Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Making Merit: The Indian Institutes of Technology and the Social Life of Caste

  • Ajantha Subramanian (a1)

The politics of meritocracy at the Indian Institutes of Technology illuminates the social life of caste in contemporary India. I argue that the IIT graduate's status depends on the transformation of privilege into merit, or the conversion of caste capital into modern capital. Analysis of this process calls for a relational approach to merit. My ethnographic research on the southeastern state of Tamilnadu, and on IIT Madras located in the state capital of Chennai, illuminates claims to merit, not simply as the transformation of capital but also as responses to subaltern assertion. Analyzing meritocracy in relation to subaltern politics allows us to see the contextual specificity of such claims: at one moment, they are articulated through the disavowal of caste, at another, through caste affiliation. This marking and unmarking of caste suggests a rethinking of meritocracy, typically assumed to be a modernist ideal that disclaims social embeddedness and disdains the particularisms of caste and race. I show instead that claims to collective belonging and to merit are eminently commensurable, and become more so when subaltern assertion forces privilege into the foreground. Rather than the progressive erasure of ascribed identities in favor of putatively universal ones, we are witnessing the re-articulation of caste as an explicit basis for merit and the generation of newly consolidated forms of upper-casteness.

Corresponding author
Hide All
Ambirajan S. 1995. Science and Technology Education in South India. In MacLeod Roy and Kumar Deepak, eds., Technology and the Raj: Western Technology and Technical Transfers to India, 1700–1947 (New Delhi: Thousand Oaks, Sage), 112–33.
Azhagi Mulai. 2012. Iyer Iyengar Technology. Viduthalai, 26 July (Tamil): (accessed 8 Dec. 2014).
Bairy Ramesh. 2010. Being Brahmin, Being Modern: Exploring the Lives of Caste Today. New Delhi: Routledge.
Barnett Marguerite Ross. 1976. The Politics of Cultural Nationalism in South India. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Basu Aparna. 1991. The Indian Response to Scientific and Technical Education in the Colonial Era, 1820–1920. In Kumar Deepak, ed., Science and Empire: Essays in Indian Context (1700–1947). Delhi: Anamika Prakashan, 126–38.
Bayly Susan. 1999. Caste, Society and Politics in India: From the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Béteille André. 1991. The Reproduction of Inequality: Occupation, Caste and Family. Contributions to Indian Sociology (n.s.) 25, 1: 328.
Béteille André. 1996. Caste in Contemporary India. In Fuller C. J., ed., Caste Today. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 150–79.
Bourdieu Pierre. 1986. The Forms of Capital. In Richardson J., ed., Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. Westport: Greenwood Press, 241–58.
Carson John. 2002. Differentiating a Republican Citizenry: Talents, Human Science, and Enlightenment Theories of Governance. Osiris, 2d series, vol. 17, Science and Civil Society: 74103.
Carson John. 2006. The Measure of Merit: Talents, Intelligence, and Inequality in the French and American Republics, 1750–1940. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Chadha Ashish. 2006. Battle for Brand IIT. Hindu, 25 June: (accessed 8 Dec. 2014).
Comaroff John and Comaroff Jean. 2009. Ethnicity, Inc. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Deb Sandipan. 2004. The IITians: The Story of a Remarkable Indian Institution and How Its Alumni Are Changing the World. New Delhi: Viking.
Deshpande Satish. 2013. Caste and Castelessness: Towards a Biography of the “General Category.Economic and Political Weekly 48, 15 (13 Apr.): 3239.
Dirks Nicholas B. 2001. Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Dugger Celia W. 2000. Return Passage to India: Emigres Pay Back. New York Times, 29 Feb.: (accessed 8 Dec. 2014).
Fuller C. J. 1999. The Brahmins and Brahminical Values in Modern Tamil Nadu. In Guha Ramachandra and Parry Jonathan, eds., Institutions and Inequalities: Essays in Honour of André Béteille. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 3055.
