DOMESTICATING MODERN SCIENCE: A Social History of Science and Culture in Colonial India by Dhruv Raina and S. Irfan Habib. Tulika Books, Delhi, 2004.
THOUGH the past 150 years is a short spell in the long history of science and technology in India, it has been a time charged with energy and ferment. The resulting changes in the intellectual and institutional arrangements are seen on an unprecedented scale and have developed a complex relation with surrounding cultures. These cultures receive and appraise such technical or scientific changes that enable or inhibit innovational processes and reflect the tensions and contradictions which inhere in such changes. But science and technology themselves too have cultures; developing in India over the late 19th and 20th century, cultures which are always susceptible to ferment and innovation, or which may resist change.
On this large canvas, Dhruv Raina and S. Irfan Habib have drawn a series of detailed sketches, as one might in preparation for fuller portraits later. The range is quite extraordinary: they have examined the meaning of the work of a fascinating and little known mathematician from Delhi in the 1850s, the debates on the proper role of technology and industry in a vital Kolkata magazine around 1900, the tensions among ‘two antagonistic camps’ of institution-builders in Bengal before WW I regarding technical institutes for education and industry, debates about morality and theories of evolution among Bengal’s elites at the turn of the century, and the creation and work of Kala Bhavan in Baroda around 1890-1910 (and how it fit in a Bombay-Baroda-Ahmedabad axis in textile and chemical production). Around these sketches is set a large frame, in two chapters, one on science and colonialism in the phase up to 1914, the other on the emergence of ‘big science’ in the 1940s – leading us to a landscape quite familiar to readers today (a landscape of the CSIR, DAE, the IITs, etc) by the end of the century.
There are at least two sense of ‘domesticating’ intended here. One is the taming by Indian masters of a large and unruly complex of ideas, practices and institutions in order to make this complex ‘natural’ among them and thus available to them for daily work and livelihoods in institutions they build and control. The other is the bringing home of a scientific complex perceived to be foreign (indeed perceived as alien by some), but which has its origins, in part, in another India of the past. Here we see continuities with the past but also breaks and gaps, in which the 20th century work of demystification of science and remembrance of its multiple origins is all the more necessary.
The authors hold the position that Indians (of many origins and many kinds) have been constantly re-working the foreign and Indian material that science has offered, sometimes in innovative ways and at other times in a derivative way. They point out that there are many sources of the sciences which appear and flourish in the 19th century in India, the more complex one being its strong British ‘personality’, which was difficult to square with a nationalist and independent spirit. But there was the rest of the world for Indians to connect to and those other origins and traditions offered different cultural relationships outside the Indo-British field or stream. Raina and Habib point us in those other directions.
There is also a third domestication of which they do not speak, and that is the one they themselves are engaged in. As historians they work on the domestication that reveals the subtle social and cultural context, the tangles of communication, the missed opportunities, the lucky breakthroughs that characterize scientific practice. Thus they celebrate and ‘normalize’ everything that is not seen in scientific and technological communication, and that is seldom seen in the official biographies and histories. This kind of domestication is important for science and scientists, for whom this suggests less glamour and mystery but more accessibility and popular acceptance.
Historians and social scientists do not collaborate as much as they ought to. During the 1990s in Delhi there was a fine convergence of talents which constituted a kind of ‘invisible college’ around science and technology studies (a kind of ‘college’ which we also study in the sciences). Raina and Habib are strong parts of that whole, brought together (in part) by the CSIR’s National Institute for Science, Technology, and Development (NISTADS). Moreover there were others nearby, of like and not-so-like mind, enough to establish an appreciative and critical audience. Journals like Seminar have sponsored cross-boundary discussion and encouraged new work, such as its brilliant initiative in 1993 in which working scientists wrote biographical pieces about life and work abroad and in India. The receptivity of this invisible college seems to have encouraged this fruitful Raina-Habib collaboration, resulting in a series of articles in international journals that tend to be read mostly by specialists. So now here we have the compilation and re-working of essays written between 1989 to 1997 in accessible form. ‘Naturally,’ say Raina and Habib, ‘if we were to write these essays today we would write them differently.’ I am not so sure, because what is of lasting value would not be profoundly altered by the stamp of new disciplinary concerns. This book gives them the more lasting value they deserve, brought together in this volume by Tulika.
