Social Structure

Caste and the delusion of “merit” in Indian higher education

01 August 2020
A wind tunnel at IIT Madras, in 1968. Subramanian’s book focusses particularly on IIT Madras, and explores the politics of caste, class and reservations.
Gauri Shankar Collection / Heritage Centre/ IIT Madras
A wind tunnel at IIT Madras, in 1968. Subramanian’s book focusses particularly on IIT Madras, and explores the politics of caste, class and reservations.
Gauri Shankar Collection / Heritage Centre/ IIT Madras

THE GREAT ENGINEERS of medieval India were mainly Shudras. Members of the lowest varna in the caste hierarchy, the Shudras produced a steady supply of architects, builders, stonemasons, bronze sculptors, goldsmiths and other professionals. Sometimes called the Vishwakarma community, these artisans and craftsmen worked in hereditary guilds. They studied structural design, mathematics, material science and the artistic conventions of the day. Commissioned by kings, merchants and Brahmins—who disdained all manual labour themselves—the Shudras, aided by the labour of those considered “untouchable” and outside the varna hierarchy, built all of India’s engineering marvels, including its grand temple towns, magnificent cities such as Vijayanagar and medieval fort-palaces.

Take for instance the town of Khajuraho a thousand years ago, where Shudra artisans, in large workshops, conceived and carved their artwork and taught apprentices amid the sounds of hammers and chisels. Inscriptions show that with rising proficiency, artisans gained new titles. A skilled artisan was called Silpin, who sometimes inscribed his name on his creations, including on panels of erotic art with playful moods and delicate emotions. With higher skill, he became a Vijananin. A few became adept enough to be called Vaidagdhi Visvakarman, masters who went beyond mere technicalities of craft to conceiving large architectural projects and the finer aesthetics of art, winning much respect, social status and economic rewards. The Shudra domination of the engineering profession in India continued well into the colonial era.

By the late-twentieth century, however, things had changed dramatically. In my incoming class of 1985 at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur—one of five IITs founded between 1951 and 1961 that had become the premier engineering colleges of India—Brahmins were by far the largest caste group. Most of the nine students I shared a hostel wing with were Brahmin, and all belonged to dominant castes. Our faculty and student body were almost entirely upper-caste, representing less than twenty percent of Indians. There were hardly any Shudras, who comprise about half of the country’s population. Moreover, this utterly ahistorical domination of engineering education by the upper castes was now accompanied by their baffling claims of “merit”—implying that they had a higher natural talent and aptitude for engineering work than others. How did this extreme professional transformation come about?

Namit Arora is the author of The Lottery of Birth: On Inherited Social Inequalities, a collection of essays, and the novel Love and Loathing in Silicon Valley. His new book on travel and cultural history, The Land beyond the Sindhu: Journeys Through Early India, is forthcoming from Penguin Random House India.

Keywords: caste IIT higher education engineering
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