Tag Archives: Edward Said

Globalization and the de-nationalization of Indian middle class

Rajesh Kochhar

CSIR Emeritus Scientist

Indian Institute of Science Education and Research

Sector 26, Chandigarh 160019, India

[email protected]

Paper presented at the 39th annual conference of Mid-Atlantic Region  Association of Asian studies(MAR/AAS) Pennsylvania State University, State College, Pa, 22 October 2010

The most remarkable feature of the Indian middle class (IMC) today is that it has become extremely self-absorbed. There was a time, before and immediately after independence, when the English knowing people in the country saw themselves as a bridge between their less fortunate brethren on the one hand and scientifically and economically ‑­advanced countries on the other. Not anymore. Globalization has provided the IMC with an opportunity and a pretext to decouple itself from the rest of the country. The decoupling however is not complete. The onus of propelling Upper India into a global orbit still rests on the emaciated shoulders of the Lower India. As the irrepressible American film-maker Sam Goldwyn would have put it, IMC has opted to include itself out.

In the early days of the British rule over India, the number of British officers was small and they had a genuine interest in, and desire to interact with, the natives. However, as the British grew in number and power, their attitude changed to that of contempt and aloofness. Evolution of IMC has proceeded along similar lines. In the years immediately after independence, the middle class was still compact, its cultural distance from the elected representatives was small, and there was idealism in the air. The middle class considered itself to be duty bound to use its privileged position for the common good. Over the decades, as the middle class numbers have swelled, it has become more and more self-centred.

Caste constitutes the single most important factor in all aspects of Indian life.Caste situation is far more complex in North India than in South India. There are three major caste ensembles among the Hindus: Upper or forward Castes; Other Backward Classes (OBCs); and Scheduled Castes (SCs). (Use of terms like Upper and Lower is merely indicative; that is why they are written with the initial capital letter) These groupings are not monolithic. Within them there are structures, hierarchies and rivalries. Authentic break-up data in general is not available. The only complete data comes from the 1931 census. In the post-independence censuses so far only SCs (and Scheduled Tribes, STs) have been enumerated. According to the latest (2001) figures, SCs are 16 % of the total population (and STs 8%). Since the Hindus constitute 80% of total population, this means that 20 % of Hindu population is SC. The percentages of Upper Castes and OBCs are anybody’s guess. Figures of 30% for the Upper Castes and 50% for OBCs have been quoted, but many maintain that OBC numbers are not that high.

The British were able to rule over India for close to two centuries with relative ease because they forged an alliance with the Upper Castes, especially the Brahmins. Consequently, the Upper Castes came to occupy dominant position in education and (modern) employment as well as in public life. The spirit of the times is summed up in a popular award-winning 1954 Hindi film Jagriti (Awakening) where a poor (low-caste?) physically handicapped boy lays down his life to reform a rich spoilt boy who is the son of a zamindar (landlord).There has been steady erosion of the Upper Caste dominance in public life and education since then , though through different trajectories.

Normal electoral dynamics has politically empowered castes which though numerically strong were marginalized earlier. It has now become extremely profitable to have a caste vote bank – based political outfit, led by a caste man. Such outfits are not sensitive to issues of governance the way big parties are and therefore enjoy great bargaining power.

India enjoyed a long spell of political stability because Indian National Congress could forge a coalition of three distinct vote banks: BBC (Brahmin-Bania Combine), SCs and Muslims. It was of course led by the Upper castes.

After many elections, the populous North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh again has a single party government. It is a development of historical significance. The recipe is the old Congress one except that the coalition is now led by a Dalit rather than a Brahmin. Adjusting to new realities, the Brahmins have reluctantly joined in a subordinate position to enjoy fruits of power and to protect the interests of their caste brethren who dominate government service.