These chapters are conceptually agile and packed with new information, and so should appeal to a variety of disciplines. Neither Habib nor Raina have strolled down a straight path to the social history of science. This is a truly multi-disciplinary collaboration, and so inevitably other fields can benefit. Historians of ideas and philosophers would benefit from the chapter on the search for moral legitimation through turn-of-the-century arguments about theories of evolution. The essays on The Dawn Society Magazine (founded 1897) demonstrate to communication scholars and political researchers the importance of media in articulating and repeating positions that others imply come simply out of thin air, and in particular the cerebral and elitist air. Economic and cultural geographers and students of innovation should read the essay on mathematician Master Ramachandra (also journalist and proponent of rational education) because it describes a Delhi soon to be eclipsed culturally by Bengal after 1860, but a Delhi in which a Hindu man can establish an Urdu newspaper, carry on in dignity a marriage fixed (or tricked) to a profoundly disabled woman, establish himself as an expert in algebra, and then become a Christian and style himself Yesudas – just prior to the 1857 uprising.
Cultural geographers should know the essays on Kolkata’s bhadralok and their relation with Bengal, and economists should read the chapter on the climate for innovation in Baroda, lying too closely within the shadow of Mumbai on the west coast. Innovators should read the chapter on the Kala Bhavan and how it affected the difficult transition from the apprentice system of technical training, and the new factory system and new ideas of work. All scientists and technologists ought to read the final essay (in this case the only one coauthored by Raina and former NISTADS director Ashok Jain, a thoughtful and scholarly person who himself facilitated some of the discussion and collaboration in this field in the 1990s).
But the scope is international too. They discuss a 1902 American enquiry into the development of Baroda’s Kala Bhavan (by a special commissioner of the US War Department), the huge influence in the Gujarat and Bengal economies of German chemical conglomerates, the interplay of mathematicians in India and Britain (one of whom, Augustus De Morgan at University College London, was well informed about Bhaskara’s algebraic theorems, reading them in translation with a strong personal interest, having been born in Madurai in 1806). I would have urged inclusion of a re-working of Raina’s essay in Minerva in 1996 on the structure of scientific exchanges between colonial India and Europe, testing the familiar centre-periphery model of the diffusion of scientific ideas and practice.
Given the quality of close analysis of this material of the earlier 20th century, we hope that Raina and Habib (and/or their students and collaborators) focus on the promise of the final essay concerning ‘big science’. Here lies the recurring question that Indians ask – ‘If we have invested so heavily in science and technology throughout the 20th century, and if we indeed have a large pool of well-trained people, why is it that our internationally-recognized scientific achievements are limited to a few hundred individuals in a few dozen institutions?’ Clearly the public expect something more. The authors remind us that ‘science and scientists never had it so good in India’ as in the 1950s (p. 213) – to which I would add the 1960s.
Agreeing with them ‘that India leap-frogged into the era of big science’, one is curious to know what were the effects of their very favourable industrial and political reception on the practices of science and technological innovation? What kind of science and technology did Indian industry, capital, and politics inspire? This book’s final essay reminds us of the country’s R&D priorities that were set up in the funding pattern of the 1990-1991 fiscal year: $200 m for defence, $111 m for space, $94 m for agriculture, $82 m for atomic energy, with all the other scientific institutions in the remainder – $73 m for CSIR (including rather inexpensive institutions like NISTADS), $59 m for environment, and $53 for the whole Department of Science and Technology with its dozens of specialized groups, laboratories, and institutes (p. 216). If a Nobel Prize is awarded for work on malaria again, will it be awarded for work done in India, as it was in 1902 to a young Indian army surgeon named Ronald Ross, born in Almora and only in his thirties when he completed the research in a poorly lit hut in Kolkata? As an outsider I am regularly asked this kind of question about achievements, and as I can’t answer it very well. I hope that a growing ‘invisible college’ studying science and technology in India will try to do so. Raina and Habib’s work will surely be among its important foundations.
CULTURE AND PUBLIC ACTION edited by Vijayendra Rao and Michael Walton. Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2004.
