The Radical Foundation of Indian Technoscience
Indian engagement with modern technoscience originated with the Independence movement, infusing it with an anti-imperialist politics.
The relationship between India and technoscience is a contradictory one. On the one hand, India’s development of technoscientific workers, particularly in the IT sector, is widely hailed in the mainstream press as a developmental success story. On the other hand, this same trend is seen as indicative of an increasingly unequal society, where a small minority of people succeed by engaging with foreign capital, while the rest of the country stagnates – silicon towers surrounded by dusty slums.
But the connection of IT and other technoscientific sectors with an individualist and capitalist ethos was not always the case. Indian engagement with modern technoscience originated with the Independence movement, infusing it with an anti-imperialist politics. The Indian Independence Movement looked to science and technology early on, both as a means and an end to the anti-imperialist struggle. Independence would allow for the free development of science and technology for improving the nation and people’s well-being; at the same time, engaging with science and technology would strengthen the anti-imperialist movement and help the march toward independence.
Movement toward re-establishing independent scientific research began even prior to the establishment of a broader independence movement, as described by science historian Deepak Kumar. The Indian Association for Cultivation of Science (IACS) was established in 1876 – nine years before the founding of the Indian National Congress (INC). The IACS was pushed by nationalist-minded Indian scientists who, pre-empting the hard turn toward modernity that most anti-colonial movements would take in the early 1900s, argued that scientific rationalism was not an inherently European invention, but a universal tool that would benefit Indians if used on their own terms.
As a more full-scale independence movement coalesced, theorization and practices around the use of technology grew more sophisticated and radical, holding a place at the center of anti-imperialist strategy. The Swadeshi Movement, started in 1905 and based in Bengal, aimed at undermining the economic foundations of the British Raj by boycotting British-made goods while also supporting local industrial enterprises. Many of these local industries were already existing textile mills, but there were also ambitions to break into more advanced industries, which required a range of technical expertise largely denied to Indians by the imperial education policies. One key project to develop more advanced industries was the Paisa Fund, a mass fundraising effort which sought donations of one paisa from individuals to invest in glassmaking operations. The project hired Ishwar Das Varshnei, who had studied engineering in Tokyo and MIT from 1902 to 1905, to run the operations and to train more people in the technical aspects of glassmaking. By the early 1920s, there were over a dozen glass factories across India, started by trainees of Varshnei and the Paisa Fund.
An alternative to industrialization also emerged around this time in the form of Mahatma Gandhi’s counter-modernity. Gandhi criticized the West, along with increasingly leading voices in the anti-imperialist movement, for their fetishization of technology, machinery, and heavy industry. He argued that science and technology, as it was used, was inherently oppressive and inhumane, and led to the concentration of wealth and power. This wasn’t exactly an anti-technology perspective, as much as it was an advocacy for light industry, and development centered around the rural masses. Gandhi placed the charakha (spinning wheel) at the center of this alternative development plan, whereby a distributed textile industry would spread wealth across India’s village societies, rather than concentrating it in urban industrial hubs.
Nonetheless, by the 1930s the main current of nationalism remained one that upheld the need for large-scale, state-led industrialization, and the importance of technoscientific progress. The number of scientists and engineers was growing in INC ranks. Jawaharlal Nehru had become a staunch advocate of scientific rationality and its importance to independence, and was one of the most important leaders in the INC. Meghnad Saha, a former member of armed revolutionary groups in Bengal, had become a decorated physicist and worked at both popularizing science among the masses, as well as advocating for a socialist-inspired plan for technological development from within the INC.
Even dedicated students of Gandhi were not shy of committing to both technoscience and militant anti-imperialism, as shown by the work of Ross Basset, author of the book “The Technological Indian”. Devchand Parekh, a close lifelong friend of Gandhi, pursued both law and technological development, paralleling the efforts of Varshnei and the Paisa Fund, by establishing local chemical factories in the 1910s. His son-in-law, T.M. Shah, worked as a registrar for a nationalist school in Gujarat founded by Gandhi, before spending several years studying electrical engineering at MIT. After receiving a master’s degree in 1930, he returned to India as a skilled technical worker but still a nationalist militant. Shah, and a fellow Indian MIT graduate, spent some time in jail in the early ‘30s for their seditious political activities. Later, Shah helped lead a major strike at Tata Iron and Steel during the explosive upheavals of the 1942 Quit India Movement, for which he was imprisoned for 18 months. Similarly, Bal Kalelkar, who as a teenager was among the initial group of militants accompanying Gandhi on the 1930 Salt March and spent much of the following decade either in jail or agitating in villages, became a student at NED Engineering College, Karachi in 1937. After NED, Kalelkar – with Gandhi’s blessing – left India to study mechanical engineering at MIT and Cornell University, receiving a PhD in 1944. The journeys of both Shah and Kalelkar demonstrate just how in tune technoscience development and anti-imperialist nationalism were during this era. In particular, Shah’s case is exemplary in revealing how anti-imperialist techno-science operated, insofar as it went beyond simply engaging in voluntary developmentalism, and into the realm of sabotaging the British Empire’s exploitation of domestic technical labor.
