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

Studies on the Indian diaspora in the US can lead one to conclude that caste largely vanishes beyond boundaries of India. The story of IIT students suggests otherwise.

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Mass coaching and reservations brought new groups into the IITs and radically transformed the demographic makeup of these institutions. As a result, the social profile of the IITian as part of an urban, upper-caste middle class has given way to a more diverse student body. In reaction to these trends, upper-caste IITians have attempted to shore up their representative status by claiming the mantle of meritocracy. This has involved a robust politics of distinction through which the coached are distinguished from the gifted, and the reserved category from the general category. In the process, a consolidated form of upper casteness has emerged and, in the context of Indian higher education, acquired unique salience. We have also seen the role of Tamil Nadu as an important precedent in the shift from a universalistic to a more identitarian expression of upper-caste identity. 

As targets of Non-Brahminism and Dravidianism, Tamil Brahmins were the earliest to frame merit as a caste claim. Their marking as Brahmins produced forms of self-marking as a tactic of meritocratic claim-making. With the spread of Other Backward Class (OBC) politics across India, this shift to a more explicit caste politics of meritocracy has also spread. At IIT Madras and beyond, the assumption now is that the general category is an upper-caste collective. 

Through all these challenges to and defenses of upper-caste meritocracy, mobility has remained a key mechanism of caste consolidation and capital accumulation. We have seen in previous chapters how mobility within India under the purview of the central government contributed to the making of an upper-caste intelligentsia. It was precisely the caste capital provided by this mobility that was threatened by the Mandal Commission recommendations and produced such a strong backlash. But spatial mobility was by no means limited to national borders. Migration outside India has also been a long-standing source of upper-caste social and economic capital. This was certainly the case for IITians. 

As we saw in Chapter 4, IITians began to leave India from the late 1960s for what they perceived as greener pastures. In the very early years, these were brief forays for training in West Germany and other countries, after which they would return to work in Indian industry. But the pattern shifted once the United States came into view as the principal destination for IITians. The post-1960s waves of migration made up a more sizable, more permanent diaspora. 

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

Migration from India predated independence. The late nineteenth century witnessed the first large wave of Indian migration to Burma, Ceylon, Malaya, Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific. The vast majority of these migrants were lower-caste indentured laborers. This was followed by a second wave of traders, clerks, bureaucrats, and professionals who went mostly to East and South Africa but also to the other British colonies where indentured laborers had preceded them. A third wave headed for the United States. There are clear differences between the experiences of lower-caste laborers and upper-caste professionals who began arriving in the United States from as early as the 1880s. But despite the fact that caste played a significant role in structuring migration and diasporic life, the scholarly literature on the Indian diaspora to the United States might lead one to conclude that caste largely vanishes as a social category beyond the boundaries of the Indian nation-state. Instead, the most salient forms of self-definition appear to be class, gender, language, religion, and nation. 

The story of the IIT diaspora suggests otherwise. 

The forms of accumulated caste capital detailed over the previous chapters were key factors in allowing for diasporic mobility. Moreover, the professional success of IITians in the United States has been hugely significant for reinforcing the link between meritocracy and caste. With geographical distance from India and from rising challenges to caste entitlement, IITian achievement abroad once again appears as just that—self-made success. Diasporic mobility has helped to once again force caste into the shadows. However, the absence of caste as a public identity in the diaspora does not preclude its structural and affective workings. If anything, the institutional kinship within the overwhelmingly upper-caste IIT diaspora has become an even more potent form of capital. Diasporic IITians have been at the forefront of efforts to sustain and consolidate their affective ties and to make the IIT pedigree into a globally recognized brand. 

Much of this work of branding has been driven by IITians in Silicon Valley, for whom entrepreneurial success has further reinforced their sense of being self-made individuals. Entrepreneurialism—and that, too, being nonwhite entrepreneurial successes in a new industry— has deepened their investment in a narrative of humble middle-class origins in which the brain is elevated as the sole form of capital and histories of caste are strikingly absent. U.S.-based IITians work to advance this narrative, not only in the United States but also in India, where they have been vocal advocates of market deregulation and privatization. Moving between U.S. and Indian contexts has entailed a balancing act between the marking and unmarking of caste as the basis of achievement. As we have seen, ongoing challenges to upper- caste dominance in India have disrupted settled expectations and produced a more strident defense of merit as caste property. The diaspora, too, is an important weapon in this fight. By showcasing diasporic success as the arrival of the global Indian, upper-caste IITians render the struggle for caste rights into a parochial—even regressive—endeavor. 

Understanding the transnationalization of caste is particularly important in the current moment, when the rise to political power of middle and lower castes has partially obscured the workings of upper- caste capital. Indeed, it is particularly productive to think about how and in which contexts such capital is reconstituted. While in some ways formal political arenas and the broader cultural sphere have witnessed the entry of lower castes, elite education and the expanding private sector both within and beyond India have serviced the reconstitution of caste privilege by other means. In this sense, we might think of elite and private domestic and transnational arenas as spaces of upper-caste flight and retrenchment away from the pressures of lower- caste politics. 