Political emergence of the OBCs in North India is a new phenomenon. Loss of political clout by the Upper Castes is made the more unpalatable by the deliberately offensive posturing by the OBCs and SCs. To make the situation more complex, the recently aroused OBCs maintain an uneasy relationship with those above and below them in the traditional hierarchy. The dominant castes among the OBCs have a clash of ego with the Upper Castes and conflict of agro-economic interests with the SCs. In fact it is the historical failure of OBCs and SCs to share political power in North India that even now gives the Upper Castes a role bigger than their actual numbers would suggest.

It is easier to tolerate a kick in the posterior than on the stomach. The Upper Castes would have reconciled to the loss of political power had it not been accompanied by shrinkage of educational and employment space for the benefit of the OBCs. This process is known as Mandalization, after the caste surname of Bindeshwari Prasad Mandal who chaired the Second Backward Class Commission, which submitted its report in 1980. The report was precipitously implemented in 1990.

The Constitution of India (1950) provided for 22.5% reservation for SCs (15%) and STs (7.5%). Now, another 27.5% reservation has been added for OBCs. Thus only half the seats are available in the general quota. What makes the matters worse for the Upper castes is that candidates from the reserved categories are eligible for a general merit seat if they qualify, without eating into the quota which others can use.Thus space available to the Upper Caste youth in the class-room has drastically shrunk. While the Upper Castes in the past were rightly made to feel guilty for the maltreatment of the SCs over the millennia and to atone for it to the extent possible, reservation for OBCs is seen as usurpation. An outcome of the OBC onslaught is that the Upper Castes have clubbed all reserved categories together and desensitised themselves to the needs of first-generation learners from among the hitherto marginalised classes. The government has baulked at excluding the creamy layers from both the OBC and SC categories, even though it is a well established fact that within these groups some castes have prospered at the cost of others.

Coincidentally or otherwise, the socially significant process of Mandalization began about the same time as globalization in India. If globalization had not taken place, it is very likely that Mandalization would have eventually produced a new equilibrium state in which the Upper Castes would have willy nilly accepted a diminished role consistent with their actual numbers. Globalization has disrupted this social process in the sense that the Upper-Caste dominated IMC has opted to effectively distance itself from the new mainstream and attach itself to the West. No wonder then that of all the aspects of globalization the ones that have appealed the most to the IMC are a West-inspired life style and education unencumbered by considerations of social justice.

As long as the students and teachers both were drawn from the same social segment, namely Upper Castes, state education was extremely good value for money. The class room today is more representative of the population in general. As a consequence, the state has retreated from education, leaving no hope for first-generation learners of today except fpor the brightest. More seriously, the state has also abandoned agricultural education which does not attract private funding. The consequences of this are all too obvious. Large numbers have made the education system rejectionist rather than enhancing. Good quality education is now in the private sector meaning , more expensive than before, but still the preserve of Upper Castes. As a first step, students can go abroad. The next stage will be to invite foreign universities to set up campuses in India. You often hear talk of Harvard and MIT’s being brought to India are often mentioned. Nobody talks of the success of American state universities and the need to emulate them.

The number of Indian students abroad has increased significantly. In 1998-99, a total of 37842 students enrolled in US. Five years later, in 2002-03, the number stood at 74603, an increase of 100%. The figure for 2008-09 stood at 103260. As the executive director of US educational foundation explained in the pre-meltdown era, “Students who do not gain admission in India’s premier institutions see the US as an alternative”. Unlike the situation a generation ago when students went abroad for post-graduate and doctoral studies on scholarship, Indians are now enrolling in foreign countries for basic degrees and diplomas and are being financed by their parents back home. The economic melt

down and the consequent small dose of protectionism have arrested the trend to an extent.

The number of Indian students in Australia went up from 30,000 in 2004 to 97,000 in 2009. In UK the number doubled in the ten year period 1999-2009, figure for 2009 being 19,205. These countries however stand apart from US. The main attraction for most students going to UK and Australia is not the degree but the possibility of working. Having cheap labour on student visa, rather than on work permit, suited the host country during boom times.

