Invention of Merit and the ‘Millstone of Caste’: Mohan Rao

Guest post by MOHAN RAO

“And yet there must be deliverance for we are all otherwise convicted at birth.”

I want to thank Srivats and Anveshi for inviting to be part of a discussion about the book, Caste as Merit, by Ajantha Subramaniam.* I am not a scholar on these issues and I must confess this scares me sometimes, for I wonder if we can discuss these issues at all? Some friends actually advised me not to take part in this discussion, because I was, ineluctably,  going to be labelled as Brahmin, talking about a book written by a Brahmin in the US! In my own estimation though, I remain a nastika, a non-believer, out of Brahminical bounds.

I would like to begin by showing a lithograph – and a story.

This 1917 lithograph entitled “ Millstone of  Caste” is by Gaganendranath Tagore (1867-1938), nephew of Rabindranath Tagore, and brother of Abanindranath Tagore, one of the illustrious founders of the Bengal School of Art. The Bengal School, with its rejection of Western idioms and celebration of the indigenous, contributed to the development of other schools, most famously the Progressive Art Movement comprising Hussain, Raza, Krishen Khanna and others, who wanted to move beyond the Bengal School and it’s invocation of India and tradition. They moved us towards modernism, which involves a careful look at what is tradition. And thus we have  contemporary art, to reflect upon and represent who we are. This questioning of what is tradition threatens Hindutva, and has been threatened repeatedly by Hindutva; Hussain had to go into exile and die in exile, heartbroken; art shows have been vandalized,  artists feel threatened, and art shows are being self-censored out of fear.

This lithograph is now housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum. I love many details here, colonialism, the wickedly gleaming skeleton, seems delighted to be gently stroking Brahminism – the eyes of the skeleton says so. The eyes of this skeleton are masterful, and wicked, but colonialism has lost its teeth, although its maws are wide. The Brahmin priest is performing rituals, guided by palm leaf texts in his hands, sacred turmeric colours, that grind people of India into death, swallowed up anonymously, in the seas.The priest is of course well fed, unlike all those ground down by caste. The  most heart-breaking is the image of a starving man holding on to the feet of the Brahmin priest. At the bottom, to the right, is a woman hoping for deliverance. She could well be a male, a Sufi saint. The images are stark, as is the background of scattered stars of hope in a blackness.

This image was supposed to be the backdrop of the discussion between Prof. Ajantha Subramanian and Mr. T.M.Krishna at the Bangalore International Centre (BIC) on her book  on the 24th of April 2020. This discussion was titled “ Meritocracy and Democracy : The Social Life of Caste in India”.  This is available on the BIC website and I would urge all of you to watch and hear this. What strikes me about this discussion, was that it was not so much about broader questions of democracy and caste. Not to be missed, here are two born Tamil Brahmins, discussing a book about how Brahmanical usurping of the idea of merit have implications for India’s democracy. Subramanian takes on this question brilliantly.

But before the discussion took place, Mr. Mohandas Pai, one of the founders of Infosys, an educational magnate, sponsor of Opindia, a known BJP ideologue who objects to eggs in mid-day meals for children, took objection to the use of this “anti-Hindu” image at the BIC. Since he is also a founder donor, and a member of the board of BIC, BIC obliged him and replaced the image with Subramanian’s bland book cover. Before BIC could do that, his son Mr. Pranav Pai, apparently threatened to lodge an FIR, alleging insult to Hinduism. This is nepotism in bullying and censorship. This was followed with a host of trolling tweets – I am told that Mr. Pranav Pai commands, an apparent army of them. Corporate Brahminism, wedded to Hindutva, has the power to regulate everything today in India. As in this case, through threats.

It is clear that since Hindutva forces have captured all institutions of the state, such as the universities,  art academies and even museums – very important to writing a Hindutva history, they are now encroaching on private spaces too.

I therefore thought we could begin our discussion with this image. The scary skeleton is of course British colonialism, which, by marriage to Brahmanism, “produced”a certain India.  Colonial history, particularly that of James Mill, and the work of Indologists, contributed. Nineteenth century ideas of race were at the heart of this fantasy. Many institutions like the Theosophical Society harboured and refined these ideas of Brahmins as Aryans, indeed a pristine Aryan race in India from which Aryans spread to the rest of the world. A glorious Hindu epoch in ancient India was said to have been shattered by barbaric Islam. As is obvious, many of these ideas and institutions fed significantly into Hindutva. 


