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Brahmins on India’s elite campuses say studying science is natural to upper castes: Study

I researched Brahmin domination in science in India. Most Brahmins I talked to thought they were natural inheritors of the scientific practice.

The Indian Institute of Science campus in Bengaluru | Photo: @iiscbangalore

The domination of Brahmin and the upper caste scientists have given a Brahmanical identity to science in India. They have been perceived to be the natural inheritors of scientific practice, an assertion reaffirmed by scientists and researchers during my fieldwork in Bangalore, India.

Even after the introduction of various inclusive policies such as reservations for marginalised groups in educational institutions, there is a stark absence of such groups in India’s leading scientific research institutions. Available data show few scientists from the Dalit and other marginalised sections in most of the leading Indian scientific and technical educational institutions. This absence led me to undertake ethnographic fieldwork at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), one of Asia’s leading scientific research institutions.

Also read: Tamil Brahmins were the earliest to frame merit as a caste claim, and it showed in IITs

Eating and learning

Most of the scientists who work at IISc obtained their PhDs or postdoctoral training from leading American or British universities. Official data clearly show that the demography of IISc has changed little. It is still demographically and culturally dominated by Brahmin and upper caste scientists. Available data from other leading scientific and technical institutions such as IITs also show the absence of Dalits and OBC scientists.

The entry of non-Brahmin scientists has not changed this image. Many virtues of Brahmin culture have been normalised in the scientific institutional settings. The domination of vegetarianism in India cannot be merely seen as food preference and choice as reports show that there are cases of discrimination on what one eats and cases reported on the existence of separate wash basins and entrances for vegetarians and non-vegetarians for example, as mentioned previously, in IIT Madras.

The majority of the Brahmin scientists I spoke to at IISc were vegetarian. IISc has three major student dining halls (Mess), called A, B, and C: A mess is for pure-vegetarian food, B mess is for north Indian vegetarian and non-vegetarian food and C mess is for south Indian vegetarian and non-vegetarian food. Even though Brahmins and other upper caste students and researchers ate at the B, and C mess, majority of the Dalits and non-Brahmins ate either at the B or at the C mess.

Some Brahmin scientists I spoke to informed me that they had tried non-vegetarian food when they were in Western universities. Food becomes a way of preserving their cultural and caste memory. Though these scientists continue to be vegetarians, they did not associate their food habits with their caste backgrounds. Instead, they justified vegetarian food habits as scientific.

Also read: The IITs have a long history of systematically othering Dalit students

Caste linking science and passion

Due to their early entry into the Western education and their knowledge of English, it was the upper castes and Brahmins who benefitted, reshaped and negotiated these new forms of knowledge. They redefined the image of science as Brahmin and Bhadralok (educated upper caste Bengali) knowledge, which in turn was reaffirmed as the biography of science in India.

This norm is visible from Sudarshan (names used are anonymised for ethical reasons), a Tamil Brahmin scientist who works in the field of Aeronautics, when stating that the Brahmins are ‘passionate’ about learning, and others are interested only in ‘money making’.

Speaking with Sudarshan at his office, I realised how the perception of science being a Brahmin profession was entrenched. I asked him why there were no non-Brahmin scientists or only few non-Brahmin scientists in the institutes of higher scientific learning such as IISc. He responded,

These guys are not interested to ‘waste’ time like us. They think it is better to go for a technical or business education, so that they would get immediate benefit. Science and research will not have an immediate effect. It takes time to get benefits. The most important thing one ought to have while pursuing research is ‘patience’, which we don’t find among these groups. . . 

Sudarshan did not think that he was offending anyone, but shared a common belief among many scientists that Brahmins are meant to do science and research, and that they are ready to sacrifice for knowledge.

Sudarshan was not the only scientist who argued in this way. Many scientists with whom I interacted thought that learning and science was part of the Brahmin culture. Sudarshan’s views reaffirm the alleged naturalness of Brahmins’ intellectual superiority.

When scientists like Sudarshan narrate their family background, they wish to convey that despite their poverty, they could study and become scientists as their family ‘valued’ education, and for them it is ‘natural’ that their family valued education.

This tendency to focus on their deprivation while ignoring the privileges of their Brahmin origin is observable throughout the personal writings and interviews with the Brahmin scientists. This acceptance and negotiation made Brahmins the ‘inheritors’ of knowledge. It is this image which led Jagadesan, a Dalit scientist to tell me over coffee that IISc means Iyer Iyengar Science Campus (Iyers and Iyengars are Brahmins from the state of Tamil Nadu and settled in different parts of South India).

Also read: IIT Bombay is just the latest among India’s elite colleges promoting food casteism

Cultural capital and access

Being Brahmins who had educated family members, it was not just passion, but also their cultural capital that helped them in doing science.

As Satish Deshpande observed, ‘Having encashed its traditional caste-capital networks and converted it into modern forms of capital like property, higher educational credentials and strongholds in lucrative professions, this section believes itself to be “caste-less” today’. This disavowal and denial of caste in their everyday life by claiming a liberal identity was common among the scientists of IISc. They would describe themselves as liberal, but when it comes to questions of reservation, they would be very sceptical. They believed, as Sudarshan said, in order to do science, one needs to have ‘passion’, and ‘sacrificial mentality’. They believed that reservation may affect the quality of research, and reservation will produce scientists who are not passionate about science and research.

The public should be informed regularly regarding the number of Dalit, ST and the OBC scientists that they appoint, and various strategies that they employ to make the scientific and technical education more inclusive. If this debate around the underrepresentation of scientists does not happen, the elite institutes such as IISc and IITs will remain ivory towers and will not be accountable to the public.

This is an edited excerpt from “Brahmins as scientists and science as Brahmins’ calling” in Public Understanding of Science. It has been published here with permission from Sage Publications.

The author is an anthropologist of science, teaches at the Department of Sociology, Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi. Views are personal.