Today’s Indian economy is intrinsically not strong enough to maintain its ever-expanding ambitious middle class at high consumption levels. This can be done only through the services sector, where the money flows in from abroad, mainly USA. While it is a welcome addition to Indian economy, the fact remains that it benefits only the English-knowing young men and women, mostly drawn from the existing middle class. The service sector does not provide a passport to first generation learners to enter middle class the way manufacturing and government service sectors did or the former can still do.

India TV these days is showing an interesting commercial. A girl from a lower middle class aspires to become a cyclist champion and promises her mother a big house. Her kid brother tells her: There is no money in cycling. If you want money , play tennis. The girl does not give up and fulfils her dream. She starts using a skin-whitening cream. Prettier, she is hired by a big company as a brand ambassador!!

Emergence of a de-nationalised middle class

We are witnessing the emergence of a new young people-dominated class, which we may dub Denationalised Middle Class (DMC). If this class were asked to choose between a national award like Padma Shri and a US visa, there can be no doubt that it will opt for the latter.

DMC is carrying out a multi-stage exercise to establish its identity and acquire legitimacy. First, it is setting itself apart by describing the other, contemptuously referring to the general rural background and poor English language skills.A popular cricketer (Sehwag) is dismissed because his father keeps buffaloes in his backyard. Another (Kaif) is condemned because he could not speak a single sentence of English correctly. Contempt for the “Hindi medium types” is matched only by contempt for the language itself. One wonders if there is any other country where such inelegant and ungrammatical language is spoken as the Hindi on our TV and FM radio channels.

In early years, the brown memsahib, in imitation of the White original, deliberately spoke grammatically incorrect Hindi with the ayas, nannies and domestic servants to preclude the possibility of the common language’s acting as asocial leveller. The DMC has devised a clever stratagem to solve its language problem. It has co-opted the Mumbai street slang with its obviously connection with the romanticized underworld. The borrowing is through the Hindi movies. Sanjay Dutt mouths a tougher screen rendering of this slang, while Shahrukh Khan represents the cuter version.

Bombay slang is one of the elements that go into defining DMC as an entity. Additionally, there are global inputs such as SMS and Internet jokes. Earlier one could depend on Bushisms , but unfortunately no new international butt has emerged yet. There is a flourishing local industry churning out bilingual, Hindi-English, jokes and ditties.

The way a culture tells its jokes can provide valuable insights into its mindset. It has been said and rightly so that the number of original jokes in the world is very small. How the joke’s basic idea is contextualised and embellished tells us a lot about the narrators as well as their audience. We have already mentioned that earlier the IMC acted as a bridge between its compatriots and the outside world. In accordance with this role, whenever it came across a Polish, Irish, Scottish or Jewish joke, it would absorb its essence; apply its mind to think of a local context; and retell the joke in a local setting. But now if there is a joke on the Internet about a Texan and a Mexican at the expense of the latter, it will be narrated as such. Their villains are now our villains.

There is a reassessment of old popular cultural elements. Most are being rejected , such as famed film singers of yesteryears, Kundan Lal Sehgal and Muhammad Rafi. There is ridicule (“You may find it laughable that in earlier times, orchestra comprised only tabla and harmonium”), or condescending acceptance “Sachin Dev Burman is an example [of a film music director] that one could be trendy even in a dhoti”); or mutation as represented by catchy old songs, mostly by Asha Bhosle, literally being sexed up for video.

Identity alone is not sufficient; there must be legitimacy also. When sitting in your own country, you are doing work called off-shore, pretending to be somebody else and putting on a false accent, it is not surprising that the legitimacy comes from the Western connection. Since a whole lot of computer-based jobs are being outsourced to us, as a token of our gratitude we are outsourcing to the US the task of providing national heroes.

An India sports-person does moderately well in international events. A person of Indian origin wins recognition or administrative position in their host country. Honours, genuine and dubious, are bestowed on the Indians by the West (beauty titles, Oscar nominations, film jury membership, mention in the Time/Newsweek magazines). Hindi films find non-NRI audience in the West. An Indian slang word enters an English dictionary. All these call for celebration, because they enhance the De-nationalized Middle Class’ sense of worthiness.

