How Indians use the word “meritocracy” often predicts their views on society, equality and justice.
Consider the IIT-JEE examination, taken by about a quarter of a million students each year. Performance in this exam is decisively weighted towards males from urban India, possessing social and economic capital arising largely from the caste they were born into.
About 50% of seats at the IITs and similar institutions are reserved. The difference between the marks of those admitted under social justice quotas and those who belong to the ‘general’ category is often not substantial. (In medical entrance exams, those who qualify through mandated quotas often score higher than many of those admitted to fully fee-paying seats).
Are those who enter under reserved quotas in an entrance exam any less ‘meritorious’ than so-called ‘general’ candidates? The answer hinges on how one measures ‘merit’.
Normally, marks in a single high-stress entrance exam ought to be only one dimension of evaluation. Basing selection on just these marks ignores the obstacles that students encounter, including a lack of social capital, poverty and malnutrition, the absence of an appropriate peer group and of earlier generations of learners in the family, as well as suboptimal environments for childhood learning. While these need not originate in caste-based discrimination, they are certainly exacerbated by it.
The title of a recent book by Rajiv Malhotra and Vijaya Vishwanathan, The Battle for IITs: A Defence of Meritocracy, makes their own stand clear. The Amazon blurb for the book says: “The IITs are under attack!” It adds that “Harvard University’s Woke machinery is behind this attack and we need to understand the sophistication that backs it. This book’s evidence-based rebuttal gives IITians and other engineers the toolkit to tackle false accusations of being casteist bigots.”
The broader theme of India being under attack from external forces is the subject of another book by the same authors. Snakes in the Ganga: Breaking India 2.0 connects Marxism to ideas of critical race theory. It argues that this connection has been used to equate caste in India with race in the US, establishing an equivalence between caste-marginalised Indians and African-Americans. Malhotra and Vishwanathan go on to further club “groups claiming grievances (like Muslims and LGBTQ+)” with lower caste Indians.
Malhotra and Vishwanathan’s thesis is that a Harvard University-dominated world cabal would like to “dismantle Indian civilization and heritage by waging an uncompromising war against India’s government, educational institutions, culture, industry, and society”.
These exhortations have fallen on receptive ears. Recently, IIT Kanpur announced an institute lecture featuring both these authors, with a title identical to that of their book. The IIT Kanpur Twitter account says the talk will discuss the attacks on the IITs “emanating in USA on the basis that they privilege Brahmins and oppress Dalits and minorities”.
There has since been a resurgence of old videos featuring Malhotra with the guru Nithyananda, who went underground a few years ago under mysterious circumstances, after serious accusations of rape and kidnapping against him.
In one of these videos, Malhotra proposes arrangements by which a fortune could be held in trust across multiple “incarnations”. Thus, Bill Gates, if he chose to sign up for this service, could access his considerable current fortune in a subsequent life, after his reincarnated being was identified in the future. Elsewhere, Malhotra says that Nithyananda’s own research surpasses that of the IITs.
In a bizarre twist, some years after these videos with Malhotra, Nithyananda escaped to an undisclosed location, from where he has proclaimed the formation of a Hindu country, with its own flag, constitution and currency.
Malhotra and Vishwanathan complain that the public has been brainwashed to dismiss a Hindu-centric view of India’s intellectual achievements. To highlight caste, in their view, is to denigrate Hindu society, hampering India’s ability to achieve its rightful position as a world leader.
But what should thinking people make of such arguments? Simply, they don’t make sense. The quest for social justice in the US manifested as the civil rights movement. It drew moral sustenance from India’s founders like Mahatma Gandhi and Dr B.R. Ambedkar. They led massive struggles which fought simultaneously against colonialism and imperialism, as well as against caste discrimination and gender inequality.
Reform movements in India, beginning in the mid-19th century, were concerned with the elimination of untouchability and superstition, and the upliftment of women, among a host of other pressing social concerns. Needless to say, neither Harvard nor any sort of “woke” politics emanating from the US inspired them.
According to Malhotra and Vishwanathan, if you care about social justice, you must be a Marxist. If inequality concerns you, you must be “woke”. If freedom of speech is important to you, you must be channeling foreign thinkers, not India’s rich traditions of argumentation. If you bring up reparations, you are misdirecting American guilt around slavery to the Indian context.
The Malhotra-Viswanathan books have a veneer of scholarly authority. However, read closely, they accumulate unsupported allegations and polemics, preaching really to their choir. They would find it hard to persuade a general reader coming to the discussion sans prior bias. Their potency alas lies in reinforcing the climate of uncritical nativism and cultural defensiveness that permeates current public life.
The IIT Kanpur invitation to Malhotra and Vishwanathan poses a dilemma. It can be argued that their views are not exactly hate speech, as they are not directed at a specific community or group. A strictly liberal perspective would err on the side of free speech, allowing the IIT-K lecture to proceed without intervention.
But by billing their duet as an institute lecture, what IIT Kanpur has done is provide implicit sanction to a discussion that isn’t really a discussion. It’s a specific and extreme point of view that pits the IITs against themselves internally.
The social sciences were introduced to the IITs some years ago, in an attempt to right an obvious imbalance. India followed what is acknowledged worldwide to be good practice in the training of engineers and scientists, to make them better understand the world they belong to. Departments of humanities and social sciences, in most IITs, are strong in their own right.
What’s sad about the Malhotra-Vishwanathan platforming is that they are attacking fields that should rightfully be as much part of the IITs as the technical education for which they are well known. Surprisingly, there appears to have been little resistance against this from within the IITs.
It is also particularly tone-deaf to announce such a lecture in the background of increasing numbers of suicides by students of disadvantaged castes at the IITs. Many of these suicides come from a sense of being discriminated against, often subtle but sometimes overt, and a feeling of exclusion in a milieu that is overwhelmingly upper-caste.
Rajiv Malhotra was named a distinguished academic visitor at JNU a few years ago, despite protests that stressed his limited academic credentials. Neither Malhotra or Vishwanathan are products of an IIT. Neither one has a PhD, unlike virtually all those who have been invited to deliver institute lectures – broadly interdisciplinary but scholarly in nature – at IIT Kanpur.
While Malhotra is an active social media presence, relatively little is known about his co-author Vijaya Viswanathan. Alt News has established that she is the principal secretary of Texas-based Waiable Media Inc. Waiable controls Kreately, a website hosting content that can only be described as Islamophobic hate speech. Many of its clips have been debunked, but the website carries no mention of these checks.
Even a bit of due diligence would have revealed these facts. Had this been done, it might have convinced IIT Kanpur that it was not appropriate to invite someone who supports views brimming with hatred for the minority community.
Both as an alumnus of IIT Kanpur as well as a scientist interested in the junctions where the sciences, the humanities and the social sciences overlap, I am distressed at the wedge that Malhotra and Vishwanathan attempt to drive between these fields. Anyone familiar with the IITs would agree that a purely engineering education — preceded by years of social isolation in a high-pressure coaching environment — is not conducive to making intelligent, compassionate and politically-aware citizens.
That our society is fissured at multiple levels, even in national institutions of higher technical learning, is a reality that cannot be glossed over by reference to a glorious past. Careful ethnographic studies by Ajantha Subramanian and Renny Thomas illustrate amply the pathologies that have proliferated around meritocracy, competitiveness and unacknowledged privilege.
To understand these fissures is to make progress, however unsteadily and imperfectly, towards a more just and equitable society.
One doesn’t need Harvard University to point this out.
Gautam I. Menon is a Professor at Ashoka University, Sonepat and at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai. The views expressed here are his and do not represent his institutions.
This article was first published on The Wire.