ABOUT THIS BOOK
How the language of “merit” makes caste privilege invisible in contemporary India.
Just as Americans least disadvantaged by racism are most likely to endorse their country as post‐racial, Indians who have benefited from their upper-caste affiliation rush to declare their country post‐caste. In The Caste of Merit, Ajantha Subramanian challenges this comfortable assumption by illuminating the controversial relationships among technical education, caste formation, and economic stratification in modern India. Through in-depth study of the elite Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs)—widely seen as symbols of national promise—she reveals the continued workings of upper-caste privilege within the most modern institutions.
Caste has not disappeared in India but instead acquired a disturbing invisibility—at least when it comes to the privileged. Only the lower castes invoke their affiliation in the political arena, to claim resources from the state. The upper castes discard such claims as backward, embarrassing, and unfair to those who have earned their position through hard work and talent. Focusing on a long history of debates surrounding access to engineering education, Subramanian argues that such defenses of merit are themselves expressions of caste privilege. The case of the IITs shows how this ideal of meritocracy serves the reproduction of inequality, ensuring that social stratification remains endemic to contemporary democracies.
The Caste of Merit is a brilliant contribution to the study of both privilege and meritocracy in contemporary India. It is a powerful intervention in our ongoing debates about diasporic mobility and a genuinely novel treatment of caste as an enduring reality for those struggling to make their way in today’s world of competitive high-tech career trajectories. A distinguished and innovative work, both ethnographically and theoretically.
-- Susan Bayly, author of Caste, Society and Politics in India
Subramanian’s book is profoundly historical, with a broad focus on the evolution of technical education and social life since the colonial period, as well as the ways caste continues to shape power and hierarchies in contemporary India. A valuable contribution to the growing literature on caste and its reproduction in modern times.
-- Surinder S. Jodhka, author of Caste in Contemporary India
India’s legendary IITs deserve close study by an anthropologist, and Ajantha Subramanian has produced a remarkable work that lets us see behind the curtain.
-- Ross Bassett, author of The Technological Indian
The Caste of Merit depicts how upper-caste Indians remade themselves through the ideology of meritocracy. Through her richly detailed ethnography, Ajantha Subramanian sheds new light on the troubling relationship between meritocracy and the reproduction of inequality. A must-read for anyone interested in how meritocracy works in contemporary societies.
-- Shamus Khan, author of Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School
With a rare combination of originality and intellectual rigor, Subramanian provides a masterful and disturbing analysis of democratic ideals, meritocracy, and the endurance of caste at the paramount higher education institutions of modern India. A timely and impressive achievement.
-- Assa Doron, coauthor of Waste of a Nation
A critique of casteism and growing inequality, this book also doubles as a fascinating history of IIT. Best read in Straussian fashion as a sympathetic story of origins.
-- Tyler Cowen Marginal Revolution
In India—as in the United States and elsewhere—academic advancement rarely occurs without a foundation of family privilege. Focusing on the IIT in Madras, Subramanian shows how upper-caste Tamil graduates have converted their caste privilege into professional prestige and resisted attempts to increase the enrollment of lower-caste groups.
-- Andrew J. Nathan Foreign Affairs
An original, incisive, and scrupulous work of historical anthropology…With a particular focus on IIT Madras and Tamil Nadu, Subramanian explores the psychology and the demographics of India’s new engineers, and the politics of caste, class, and reservations.
-- Namit Arora The Caravan
Provides interesting insights into the colonial history of engineering education and associated racialization of caste, and the making of IITs in postcolonial India as an Brahmin-upper caste space…An excellent book that those interested in sociology of education and meritocracy in India cannot ignore.
-- Suryakant Waghmore Scroll
What does ‘merit’—which is often posed as the ideal criterion for university admissions—really mean in a context where caste pervades public life? Drawing on a rich ethnography focused on the IIT Madras, in the South Indian city of Chennai, Subramanian argues that in ‘merit,’ upper-caste Indians find a liberal and secular rendering of caste…In both India and America, Subramanian argues, a fantasy of having transcended identity politics has allowed for the entrenchment of power.
-- Sneha Krishnan Public Books
Provides interesting insights into the colonial history of engineering education and associated racialization of caste and the making of IITs in postcolonial India as a Brahmin–upper caste space…An excellent book that those interested in sociology of education and meritocracy in India cannot ignore.
-- Suryakant Waghmore Economic and Political Weekly