Science in India

Dr Roy H W Johnston

This review was published in the Feb 1997 issue of 'Science and Public Policy' (International Science Policy Foundation). The book reviewed was "The Science of Empire" by Zaheer Baber, published by the State University of New York (1996); ISBN 0-7914-2919-9 hbk $71.50 / 0-7914-2920-2 pbk $23-95

Zaheer Baber, based in the Sociology Department the National University of Singapore, has produced a pioneering study which covers the pre-colonial Indian scientific background and scientific developments under British rule. He stops short of analysing how the legacy of British rule was dealt with by successive post-Independence Governments. I found this somewhat frustrating, this being a current concern of mine in Ireland, where many parallels with India can be traced during the colonial period. A comparative study of colonial to post-colonial transitions for scientific communities with British ancestry remains on the agenda.

Baber begins with a survey of the current theoretical and paradigmatic background in 'sociology of science'. Of the names mentioned, by far the most referenced subsequently is Joseph Needham (11). Next comes Anthony Giddens (2) followed by Robert Merton, Steve Woolgar and Claude Alvares (1 each). Of the latter three he is dismissive; he approves however of Giddens, and Needham get heroic treatment. Others mentioned in the introduction, without subsequent reference in the main body, include Kuhn, Mulkay, Gouldner, Bourdieu, Kim, Bloor, Bhaskar, Yearley, Mukerji, Fuchs, MacKenzie, Zilsel, Goonatilake, Basalla, and Guha. Of these he identifies in his critical realist approach with Steven Yearley and Roy Bhaskar. He is also supportive of Kyung-Man Kim's dismissal of David Bloor, and has no time for ontological relativism. Steven Yearley's analysis of Irish science policy post-Independence would be an interesting complement to Baber's missing final chapters, had they existed. Regrettably I have not come across an Irish counterpart for Babeer (or 'prequel' to Yearley), though there are sectoral studies, like Gordon Herries Davies recent monumental history of the Irish Geological Survey.

I stress the Ireland-India comparison not only because of the many political contacts and parallels but also because of the institutional and cultural similarities, such as the Asiatic Society of Bengal, founded in 1784, which parallels the Dublin Society, founded in 1731, in its composition and in its activities, which led to the foundation of a plethora of Baconian scientific institutions. This is much here to be mined by scholars. Ireland and India are distinctively different from the 'white dominions', in that their contemporary populations are mostly aboriginal. They differ also from black Africa, where we have yet to see significant independent scientific initiatives.

Missing from his background is any reference to J D Bernal FRS who along with Needham counts among the Marxist pioneers of the social analysis of science in the 30s, 40s and 50s. This is not from any ideological block, as Baber quotes extensively, and with relevance, from Marx and Engels. I suspect this is because the current generation of 'sociology of science' people have managed to 'disremember' Bernal, and Baber would simply not have discovered him in his initial literature searches. It is time he was rediscovered.

Let us now turn to Baber's main work. The first half of the book covers the pre-colonial background, of which he gives a balanced treatment, distancing himself from those such as Alvares and others who depict it nostalgically as a golden age. Baber however gives credit where credit is due. The Indus valley civilisations (going back to the 3rd millennium BC) were aware empirically of Pythagoras' Theorem, and in their later heyday had a good estimate of pi and knew how to extract square roots. By about 400 AD, according to Needham, they were computing the courses of the planets and had invented trigonometry, including the sine function. The Bakshali M/Ss (preserved in the Bodlean library after their discovery in 1881) date from the 3rd or 4th centuries AD and give the earliest account of the modern number system with zero and place value, which was transmitted to Europe via the Arabs. He covers early medical knowledge, and the Buddhist monasteries as its repository. Their knowledge of chemistry impressed Berthelot who argued that the passages referring to alkali preparation and properties must have been later insertions, though this is not the case.

Medieval India was dominated by cotton, for which they had a complex socially organised production system. They dominated the world market for fine cottons during the 17th and early 18th centuries; the English imported them in bulk, paying in bullion. This was an important stimulus for the mechanisation of textile production in England, leading to the industrial revolution. Indian crucible-cast steel, 'wootz', was the best in the world in the 18th century; the Royal Society took an interest in it with a view to trying to reproduce it, in which they were unsuccessful. Agricultural practice was dominated by complex irrigation systems, for which the Mughal ("Mogul") State took responsibility..