THIS volume is an outcome of a conference organized in 2002 under the aegis of the World Bank, with a group of highly eminent contributors from the disciplines of economics, anthropology, sociology and political science. More than the sheer eminence of the contributors what makes the review of this volume daunting is the enormous complexity of the subject matter: culture and its interactions with public action, a terrain so multi-layered and multi-faceted that, prima facie, it appears that no generalizations would be possible. But it is precisely the amorphous nature of the subject matter that led one to accept the book for review. One was curious to see what this volume represented – was it simply a collection of different perspectives of well-known scholars on the issue or did it outline the agenda of the World Bank in the realm of culture, something that hitherto has been completely outside its purview? If the latter, then things got even ‘curiouser’, since the amorphous and ambiguous nature of the subject matter would represent the complete opposite of the certainty that characterizes the Bank’s perspective on economic matters. By certainty we mean that the Bank is certain of the tenets of its economic ideology; whether its position is accurate or appropriate is another matter.
Summing up the volume in one sentence, it is impressive in that it manages to capture the complexity of the subject matter in a fairly exhaustive manner without falling prey to stereotypical cultural determinism. The credit for that goes entirely to the editors for not only putting together a team of scholars who have managed to bring out the nuances underlying this highly complicated interaction, but also for providing a detailed perspective that is outlined in their opening and concluding remarks. Whether one agrees or disagrees with a given position, there is enough food for thought here for those who believe that culture is either ignored by economic policy-makers or treated in a dismissive fashion as an impediment to development: culture as representing the past as opposed to development as representing the future. The essays in this volume clearly highlight that culture and development are not dichotomous issues; that public action has to be both culturally informed and culture-enhancing and that both public policy and culture have several layers of meaning of which only some get predominance. In doing so, several of the essays investigate which meanings predominate in a given context and why.
Often when culture does enter the public discourse it comes disguised as cultural determinism of one sort or another. The neo-liberal economic agenda is known for its narrow and ahistorical vision of economic development that sees ‘getting prices right’ as a miracle cure to all problems of development. However, in most cases, the presumed benefits of this approach (i.e. high economic growth, smoothly functioning markets) do not materialize, but all the costs do (increasing inequality, high social costs associated with cut backs in public expenditure and so on). Instead of recognizing the intrinsic contradictions in this approach that condemn it to failure, the favourite explanation of neo-liberal economists is to blame the poor cultural traits of developing societies: a corrupt culture, the lack of a work ethic, inability to be disciplined and so forth. Paul Collier of Oxford, once Director of the Development Research Group at the Bank, offended a number of African and other NGOs to the point that he felt obliged to send an apology to the Director of the Third World Network. He was making the point that Africa itself is to blame for its own marginalisation and that this holds true more generally for all developing countries. The assumption, of course, was that the IMF and the World Bank did not have a role in shaping policies across the developing world.
Another area where cultural determinism creeps in is in discussions of inter-group disparities, whether race, caste or gender based. When certain groups are systematically found to have poor socio-economic outcomes, there is a tendency to blame the poor cultural attributes of these groups as responsible for their state (eugenics being the extreme expression of this belief), rather than recognizing the systemic social inequities that relegate these groups to the bottom of their respective societies. In both these cases the cultural (deterministic) explanation is taken to be self-evident, whereas its counter is very difficult to establish. And why this matters is because public policy is shaped by the dominant explanation of cultural determinism.
Amartya Sen’s paper provides a good critique of cultural determinism and stereotyping by discussing not whether culture matters, but how it does. He discusses with examples how certain stereotypes (prejudicial to groups or nations) get formed, but can also be reversed when economic circumstances of those groups or nations change. He cautions against ‘jumping from the frying pan of neglecting culture into the fire of crude cultural determinism’, a tendency that cannot be overemphasized with the predominance of the clash of civilizations thesis. Arjun Appadurai poses the central question of how cultural recognition can be extended to enhance redistribution. The suggestion is that along with resources, the ‘capacity to aspire’ is also unevenly distributed in a society and this needs to be corrected. He uses the example of a grassroots network in Mumbai that he believes exemplifies ‘what happens when a group of poor people begins to mobilize its capacity to aspire in a specific political and cultural regime.’ He goes on to suggest that lenders and multilateral institutions such as the World Bank ought to focus on the fortification of the capacity to aspire and need to ‘develop a set of tools for identifying the cultural map of aspirations that surround the specific intervention that is contemplated.’
