banner-archive

Review Article

Science and Technology in Colonial India*

Anirban Biswas

Understanding the history of cultivation of science and technology in colonial India necessarily requires some insights into the role of the colonial state in promoting or retarding this cultivation. What needs to be kept in mind is that the colonial rulers wanted to administer the country and to drain away its resources. This is a well-discussed subject, dealt with in detail by economic historians from Dadabhai Naoroji to Amiya Kumar Bagchi. What, however, needs to be elaborated and explained is how the diffusion of science and technology in colonial India was related to this work of administration and drain. Dr Kamalesh Mohan's well-composed and well-thought out work is certainly a notable attempt in this direction. She is not in favour of the well-known, Eurocentric thesis of the 'civilizing mission' of the British in India, but is rather inclined to believe that motivations of imperialist interests to some extent constrained the diffusion of science and technology in India. Yet the colonial masters had to run the administration of the country and to exploit its resources, and had to know it as completely as they could. That is why they tried 'to transform a land of incompre-hensive spectacle into an empire of knowledge'. Dr Mohan aptly points out that in this venture, geographers like James Rennel took the lead. Of course, not only geography, but social statistics also came to occupy a prominent place. 'Such surveys obviously required trained Indian personnel, and hence Indians had to be imparted some training. It was a process of production of colonial knowledge in this country, and in this process, Indians were placed in a hierarchical relationship with the British. Despite this unequal relation, the need for diffusion of science and technology was felt for the 'maintenance of British rule'. This attitude, as Dr Mohan aptly points out, was embodied in Charles Wood's famous despatch in which the connection between diffusion of European knowledge in India and the prosperity of the British economy was clearly emphasized. One result of Wood's dispatch was the founding of universities in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, and shortly after, in Punjab and Allahabad. Dr Mohan has discussed the growth of university education with special referece to Punjab, which is especially useful for students of the subject. This reviewer, who happens to be a Bengali, knows a little about the genesis and growth of western education in Bengal, but is almost completely ignorant of what was happening in Punjab or Allahabad.

One pertinent observation of the author regarding the legitimization of the authority of the colonial state may be mentioned here, "....two alternatives seemed suited to the political situation in India. The first one required the new rulers to adopt the political structure as well as the cultural discourse of the existing Mughal regime. The second strategy stipulated that the structure and discourse of the Indian polity society be remodelled through a serious missionary effort for the spread of western education."(p-35) In the early stages the rulers followed the first strategy, while in the later, the second one was vigorously pursued, with the Bengali intelligentsia as allies. Here Dr Mohan makes one significant, although not novel, observation. "Ironically, the Bengali babu's efforts enabled him to acquire remarkable knowledge of European history with sympathy but a negative and second-hand Euro-centric view of Indian history and civilization. This moment of triumph for the hegemonic discourse had two grave implications for the colonial elite. Firstly, they were weighed down by an inferiority complex and secondly, by a feeling of alienation from their ideological cultural moorings. In the long run, it bred disillusionement and contradictions between the colonised and colonial power."(p-37) The author has pointed out how the spread of western education was buttressed by the ideology of race and religious divide. It may be argued that it was the precursor of the famously divisive 'two-nation theory'. Dr Mohan has also argued forcefully that ' the scientific method was itself a colonizer,' strengthned by the notion of racial superiority in the learning and use of science, and used to justify resource extraction from the colonies. "This justification of imperialism and expansionism... was based on the same ideology that had enabled English immigrants to the United States to hunt, displace and exterminate millions of American-Indians". The section on 'Caste Identities in Colonial Ethnography richly informative and elegant; it clarifies people's understanding of British perception of the subject, which, while laying emphasis on numerical strength, was also interested in recording those minorities who had inter-regional connections or had the reputation of defying British laws. It is fitting that the author has extensively discussed Herbert Risley's work and drawn attention to the studies made by P C Mahalanobis, D N Majumdar and C R Rao. On Risley's celebrated study, the author's comment is fairly accurate : "The British rulers were, perhaps, not enamoured of Risley's scientific interests but they sponsored his scheme of ethnographic survey with two expectations. First of all, they were searching for a depresased under-class to serve as a counter-weight to the majority Hindu community. Secondly, the colonial state was keen to acquire a more minute knowledge about the Indian society in order to face the sensitive question of social reforms without hurting the sentiments of the masses at large." (P-51) Some comments, however, seem to be too sweeping. One may quote one, "By learning to use imported social and material technologies, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Lokmanya Tilak, M K Gandhi, B R Ambedkar and Pandit Nehru tried to restructure the image of Indian history and tradition, harnessed cultural resources for mobilizing the people to overthrow the well-entrenched British rule, and redraw the contours of communitaria consciousness befitting the secular ideal in free India."(P-61) There were large differences in the thoughts of the above-mentioned thinkers, and Ram Mohan Roy was not in favour of overthrowing British rule, although he advocated some administrative reforms.