In astronomy the work of Jai Singh deserves a mention as an example of pre-colonial cross-fertilisation with Europe; Jesuit astronomers visited in the 1750s and commented favourably on his complex masonry structures which were dedicated to solar observations, the key problem being the establishment of an exact calendar. We have here the last example of a living tradition in a series that goes back to New Grange in Ireland and Stonehenge in England. Jai Singh had extended the masonry technology to enable nocturnal measurements on the stars, prompting later European observers to dismiss his work as anachronistic in the post-Newtonian epoch. Baber however defends Jai Singh and goes in some depth into the sophistication of his instrument technology.

Once the British colonial system had been established, most of the services that had been supplied to science by the Mughal State patronage lapsed and were not replaced. Irrigation fell into decline, giving rise to successive famines, which were dealt with by the colonial government by various attempted 'technical fixes', usually without success. This section of the book, dealing mostly with the 19th century, is the main source of relevant contemporary policy insights.

The central policy issues were first teased out in the 'Anglicist- Orientalist' controversies of the 1830s, which culminated in the 1835 'Minute on Education' of T B Macaulay, signalling the victory of the 'Anglicist' faction. The issue was support for Sanskrit and Arabic culture. In the Sanskrit College in Calcutta the teaching of modern science was coming in, and being organically grafted on to the Indian science tradition, which as we have seen was far from negligible, with English increasingly recognised as the medium of instruction. Macaulay, supported by the modernising Indian bourgeoisie, plumped for a clean break, cutting the funding for the traditional educational system, and new colleges teaching modern science through English, without reference to the Indian cultural background. This policy undoubtedly helped to fuel the current idea that science is anti-Indian, with post-colonial science identified (by nationalist writers) as an imperial Trojan Horse.

Other policy issues abound, such as the concentration on agricultural research, with emphasis on bringing in new cash-crops, tea from China etc, to the exclusion of research into basic science or industrial technology. The latter became briefly important under the pressure of the first world war, but lapsed afterwards, despite the efforts of people like Malivaya, who in his 'Note of Dissent' from the 1919 Industrial Commission Report produced a manifesto for the progenitors of the post-colonial modernisers.

The negative attitude of colonial science to basic research was exemplified by the fate of Bose (of Bose-Einstein Statistics fame)(1) who after working in Cambridge with Rayleigh, Kelvin, Ramsay and others was offered a derisory appointment on his return in 1885. Raman, whose Nobel Prize in 1930 put Indian science definitively on the world map, was a product of the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, founded in 1876. This was initially modelled on the British Association, but went further, setting up its own laboratories, in which generations of physicists were trained. It thrived in spite of the British scientific establishment, by which it was regarded as somewhat subversive.

Science and politics in the 30s were dominated by the role of the astrophysicist Meghnad Saha, who was actively involved in the politics of Congress. The Science and Culture Group, founded in 1934, actively took up the message of the Soviet 5-year plans and the Tennessee Valley Authority, and argued for industrialisation. There are many leads worth following into the post-Independence scenario, and many questions begged, like the role of Partition and the setting of Hindu against Muslim. Again we have here echoes of Ireland, with comparative studies of the Protestant and Catholic strands of the culture in the partitioned situation calling out to be done.

All in all, we have a good start, and I look forward to the sequel.


1. I am indebted to Siddhartha Sen in the TCD Physics Department for the following correction: "...the Bose in your account is not SN Bose but Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose who is now acknowledged to have invented the radio before Marconi. Also well known for his work on Microwaves. He joined Presidency College as a lecturer where there no research facilities at all. He was SN Bose and MNSaha's teacher...". RJ 23/05/2009.

Dr Roy H W Johnston
c/o Techne Associates
22 Belgrave Road
Dublin 6

Zaheer Baber
Department of Sociology
National University of Singapore
10 Kent Ridge Crescent
Singapore 119260
Phone: (65) 874-6409
Fax: (65) 777-9759

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