Even the uniquely Indian institutions are being redefined as an exercise in reverse off-shoring. Now the Hindi film industry has been given an imitative name (Bollywood), making Hollywood the reference point, and asked to win Oscars. The dynamic and success-oriented Hindi film, with its hand firmly on the peoples’ pulse, has always lived by its own rules.

A successful Hindi film Masoom, made in 1983, borrowed the idea from Man , Woman and Child by Erich Segal, but not the denouement . In the novel, the family shuts its door on the husband’s love child. But the Hindi version very cleverly shows the married couple with two daughters so that the love child, a boy (a cute one at that), can continue the male line. The 1963 Billy Wilder film Irma La Douce (1963) had a fairly successful run in India. But when it was made into a Hindi film ( Manoranjan, 1974), it flopped. While the Indian viewers could enjoy the frolicking of Parisian prostitutes, they do not want their own to have any sense of job satisfaction. Similarly , when the successful Hollywood film The Indecent Proposal (1993) was faithfully made into Hindi as Sauda (1996), the film flopped because the male-oriented Indian audience was not ready to accept the idea of a husband’s renting out his wife. But when the story line was changed in Judaai (1997) to let a woman rent out her husband, the film did very well.

In the Hindi films of the 1960s and 1970s, the foreign-returned young man wore suits, smoked a pipe, wore a hat, acted like a villain and eventually got thrashed by the hero. Alternatively, he wore half-pants, acted like a buffoon and happily became the hero’s sidekick. A foreign-returned young lady did not plait her hair, wore boots, and screamed “shut-up” at everybody. If she remained like this, she died. Only if she redeemed herself by discovering her Indian-ness did she get the hero. Contrast this with the recent blockbuster Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995) in which the custodians of Indian values are the NRI hero and heroine. India as a setting for the film is quite irrelevant except to showcase the Indian young man as a petty crook who wants the virtuous heroin as a visa for settling abroad and having fun.

Where does Slumdog Millionaire fit into this scheme? There is a delicious irony in its commercial and critical success. Here is a movie with Mumbai-based story, Indian  actors and Hindi dialogues which has won as many as eight Oscar awards. And yet Upper India is not happy. That the present- day subjects of Her Majesty have made a movie about the former subjects has been duly noted. If the interest which the West is taking today in India’s underbelly had been taken two hundred years ago, there probably would have been no underbelly.The issue however   is not so much  the West’s  current interest in Lower India as its perceived  betrayal of its former ally, the Upper India. When the globalization-era  Indian upper crust seeks an Oscar for a Hindi movie  it is to  legitimize its own denationalization. If a British film on Mumbai slums is multiply honoured, it is a subtle indictment of the Indian non-slum. It is noteworthy that  in the movie the slum kid knows  about Benjamin Franklin’s image on a hundred- dollar bill but not  about Mahatma Gandhi’s on a  thousand- rupee note. The quiz master (the Anil Kapoor character)  gives an insider tip to the slum kid. It is remarkable that the boy instinctively recognizes the  deception, and succeeds by acting contrarily.

As an astronomer, I have been particularly struck by recent attempts at creating pseudo-mythology (as distinct from pseudo-science). Traditionally, solar eclipse has been considered to be an ill omen. Consistent with its grandeur, its effect has been taken to be large scale; on armies, kings and kingdoms, etc. In recent times, pseudo-scientific basis has been sought to be provided by postulating that the Sun emits harmful radiation during an eclipse (as if it knows it is being eclipsed). And yet, its effect was still very general ( e g on pregnant women). The recent eclipse saw the emergence of a new mythology, that is relating the ill effect of an eclipse to the birth sign. Somehow the eclipse should affect me differently than you! New jobs are paying well, but there is no job security. Consequently worship of the outermost geocentric planet Saturn (Shani) has increased. Construction of new malls and multiplex cinemas is well known; Shani temples are part of the same boom.

