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.
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?
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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