Thursday, 27 January, 2022
HomeOpinionParag Agrawal of Twitter signals Brahmin clout at IIT ending. Kota is...

Parag Agrawal of Twitter signals Brahmin clout at IIT ending. Kota is now Baniya phenomenon

Baniyas, with their financial might, have breached the sanctum sanctorum of IITs. Money is playing a bigger role than birth in a certain caste. Change is welcome.

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Parag Agrawal becoming the CEO of Twitter has elated his Baniya/Vaishya community in India and may be, in the US as well. Welcoming Parag, digital influencer Malini Agarwal, founder of missmalini.com, who has 2.6 million followers, invoked the “Baniya Power in the house!” Later, she deleted the tweet and apologised. 

Parag, even if he wants, could possibly not stop his community from celebrating his success. Malini Agarwal acted like an average Indian by associating herself with the success of a fellow caste man. An Agarwal celebrating Baniya power evoked loud and angry responses on social media. Unlike the Brahmins and Thakurs, stereotypical Baniyas are expected to act modest and unassuming. Celebrating Brahamin brilliance and Rajput pride is so commonplace that the public sphere has normalised the utterances of these caste men and women. At least, Malini Agarwal now knows that she cannot act like a Brahmin or Thakur, at least not on a public platform.

Now, let’s tackle the vexed question. Is there really something called Baniya power, especially in the domain of knowledge and the professional world? I argue that Baniya power is a reality and even if they have not yet replaced Brahmins in this arena, they are posing a potent threat to the latter’s supremacy. I argue that Parag Agrawal is not an aberration and in coming days, we are going to see many more Baniyas grabbing the spaces, once considered exclusive domains of the Brahmins.

The IT revolution in its early years was led by the IIT graduates and postgraduates, and most of them were Brahmins. Sociologist Carol Upadhya’s study on the software professionals with 132 respondents in Bengaluru found that the social profile of IT workers was largely urban, middle class, and high or middle caste. The fathers of nearly 80 per cent of professionals surveyed had graduate degrees and above. 56 per cent of respondents’ mothers were graduates or above. Almost half (48 per cent) of them were found to be Brahmins.

She argues that “The predominance of Brahmins is not surprising, given their historical monopoly over higher education and formal sector employment, especially in south India.”

Now things are changing. 

If we take the most valuable IT-based startups that took shape in the last few years, most of them have a strong north Indian Baniya engineers/managers footprints. Startups like Flipkart (Sachin and Binny Bansal), OYO Rooms (Ritesh Agarwal), Ola Cabs (Bhavish Agarwal), Zomato (Deepender Goyal), Policybazaar (Alok Bansal), Lens Kart (Peyush Bansal), bOAT (Aman Gupta), Dream11 (Harsh Jain, Bhavit Sheth), Urban Company (Varun Khaitan), Licious (Vivek Gupta), and BrowserStack (Nakul Agarwal) among others are doing great and also telling a story of breakdown of Brahmin hegemony in the IT space once dominated by Kris Gopalakrishnans and Narayana Murthys.


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Knowledge, power and Brahmin domination

Historically, knowledge in India was associated with the hierarchical system of the caste and varna. Large masses of farmers, artisans, labourers and former untouchables were not supposed to study the scriptures or the Sanskrit language itself. This system of selective knowledge dissemination had religious sanctions and breaking this code entailed penal punishments, which included beheading, chopping off the tongue and pouring molten lead in the ears. There is ample literature available that documents these practises: Slavery by Jyotibe Phule; Who were the Shudras and Annihilation of Caste by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.

Importantly, this system of castebased hierarchy of knowledge remained intact during the Muslim and British Rule as well. The Muslim rulers avoided interfering in the affairs of the Hindus. That’s how the caste hierarchies remained intact, even after almost six centuries of Muslim rule in large part of India.

The British acted differently and tried to make some changes and amendments in the social systems (abolishing Sati, widow remarriage, fixing the age of consent, near universal eligibility to enter the army, education, and jobs to name a few). But that was not enough to alter the hierarchy and domination of centuries-old social structures. During British rule, the Brahmins were the first to take to English education and entered the professions and government services in large numbers. Many left for cities for better education and government jobs.

Noted sociologist Andre Beteille had registered this phenomenon in the celebrated book Caste and Indian Politics (Page-269; Ed- Rajni Kothari). Deliberating on caste politics in Tamil Nadu, he wrote, “Between 1892 and 1904, out of 16 successful candidates for the I.C.S. 15 were Brahmins; in 1913, 93 out of 128 permanent district munsifs were Brahmins; in 1914, 452 out of the 650 registered graduates of the University were Brahmins.” This data was also quoted by the 2nd Backward Classes Commission (Mandal Commission) in its report.

Brahmin domination was reproduced in the field of engineering education as well. Sociology faculty at Harvard University, Ajantha Subramanian found a rationale for this: “Engineering came to be associated with classroom-based theoretical knowledge and professional service to the state and disassociated from an earlier British orientation around guild apprenticeship and private industry… Initially, this meant racial exclusivity. But dual pressures— from England to do colonialism “on the cheap” and from nationalists charging Britain with underdevelopment— led to a lifting of the racial glass ceiling and entry of upper castes into the engineering service.” Despite having technical skills, the artisan classes got sidestepped and the literate upper caste became the natural catchment area for talent in engineering education.

