Herculean labour: The great IIT myth and the entrance exam

In India, the halo of excellence is not created by content, but constructed through scarcity. The fierce battle among countless, nameless Indians for the preciously small number of seats at an IIT just does that.

Shiv Visvanathan June 15, 2012 14:56:49 IST
Herculean labour: The great IIT myth and the entrance exam

India has many civilizational myths and their corresponding symbols, be it Taj Mahal as the ultimate love story or Gandhi as a stirring tale of non-violence. IIT is one such mythical symbol, created by a Nehruvian era India which needed an icon more powerful than the laboratory or the dam. Thence was born the legend of the IITs, which paired the appearance of technocratic excellence with middle class striving.

In India, the halo of excellence is not created by content, but constructed through scarcity. The fierce battle among countless, nameless Indians for the preciously small number of seats at an IIT does just that. The IIT entrance exam is more awe-inspiring than the others because it maintains the integrity of outcome: papers don’t leak, results can't be doctored, nor is there a 'donation' quota. An IIT exam is like an IPL-5 which cannot be fixed. In the Indian derby, IIT is the greatest race of them all.

The entrance test acquires mythic stature as the path into the sanctum sanctorum. It is the intellectual equivalent of the labours of Hercules, all rolled into one. Success in the exam makes you a bona fide superhero; the winner in the most Darwinian struggle of all. The hallowed allure of the IITs is burnished when a Narayan Murthy claims his son finds it easier to get into Cornell than into an IIT.

Herculean labour The great IIT myth and the entrance exam

IIT is one such mythical symbol, created by a Nehruvian era India which needed an icon more powerful than the laboratory or the dam. AFP

No story of IIT is complete without the coaching schools of Kota. The battle of IIT was often fought and won in the tutorial fields of Kota. IITs without coaching schools is like Damon without Pythias or Heer without Ranjha.

Even the “also rans” acquire the tinsel of IIT glitter. I have often heard someone say “I missed IIT by 1%” or “I got IIT but did not get my preference so I decided to do BSc physics at Stephens as I did not want to do Aeronautics”. I have also heard a Punjabi neighbour say this of her errant son: “Bunty is actually a good boy. Most of his friends went to IIT.”

The only way you can add to the halo is by adding that other envied acronym: IIM. In this Macaulaytic world where exams count more than talent, an IIT with an MBA makes you “twice born”. The IIMs are full of IIT engineers who have not produced a single artifact. But the IIT myth is also sustained by another, that of the diaspora. If the Chinese-Americans created the rail line and Jews, Hollywood, the IITs allow us to claim Silicon Valley. If Indians did not have an IIT, we would have to invent it.

Jairam Ramesh is a shrewd man. He attacks the IIT as a research system because it does not challenge its core competence as a myth. It takes a bumbler like Kapil Sibal to tamper with the entrance test. The Brahminical howl of rage it produced should tell us some things are indeed untouchable. You destroy IIT if you tamper with the test, which is its very DNA.

Kapil Sibal is the ideal education minister. He reforms what is working well and he leaves untouched what should be reformed. He imposed a semester system on Delhi University when it was unnecessary. He dumps an all India test on IIT when it is not required. He is a genuine populist. He knows how to destroy excellence by pretending to be democratic.

But the myth of IIT will outlast him. A friend explained it in this way: “Kapil belongs to an earlier period, like most Congressmen. Today, history begins with the IIT entrance exam. Kapil is a period piece. After all he is a BA (LLB).” The quaintness of the explanation intrigued me but in its very narrative, the myth of IIT stays intact.

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