Colonial use of science and the native responses

Lecture delivered at Istanbul University, 20 October 2008

Colonial use of science and the native responses


Rajesh Kochhar

Org Secy IAU Commission 41 “History of Astronomy”

Former Director, NISTADS, New Delhi

National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research, Mohali 160067, India

[email protected]


Dear Friends.

It is a matter of great pleasure and honour for me to be here. India has very old ties with the Turkish people. There are many words in common usage in north India that are of Turkic origin. Since ancient India’s own historical tradition was oral rather than written, it is not easy to reconstruct the past. Turkish archives contain manuscripts that provide valuable information Indian history. These sources need to be examined in greater depth.


Turkey has been the geography’s choice as a bridge between Asia and Europe. A striking example of this comes from the relatively recent history of small pox. As is well known variolation was introduced into Europe from Turkey in the early years of the 18th century. Lady Mary Wortley   Montague’s (1689-1762) five year old son was variolated in Istanbul in 1718 and her four-year old daughter in London itself, in 1721. This was Europe’s first introduction to the concept of immunization.  Since the early patronage   for small pox prevention came from the royalty and the aristocracy, the learned societies awoke to take note of what had been common knowledge in rural Europe, that is, cow pox gave immunity from the more virulent small pox. The synthesis of Turkey and rural Europe enabled Europe to move from traditional variolation to safer and more dependable vaccination, which received name and sound scientific status in 1796 thanks to Edward Jenner (1749-1823).


The period from Montague to Jenner is significant geo-politically as well. Europe became a colonial power and prosperous. Eastern antecedents of scientific discoveries (vaccination, zinc metallurgy) were ignored and modern science presented as a stand-alone. Europe had earlier displayed curiosity about and admiration for eastern knowledge. This was rapidly displaced by openly expressed disdain. This is understandable. You cannot lord over people you respect.


For later reference we may note that vaccination was introduced into India in 1802 as an exercise in colonial good governance, but was met with stiff opposition from the local population. To short-circuit the opposition, it was falsely claimed that vaccination was practised by ancient Hindus. To this effect some couplets were quoted in Madras Courier of 12 January 1812, said to have been taken from Dhanvantri’s Sakteya Grantha, “undoubtedly an ancient composition”. It turned out that the couplets were composed by one Mr Ellis of Madras and inscribed on old paper. Similarly, but independently, a “native physician of Bareilly put into the hands of Mr Gillman, who was surgeon at that station, some leaves purporting to contain an  extract of a Sanscrit work on medicine”. The work said to be entitled Sudha Samgraha written by a physician named Mahadeva, under the patronage of Raja Rajasimha, mentioned vaccination. The passage was shown to be a forgery. I shall return to this in more detail when I discuss Seductive Orientalism (as in India) vis-a–vis Confrontational Orientalism (as in the Middle East).


The year 1608 saw the chance invention of telescope by a Dutch optician. The same year the first English East India Company ship reached Indian shores. This numerology brings home the fact that modern science and technology have grown hand in hand with maritime activity, colonial expansion and domination over nature and fellow human beings.


There are three issues to be discussed.

      i.            Use of (modern) science and technology as a colonial tool.


   ii.            How this rule was  sought to be legitimized in the eyes of the natives as well as for  home consumption


iii.            How did the natives respond to the above two. In particular how has the Non-West’s attitude towards modern science and technology been fashioned by the colonial experience?



Although much of the specifics comes from India, the discussion has a wider applicability.


Colonial tool

This has been extensively discussed in the literature. Let me illustrate it with the help of examples drawn from diverse areas, and arranged more or less chronologically.


Introduction of steam engine robbed Burma of its independence. Attacking the Burmese capital from Eastern India through land required cutting through thick forests, where the attackers would be cut into piece. Once steam engines became available, they were fitted into gun boats. These boats moved upstream from the mouth of Iravaddy and annihilated resistance.


Introduction of oceanic steam navigation robbed the “Middle East” of its freedom. Since the early steam engines were very inefficient, navigation via Cape of Good Hope was not feasible. Since coaling stations were required the African east coast was taken over. Also since part of the journey was overland, Egypt lost its independence.


Understanding the cause of malaria and its cure constitute a major scientific story. But it would be instructive to look at the other dimension also. Early attempts to dig the Panama Canal failed because of the huge casualties caused by malaria and yellow fever. Once the mosquito life cycles were well understood, mosquitoes could be destroyed and the gigantic engineering exercise carried out. A few years ago New York Times carried a story which contrasted the American success with the earlier French failure.  It was not France against US but man against mosquito.


