In her influential book The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India, Harvard University’s professor Ajantha Subramanian has accused the IITs of perpetuating caste oppression. The crux of her argument is that the structure of IITs favours Brahmins and upper castes and is oppressive towards the lower castes. Therefore, even if entrance examinations are open to all and there is no discrimination in how marks are awarded, they are still guilty.
She traces the oppressive structure to the period of British rule in India. Prior to that, engineering was considered a hands-on job that was suitable for lower caste people. This changed during the British period because they split the discipline into its theoretical and hands-on aspects. With Brahmins conspiring to grab the theoretical side, only the hands-on work remained for lower castes. Since Brahmins were intelligent people, this kind of stratification also served the British interest, because they could use their skills in administration. It also opened the door for Brahmins to make money as technocrats and industrialists, which was not possible in their traditional roles. Therefore, the whole arrangement was highly beneficial for Brahmins while it hurt lower castes.
This part of her thesis is substantially correct. Infinity Foundation has documented the skills of many lower caste people in its History of Indian Science and Technology book series. What Subramanian fails to uncover however is the lack of initiatives by the Indian government since independence to take corrective measures. The British system was not designed to skill the lower castes but was intended to develop a battery of clerks that would help them rule the country.
Rather than bringing a change in the education system invented by the British, successive governments have continued with it. This has resulted in a loss of skill at the hands-on level because getting an education does not help people get jobs at that level. It also does not attract people who may have an aptitude for such work simply because it doesn’t pay. On the other hand, the expansion of engineering into computer sciences has further expanded the theoretical side, creating additional opportunities for the people engaged in theory. Therefore, the flow of human capital based on skills and aptitude is blocked.
Subramanian’s contention is that the only way to correct this unfortunate circumstance is by dismantling the IITs. It doesn’t matter that these centres of excellence produce the most talented tech people that the world recognises. It also doesn’t matter to her that these institutions are lifting the value of Brand India all over the world. She cannot tolerate the success of IIT people either in India or in Silicon Valley, or the way that they are spreading their influence all over the world through their professional networking. According to her, this spread of influence is pernicious because it is an expansion of Brahmin power.
Her theory assumes that lower caste people lack merit, because of which they cannot pass the entrance exam and qualify as IIT engineers. Therefore, she declares the entrance exam itself to be a sham. It is not based on true meritocracy because it excludes certain people. She does not support changing the system to treat equally the hands-on and theoretical students, even though that would remedy her claim of bias. Nothing less than rejecting meritocracy would satisfy her.
Subramanian’s problem with the IITs and her solution is linked to the Marxist ideology that she prescribes to. Since Marxism requires you to dismantle existing structures to make way for a new one and since IITs are well-established structures, she is calling for their destruction.
Details of her thesis and our rebuttal are in the book, Snakes in the Ganga. Visit SnakesInTheGanga.com.
The author is a researcher, writer, speaker and public intellectual on current affairs as they relate to civilisations, cross-cultural encounters, religion and science. His latest book is ‘Snakes in the Ganga’. Views expressed are personal.
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