Was India’s Technological Development Driven By Foreign Rule?
My obsession was technological experimentation using hand-crafted apparatus for retooling a dynamic aspect of nature and functionally integrating it into my mental image of an invention. Great inventions are made at the behest of military or economic power, no doubt, but, for most inventors, the source of motivation is the liberal bourgeois ethos. The inventors imagine new things and make them for market-friendly intelligentia and professional groups. Inventors thus become willing agents of a capitalist mode of production which is constantly in search of new modes of production and new products. This marks the difference between backyard and hi-tech inventions. Backyard inventions are like inventing a ruler for drawing a straight line. Hi-tech inventions are like inventing a gun for weilding power over others.
In India, during the national movement, the consensus was in favour of setting up a modern, rational-individualistic society in India. This amounted to a break with the past to make a new beginning. This opened a wide space for inventive ideas in almost every sphere of knowledge, not only in material and biological sciences, to sketch pathways for such a new beginning. The imperative for a historical shift was grounded on the vintage texts of James Mill, Karl Marx and Max Weber. Mill wrote The History of India and projected the Hindus in the nineteenth century onto their ancient past, and described them as an unchanging continuity. Marx wrote The British Rule in India. He understood India’s past in terms of its contemporary reality, its backward and abysmal conditions as represented by the static and stagnant economy of the village system. He said that India ‘remained unaltered since its remotest antiquity’. Weber in his The Religion of India echoed what Mill and Marx said but put a greater emphasis on the caste system. India’s historians accepted these assessments probably because they defined their vocation, not as pursuit of truth as serving the national purpose. They found it difficult to link ancient India to their post-colonial narrative. So they characterized ancient India as a period when India had no concept of history. It was a ‘no history’ period. Further, they accepted the political thought of these philosophers and articulated discourses of utilitarianism, Marxism and rationalism as engines of pulling India in the desired direction. It was hoped that India so ‘imagined’ would be stripped of all particularistic vestiges and non-exclusive criteria of citizenship. Such an image of future India eclipsed ancient India in modern Indian thinking and brought into focus the period of foreign rule, say, between 1600- 1800 as a period of great economic and political dynamism in India. During this period, the export of cotton textiles led to massive flow of silver and gold into India. The inflow of wealth was made possible by great strides then taken towards technological development. But the credit for it went to those in political command. An illustrative example of technological marvel in those days was the animal-powered geared device. Such devices were carts that milled while they moved. A grain mill was put on a cart and was powered by its moving wheels. Not surprisingly, the elite-mass politics too factored in to push technological development during the period. Technological advances in metal smelting and rocketry for armament production were, in a way, a response to the imperative of institutionalizing elite power over the masses. The Mysore rockets were the best in the world then. The Marathas represented the reaction of the masses to elite domination which articulated its contribution towards technplogical development. Thus the Maratha field artillery which was backed by a peoples’ army, was in a dialectical opposition to the elite battle-power and aimed at a more democratic appreciation of politics and development in the country. This gives only a glimps of political and armed contest then gose on between the elite and the masses for allocation of power and benefits generated by artisanal craftsmanship and its trail-brazing inventions and products.
No doubt, these inventions and products were outcomes of interaction between the locals and outsiders. The contemporary ruling elite were drawn from those in the line of descent from Mongol Khans, Mughals, Indo-Persian elite, and later the British and Europeans. No doubt, they initially came for loot, trade, and imperial domination but helped India’s development by fostering the arts and sciences developed in Arab countries, Persia and China and later in modern West. No doubt, local craftsmanship benefitted from interaction with foreign craftsmanship. India’s craftsmen and other skilled workmen moved freely from one place to another and interacted with their local and foreign counterparts for upgrading their skill. The economic value of such interactions led to an increased market demand for their expertise and pushed their economic and social fortunes. This effect also featured in their economic calculations. This process intensified when Europeans came to India during seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. European craftsmen were equally eager for such interactions and partnership in productive activities because India had an edge over contemporary Europe in such areas as ship-building, armament production including small arms. This testified to India’s high level of artisanal craftsmanship and its role in generating wealth, power and international status, so much so that Britain and European countries felt the heat of competition. For example, Tipu Sultan’s sword was made of such steel that it placed India far ahead of the West in metal-smelting. Foreign craftsmen learnt a lot from their Indian counterparts. But the inteactive outcomes were inevitably dense with issues relating to allocation of credit for their production. It often leads to transfer of effort. Beating the other in competition and its subordination become an all-consuming goal of the effort. The elite always have resources to mobilize all the sinews of power and generally walk away with a disproportionate share of benefits in its basket.
What led to India’s fall?
