‘The Caste of Merit’ review: A disconnect between engineering studies and the profession

Till the Information Technology revolution, engineering as a profession was more dependent on hands-on labour. But engineering education in India has always been about accumulation of classroom-based theoretical knowledge, since its inception.

What’s interesting is that, this disassociation of the college curriculum from the needs of the profession was intentional and not accidental.

The idea to shift technical education from the shop floors to the classrooms came from British planners and their intention was to meet the need for technical expertise without rocking the boat socially. In other words, caste was on their minds.

The die is caste

This argument forms the basis of Ajantha Subramanian’s The Caste of Merit. She begins by proving this contention using British-era letters and records which confess to the planned exclusion of the lower castes whose “social standing made them ill-suited for classrooms”.

Through a series of reports and resolutions passed during British rule, the initial chapters show how the English went about achieving the inclusion of upper-castes in technical education at the cost of lower castes.

The most hard-hitting proof of this social exclusion comes to the fore when students were selected for state technical education scholarships around 1901. Subramanian has mined information from the scholarship applications which shows that people from artisanal trading castes who have a long association with the industry were ignored while upper caste students were selected because “...he is a Nayar by caste. He comes from a well-to-do family of good social position”. The book is filled with such examples.

What happened at IIT Madras

Subramanian then shows how this social exclusion was carried on even after Independence. Here she uses IIT Madras as an example. The choice is interesting as Tamil Nadu was witnessing a surge of anti-caste politics while inside the campus there was relative calm, as until 2008, only the SC/ST quota of 22.5% was extended by the IITs (which was introduced in 1973). So until the 2000s, the campus had high representation from upper castes, due to the relatively small 1973 quota and extreme marginalisation of SC/ST students.

Thus it is interesting to listen to those who passed out before the 1970s, about the quota system. An entire chapter titled, “IIT Madras’s 1960s generation” deals at length about this and through their interviews Subramanian explains their worldview about caste, career and difference between “innate capability” and “accumulated knowledge”. A 1968 study shows that most of them were Brahmins or from trading castes and 88% of them were from urban areas and a vast majority from most elite urban schools that offered English medium instruction. To explain the shadow of caste in engineering education, she interviewed many students who passed out through the system. Many of them were upper castes, who chose to stay in India and those who went abroad, Dalits who came in through the quota system and the general stream, and others who entered IIT after training at the coaching centres.

Impact of coaching industry

Subramanian’s most striking commentary is on the coaching centres and how it tilted admissions in favour of the lower castes. Interestingly, this created divisions inside the campus: between those who came from such coaching centres and those who had “innate ability”. Many rued that the coaching centre mechanism had spoiled the “IIT brand”.

Essentially the book sets out to answer the following: How does privilege become merit? Subramanian chooses to answer this not through data or design. She does not preach or speculate. The book answers this question mostly by interviewing past IIT students. In other words, she elicits answers from the horse’s mouth.

The Caste of Merit; Ajantha Subramanian, Harvard University Press/HarperCollins, ₹699.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jan 16, 2021 5:39:10 AM |

Next Story