In This Review

The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India
The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India
By Ajantha Subramanian
Harvard University Press, 2019, 384 pp

Throughout Indian history, castes have jostled with one another in the economic and political spheres, with those lower in the hierarchy seeking to raise their social standing and those above seeking to defend theirs. Subramanian observes how these contests play out in the context of the Indian Institutes of Technology, 23 schools around the country that have trained an engineering elite not only for Indian firms but also for many U.S. companies and universities. Admission is strictly exam-based, yet IIT students overwhelmingly come from high-caste backgrounds. In India—as in the United States and elsewhere—academic advancement rarely occurs without a foundation of family privilege. Focusing on the IIT in Madras, Subramanian shows how upper-caste Tamil graduates have converted their caste privilege into professional prestige and resisted attempts to increase the enrollment of lower-caste groups. The fetishization of exams has rendered caste invisible in the engineering profession but, she argues, lets it function behind the scenes. In India as elsewhere, the myth of meritocracy justifies the reproduction of long-standing social hierarchies.