Caste at the Heart of Indian Engineering

Ajantha Subramanian

In April 2015, an anonymous letter arrived at the Indian Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD). The letter came from IIT Madras, one of India's premier engineering schoolslocated in southeastern Tamil Nadu State’s capital city of Chennai. It complained that a student group on campus created "hatred among students in the name of caste." The letter also accused the group of being “politically motivated” to "create hatred against the prime minister and Hindus."

The group in question is the AmbedkarPeriyar Study Circle (APSC), formed a year earlier. APSC’s invocation of Ambedkar and Periyar, both strident critics of Hindu casteism, reflects the group’s political orientation. The APSC Facebook site records a range of events that it has organized responding to the Indian government’s policy directives. This current government, led by right-wing NarendraModi,requires central government institutions to celebrate a Sanskrit Week, establish separate dining halls for vegetarians and non-vegetarians, and adopt Sanskrit name boards for campus facilities. While the APSC criticizes these measures as part of the government’s broader Hindu nationalist agenda, it defends its events as opportunities to facilitate discussion and debate.

Not only do the anonymous letter writers criticize the APSC of being troublemakers. IIT Madras’s Dean of Students, too, took issue with the group. In June and September 2014, he objected to the “polarizing” effect of the names Ambedkar and Periyar. On May 22, 2015, he went even further. A day after receiving a letter from the MHRD expressing concern over the APSC’sactivities, the Dean de-recognized the group.

The Dean and the letter writers share two key assumptions: that the political activities of the APSC were unprecedented, and that caste politics has no place in the fifteenIIT campuses. But did the APSC bring the politics of caste into a space where it did not exist? Was IIT Madras previously caste-free? As an anthropologist currently investigating caste and meritocracy in the IITs, I see the history of the institution differently. Caste and casteism have shaped IIT Madras for a very long time, generally to the benefit of upper castes.

Caste at IIT

The assumption that IIT Madras is beyond caste partly rests on the representative weight of the “general category,” or students who fall under the open admissions process. Until 2008, it made up 77.5 percent of the student body. Because of the administrative distinction between the “reserved,” or “caste-based” quota,and “general,” or “merit-based” admissions, the general category is often perceived as caste-free. But who falls under the general category and what is meant by merit?

Tamil Nadu’s history of engineering provides some answers.In the 19th century, most engineers in India were European. Asthe profession was indigenized, upper castes who had long enjoyed the privilege of education and bureaucratic employment became disproportionately well represented in it. By the 1920s, Tamil Brahmins made up 70 percent of seats in southeastern engineering institutions, despite being barely 3 percent of the total regional population.

In response, the rise of regional Non-Brahmin and Dravidian movements called upper caste cultural, economic, and political power into question. They also identified Brahmins as the principal beneficiaries of caste privilege. Today, Tamil Nadu is known for its highly politicized non-Brahmin majority, the predominance of regional parties emerging out of Dravidianism, and far-reaching institutional reform through reservationsin education and employment.Most regional engineering colleges now reserve up to 69 percent of their seats for three socially disenfranchised groups: Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), and Other Backward Classes (OBCs). These measures have democratized caste access to the engineering profession.

Amidst these transformations, the founding of IIT Madras in 1959 by the central government was propitious for many Tamil Brahmins and other regional upper castes. Affiliation to a prestigious central government institution allowed them to leapfrog over the region’s progressive reservations policies and secure their educational status. It was in keeping, too, with a longer historical connection to the central government seen in the overrepresentation of upper castes in central government services. Even the makeup of central government schools in Chennai shows a disproportionate number of upper caste students, another sign of their extra-regional alignment. Within Tamil Nadu, these schools happen to also be the principal feeders of IIT Madras. Not only students, IIT Madras faculty too are overwhelmingly upper caste with 464 professors drawn from the “general category” and only 59 OBCs, 11 SCs, and 2 STs.

Rather than caste-free, then, the “general category” at IIT Madras clearly comprises beneficiaries of caste privilege. Indeed, most IITiansassume that the “general category” is upper caste, which only proves how entrenched the equation between caste and merit is for them. Although their claim to the institution is made in the language of merit, upper caste students and faculty understand IIT Madras as meritocratic in large part because of its association with them. In other words, upper caste affiliation and a defense of caste interests are at the heart of such claims to merit.