Fuller C. J. and Narasimhan Haripriya. 2006. Engineering Colleges, “Exposure” and Information Technology Professionals in Tamil Nadu. Economic and Political Weekly 41, 3 (21–27 Jan.): 258–62.
Fuller C. J. and Narasimhan Haripriya. 2007. Information Technology Professionals and the New-Rich Middle Class in Chennai (Madras). Modern Asian Studies 41: 121–50.
Fuller C. J. and Narasimhan Haripriya. 2008. From Landlords to Software Engineers: Migration and Urbanization among Tamil Brahmins. Comparative Studies in Society and History 50, 1: 170–96.
Fuller C. J. and Narasimhan Haripriya. 2010. Traditional Vocations and Modern Professions among Tamil Brahmans in Colonial and Post-Colonial South India. Indian Economic and Social History Review 47, 4: 473–96.
Galanter Marc. 1984. Competing Equalities: Law and the Backward Classes in India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Geetha V. and Rajadurai S. V.. 1991. Towards a Non-Brahmin Millennium: From Iyothee Thass to Periyar. Calcutta: Samya, in association with Book Review Literary Trust.
Gilmartin David. 1994. Scientific Empire and Imperial Science: Colonialism and Irrigation Technology in the Indus Basin. Journal of Asian Studies 53, 4: 1127–49.
Gilmartin David. 2010. Rule of Law, Rule of Life: Caste, Democracy, and the Courts in India. American Historical Review 15, 2 (April): 406–27.
Gupta Dipankar. 2000. Interrogating Caste: Understanding Hierarchy and Difference in Indian Society. New York: Penguin.
Harris Cheryl. 1993. Whiteness as Property. Harvard Law Review 106, 8: 1707–91.
Indiresan P. V. and Nigam N. C.. 1993. The Indian Institutes of Technology: Excellence in Peril. In Chitnis Suma and Altbach Philip G., eds., Higher Education Reform in India: Experience and Perspectives. New Delhi: Sage India, 334–63.
Jacobson Matthew Frye. 1999. Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Jacobson Matthew Frye. 2005. Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post-Civil Rights America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Jaffrelot Christophe. 2003. India's Silent Revolution: The Rise of the Lower Castes in North India. New York: Columbia University Press.
Joseph Manu. 2012. Rethinking the Mother of All Exams. New York Times, 1 Feb., section World/Asia Pacific: (accessed 8 Dec. 2014).
King A. D. 1970a. Elite Education and the Economy: IIT Entrance: 1965–70. Economic and Political Weekly 5, 35: 1463–72.
King A. D. 1970b. The IIT Graduate, 1970: Aspirations, Expectations and Ambitions. Economic and Political Weekly 5, 36: 14971510.
Kirpal Viney, Swamidasan Nalini, Gupta Amitabha, and Gupta Raj K.. 1985. Scheduled Caste and Tribe Students in Higher Education: A Study of an IIT. Economic and Political Weekly 20, 29: 1238–48.
Kloppenberg James. 1987. The Virtues of Liberalism: Christianity, Republicanism, and Ethics in Early American Political Discourse. Journal of American History 44, 1: 133.
Kothari Rajni, ed. 1970. Caste in Indian Politics. New Delhi: Orient Longman.
Kripalani Manjeet, Engardio Pete, and Spiro Leah Nathans. 1998. India's Whiz Kids. Business Week, 12 July: (accessed 8 Dec. 2014).
Kumar Arun. 1995. Colonial Requirements and Engineering Education: The Public Works Department, 1847–1947. In MacLeod Roy and Kumar Deepak, eds., Technology and the Raj: Western Technology and Technical Transfers to India 1700–1947. New Delhi: Thousand Oaks, Sage Publications, 216–32.
Kumar Deepak. 1982. Racial Discrimination and Science in Nineteenth-Century India. Indian Economic and Social History Review 19, 1: 6382.
