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.
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