IIT Madras’s caste culture is apparent in the everyday workings of the institution andin the opposition to reservations. SC and ST students started attending the IITs in the early 1980s after the implementation of the 1973 SC/ST quota of 22.5 percent. Their integration into the campuses was far from smooth. Students who gained admission through the quota encountered innumerable instances of everyday discrimination that called their intellectual and social worth into question.

In my interviews with upper caste graduates from the 1980s and 1990s, theyfrequently mentioned how “the SC/STs did not fit in.” There were a number of explanations for this supposed bad fit, from their poor academic performance to their provincial dress style and poor command of English. Indeed, even grades were interpreted differently depending on who earned them: “general category” students got poor grades because they were too busy having fun while “SC/STs” did because they were not intellectually capable. Therecent spate of suicides and attempted suicides by SC and ST students across the various campuses speaks volumes about the routine slights and indignities they suffer.

Backward Caste students spoke of a more ambivalent experience at IIT Madras. Before the implementation of the OBC quota in 2008, those who got admission through the general category spoke of how invisible they felt. Given the assumed equation between the general category and being upper caste, their classmates automatically assumed them to be upper caste. They quickly learned to play along by not expressing adverse opinions on issues such as reservations or Tamil politics. When I asked why they felt the need to do so, they told me that this was how you “fit” into the institutional mainstream.

In contrast to these experiences of alienation, upper caste students spoke of the campus as a space where caste, religion, and other markers of identity simply did not matter. Here, they told me, we’re all just IITians. This upper caste sentiment is the background assumption that makes the APSC appear to be bringing caste into a previously caste-free space. But the disavowal of caste by those who enjoy its benefits must be understood for what it is: the comfortable occupation of the mainstream by those who do not bear the stigma of difference. At times, the caste feeling underlying this identity of “IITian” was clear – for example, when Tamil Brahmin students spoke of the campus as a second home where the large numbers of Tamil Brahmin faculty embraced them as extended family.

The expression of upper caste identity and interest are most evident in the opposition to reservations. In 2006, theIndian Supreme Court mandated a 27 percent quota for OBCs in all central government institutions. The verdict sparked mass protests within the IITs. SeveralIITMadras alumni recollected that the protests against OBC reservations were overtly political. Moreover, the administration not only permitted but tacitly endorsed student demonstrations against government policy. Students were even warned not to take their protests outside the campus gates where they were less likely to be tolerated. In addition to campus protests, many IITians joined Youth for Equality, an organization formed in Delhi to oppose the 2006 reservations.

This is only a recent instance of IITians protesting what they perceived as interference in the institutes’ meritocratic functioning. When the 1973 quota for SCs and STs was extended to the IITs, one of the most vocal opponents was P. V. Indiresan, director of IIT Madras from 1979 to 1984. In his 1983 Director’s Report, Indiresan drew a distinction between “the socially-deprived” who demanded “special privileges” and “the talented” who deserved “rights of their own.” For him, and many with similar views, upper castes are simply “the talented” who inhabit a casteless, democratic, and meritorious norm threatened by reservations.In 2011, it was Indiresan who took the Indian government to court challenging the constitutional validity of the 2006 OBC quota.

Given the caste history of the region, the make-up of students and faculty, and the strident opposition to reservations, it is no wonder that IIT Madras is such a lightning rod for caste critique. Of course, accusing low castes of politicizing caste is not new. When those who have borne the brunt of caste discrimination expose structural inequality and demand redress, they are accused of casteism. For simply naming the unspoken status quo, they are accused of being divisive, hateful, and anti-egalitarian. Meanwhile, the beneficiaries of caste privilege claim to be defending nothing less than equality and merit itself. Democratic rhetoric, it seems, has become the favored language of anti-democratic politics.

From the outpouring of support for the APSC, it is clear that this doublespeak does not convince everyone. A broad alliance of Left, OBC, SC, and student groups arecurrently engaged in sustained direct action in solidarity with the embattled organization. And their efforts have borne fruit: on June 7th, the Director of IIT Madras reinstated the APSC. Most heartening, however, is theproliferation of new APSCs across Indian college campuses, a clear sign that student dissent is alive and well.

Ajantha Subramanian, Professor of Anthropology at Harvard University, is the author of Shorelines: Space and Rights in South India (2009) and most recently, “Making Merit: The Indian Institutes of Technology and the Social Life of Caste,” Comparative Studies in Society and History (2015).

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