same stigmatising assumptions about intellectual inferiority that attach generally to marginalised castes.

The EWS category does not acknowledge the degree to which dominant caste status mitigates economic disadvantage. Unlike marginalised castes who bear a stigma that directly affects their economic opportunities, the social standing of poor dominant castes places them in a far more advantageous position.

A caste discrimination lawsuit has been filed against IT company Cisco in the US. How does caste manifest itself in the present-day US within the migrant Indian community, considering there have been multiple waves of migration since the late 19th century, including indentured labour from marginalised castes? How has the idea of merit been established and narrated by dominant caste Indian immigrants?
Although Indians began arriving in the US from as early as the 1880s, the floodgates opened with the passing of the US Immigration Act of 1965, which specifically targeted professionals. As a result, the Indian-American population now makes up the most affluent and well-educated node of the diaspora. It is also overwhelmingly dominant caste in composition.

The inheritances of caste, most importantly inter-generational access to higher education, have determined who has the means to come to the US and succeed educationally, economically and professionally. The specific form of capital that these dominant castes possess – academic and professional credentials – has made for easy “exit”.

Since this was a transferable form of capital, “exit” has also contributed to the further accumulation of capital as evidenced in the growing number of Indian corporate managers and millionaire entrepreneurs.

As members of a professional class, dominant caste Indian-Americans have fashioned themselves as part of a meritocratic “model minority” that is distinct from less affluent non-white groups. The invisibility of caste in the US public sphere also helps to reinforce the perception that dominant caste achievements are forms of self-made success.

What the Cisco case demonstrates is that the absence of caste as a public identity in the US does not preclude its structural workings. We see this most clearly in the case of IITians. IIT alumni networks have facilitated opportunities in academia and industry even while caste disappears from view.

As we see from the Cisco case, these networks have also ensured that only dominant caste IITians benefit from their pedigrees while marginalised castes are stigmatised and excluded. By “outing” the Dalit engineer from IIT Bombay as a “reserved Category” student, his former classmates who are now his Cisco bosses expressed their conviction that he had gained admission to the IITs illegitimately, that he was intellectually inferior and unworthy of a job at Cisco, and that he needed to be put in his place.

Moreover, they acted with a sense of impunity because caste is not recognised as a basis of either advantage or disadvantage in the US. The Cisco case is potentially pathbreaking because it exposes the workings of caste in the US and might result in the legal recognition of caste discrimination.

The ongoing protests organised under the umbrella of the Movement for Black Lives have coincided with US President Donald Trump’s efforts to mobilise whites as a political bloc. Photo credit: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

The US has a history of racial tension. The killing of George Floyd and subsequent police shootings and atrocities on the African-American community have seen violent reactions. Unlike the US, India has seldom seen mass movements against atrocities against marginalised caste groups despite multiple instances of atrocities against them. How are the issues of race and caste distinct despite similar socio-economic inequalities and oppression faced by racial and caste minorities?
Race and caste are inherited forms of privilege and disadvantage. In both contexts, they have structured social status and economic opportunity. But the forms of affiliation they have generated have also varied. Because caste is what Dr Ambedkar referred to as a form of “graded inequality”, it fractures affiliation and makes the possibility of forging solidarity across caste lines challenging.

By contrast, the legacies of the US’s “one drop rule”, which placed everyone of African heritage within the same stigmatised social category, has allowed for forms of broader solidarity. Still, the differences should not be overstated.

Differentiation within the African-American community has produced its own “graded inequalities” and India has seen its share of anti-caste social movements [Sree Narayana Guru, Periyarist, Ambedkarite movements, etc.] that have brought together disparate segments of Indian society.

Moreover, the ongoing protests organised under the umbrella of the Movement for Black Lives have coincided with [US President Donald] Trump’s efforts to mobilise whites as a political bloc. It remains to be seen which political mobilisation – the cross-racial, cross-class opposition to the devaluing of black life or white nationalism – will prove to be more effective.

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.