While Panama Canal came into being thanks to a theoretical understanding of malaria, the European penetration of Africa was simply due to the empirical cure. Earlier attempts by Europeans to go into Africa were foiled by malaria (to which the natives had some immunity.) Cinchona plant was smuggled out from South America and domesticated in Indonesia. Given large dosages of quinine, European soldiers could triumph. Of course the African remained with malaria and got Europeans also.


These examples can be multiplied. It should be noted that colonial science was colonial in the sense that its agenda was utilitarian. But the natural science that came out of it was untainted.


Orientalism: Seductive vs confrontational

In earlier times, capture of power had been its own justification, but   the colonial powers had to justify their foreign conquests to the natives as well as to their own people.


In North America and Australia the natives were physically annihilated. Africans were treated as sub-humans whose muscle power could be put to good use. In India and the Muslim countries the issue of legitimacy had to be squarely addressed.


As authors of the powerful knowledge system of modern science, the Europeans claimed cultural and racial superiority over the rest of the world and therefore the right to rule. The extended exercises in ideological justifications have since been named Orientalism.


I would like to attempt a formal definition of (imperialist) Orientalism, which is based on but goes beyond Edward Said’s influential, area-specific over-stated thesis. Orientalism is an operational and ideological framework consciously created by the West to describe and define the East in such a manner as to facilitate and legitimize the West’s control of and domination over the East.


Orientalism was not a monolith. It took different forms in different parts of the East depending on the local characteristics and the nature of past encounters with Europe.


In Indian languages the word for European is Firangi, obviously cognate with Frank. How is it that France came to symbolize Europe? The term Firangi arrived in India from Arabic / Persian. These lands had their encounter with Europe through the Christian Crusaders who were known as Franks. By the time the term arrived in India, it had lost its historical baggage.


Colonial rule over India preceded that in the Muslim world. Orientalism thus began in India. It would become confrontational in the Muslim world, but in India  for the Hindus it was persuasive and seductive. In India, Orientalism took the form of Indo-Europeanism.


The thesis went like this. Both the Europeans and the upper-caste Hindus belonged to the Aryan race, while the Muslims were the other. The British rule set up by defeating the Muslims was therefore a restoration. The Hindus had had their period of glory in the ancient past; now it was the turn of their European brethren. Indo-Europeanism thus “placed in the hands of the British Government a powerful instrument of connexion and conciliation” with the (upper-caste) Hindus.


In colonial Algeria the natives were debarred from all professions except for medicine. But the situation was different in a vast country like India where governance required native support. Inherent in the British rule over India was the slow and increasingly reluctant training of the natives to eventually overthrow that rule. The strategy was entirely successful. The British rule lasted close to two centuries, and when the British finally left they did so with tremendous goodwill.


Introduction of western judicial system (1774) and western medicine (1835) produced a very significant effect. Since law deals with human rights and medicine with human body, both the professions propagated egalitarianism. Indeed, lawyers and doctors would play a leading role in Indian nationalist movement. The British introduced Indians to English language and literature; western thought; ancient India’s glory; and to modern science. It was now for the Indians to prove to themselves and to everybody else that they could become equal members of the world’s club of science.


This brings us to the 1870s. Indo-Europeanism was now sought to be inverted for use by the Indians to their own advantage. Indians were no longer content with holding the ancient end of the Aryan stick. They declared that it was the duty of their European brethren to hold them by hand, teach them modern science and elevate them in the scale of nations.  


Indo-Europeanism made the Hindus revivalist and increased their distance from the Muslims. It is noteworthy that by the 1880s Hindu community leadership had largely passed to a class (drawn from the upper castes) which had no pedigree but owed its station in life to English education. The Muslim leadership was still in the hands of pedigreed people. Also while Hindus had risen to high positions in the government, Muslims still occupied relatively low hierarchical positions. After independence the hitherto marginalized caste/ class groupings have asserted themselves on political and educational fronts, but the Muslim entry into the middle class has been slow and limited.


India was the first country outside the Western world to take to modern science. J.C. Bose (1858-1939) and P.C. Ray (1861-1937), who began their research career in the closing years of the 19th century, are the world’s first non-white modern mainstream scientists. C.V.Raman’s (1888-1970) 1930 Nobel prize was the first one to go out of Europe and North America.


Modern scientific research in India was initiated in the closing years of the 19th century by two Britain-trained professors working in a government college that is Presidency College Calcutta. J.C. Bose’s work on radio waves was far more inspired and original than P.C. Ray’s chemical researches. Between 1895 and 1902 Bose published as many as 14 research papers in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. But then Bose left physics and moved on areas like the response of the living and the non-living which at the time were not considered part of the mainstream. In spite of Bose’s pioneering work, physics research and applied physics failed to take off in India. On the other hand Ray went on to found a school as well as an industry and be justly recognized as the father of modern chemistry in India.