It was this challenge especially in cotton textiles that evoked successive responses from manufacturers in Britain. The imitative strategies were first tried but proved to be unsuccessful. Later, they streamlined property rights including intellectual property rights. This propelled the search for new technologies and ways for increasing productivity. Great advances were made in spinning yarn and coal was substituted for wood in metal smelting. These improvements led backyard inventors to pave the way to industrial revolution in Britain. This affected India adversely. Now India’s economy, society and politics were subordinated to the needs of British industry. Artisanal craftsmanship in India which had achieved great heights in the past was now treated as a remant of of an age left behind. The colonial state chocked local production and stultified gifted craftsmen, their skills and expertise. India now became a desired destination for British investments and export of consumer goods. Hi-tech inventors and experts also came along with these exports. They came to train and guide their Indian subordinates employed in British industry. When these subordinates, in interaction with their local counterparts, started flaunting their imported cigars and tweed jackets as symbols of their superiority to the locals, the culture of suvitude ran full circle. It soon became a counsel for ‘catching up’. For people with resources, it was not as much ‘catching up’ in knowledge and technology, as in use of imported consumer goods. The West was thus on a rising curve of economic development while India was sulking and becoming poor and backward. Increasing and intesifying subjugation put India on the spot. India now lived for England. A brand of indianness was constructed which served foreigner’s hegemonic interests. Bipan Chandra says succinctly, ‘they asserted the privileges of an occupying power’. It was tantamount to ‘inferiorization’ of Indians who were made to feel subordinate, inferior and menial. They were chrishened as kafirs and coolies. It impacted their consciousness and the facts of their everyday life. This was later translated into an imperative for post-colonial India. India had no option but to ‘transmute’ the ruling ‘ideas and institutions’ of the colonial state in the ‘crusible of their hostory’ and to forge a relationship with the ex-colonial power in the vital spheres of intellectual development especially the structuring of the educational system, application of science and technology for economic transformation, and moral regeneration through widespread teaching of humanities and social sciences including the teaching of evangelical literature, at least in Christian schools.
The net effect was to position hi-technology in dialectical relationship with artisanal craftsmanship. The Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC)
did not position the two like this. Artisans there adapted their craft to technological developments in different disciplines and improved their workmanship to produce consumer goods of high quality which were in great demand all over the world. Indian policy-makers, on the contrary, pushed artisans on social margins. This was equally true of backyard inventors like me.
What was the way out?
Anthropologist Levy-Strauss was surprised when he found a Feathered Indian using a Parker pen. Why was he surprised? He was surprised because he assumed a determinate and finite relationship among the constitutent features of modernity. Indian policy-makers would similarly be surprised when hi-technology and backyard science hang together. Their surprise rests on the assumption that modernity and tradition are discreet and mutually exclusive categories. It is no longer so. Fragmentations have occurred within them. These fragmentations have created wide spaces for dissonant relationships to surface in all walks of life, especially in cinema, art and literature. Such dissonance has now encompassed in the relationships between hi-science and low technology. Jayant Narlikar writes about it when discussing the emerging science culture, ‘in place
of Isaac Newton who could afford to wait for two decades before fully satisfying himself on the viability of the law of gravitation before publishing his findings, today’s scientists are guided by the priorities dictated by the rush to the press even before they have completed their lab work’. Business interests and pay-offs to scientists drive such behaviour. He added that Rutherford’s atomic fission required not expensive machinery but only skilled and imaginative workmanship. World War II changed all this. It transformed the structured relationship between science and technology. It reflected in opinions on the contribution of science, especially theoretical science to development of technology. It has become a major subject of debate. The developing consensus is that it is the skilled workman rather than scientist who makes major contribution to technological inventions. At this point, I come back to the question, why should anybody read my story. Here is an answer. One should read it to feel reassured that artisanal craftsmanship and skilled workmanship play crucial role in technological inventions and innovations at all levels. During my travails, a successful partnership of backyard science with hi-tecnology was worked out in cement production by introducing my inventions into the manufacturing process, in sugar production through application of bubble technology, and in sanitatory devices through introduction of syphonic dynamics. My story underlines complex articulations and interactions between knowledge and skill, and between mind and hand. The journey of a craftsman-inventor is not documented and is not easy to access. My story gives you an access to it. Read on and you will discover that Indian craftsman-inventors have contributed as much as the foreigner, if not more, in the development of technology in India.
(The write-up is an excerpt from a forthcoming book “Technology from Below: Hi-Tech and Backyard Inventors, My Story of Their Partnership in a Growing Economy”) [Sushil Kumar is Retired Professor, JNU. K. Narayan was Manager, Cement Factory, Dalmianagar.]
By Sushil Kumar & K. Narayan