Political scientist Devesh Kapur has argued that the immigration of Indian professionals to the United States was one of the “safety valves” of Indian democracy. Because they could immigrate, the fight over the distribution of political power and economic resources was less contentious than it might have otherwise been. Kapur argues further that the specific form of capital these elites possessed—advanced degrees as opposed to land—made for easy “exit,” first from state employment to the private sector and then abroad. Since this was a transferable form of capital, “exit” also contributed to the further accumulation of capital.

What is less evident is how moving from one system of social stratification to another influenced the worldviews and practices of diasporic elites. Specifically, what did it mean for Indian professionals to move from a society where enduring caste stratification intersected with democratic change to a society where racial stratification operated similarly? How did they respond to their own racialization as U.S. minorities, and how did this experience shape their forms of identification and strategies of accumulation? 

Also read: IIT mania is costing students quality time at schools. But CBSE, other bodies still sleeping

In this chapter, I will build on existing literature on the Indian diaspora in the United States to understand the impact of transnational mobility on IITians and of diasporic IITians on India. How, I will ask, was upper-caste identity forged in the United States, where IITians were positioned as both class elites and racial minorities? IITian diasporic experiences have to be understood in relation to the longer U.S. history of race and immigration. 

The 1965 U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act marked a key shift toward official multiculturalism and the representative power of Indian professionals. This shift is key to the status of IITians as an influential subset of Indian professionals whose self-fashioning is keenly attentive to the market for identities. As we will see, their self-fashioning as ethnic entrepreneurs, helped by the catalytic impact of the Silicon Valley boom and enduring forms of transnational institutional kinship, has found fullest expression in the marketing of Brand IIT. Moreover, diasporic IITians have leveraged their status as financially successful global moderns to push for legal changes, market deregulation, and privatization in India. 

The success of Brand IIT has also transformed the meaning of meritocracy by shifting the emphasis from intellectualism to entrepreneurialism.

This excerpt from The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India by Ajantha Subramanian has been published with permission from Harper Collins India.

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  1. It’s a die if you do, die if you don’t situation. The Brahmin is the bogeyman in the imagination of the author. Like most left leaning intellectuals, the objective realities of caste in history are twisted endlessly to fit an ideological mould. Facts that embellish the narrative are opportunistically and deliberately left out.
    Brahmins in TN have been pushed out the state completely. Why is it so ? because a serf couldn’t enter a temple 1000 years ago ? Most societies on earth historically have are till today more segregated than India – Babylon, the American South, Japan, SE Asia, Europe, the Middle East – every single one of these societies practiced some form of slavery, genocide and conquest. Yet Brahmins are selectively seen as oppressors, how can it be ? A tiny minority with no land in a feudal society oppressed the majority. All this while the creamy layer of so called minorities indulge in grand lifestyles, live in mansions, have cannibalised all means of production by coopting the state to favor them till kingdom that never comes. What an absolute joke this author is.

  2. Just going through the comments section is the poof of this article or the book (The Caste of Merit). The argument in the book is completely new perspective of what happened and provide the glimpse of untold story.

  3. Great example of how to say nothing in 5000 words. Heavy on words, light on facts and reasoning, and no evidence or data presented to support the core premise of the article. Having lived and interacted with highly successful IIT alums in the bay area, I can say with confidence that this is pure nonsense.

  4. Shitty article. Could not even understand one sentence. Is this the level of output that is representative of the collective intellect of the tambram class or caste which is forming it’s own elitist identity in foreign lands?

  5. Like the Jews (Einstein, Newton, etc), Tambrams too are highly intelligent/meritorious .. an established fact ..
    nothing to envy not boast of … a genetic phenomenon I guess ..

  6. This is a classic case of intellectual constipation resulting in verbal diarrhea. Absolute lack of clarity on either what the author wants to convey or what she has attempted to convey and some confused perceptions, obviously, unsupported by data take the article beyond comprehension.

  7. “Moving between U.S. and Indian contexts has entailed a balancing act between the marking and unmarking of caste as the basis of achievement. As we have seen, ongoing challenges to upper- caste dominance in India have disrupted settled expectations and produced a more strident defense of merit as caste property. The diaspora, too, is an important weapon in this fight. By showcasing diasporic success as the arrival of the global Indian, upper-caste IITians render the struggle for caste rights into a parochial—even regressive—endeavor”

    If someone is criticising this article for being unfair towards upper caste merited in IIT s then they completely misunderstood this confusing and almost unnecessarily twisted stupid article. He is simply stating that people are growing beyond caste outside India and remaining all stupid stuff we knew about caste in India in more “Subrahmanians'” way. He didn’t state a single fact. He just gave statements. Nothing beyond that.