The importance of science and technology was fully institutionalized into the anti-imperialist movement in 1938, when the National Planning Committee was created under the INC to help map out areas for potential national development, ranging from agriculture to energy and health care. Saha played a key role in advocating for such a committee, and Nehru became the chairman.
Indian independence was finally won in 1947, and the postcolonial government in India – with Nehru as its first prime minister – rapidly expanded its scientific and technological institutions. One key project was the creation of elite technical universities. The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) would foreshadow India’s rise as a global power in information technologies. The location of the first, IIT Kharagpur, was laden with explicit political significance. It once held the infamous Hijli Detention Camp, a British prison created for the exclusive purpose of incarcerating activists and organizers of the independence movement. Once a symbol of imperial repression, the site was reconstructed into a space for the production of an independent and technoscientific nation. Four other keystone universities were established in Bombay, Maharashtra (1958), Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh (1959), Madras, Tamil Nadu (1959), and Delhi (1961). A larger group of fourteen technical universities, the National Institutes of Technology (NIT), were also established, between 1959 and 1965. Similarly, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) rapidly expanded the number of research laboratories from four to sixteen.
Thus, Indian engagement with modern technoscience was thoroughly infused with politics from its germination during the independence movement through its development in the early years of postcolonial nation-building. These politics were nationalist and anti-imperialist, and explicitly framed the use of technoscience as a tool for a collective project of national development. And yet, today, such lofty political and collective ideals – let alone any revolutionary aspirations – have been stripped away. In general, young Indians (both in the subcontinent and in the diaspora) pursue a career in technology not to partake in a collective project of bettering society, but to service capital and accumulate wealth via employment at multinational corporations. Individualism and careerism reigns supreme. What happened?
However radical or progressive the discourse around technoscience and anti-imperialism may have been, the fact remains that these visions were largely those of elites and therefore subordinate to what was ultimately a bourgeois nationalist project. Technoscientific development was seen not as something for the masses to participate in and benefit from, but rather as something to be controlled solely by state and capital. Industrialization was to be handed down to the masses by the experts in power. This framework reflected the huge influence that leading bourgeoisie, like the industrialist J.D. Birla had within the INC, as well as latent class and caste biases.
Furthermore, the massive influence of leading capitalists in the postcolonial state -- many of whom, like the Tatas, built their empires through close collaboration with the British Empire -- meant that any serious efforts toward socialist development would be fiercely resisted. These capitalists tolerated some measure of planning, as seen in the proposed 1944 Bombay Plan, but this was largely a calculated stance, designed to head off more radical proposals that would actually challenge and undermine their class power. Without redistributive measures or actual disciplinary control over capital, as Vivek Chibber has argued, industrialization proceeded in a stilted and haphazard manner, as seen in the persistence of mass poverty from independence through to the late 1970s.
For graduates of the newly minted technology institutes, this meant severe limits on the available opportunities to pursue work -- let alone specific career paths that would uphold the collective anti-imperialist origins of the institutes. Educated but lacking meaningful career prospects, these graduates increasingly turned to the option of emigrating to the United States. This process of “brain drain” was made easier by the close connections which developed between the US and the IITs, particularly in the field of computer sciences. Ironically, this connection was largely facilitated by Indian alumni of American educational institutions, a stratum which had once been located at the radical edge of politics and technology. Thus did Indian technical education evolve from a nationalist, anti-imperialist project to a factory for the production of skilled workers for global capitalism.
But despite the fall of radical technoscience in India, its origins and history can still be used to push back against the forces of neoliberal depoliticization, to re-insert an emancipatory politics and radicalism into science and technology, and chart an alternative path for aspiring engineers, programmers, and other technoscientific workers. Figures like T.M. Shah and Meghnad Saha, and their fusion of technoscience and radical politics, should be upheld as shining examples of how skilled scientists and technical workers can participate in and contribute to revolutionary movements.
Such initiatives are not just important for the sake of radicalizing and organizing a (typically) passive segment of our society. The tech industry is at the center, and arguably the forefront, of contemporary capitalism; there is no prospect for successful revolutionary struggle in the absence of a path for spreading this struggle among technoscience workers. Given the importance of tech hubs like Bangalore for global capital, and the number of desi tech workers in the San Francisco Bay Area – the heartland of the global tech industry – South Asian tech workers should form a key locus of an emancipatory politics of the future.
R.K. Upadhya is an engineer, writer, and organizer in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a member of Tech Workers Coalition and the Alliance of South Asians Taking Action.