Let me begin by confessing, I am unprincely imposter. I am a public health worker, but I talk as one who marched repeatedly on the roads of Delhi in  support of the Mandal Commission in 1990. In those days there were massive marches, and we marched and marched again – we did not have social media. 

If I cannot talk about this book as a born-Brahmin, I have other rights to be talking about this book, as a reader, like any citizen, entitled to my views, and to express them, although this cannot be taken for granted in India anymore.

The state is throttling all our voices of course and we are resisting that the best we can.

But there is another censorship going on we need to take note of. Earlier Dalit voices were censored. In fact, they were not censored; structural factors made sure that Dalits found no voice. When they found voice, they were not heard.

It is being suggested by some today, that being born a Brahmin, one not talk about issues related to Dalit struggles – because one lacks the experience of being a Dalit. This is true and I am immensely  aware of my privilege. But all humans have something called empathy, that makes us humans and heals divisions, if we want them to. By the same token, as some Dalit intellectuals frozen into essentialisms would have it, perhaps  this book should not be written by a Brahmin.

I disagree with this position on several grounds. Similar things were said when Anand at Navayana produced Annihilation of Caste, with an Introduction by Arundhati Roy.

I have some problems with this book, but none of them stemming from either Anand’s or Arundhati Roy’s caste position. First, Gandhi was a racist. Of course he was, but so was Ambedkar in a manner of speaking. So was the whole world, or almost all, as Priyamvada Gopal’s brilliant work Insurgent Empire shows us those obverse worlds. But racism was “normal”. What was not normal was Golwalkar’s fascist appeal for genocide on the basis of race.

Second, my limited reading tells me that Ambedkar was a proponent of the two nation theory, since Muslims were a race apart. Ambedkar too believed in the idea of race.

But at that time all progressive people believed in ideas of race and eugenics. Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw – whose wit I must recall  – and indeed the government of the USSR, which initiated public policy based on eugenic ideas.

In short, things are complicated.It is not the black-white situation we would like it be out of laziness, frustration, anger or an inability to make sense. Not all is savarna-asavarna. The nastikas are completely forgotten. Indeed, Amartya Sen assures us that India had more nastika and charvaka traditions than the Vedic Brahmanical. But the colonial recognition of the Brahminical as representing Hindus, wiped out all these other traditions. It also created something called Hindus, a monolithic imagined community that did not exist earlier.

This had severe implications: women in many communities, like the Nairs, the Vokkaligas, who inherited land, lost this right once they were classified as Hindus. So did the devadasis.

So to come back to my own position: we are born into caste but not into politics; politics and art create us. In work and politics we realise ourselves as humans, and our work and art gives expression.  I was born into a Brahmin family. I could not help that. It is my politics that I should be judged by: do I make a better human being of myself and do I work towards changing this dreadful world we live in?

My paternal grandfather, a judge, introduced me to appreciation of all literature, Western music and Abhigyana Shakuntalam, which we read in Sanskrit, with a Sanskrit teacher, emblazoned with Iyengar namas, who I remember used to fall asleep during classes. As a result of these classes, I could read Devanagari. So today, I can read Hindi, though I don’t not understand it – and I must confess my dislike for Hindi nationalism.

My paternal grandmother, was short, fair and blue-eyed and was an activist at the Family Planning Association of India. My maternal grandmother was blue eyed too. Aryans? This is so idiotic an idea, but the blue eyed Chitpawan Brahmins, who commanded the RSS, believed strongly in it.  But just do some field work in Mandya district, you will find huge proportions of Vokkaligas, classified a Shudras, but claiming to be Kshatriyas , are light eyed.  What about the Kodagas? They too claim to be Aryan, while their language has been identified as distinctively Dravidian.  Ditto, the Bunts, most famously Aishwarya Rai. 

Ideas of race are so dated, bizarre, and unscientific. It is a project born out of hate for the Other. But this is at the heart of the RSS project of converting India into a Hindu Rashtra. I do not need to repeat Golwalkar’s ideas of Hindutva, nor his appreciation of the Nazi project of the purification of the German race that we in Hindustan could learn from.

My grandparents  were not landed Brahmins, but Brahmins nevertheless who climbed social ladders into modernizing professions, becoming middle class. Initially they were all lawyers, who supported the national movement and the Congress.  Education was important. So was caste endogamy. They arranged marriages for their children, all sons were meant to be engineers, and daughters married to Brahmin engineers.  But they were politically engaged,  reluctant nationalists, unlike my parents’ generation.

In my parent’s generation, they only met their families socially, all Brahmins.  I do not think my parents had one non-Brahmin friend. Actually, they had no friends, only family. All marriages were arranged, with some exceptions, mine among them. They were not involved in political issues at all, or so they claimed.

