What is merit? How is it claimed? In her much-awaited book The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India
(Harvard University Press, 2019), Ajantha Subramanian
addresses the pertinent question of caste inheritance and privilege in the making of merit and meritocracies. Focusing her attention on the premier institutions of engineering education in India, the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), Subramanian provides an insightful account of their emergence is post-independence India as a set of distinct and “world class” institutions underwritten by the Indian state. As Subramanian traces the colonial career of technical knowledge as the prehistory of the formation of IITs as well as the global circulation of ‘Brand IIT’, she provides us an account of how the alibis of caste inheritance emerge against graded inequalities. Whether it is through the language of law that only names caste discrimination as the basis of non-achievement while leaving unnamed caste inheritances as the basis of achievement, or through the judicial monikers of ‘general category’ and ‘reserved category’ or better still the ‘middle classness’ of those who claim educational achievement as their only capital, Subramanian’s book unravels the claims to casteless-ness crucial to the discourse on meritocracy in India and in the United States.
Ajantha Subramanian is a Professor of Anthropology at Harvard University. Tune in to listen to the author talk about the dual value of technical education, the relationships between caste and mobility, the Indian diaspora in the Silicon Valley and the methodological repertoire and dilemmas of (not) talking about caste privilege.
Bhoomika Joshi is a doctoral student in the department of anthropology at Yale University.