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Engineering heredity

A new type of caste system at an IIT

Business Standard  |  New Delhi 

Many Indians have continually complained that Indian politics has been destroyed by dynastic rule. This is apparent not only at the Centre but also in the states. In fact, there is an interesting story about an erstwhile state chief minister. Some journalists pointed out to him that all his government’s contracts and other largesse go out to his sons only. He, famously quipped that whoever gets it will be somebody’s son, so why not his own? Indeed, the advantages and disadvantages of birth are borne by most in India. This is something that has been with us since ancient times — the caste system. And our modern-day society has added layers of sophistication to the way it plays out. Thus, it has become useful for some to be branded as low caste as was witnessed a couple of years ago in the riots and protests organised by the Gujjars of North India who wanted scheduled-caste status. And, it plays out every day as groups fight to be classified as other backward castes. Thus, what was traditionally thought to be a disadvantage is now increasingly viewed as a blessing, in disguise. No wonder most political parties like playing the caste card.

The caste system that had its roots in the occupational categorisation of people has been refurbished in modern, democratic India. Thus, lawyers’ children become lawyers and, doctors’ children doctors. The same is true of film stars and musicians. And, if you think this is true only of politicians, professionals and artists, think again. The importance of birth and nurture in influencing career preferences is understandable, but its institutionalisation is bizarre. That is what has happened, of all places, at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur. For over 40 years now, it has now been discovered, the faculty at IIT-Kharagpur have been giving special preference to their own children in admissions to the prestigious institution. They did not have to compete with the rest — more privileged or less. While at one level the faculty has fought caste quotas in higher studies, they have been quietly using quotas for their own children.

The justification offered by some is that without this quota system, the institution would not be able to attract good faculty in that corner of the country! In other words, if you feel strongly for your children, it is all right to carry out a persistent fraud on the rest of the country. Unfortunately, if a poor man steals to feed his family, he is jailed. But this is not at all contradictory if you can recall what we started with. In India, it matters which family you are born to, not so much what you do. So, from now on, every time someone feels that the government is being divisive by offering sops to various groups, remember what former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had said — in a democracy, the people deserve the government they get.

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First Published: Mon, August 09 2010. 00:53 IST
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