A country like India, with its nested circles of social engagement - family, caste, state and nation - needs conceptions of freedom that are more supple than the rights-based discourse that dominates our intellectual debates. I believe that the idea of swaraj (especially in its Gandhian version) is far more suitable for understanding the needs of Indians since it recognises the various demands on its use and application. Indeed, as I shall attempt to show here, swaraj is a fine tool with which to understand the greatest intellectual challenge that Indians have ever faced - our continuing encounter with western ideas of nature and society.
The call for swaraj was one of the great rallying cries of the freedom movement. The demand for swaraj was a demand for autonomy, freedom and dignity. Contrary to popular understanding, the nationalist struggle recognised that swaraj was to extend beyond politics into the realm of ideas. In a famous lecture entitled "Swaraj in Ideas," the great (but unfortunately little known) philosopher K C Bhattacharyya said "there is cultural subjection only when one's traditional cast of ideas and sentiments is superseded without comparison or competition by a new cast representing an alien culture which possesses one like a ghost."
There is something jarring about Bhattacharyya's claim; why should we confine ideas and opinions within national or cultural boundaries? I cannot imagine Indian food without chillis, onion and tomatoes. Neither can I imagine life without technologies (like the computer on which I am typing this article) designed and manufactured outside the boundaries of the Indian nation. In this age of globalisation, is gyan swaraj possible or even desirable?
Swaraj in scientific ideas
Consider one particular domain of knowledge - modern science and technology - where India is indebted to the west. Whatever one might say about the contributions of ancient India to premodern science, modern science is mostly a western invention and remains so. Despite enormous investment in science and technology and the great prestige and unaccountability awarded to scientists as a group, the quality of scientific research in India is terrible. While being host to one of the largest pools of technically trained personnel, India is yet to design and produce a single hi-tech product worth talking about. The situation in the sciences is even worse; the citation statistics for papers written by scientists working in India are abysmal.
Compare this with the pre-independence position: just the city of Calcutta alone produced Nobel quality research from luminaries such as J C Bose, S N Bose, C V Raman and others. How could a city labouring under colonial rule produce better science than an entire country with a massive investment in the field?
In the Indian context, 'swaraj in scientific ideas' starts sounding strange when translated as 'innovation' with its connotations of individual choice, authorship and intellectual property. Individuality itself is a tricky concept for us Indians, enmeshed as we are in networks of family, caste and community. Besides, how does one understand authorship in a culture whose classical texts are oral and subject to change? What is cultural creativity and indigenous knowledge in a nation profoundly influenced by western idioms? Even if science is a universal, global endeavour, its practice in India is influenced by larger societal notions of agency and autonomy. If one were to insist on patentable notions of creativity and knowledge production we will quickly conclude that Indians as a whole have become imbeciles.
The need for dignity and respect from the coloniser motivated the first attempts at scientific research in India. The oldest scientific society in India, The Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, was founded in 1876 in Calcutta by Mahendra Lal Sircar with the intent of being "solely native and purely national." The goal of the Gandhian programme of 'charkha technology' was to build a scientific and technological system from the bottom, using ideas and symbols that deeply resonate with the mass of the Indian people.
That said, dignity is not the only criterion for evaluating scientific research in India or elsewhere. We also have to ask for better training and more accountability in return for the money spent on science and technology. Anyway, we cannot make informed choices or navigate this rather contested terrain without clarifying what we mean by swaraj. What psychological need is the need for swaraj? Is it the same for everyone? What role does the Indian nation and nation-state play in the swaraj of ideas? What role should it play? I claim the relative success of the earlier, Calcutta centric approach to science and the seeming failure of the later, nation-state centric approach to science are because of their position in the scale of gyan swaraj.
The Bengali and non-Bengali Bhadralok who dominated scientific research in the early part of the twentieth century worked in a different context from the middle class scientist working in a CSIR lab at the end of that century. Here, I want to outline some of the historical details regarding the Indian science establishment. As in my previous two articles, the role of history is to bring out the underlying cognitive and psychological needs of the Indian science community. The next article will explore the demands for gyan swaraj evoked by the history of scientific thinking in India. Only in comparison with those psychological demands can we evaluate the failures of Indian science.
Bengal: the mold of the coloniser
It is hard to imagine now, but at the beginning of the 20th century, Calcutta was an important cosmopolis and had been so for fifty years. There was a close link between British culture and society in Britain and its colonial expression in India, centred on Calcutta. The Bengali Bhadralok were subjects of the empire but they experienced colonial power with greater intimacy than any other group of Indians, then or now. While they were subordinates, upper class Bengalis were not divorced from the sympathies of the colonizer. The Bhadralok class was formed before relations between the colonizer and subject were poisoned by the rhetoric of race. For example, Rabindranath Tagore's grandfather Dwarkanath was a confidant of Queen Victoria. An upper class Bengali could aspire to respect from westerners for his urbanity and rationality. These men and women were the perfect oriental: exotic, disconcerting, but ultimately cast from the same mould as the European colonizer (like Hercule Poirot in Agatha Christie books).