My brother in law is an IIT alumnus, a wonderful one. All my nieces and nephews in the USA, engineers, have had arranged marriages. Although not from IIT, these are sadly considered the best minds from India. They are all “into software”. They claim they are a-political, but I suspect they are in the ranks of the Hindutva. They would all claim castelessness and merit, and argue that it was reservations that “forced” them to leave the country since India did not respect merit.

To read Ajantha Subramanian’s astonishing work is almost to read the history of my family, and many Brahmin families, like mine, over time in South India. What I shall do today is to talk about some aspects of this work, with forays into the field of public health. 

It is a truism that South India as a whole is very categorically different from the rest of India. Tamil Nadu and Kerala had some historic anti-caste and anti-Brahmin movements. Karnataka did not. And yet reservations – a major demand of the non-Brahmin movements – in these other states found resonance in Mysore.  Despite the advice of the Dewan, a Brahmin,  Mysore introduced reservations in 1918.

So to me it was truly shocking to see the ghastly violence in Delhi around the Mandal Commission report. I remember the image of doctors at AIIMS sweeping streets, polishing shoes. Also, India Today’s channel egging on this violence. Students from”apolitical” IIT Delhi forged a human chain against reservations that I saw. This was impressively huge, stretching more than two and a half kilometers from Aurobindo Ashram to JNU. I heard that students in IIT, the so-called “reserved” students, were cowering in fear, unable to mobilise enough numbers to counter Brahmin supremacism that was now out visible.

It was not just the right political formations that were against reservations, so were many academics and thinkers. It is even difficult to remember and list them: Andre Beteille, Yogendra Singh, Veena Das, my friend Dipankar Gupta – the Who’s Who of Indian sociology. These were not Hindutvavadis, far from it, but were liberals who never examined the structural roots of their own liberalness.  It was only EPW [Economic and Political Weekly]– that unique and miraculous journal – that carried some essays in support of the Mandal Commission.


Ajantha Subramanian’s work of historical anthropology is methodologically impeccable,utterly fascinating and a great pleasure to read. Her extensive primary sources comprise in-depth interviews with all cohorts from the very first decade of IIT Chennai. She uses a vast array of secondary sources, including the records of IIT, books written by alumni (Jairam Ramesh, we are told, advised alumnus and journalist, Sandipan Deb, author of a book IITians: The Story of a Remarkable  Indian Institution and How Its Alumni Are Reshaping the World to call his book “Midnight’s Brahmins because that’s what IITians are, the new Brahmins who would not be reading scriptures, but would be technocrats”). Subramanian also re-examines the archives, because new perspectives bring new life.In addition to the archives, she also goes through the extensive anonymous posts on social media of IIT alumni on the issue of reservations and merit. The lens she uses is acutely critical of received Brahmin wisdom in the archives, and while doing so, articulates a vision beyond the essentialist, whether Brahmin or non-Brahmin, a category that did not exist in the records she looked at in early 20th century education in the Madras Presidency, later Tamil Nadu.

Her work is compelling, and an excellent review article by Namit Arora was published in The Caravan ( “ Caste and the delusion of ‘merit’ in Indian higher education”, 1st August 2020). I shall therefore not go into many of the arguments made in this review essay or cover the book in its entirety. What I shall do is pick and choose a few themes to attempt to bring out the richness of this extraordinary work.

Subramanian points out early in her book that all the engineering marvels of India in the pre-modern period – the temples, the mosques, the forts and mausoleums, the irrigation methods and so on – were the work of skilled shudras. Brahmins disdained manual labour and this is repeatedly invoked by colonial officials when the colonial government reluctantly introduced professional engineering education in India.

Chapter 1, entitled “ The Colonial Career of Technical Knowledge” traces how engineering, from being an occupation of the shudras, became transformed by colonialism and the changes in land relations and therefore caste that it brought about. The early engineering colleges, were also sites of Brahmin monopoly over education, always with tension between the “conceptual” and the “laboratory”. So while Brahmins took over engineering colleges, the non-Brahmins, with their technical skills were relegated to vocational colleges, where mathematics, considered a Brahmin subject, was not taught. We see a Brahmin monopoly  in medical education also, when the first medical college set up in Calcutta in 1832 was over-run by Brahmins despite what would have been the pollution of dissection.

When the IIT Madras, was set up, the regional engineering colleges had already introduced reservations, diluting the Brahmin monopoly over engineering. This monopoly was facilitated not just by Brahmin monopoly of education, but also because, as Subramanian points out, it promised capital accumulation. This was met with the first legal  challenge in the High Court of Madras that I shall come to later.