  8. AJANTHA SUBRAMANIAN ?!? What a piece of $$$$ you have written? Totally false. No research done. No substance. Such a low class article. You don’t deserve to write an article. The author is spoiling the website’s credibility. Editor please take a note. Don’t allow half- knowledge people like Ajantha. Totally disgusting article. Yuck.

  9. Brahmins in Tamil Nadu are no more available in the field of medicine and law – because of reservation policy, unaffordable capitation fee and low headroom for meritocracy.

  10. To certain extent, in the light of the history of India, unless one invokes the divine origin theory, as an historical axegency or as a contingent fact, somehow, within the varnavyabasthaa, the upper varnas, especially the Brahmanas & Kshatriyas came to occupy the higher ring of the long history of the Indian social & political heirarchy. If the Indian civilization minus those cultural traits infused into it on account of alien invasions has any value to contribute to the universalisable human values of the rest of the human civilizations, then, as the traditionally determined repository of spiritual, philosophical & other empirical ideas & even knowledge which are to be found in galore, unless one seeks to completely destroy or refused to see any worthwhile value in them, just like the Jews in the west, the Indian Brahmins and those discernible cultural and ideas as their contributions which laid down as the foundations of the said Indian civilization, this upper most of the four castes have to be given their dues. There are serious difficulties in this view which I am aware of. But, good or bad as long as we talk about India and it’s chequered history, with some drastic overhauling of its social-culturally rooted and ontologically retrenched varnavyabasthaa so as to enable it reclaim it’s significant slot in the comity of world civilizations which are till today heavily tilted or even rather dominated by everything western ideas & values, the country has a lot to contribute to the much crises afflicted world. I would like to mind the readers that, if there is anything worthwhile in the ancient wisdom of the country, then, despite their superiority complex the Brahmins of India just like the highly meritorious Jews, can’t be wished away and put them in some in some corner & make them to undergo the retributory punishment for their varna based rigid stratification which is still a reality today. Through out the history of the world, the inter-community or ethnic power struggle & violent conflicts had been been the well documented norms. I am quite confident that, the so called democratic, liberal and secular west & its ideas which control & organise the world today on the political and economic planes are the tips of the ice bergs beneath which there lurks a much more heneous devil, even more devilish than the Indian upper casts. It is this devil which denies climate change as caused by human activities ( anthropogensis) and the rampant destruction of nature in the name of capitalist development. When seen on this light, if the Indian philosophical traditions are brought out minus the present government’s not embracing neoliberalism, and try to propose the great Indian world which is holistic to the world then, the biosphere which is now threatened will have a chance to survive. The Indian caste system can’t be the sole glass through which we should judge the history of Indian civilization. No doubt, it needs to be changed. Meritocracy with or without caste, is a global trend, and this explains as to why , the traditional Indian meritocracy is compatible with neoliberalism or capitalism. Equality, equity, liberty & rights along with justice etc as modern ideals are still distant dreams which are there at all even in the west. The world today is controlled by those who studied in Oxford, Harvard & other elite universities. This explains the triumph of Darwinism. It is here that an overhauled Indian ideas and ideals can only provide the penacea to the ailments of the world caused by the hipocracy of these so called modern secular values which are still in the dark tunnel of double standards. I believe that, if Darwinism is to be transcended, then, the concept of human nature and the inclusive self minus varnavyabasthaa, as it is in the Indian philosophical tradition founded on the ontological concept of oneness of existence, can only provide the much needed model of an non-other-worldly self-transcdence. Somehow this model may help in redefining the above modern values and help mankind to maintain its vital place in the biosphere.

  11. What a confused article – with no facts based arguments, the whole narration is hidden in bombastic booms of long winding English verse:
    1. Are we saying, one caste joined together to falsify marks in IIT entrance exams to ensure one caste got the ranks and admission?
    2. Are we saying right across all IITs together plotted to have maximum Tambrams? Do we have statistics of language wise, regionwise, castewise breakups of all IIT-ians?
    3. Are we saying in an independant country like USA, someone plotted to ensure only Tambrams came up? Can anyone be more ridiculous? Do we have statistics of nationwise imigrant success stories and inside that the Indian language wise distribution and then the Tambrams inside this lot , to justify the article?

    With no clarity and no logic, this article delivers serious credibility issues; may be because it is picked up from a whole book.

  12. Castism was imposed in Tamil soil by the Tamil hating Dravidans who are in fact non Tamils faking a Tamil identity. They are Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, and Hindi / Urdu origin people settled in Tamil Nadu and have NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with Tamil.

  13. Wow, so many words, but zero sense! This is a collection of ramblimg sentences in multiple permutations of the words like caste, IIT, merit and caste.

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