It is this sympathy that allowed philosophers such as Bhattacharrya and his successors like Bimal Matilal (with Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan as an interlude) to work from Calcutta and make a claim for the rationality of classical Indian thought. Radhakrishnan and Matilal both ended their respective academic careers as Spalding Professor of Religion at Oxford; not philosophy as they might have wished, but at least they had a foot in the door.
However, as the nineteenth century ended and the twentieth began, the differences between India and the West widened, both in technical capacity and in political organisation. English acceptance of Indian ways of thinking had its limits and some Bhadralok with deep roots in the west, like Aurobindo, reacted violently when it became clear that these limits could not be transcended. As an aside, let me add that violent resistance to western domination using the tools of western domination themselves - force and ideology - is the Frankenstein's monster of modern politics. The early twentieth century 'terrorist' portrayed by Joseph Conrad in his novel, The Secret Agent is not that different from an Al Qaeda member in his grievances and in his methods of exacting retribution.
For about a hundred years, from 1830 to 1940 (roughly from the death of Rammohun Roy to the death of Tagore) Calcutta was the crucible for an intense merger of East and West. This crucible was the cultural basis for creative expression in the arts and sciences. Its impact lasted well into the twentieth century. Both Satyajit Ray's films and Amartya Sen's economics come out of this milieu. Given the intimacy with which the Bhadralok experienced modernisation, it is not surprising that some of them did well for themselves. Their ideas of autonomy and creativity were perhaps not that different from a western artist or scientist.
Before the second world war, science was still a small-scale endeavour. The Bhadralok had access to about the same resources as those needed by a scientist in Boston or London. Post second world war big-science diminished Calcutta's capacity to do first-rate scientific research. Big science needs resources that only a nation can provide. The close experience of British colonialism led to a direct connection between Calcutta and London (just as there is one now between Bangalore and Boston) but the connection bypassed the rest of India. After independence, the Bengali experience of the west became less intimate; the English left and the Americans who took over discovered other subjects and other enemies. While the colonizers experience of Bengal was central to Victorian modernity, late twentieth century technical and scientific modernity left Bengal all too alone. In a Shatranj-Ke-Khiladi moment, late twentieth century Calcutta pioneered one of the most effete public displays of knowledge - the quiz. Instead of challenging young minds to think new thoughts or build new gadgets, students in elite public schools and colleges were rewarded for remembering bizarre facts about the west. The Bournvita Quiz Contest with Neil O'Brien querying smug public school students about some obscure fact in Thakeray's Vanity Fair or the history of some Sussex aristocrat marks the death of the Bengal Renaissance.
Macaulay for the masses
Meanwhile, a new class of consumers of western knowledge was emerging across India, a class that had its origins in an infamous decision of the first half of the nineteenth century. In his famous 'minute of 2nd February 1835,' Thomas Babington Macaulay voiced his rather poor opinion of indigenous systems of thought. Though he admitted utter ignorance of Sanskrit and Arabic, Macaulay had the benefit of knowing many an orientalist. From his conversations with them he inferred, "I have never found one among them (that is, European orientalists) who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia."
From his description of the intermediary class, one might think the Bengali elite would have been perfectly suited for the task. However, I think they were too autonomous and too wealthy to be so subordinated. They also had accumulated enough social and cultural capital with their 'Indian' roots. From Rammohun Roy to Rabindranath Tagore and Amartya Sen, the Bhadralok knew Sanskrit, classical Indian philosophy and literature. The Bhadralok had too much swaraj within the empire to be confined to second-rate western knowledge. Instead Macaulay's legacy burdened the emerging middle classes, the accountants and bookkeepers of the empire, people whom he would have scarcely thought fit for English education.
The lack of instruction in the creative aspects of western thought was not a problem. For one, they couldn't have known that they were getting second-rate western knowledge since they had little acquaintance with western ideas and rightly didn't expect to be taken seriously by the western world at all. They were equally suspicious about the effect of western influences on their rather conservative social universe. The new professional education didn't perturb their social sensibilities much - there was no contradiction between being an accountant or engineer at work and an orthodox Hindu at home. These were the people who started working for the vast public sector created by the Indian nation soon after independence and it is they who took over the reins of scientific and technical institutions.
By education and by social background, the science establishments of post-independence India were staffed by the intellectual descendents of Macaulay's revolution in Indian education. It was a strange form of education, which led to students having no formal acquaintance with Indian traditions of intellectual inquiry or exposure to the best traditions of western thought. The outcome of a conservative minded class not knowing its own traditions are there for all of us to see - the RSS-VHP flattening of Hindu traditions would have been unacceptable to a populace educated in its own culture.
This deeply stunted access to knowledge has also produced scientists and engineers who have different ambitions and expectations about their intellectual life from a C V Raman or Amartya Sen. They are straining for swaraj in a tightly constrained intellectual environment. While their political autonomy might have been lesser, I believe the Bhadralok in preindependence Calcutta had more swaraj-in-ideas than the scientist working in a national laboratory today. In the next part of this article, I will analyse establishment science, keeping this lack of gyan swaraj in mind.