Bose and Ray were the first tangible proof that the natives could be the equals of their European masters. The impact Bose made by his presence in Europe energized the whole nation.


Eleven decades of Indian pursuit of science can be discussed in terms of three sequential phases: (i) Nationalist Phase; (ii) International Phase; and (iii) Globalization Phase. The nationalist phase began in the year 1895 when Bose’s first paper appeared. The second phase can nominally be taken to begin with the 1945 setting up of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, by Homi Bhabha (1909-1966). The third phase, now on, began with the onset of globalization.


As we move down the phases, there is a general decline in   the quality of Indian science and in its impact on the world. I would argue that there is a striking correlation between these three phases and the stages in the diminishing role perceived by the middle class for itself in the national scheme of things.


Nationalist  phase

This phase began with J.C. Bose and Ray and   is characterized by the Nobel prize–winning work of Raman and the Nobel-class theoretical researches of M.N. Saha (1893-1956) and S.N. Bose (1894-1974). These spectacular achievements were made possible by a fortuitous combination of circumstances. (i) Modern science was young then. It was just a short step ahead of, or rather a continuation of, M. Sc. – level studies. Thus Raman could publish research papers in international journals while still a student and establish his credentials as a world-class experimentalist working part-time. There was hardly any difference between a classroom textbook and a research journal. Saha and S.N. Bose as young lecturers produced the first ever English translation of Einstein for use as course material. Saha and before him J.C. Bose could identify research problems by reading popular accounts.


(ii) Another very important feature of this phase was that the caliber of teachers was exceptionally high. Teaching was the best career option after the ICS. Surendra Nath Banerjee after being unfairly dismissed from ICS became a college professor (He taught P.C. Ray English literature). Since Saha could not enter civil services because of his pronounced nationalist leanings, he became a university lecturer. Raman left a cushy civil job to become a professor. Post-independence weakening of the university system to feed national laboratories has also meant the denial of inspired teaching to students.


(iii) As J.C. Bose noted, in his time, the Presidency College Calcutta was among the best equipped anywhere in the world. The infrastructural and technological requirements of experimental research were very modest and easily available at the level of college teaching.   In 1896 when Bose went to England on a lecture-demonstration tour he took with him electric apparatus “made with such help as Calcutta could afford”. He got a duplicate made by the best firm of instrument makers in London which “expressed a wish to make copies of the same instruments for supply in the laboratories of Europe and America”.  Ray had a B.Sc. – failed assistant, Jitendra Nath Rakshit, who “Out of a few bits of rejected glass – tubing” “could improvise an apparatus, which hitherto could be had from a firm in England or Germany after months of anxious waiting”. Raman used to boast that his equipment cost only 200 rupees. Raman misses the point completely. What is important is not the cost but the fact that in his time state-of–the–art labs could be easily set up in the country.


Now Nobel–prize level work requires billions of dollars worth of equipment which needs continual up-gradation. Basic science has increasingly become a child of high-technology and the days of simple discoveries are long over. It was one thing to theorize on Bose–Einstein statistics using paper and pen (as S.N. Bose did), but quite another to achieve the technological feat of isolating the predicted condensates (which was honoured with a Nobel prize in 2001). It was the “science application” ‘under the aegis of the British administration that made “science speculation” by the natives possible. But as science developed, India failed to keep pace with science application. Science speculation cannot be maintained in a technological and industrial vacuum.


International recognition won by J.C.Bose and Ray was the first tangible proof that the natives could be the equals of and command respect from their European masters. In recent times there has been much back-dated regret at J.C. Bose’s failure to encash his pioneering experimental discoveries pertaining to radio receivers and transmitters. It is forgotten that at the time being treated as equal ranked higher than being a part of the Western industrial machinery. After all, Bose also declined a professorship in England and chose to serve in Calcutta.


The take-off stage of modern physics coincided with the enhanced sense of Indian nationalism. Making scientific discoveries requires a certain amount of defiance. The suppressed semi-articulated resentment against the colonial rulers provided that defiance. Paradoxically, while Indian achievements in science were perceived as part of the nationalist movement, at the same time honours bestowed by the colonial rulers were coveted and even flaunted. In the early days when India was new to modern science, it was natural that recognition be sought from the West. But modern science in India never became self-assessing. Scientists have continued looking towards the West for guidance, encouragement, support and recognition.


