Ajantha Subramanian

Gifted: Merit and Caste in the Making of Indian Technical Knowledge


In India today, the technical sciences are prized as the true measure of intellectual worth and a proven means of professional advancement. Abroad, the technical graduate has become the country’s greatest export, widely understood to exemplify India’s comparative advantage in the global marketplace. At the center of India’s success story are the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), a set of institutions founded and administered by the Indian government with the aim of producing native engineers to help with technologically driven nation-building. The IITian is seen as a uniquely meritocratic individual who is gifted with an innate capacity for technical knowledge. In this paper, I address the production of the IITian’s technical merit by illuminating the relationship between meritocracy and caste exceptionalism. Using ethnographic data, I show how IITians have come to deploy notions of autonomy and individuality to characterize their alma maters as state-free spaces and themselves as self-made men. At the same time, state and caste haunt their claims, revealing a gap between the expressed ideology of meritocracy and the affective and political economic dimensions of their relationship to state and community. Finally, I argue that the ideology of technical merit that underwrites the exceptionalism of the IITs has served to occlude a structural critique of caste.