As a tribute to the spending capacity of the DMC and a concession to its thoughtlessness, many erstwhile national newspapers are vying with one another to become DMC house magazines, revelling in trivialization of issues, mindless clichés, stupid bilingual puns, wordplay and prurience. The ever-increasing irrelevance of the IMC has been arrested to an extent by two institutions: higher judiciary and the electronic media. Given the abdication of responsibility by the legislature and executive alike, the Supreme Court and High Courts are increasingly taking on extra-judicial responsibilities. Time is in fact ripe for India to to contribute a new term to the world lexicon, judiciocracy, meaning government by the higher judiciary.

Since the middle class has had hardly any role in the installation of democratically elected governments, the politicians had in the past tended to view the print media with disdain, treating it as a mere pinprick. Mrs Indira Gandhi, for instance, was very contemptuous of India’s English language press, which often criticized her but could not impact voting patterns. The emergence of the electronic media however has changed the situation. Television has anointed the middle class as the commentator and the critic. The political class must now hire the cleverness, wit and sophistry of the middle class for coping with the new media. The middle class’ sensitivity to the Western public opinion has had a positive fall out also. India cannot afford to perpetuate or condone aberrations that would give it an international bad-boy image.


The philosophical basis for the defection of the middle class to the West was created 200 years ago in the colonial context. The British could build an Empire in India and run it with relative ease because they were able to acquire legitimacy for it at the  very outset, thanks to the discovery of Indo-European linguistic commonality. This is a political correct phrase from today’s self-conscious lexicon. In its time the commonality was interpreted in purely racial terms. Indo-Europeanism provided the British with powerful means of “connexion and reconciliation” not with all Indians, not with all Hindus, but with upper-caste Hindus.

That the Kurds and Pathans spoke languages that were related to Sanskrit, Greek and Latin was not mentioned. That most Indian Muslims were converts was ignored. That there was no clear-cut ethnic division between upper and lower castes was glossed over. The legitimacy thesis went like this: Upper-caste Hindus and Europeans came from the same racial stock. Indo-Aryans had had their period of glory in the remote past; it was now the turn of their European brethren to rule and dominate. Needless to say the thesis was enthusiastically accepted by the upper-castes. Even the 19th century Mohandas Gandhi subscribed to this thesis. He became the Mahatma only when he jettisoned this thesis, stopped appealing to the British good sense and instead chose to put the Western civilization on the defensive on moral and ethical grounds

Colonialism may have ended but the thesis was never laid to rest from the Indian side.

Edward Said’s work, though seminal, is area-specific. The first lab for orientalism was India and not the Middle East. I would like to define orientalism more generally as “ideological and operational paradigm consciously created by the West to define and describe the East in such a manner as to facilitate and justify its control”. Orientalism would be confrontational in the Muslim world but was seductive, persuasive and interactive in India, where it took the form of Indo-Europeanism. Whenever an Indian scholar did well, he was described as having overcome the prejudices off his race. His Upper-Caste status was emphasized, which made him one of us. They were all examples of the success of the Western mission to improve the natives. The natives were proud to have been thus improved and praised.

Recently Prof. Chen Ning Yang who won the 1957 Nobel physics prize jointly with a fellow Chinese observed: “Before 1957, only Hideki Yukawa of the eastern world had won the Nobel prize, if scholars from India were excluded as India and Great Britain had a long history of interactions.” Scholars from India was an exaggeration, because only one Indian C.V. Raman had by then won the prize. It is interesting to note that he does not include Raman in the eastern world. Reference to India’s long history of interaction with England is of course to the racial connection.

Thanks to Indo-Europeanism, Indians do not feel competitive towards the West the way the Chinese do. Indeed, the Indians can rejoice at the Western scientific accomplishments by pretending to sense them in their own ancient texts. As the US-backed services sector (as distinct from the manufacturing) expands and as the West-based NRIs grow in numerical and economic strength, India feels more and more comfortable with a peripheral role in the Indo-European-dominated world. //

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.