In the post-Independence era, IITs at Kharagpur (1951), Bombay (1958), Madras (1959) and Delhi (1961) were founded with foreign collaboration and liberal funding from the Union government. Till 1973, there was no reservation for any social class in the IITs. SC-ST quota was introduced in 1973 and the OBC quota in 2008. Faculty quota in IITs is still being subverted, using some mechanism or the other. Initial absence of quotas at the IIT admissions and faculty recruitment made these institutions Savarna bastions.

The IITs have also evolved systems to fish out the reserved category students. Studies published in 2003 suggest that close to half the seats reserved for SCs and STs remain vacant and that of those admitted, a significant proportion are obliged to drop out. Thus the IITs remained uppercaste spaces despite implementing reservation. Implementation of quota was and is being resisted by the IIT faculty as they have normalised the idea of IITs being merit oriented institutions.

An eight-member committee appointed by the Union government actually recommended that IITs should be exempt from quota rules. The committee was chaired by IIT-Delhi director V. Ramgopal Rao and had IIT-Kanpur director and registrars of IIT-Madras and Mumbai as its members. This tells about the mindset of people at the helm of affairs at India’s premier technology institutions. The Union government has rejected this recommendation.


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The Baniya challenge 

Meanwhile, an interesting change vis a vis the IITs and the overall domain of professional education that started some decades ago and remains underway is yet to be systematically studied by the sociologists. It started as a trickle but has now taken the shape of a well-endowed stream. It’s the Baniya power!

1973 was the year of first transformation for the IITs, when 22.5 per cent SC/ST quota in admission to these institutes was implemented. This did not change the upper caste core of the IITs. The serious challenge came in 2008 after the implementation of the 27 per cent OBC quota. With half the seats “gone” competition for unreserved or general seats got tough.

A more interesting change is taking place vis a vis General seats. The domination of Brahmins in the General category seats appears to be waning.

In JEE Advanced 2020 results, out of the 35 Zonal toppers, 12 candidates have overtly Baniya surnames — Agarwal, Gupta, Dalmia, Jain, Kejriwal etc. It means that at least 30 per cent of the zonal toppers are Baniyas. This number may go up as many candidates don’t use such overt surnames.

In the previous year, out of the 35 zonal toppers, 10 candidates were having Baniya surnames. Their actual number might have been more. In the Roorkee zone, 4 out of 5 toppers were Baniyas.

Is this data telling any story? The data is too small to reach at any conclusion, and sadly the National Testing Agency does not disclose the rank, name and list of successful candidates. For secondary sources, I have checked the advertisements of some of the big coaching institutes, who proudly publish the names and photos of the successful candidates. I can safely say that the Baniya candidates dominate these advertisements. Coincidentally, 2019 (Kartikey Gupta) and 2021 (Mridul Agarwal) JEE Advanced merit rank #1 candidate was Baniya. Despite all this, we need more data and studies to prove that the Baniyas have arrived and have outnumbered the Brahmins in the JEE Advanced merit list. Another fact is that almost all big coaching institutes in north India are owned by the Baniyas. The ‘Kota Factory’ is a Baniya phenomenon.

There are many books and papers available that tell us the story of Brahmin domination in engineering education, especially in the IITs. Ajantha Subramanian’s book Caste of Merit is the latest of them. But Baniya’s ascent in engineering has not yet reached the threshold of becoming subject matter of academic scrutiny.

I try to provide some reasons for this shift.

  • This trend picked up pace after the change in pattern for the Joint Entrance Exam in 2002 and then in 2005. There may be some clues in these changes.
  • Before 1990, the primary site of the formation of the urban middle class was the government sector. White collar jobs in this sector were mainly held by the Brahmins. In the post-liberalised economy, this paradigm changed and private business and entrepreneurship became the prime site of wealth creation. This might have benefited the Baniyas more. This urban middle class of Baniyas might be providing the talent pool for engineering entrance tests.
  • Proliferation of coaching and its role in securing good rank might have benefitted certain groups and classes of students. As the engineering coaching now starts early (as early as class VII), the social class that can afford the financial burden of coaching becomes the beneficiary.
  • And last, but not the least, different forms of capital—economic (money), cultural (cultivation and credentials), and social (connections) are interchangeable and can be converted to the other.

In their book Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron write about how the competitive exams reproduce the social hierarchies.  They argue that “the probabilities of candidature” were already limited to those endowed with certain forms of educational and cultural capital. Though Bourdieu says that economic, cultural and social capitals are convertible, his emphasis is more on cultural and social capitals. His thesis provides a perfect explanation for continued Brahmin hegemony in education. We have to see if the Baniyas are successfully converting their financial capital into social and cultural capitals and subverting the Brahmin domination in education, especially in the IITs.

My hypothesis is that the Baniyas, with their financial might, have breached the sanctum sanctorum of the IITs and might have outnumbered and outwitted the Brahmins.

If this has actually happened, then we will see many more Parag Agrawals in the coming future. Sociology of Indian politics has taken a tectonic shift from Pandit Nehru and Pandit G.B. Pant to Modh Ghanchi (oil trader) Narendra Modi and Jain trader Amit Shah. This change may be reproduced in other fields as well. Education might be one of those fields where money is playing a bigger role than the coincidence of birth in a caste. We must welcome this change.

The author is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has written books on media and sociology. He tweets @Profdilipmandal. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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