The chapter entitled 'The Development of Modern Science in the Punjab' is interesting because much is not known on this subject. The author provides readers with a lot of information regarding the growth of science studies in the Punjab, the government's attempts to link it with their economic and political objectives, and the response of scientists. Particularly noteworthy was the contribution of Ruchi Ram Sahni, a teacher of the Lahore Government College, in the promotion and diffusion of training and research in science. It is to be noted that Sahni also faced the discrimination with which Indian teachers were usually treated. Readers also come to know of the career of S S Bhatnagar, the celebrated scholar of physical chemistry, Sarvadaman Chawla, the mathematician, and P K Kitchlew, the physicist. The author points out that Sahni stressed the importance of teaching science in the mother tongue; this reminds one of the effort of Satyendranath Bose, the legendary Bengali physicist, for cultivation of science in Bengali.

In the chapter 'Technology and Religion', Dr Mohan discusses the process by which the Hindu consciousness was recast in Punjab through print technology. Medieval India was fairly advanced in papermaking, but it could not advance towards book-printing. Dr Mohan discusses the possible reasons, reluctance of rulers, lack of a stimulating social environment, reliance on person to person communication, conservatism of ulemas and priests eager to maintain their authority over disciples, the tradition of sruti etc. Dr Mohan argues that the Bhakti movement weakened the innovative tendencies of the enterprising mercantile communities, and the social distance of the wealthy and better off with the artisans and craftsmen impeded the diffusion of knowledge. These propositions are well reasoned. Although printing was originally a Chinese invention, it came to India through the West. At first the use of printed books was meant to serve the needs of one section of people to learn British ways, and in the next stage, the printing press was used for the adaptation of the native culture to the British system. In the third stage, the printing technology was a tool for the preservation of the native cultural identity and religious beliefs as against the offensive of colonial administrators and Christian missionaries. It is this third stage that the author dwells upon at some length. His description of the process of formation of the Arya Samaj ideology and its dissemination through printed books, periodicals and pamphlets is interesting and informative. For one thing the history of use of the printing technology in Bengal also followed a similar three-stage pattern, with the difference that in the third stage, the prime consideration was not the preservation of cultural or religious identity, but challenging the legitimacy of the British raj. In both cases, however, the original purpose behind the import of print technology was to reshape the native consciousness according to the needs of colonial rulers.

The last chapter (Ruchi Ram Sahni and the Pursuit of Science in a Colonial Society) deserves special mention for the simple reason that it describes the crusade of a less known and less recognized scientist, who was brought up in a milieu that was largely pre-modern in the usual sense. Sahni realized the conflict between scientific rationality and institution-oriented Indian religion and turned to Brahmo Samaj for a resolution of this conflict. He experienced the chauvinistic arrogance of the British and sought to give a fitting reply by dissemination of scientific knowledge through vernacular languages. His mission, like other distinguished scientists e.g. J C Bose, P C Ray or M N Saha, was to show that Indian scientists could challenge the hegemony of Europeans in respect of science and technology.

In short, this well-written book should be read by all those who wish to have an insight into the spread of science and technology in India in the specific colonial context. The hypotheses put forward by the author are not unknown; but she has provided factual underpinnings to them.


[*Science and Technology in Colonial India, by Kamalesh Mohan, Published by Aakar Books, Delhi-110091, pages xi+163, Price (Hard bound) Rs 450]

Frontier
Vol. 48, No. 28, Jan 17 - 23, 2016