TAMIL BRAHMINS WERE THE FIRST TO CLAIM CASTE MERIT, AND THIS WAS SHOWN IN IITS
Mass training and reservations brought new groups to the IITs and radically changed the demographic makeup of these institutions. As a result, the social profile of the IITian as part of an urban middle class has given way to the upper caste of a more diverse student body. In response to these tendencies, the upper caste IITians have attempted to strengthen their representative status by claiming the cloak of meritocracy. This has resulted in a robust policy of distinction that distinguishes the trained from the gifted and the reserved category from the general category. A consolidated form of upper unity has emerged and has acquired a unique meaning in the context of Indian higher education. We also saw the role of Tamil Nadu as an important precedent for the transition from a universalist to a more identitarian expression of the identity of the upper castes.
As the targets of non-Brahminism and Dravidianism, Tamil Brahmins were the earliest to claim merit as a caste claim. Their identification as Brahmins led to forms of self-identification as a tactic of meritocratic claims. With the spread of the Other Backward Class (OBC) policy across India, this shift has also expanded to a more explicit caste policy of meritocracy. At IIT Madras and beyond, it is now assumed that the general category is a collective of the top castes.
With all of these challenges and defending the upper castes’ meritocracy, mobility remained a key mechanism of caste consolidation and capital accumulation. We have seen in previous chapters how mobility within India, under the control of the central government, contributed to the creation of an upper caste intelligence. It was the caste capital provided by this mobility that was threatened by the recommendations of the Mandal Commission and caused such a strong backlash. However, spatial mobility was by no means limited to national borders. Migration outside of India has long been a source of upper class social and economic capital. This was certainly the case for IITians.
As we saw in Chapter 4, the IITians began to leave India in the late 1960s to go greener pastures. In the first few years, these were short training stays in West Germany and other countries, after which they returned to the Indian industry. But the pattern changed when the United States became the main travel destination for IITians. The migration waves after the 1960s formed a larger and more permanent diaspora.
Migration from India preceded independence. The first major wave of Indian migration to Burma, Ceylon, Malaya, Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific occurred in the late nineteenth century. The vast majority of these migrants were low-contract workers. A second wave of traders, employees, bureaucrats and professionals followed, mainly traveling to East and South Africa, but also to the other British colonies that had been preceded by identified workers. A third wave went to the United States. There are clear differences between the experiences of lower and upper caste workers who came to the United States as early as the 1880s. But despite the fact that the caste played a significant role in structuring migration and diasporic life, the scientific literature on the Indian diaspora to the United States could lead to the conclusion that the caste as a social category across the borders of the Indian Nation-state largely disappears. Instead, the most prominent forms of self-definition appear to be class, gender, language, religion, and nation.
The history of the IIT diaspora suggests otherwise.
The forms of accumulated caste capital described in the previous chapters were key factors for diasporic mobility. In addition, the professional success of the IITians in the United States was of enormous importance for strengthening the link between meritocracy and caste. With the geographical distance from India and the growing challenges to caste eligibility, the IITian service abroad once again appears to be just that – self-made success. Diasporic mobility has helped put the caste in the shade again. However, the absence of the caste as a public identity in the diaspora does not preclude its structural and affective functioning. If anything, the institutional relationship within the predominantly overarching IIT diaspora has become an even more effective form of capital. Diasporic IITians have been at the forefront of maintaining and strengthening their affective ties and making the IIT family tree a globally recognized brand.
Much of this branding has been driven by IITians in Silicon Valley, for whom entrepreneurial success has increased the feeling of being self-made individuals. Entrepreneurialism – and these are also non-white entrepreneurial successes in a new industry – has deepened their investment in a narrative of humble middle-class origins in which the brain is raised as the only form of capital and caste stories are conspicuously missing. The U.S.-based IITians are working to advance this narrative not only in the U.S. but also in India, where they have advocated deregulation and privatization of the market. The change between the contexts of the USA and India has brought a balancing act between marking and unmarking the caste as the basis of the achievement. As we have seen, the continuing challenges to the dominance of the upper class in India have disrupted expectations and resulted in a stricter defense of earnings than caste property. The diaspora is also an important weapon in this struggle. By demonstrating diasporic success as the arrival of the global Indian, the upper caste IITians make the struggle for caste rights a parochial – even regressive – endeavor.
The understanding of the transnationalization of the caste is especially important at the moment when the rise of the political power of the middle and lower caste has partially obscured the functioning of the capital of the upper caste. Indeed, it is particularly productive to think about how and in what contexts such capital is restored. While in a way the lower castes have entered formal political areas and at a broader cultural level, elite education and the expanding private sector inside and outside India have supported the restoration of caste privilege in other ways. In this sense, we can see elite and private domestic and transnational arenas as spaces of flying and deterring the pressure of lower castes politics.
Political scientist Devesh Kapur has argued that Indian immigration to the United States is one of the “security valves” of Indian democracy. Because they could immigrate, the struggle for the distribution of political power and economic resources was less controversial than would otherwise have been possible. Kapur further argues that the specific form of capital these elites possessed – advanced levels versus land – made it easy to “exit”, first from government employment to the private sector and then abroad. Since it was a transferable form of capital, the “exit” also contributed to the further accumulation of capital.
It is less obvious how the transition from one system of social stratification to another influenced the worldviews and practices of the diasporic elites. What exactly did it mean for Indian specialists to switch from a society in which a permanent stratification of strata was accompanied by democratic change to a society in which a racist stratification was similar? How did they react to their own racialization as a US minority and how did these experiences 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 diasporic IITians on India. How, I will ask, has the United States falsified the upper caste identity in which the IITians were positioned as both class elites and ethnic minorities? The IIT’s diasporic experience must be understood in the context of America’s longer history of race and immigration.
The United States’ Immigration and Citizenship Act of 1965 marked a decisive shift toward official multiculturalism and the representativeness of Indian professionals. This change is key to the status of the IITians as an influential sub-group of Indian professionals, whose self-design is closely monitoring the market for identities. As we will see, their self-design as ethnic entrepreneurs, supported by the catalytic impact of the Silicon Valley boom and ongoing forms of transnational institutional kinship, has found full expression in Brand IIT’s marketing. In addition, diasporic IITians have used their status as financially successful global modernists to drive legislative changes, market liberalization and privatization in India.
The success of Brand IIT has also changed the importance of meritocracy by shifting the focus from intellectualism to entrepreneurship.
This excerpt from The caste of merit: engineering education in India by Ajantha Subramanian was released with permission from Harper Collins India.
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Courtesy : DGW