The introduction of reservations for the OBCs in professional colleges in Tamil Nadu, meant a more diverse student body. I personally think this is one reason why Tamil Nadu does not find it difficult to staff its Primary Health Centres with doctors, even in remote and tribal areas. The fact that students from non-Brahmin backgrounds from these areas are recruited into medical education means that they are more willing to work here than the upper castes from urban backgrounds. It is no surprise that we now find the government of Tamil Nadu challenging the NEET selection process in the Supreme Court as it would lower the proportion of candidates in the reserved category.

The book’s sterling contribution is to trace the intellectual journey of the invention of merit, much like the invention of tradition, both of which occurred simultaneously, shaped by colonialism and Brahminism. Subramanian traces its origins back to the need to embourgeois, if you will, the colonial bureaucracy after the 1857 uprising. The East India Company’s bureaucracy comprised the appointment of the landed gentry and the lesser aristocracy through contacts and nepotism. It was now felt that the meritocratic middle classes should be selected by an examination. What this did do was to provide employment opportunities for those educated first at Eton and later at Oxford and Cambridge. We see this later when women doctors and nurses find employment in India. The written examination weeded out people without university education and from a wider class background.

 But when crammers came up to prepare people from a more diverse background to crack this exam, the Crown reacted with increasing the age at entry, again to restore the dominance of Oxbridge candidates. Subramanian points out that through all these years, only one person from a working class background made it to the Civil Service. She provides the relevant data.

This is something I truly admire in Subramanian’s work: she provides data. All her arguments are backed by data.

When demands arose to recruit colonial subjects, Viceroy Ripon saw this as a “bulwark against Indian nationalism” and the ICS exam was conducted in India from 1922 onwards. It is not surprising that the Indian recruits were all from urban upper-caste backgrounds, We see therefore that the ICS exam was not “an acultural objective tool of testing.” As Subramanian argues “it was the class character of the modern examination that contributed to its popular perception as a linchpin of meritocracy”. 

The ICS exam then serves as a model for the post-independence establishment of the Union Public Services (UPSC) exam, that of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India, and later of the IIT Joint Entrance Exam, all of which are meant to weed out the non-meritocratic. Subramanian gives us data of the number of students attempting the IIT JEE each year. These are shocking indicators of what is wrong with higher education in India: they thwart the growth of enquiring minds, privileging mugging to learning, reifying the technical at the cost of the imaginative and social.

The idea that some people are better suited to learning than others is of course naturalized in the caste system. The initial cohorts of students in IIT Madras were largely Tamil Brahmins whose parents were in Central government services. She has a telling story of two young men roommates in the hostel. I first read this story in an earlier publication in Current Anthropology. Noticing that his roommate is not wearing a poonal, the Brahmin sacred thread, this young man concludes that his roommate must have very progressive parents indeed. It never occurs to him that his roommate might not be a Brahmin, especially since this was a student in the un-reserved category.

Without exception, or irony, the alumni refer to their innate intelligence that enabled them to clear the JEE. The rank they obtained in the JEE is like another caste mark on their foreheads. This of course sets them apart  from the reserved candidates, when they manage to get in. These are also set apart by the non-Brahmin Tamil they speak and that their command over English is not as good as that of the “non-reserved”. But as Subramanian points out these have reserved for themselves a century and more of cultural and social capital, now masquerading as merit.

The spurious idea of innate intelligence also informed that infamous debate on race and intelligence in the US, the so-called Bell Curve debate. What you saw there was of course White supremacy masquerading as innate intelligence. Indeed, that the IQ Test was itself not an objective tool, but came congealed with racism. Yet psychologists found it difficult to accept this for many years, just as IIT alumni continue to cling on the spurious idea that the JEE tests objectively for innate intelligence. As she notes “They obscure the ways in which the JEE as a test of ‘excellence’ builds on and extends histories of unequal caste capital”. By invoking caste, the Bahujans and the Dalits are said to play identity politics; while invoking merit, the upper castes somehow mysteriously do not.

Subramanian then traces the growth of the coaching industry, estimated by the Associated Chamber of Commerce and Industry to be worth US dollars 2 billion in 2008. We are told “1,60,000 teenagers attend Kota’s coaching institutes every year, paying between 50,000 and 100,000 rupees as annual tuition…They are taught by IIT alumni who claim salaries of 15 million rupees to 20 million rupees”, presumably  per year.