In the early 1950s when the celebrated British physicist Paul Dirac visited India he found to his horror that S.N. Bose was not a Fellow of the Royal Society. Such a glaring omission showed the Society in poor light. Dirac promptly arranged to have Bose elected as a Fellow. Interestingly, at the time, there were already a number of Indian Fellows, but none of them had chosen to propose Bose’s name. We have here at work what we may call the Sultan’s Harem Syndrome. Inmates of a harem compete with one another to catch the eye of the Sultan, in this case the West.


In the pre-Gandhian years, the nationalist movement was strictly a middle class affair, with the leadership still making appeals to the empire’s sense of noblesse oblige. In this scheme science and public affairs reinforced each other. Things changed with the emergence of Mahatma Gandhi on the scene. Leadership remained in the hands of the middle class but its constituency became more broad-based. As a strategy, Gandhi put the West on the defensive on ethical grounds. Since modern science was largely seen as a part of the Western civilizational baggage, it went out of focus during years of Gandhi’s ascendancy. Science returned centre stage with the emergence of Jawaharlal Nehru as the undisputed leader of independent India.


International phase

To fix our ideas we have taken the foundation of TIFR in 1945 as the starting point of this phase. Its founder Bhabha was very keen that Indian scientists integrate with the Western scientific community at social level also. (Contrast this with the self-conscious pride that Raman took in his turban.) This phase essentially deals with India from independence till the onset of globalization (and Mandalization). During this phase, at least in the earlier part, nation building was a recurrent theme. Attempts at industrialization, reverse engineering, irrigation dams, agricultural production, strategic science, health-care and desire for expansion of science and engineering education all placed science technology and engineering in a pivotal place. This rubbed onto basic scientific research also.


Generally speaking, research was of lesser quality than before. This is understandable because in the interim science had developed faster than India had.  Indian science depended on foreign collaboration and visits; and had an eye on the man-power needs of post-war West. Yet, it fitted in with the national desire to harness science for economic development and as an instrument of national prestige. Although political power now vested in elected representatives, the distance between them and the middle class was still small. The distance has since increased to such an extent that middle class has lost whatever sense of national obligation it had cherished earlier.


Globalization has transformed India economy as well as the India middle class. For the past many years India has been enjoying an growth rate of 8-9%.While the rate is commendable, it has been driven by the services sector, which is manifestly science-less. If the economy of a country becomes derivative so will its culture. Science cannot flourish in a society whose economy does not require it. If the Indian economy has disowned science, the middle class has disowned India itself. Globalization has introduced India to a consumerist lifestyle that is beyond the intrinsic strength of India economy. This lifestyle can only be maintained by servicing the Western economy.


Throughout the world science provides the quickest, shortest and the surest route for entry into the middle class and for upward social mobility. Indian science and engineering degree-holders from among the middle class  are more than willing to do petty un-intelligent jobbery for big companies for the sake of a salary, which though small in dollar terms translates into a hefty rupee bundle . If they want to pursue science they go to USA, where a middle class living is still an improvement over their Indian status. At a technical level, it must be admitted, that there is a cascading effect in the decline of science in India. There is an ever-increasing chasm between the best of Indian science and the best of world science. If any Indian wishes to make a mark in scientific research they can as well go abroad especially when the world is culturally far more homogeneous than before and travel and communication costs have come down drastically. Interestingly while Indian politicians, lawyers and doctors want their children to follow their parental profession, Indian scientists would not like their children to become Indian scientists.


It is noteworthy that American-born young men and women irrespective of their ethnicity are not interested in a career in science. Science in USA is being kept alive by immigrants. This has a lesson for India. The biggest shortcoming of India today is that its middle class has become a closed club; they are no new entrants into it through education. If science is to survive in India, the education system must step out and embrace children of illiterate parents. For these, a science-related career in universities, defence, national labs, public sector undertakings, etc., would be a social step upward and therefore acceptable.


During the colonial period, production-of-wealth aspects of modern science were looked down upon. There was an economic role for science (more strictly engineering) under Nehru’s influence, but the phase soon came to an end. The lessons of the past eleven decades of Indian pursuit of India science are very clear to anyone willing to see them. During the nationalist phase there was this desire to show the world. That spirit somehow vanished on the way. It needs to be revived again. At the same time it is important to remember that it is not possible to sustain science as a purely cultural activity for any extended period of time.


Paradoxically while the world over science is playing an ever increasing role in all walks of life, it is fast losing ground in India. My personal concern is not so much with scientific research as with science education. If science is to survive, leave aside flourish, in India, it must play a leading role in GDP and bring in first-generation learners.  Science empowers not its worshippers, but its harnessers.


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