Kumar Vinoj. 2007. Dalits not Welcome in IIT Madras. Tehelka Magazine, 16 June: (accessed 8 Dec. 2014).
Leslie Stuart and Kargon Robert. 2006. Exporting MIT: Science, Technology, and Nation-Building in India and Iran. Osiris 21, 1: 110–30.
Lipsitz George. 1998. The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Ministry of Education. 1966. Report of the Education Commission, 1964–66. Delhi: Manager of Publications.
Mukherji Anahita. 2014. Degrees of Bias. Times of India, Mumbai, 14 Sept.: (accessed 8 Dec. 2014).
Nair Rukmini Bhaya, with Bajaj Ramnik and Meattle Ankur. 1997. Technobrat: Culture in a Cybernetic Classroom. New Delhi: HarperCollins.
O'Hanlon Rosalind and Minkowski Christopher. 2008. What Makes People Who They Are? Pandit Networks and the Problem of Livelihoods in Early Modern Western India. Indian Economic and Social History Review 45, 3: 381416.
Pandian M.S.S. 2007. Brahmin and Non-Brahmin: Genealogies of the Tamil Political Present. Delhi: Permanent Black.
Piper Adrian. 1992. Passing for White, Passing for Black. Transition 58: 432.
Price Pamela. 1989. Ideology and Ethnicity under British Imperial Rule: ‘Brahmans,’ Lawyers and Kin-Caste Rules in Madras Presidency. Modern Asian Studies 23, 1: 151–77.
Rajagopalan C. and Singh Jaspal. 1968. The Indian Institutes of Technology: Do They Contribute to Social Mobility? Economic and Political Weekly 3, 14 (6 Apr.): 565–70.
Rao Anupama. 2009. The Caste Question: Dalits and the Politics of Modern India. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Salkever Alexander. 1999. Technical Sutra. Salon, 6 Dec.
Saxenian Anna Lee. 1999. Silicon Valley's New Immigrant Entrepreneurs. San Francisco: Public Policy Institute of California.
Subramanian Ajantha. 2000. Indians in North Carolina: Race, Class, and Culture in the Making of Immigrant Identity. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East 20, 1&2: 105–14.
Subramanian Narendra. 1999. Ethnicity and Populist Mobilization: Political Parties, Citizens and Democracy in South India. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Suresh Kumar D. 2008. JEE Fails to Get the Best: IIT Dons. Times of India, 31 July: (accessed 8 Dec. 2014).
Swaminathan Padmini. 1992. Technical Education and Industrial Development in Madras Presidency: Illusions of a Policy in the Making. Economic and Political Weekly, 25 July: 1611–22.
Tharoor Shashi. 2006. The Success Story of ‘Brand IIT.’ Economic Times, 31 Dec.: (accessed 8 Dec. 2014).
Upadhya Carol. 2007. Employment, Exclusion and ‘Merit’ in the Indian IT Industry. Economic and Political Weekly 42, 20: 1863–68.
Warner Melanie. 2000. The Indians of Silicon Valley. Fortune Magazine, 15 May: (accessed 8 Dec. 2014).
Washbrook David A. 1989. Caste, Class, and Dominance in Modern Tamil Nadu: Non-Brahminism, Dravidianism, and Tamil Nationalism. In Frankel F. and Rao M.S.A., eds., Dominance and State Power in Modern India. Vol.1. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 117–37.
Washbrook David A. 2010. The Maratha Brahmin Model in South India: An Afterword. Indian Economic and Social History Review 47, 4 (2010): 597615.
Yadav Yogendra. 1996. Reconfiguration in Indian Politics. State Assembly Elections 1993–95. Economic and Political Weekly, 13 Jan.: 95–104.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Comparative Studies in Society and History
  • ISSN: 0010-4175
  • EISSN: 1475-2999
  • URL: /core/journals/comparative-studies-in-society-and-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 12
Total number of PDF views: 259 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 958 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 20th October 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.