What the coaching industry did was to demystify the examination, by teaching skills that could enable one to “crack the exam”. This was, then, nothing about innate intelligence; it could be learned. What it also did was to provide an opportunity for those castes without social or educational capital, first generation educated, to join the IITs. These were groups who had moved up the class ladder through the Green Revolution, mostly OBCs.

The initial cohorts of IITians were drawn to employment in the public sector enterprises in India, but by the mid-nineteen eighties, they were increasingly drawn to IIMs and thence private sector employment. At the same time started the migration to the USA, where they built Brand IIT, initially in academia and later in the Silicon Valley. This trajectory too is carefully traced, noting how many in this lot were now drawn to Hindutva. This last story is not adequately fleshed out, but no author can do everything. I will not trace this narrative any further, but turn instead into another sleight of hand that Subramanian does flesh out.

Like the myth of merit, this is the myth of the castelessness of the upper castes. In 1951 two Tamil Brahmins, Champakam Dorairajan and R.Srinivasan challenged the Madras government’s order reserving seats in the engineering colleges in the Madras High Court. The High Court struck down reservations arguing that they violated the fundamental right of citizenship guaranteed in the Constitution. The judgment read “It would be strange if, in this land of equality and liberty, a class of citizens should  be constrained to wear the badge of inferiority, because forsooth, they have a greater aptitude for certain types of education than other classes”. These students “belonged to a certain community or caste by reason of their caste discipline, habits and modes of life”.

This laid the ground for the widespread assumption that uppercaste rights were consistent with democratic principles, while lower caste rights violated them. The Supreme Court upheld this judgment in April 1951. In June 1951, led by Nehru and Ambedkar, the First Amendment to Article 15 of the Constitution was passed in parliament which enabled state governments to make special provisions for the advancement of socially and educationally backward groups.

Subramanian notes how Satish Deshpande points out  that the story of how upper castes transform their caste capital into modern capital is “not well known because it runs with the grain of dominant common sense”. In this scheme of things, upper castes are naturalized as the “legitimate inheritors of modernity” while lower castes are hypervisibile as the illegitimate purveyors of pre-modern caste. The IITs, with the visibility of their alumni, cast the “ lower caste subjects, whose eligibility for reservation defined them in terms of collective histories of disadvantage, while the upper caste subject was classified as an individual citizen defined by merit”. What was of course elided here was the inheritances that undergirded achievement, accumulated caste capital.In other words that caste privilege and inheritance is constantly “misrecognized as middle-class labour and racial talent”. This is helped by the rise of entrepreneurship in the US with its ideologies of self-made success, the Ayn Randish figure, entirely self-made and successful and very male. “Entreupreneuralism – and that too being non-white entrepreneurial successes in a new industry – deepened their investment in a narrative of humble middle class origins in which the brain is elevated as the sole form of capital and histories of caste are strikingly absent”. The vast majority of alumni recognized class as a form of collectivity, that they were from the middle classes, but had contempt for caste and what they labelled as casteism. They would not accept the idea that caste perhaps marked their own inheritances and achievements, which was defined as merit.  The JEE was one indicator of their casteless merit.


But a pause, not so much a quarrel as a pause, a need to understand. Subramanian argues that caste was re-configured into race during colonialism.

In the light of the huge amount of discussion around Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,  Sunil Khilnani, Arjun Appadurai and other have pointed out that Wilkerson is equating apples and oranges while confounding caste and race. People familiar with the philosophy of method in social sciences will argue that analogy and inference of causation are not methodologically valid.

I found Wilkersons’s book fascinating, rich with facts, the personal and the political. It reminded me of another powerful book, Alys Weinbaum, The Afterlife of Reproductive Slavery who argues that contemporary patterns of racism are shaped by what she calls the “slave episteme”, the afterlife of reproductive slavery.

Structural factors of race have imprinted people  beyond their own recognition.  As has caste.

And yet there must be deliverance for otherwise  we are all otherwise convicted at birth. While casteism and racism, are similar, caste is not race. Caste is religiously sanctioned and is at the heart of Vedic Brahmanism, while race is not imprinted in the Bible.

So my question is, what analytic purchase does Subramanian make, when like Wilkerson, she argues that caste was converted to race under colonialism. Race was always fixed – or was it? – while caste might have been more uncertain, more protean, as Subramanian shows us.

But  why might we not have new caste Censuses? By being blind to the mundane reality of caste, we do not serve justice.


*The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Ma, 2019) , by Prof. Ajantha Subramanian, professor of anthropology and South Asian studies at Harvard University.

Mohan Rao was a professor at the Centre for Community Health and Social Medicine, JNU.

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