This is important as it calls attention to another big strength of the volume: it does not try to peddle a set of pre-conceived ideas but shows, instead, a variety of perspectives that suggest how agencies such as the World Bank ought to act. The point that Appadurai makes is vital; whether it will be incorporated into any of the Bank’s thinking is a moot point. As the editors in their concluding comments point out: ‘Culturally informed public action is not easy. The process requires paying close attention to context in shaping interventions both globally and locally. It therefore argues against the idea of a “best practice” – that an intervention that worked wonders in one context would do the same in another… A cultural lens thus teaches us that public action, particularly when it is participatory, aspiration building, and aware of common sense, requires an element of experimentation and learning. Ironically, the best practice may be the recognition of the absence of a best practice.’
This is not only a challenging prescription but is in direct contradiction with the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Similarly, consider the following: ‘the recognition that societies consist of different groups, often structured in hierarchies with unequal social and cultural capital, suggests that mechanisms of intergroup exchange and deliberation need to be set up in a manner that changes the terms of recognition.’
Again, this is a welcome but tricky prescription for both external agents as well as national governments, since altering the terms of recognition would require a 180-degree change in mainstream thinking. This change could indeed be taken to its logical conclusion to allow for truly radical shifts in policies of national governments and external agents, but such a radical shift would hardly find favour either with individual nation states or with multilateral agencies, hesitant as they are to disturb the status quo.
This is where one realizes the limits of defining public action in economic terms alone, even though the most obvious manifestation of deprivation or poverty is economic. As the essays by Mary Douglas, Anita Abraham and Jean-Phillippe Platteau, Monica Das Gupta et al, Carol Jenkins; Simon Harragin, and Shelton Davis point out, the issue is equally political. Specifically, the role of the state (for instance in reducing gender inequality) and that of political movements (such as the Mayan movement in Guatemala) is intrinsic to the definition of a culturally sensitive public action programme. As the discussion of the reduction of gender inequality in China under socialist rule suggests, being culturally sensitive need not mean an endorsement of regressive practices. The state can recognize the blatant inequality embedded in local cultures and can promulgate radical public action to reverse such inequalities and to empower, say women (for instance, by changing laws on property ownership, on gender discrimination, and on divorce).
Timur Kuran strikes a controversial note in his essay, ‘Cultural obstacles to economic development: Often overstated, usually transitory’. Using his previously developed analytical apparatus of ‘preference falsification’, the perceived pay-offs of a given cultural trait may be clouded by political rhetoric and by social pressures that discourage honest expression. He discounts claims of cultural activists on the grounds that these individuals often come from elite sections and are thus likely to misrepresent the desires of the masses. While admitting that situations are more complex than the examples he gives, he often poses a dichotomy between material progress via globalization on the one hand, and the preservation of local cultures on the other. First, this assumes that the current wave of globalization will necessarily ensure material progress and that material progress is not possible in any other way. Second, that destruction of local cultures may not be a bad thing, protests by cultural activists notwithstanding. He gives examples of retrograde local practices, such as caste or gender discrimination in India, without stating that the cultural elite, when opposing the homogenizing effects of globalization, rarely ever do so on grounds that these retrograde practices will vanish. The protest over globalization and its cultural impact is because of the uniform, homogenized culture that globalization imposes, could be equally conservative or undesirable (non-welfare enhancing), albeit in its own way. For instance, just as caste discrimination is regressive and must go, it is not clear why a preference for McDonald’s, Starbucks, MTV and Nike (that the current wave of globalization will necessarily bring in its wake) ought to be desired as progressive or beneficial.
Also, there are uncomfortable questions that a simple equation of ‘local with regressive’ and ‘global with progressive’ would not be able to answer. For instance, when the Taliban demolishes ancient Buddha statues in Afghanistan, it is easy to condemn that as the vandalism symbolic of retrograde religious fundamentalism. But when American forces in Iraq torture war prisoners or fail to protect ancient manuscripts in the libraries of Baghdad, what does that represent? These are equally heinous and despicable acts perpetrated by the so-called champions of global liberty and progress. Also, a simplistic equation goes against the grain of this volume, which repeatedly cautions us that there is no uniform formula for culturally sensitive (that need not mean regressive) public action.
On the whole, this volume is a serious collection of thought-provoking essays that represent a welcome addition to the literature. They are refreshing since they do not try to peddle a set of platitudes but simply pose issues before the reader in all their complexity. Thus, they are a far cry from the Collier-style multi-country regression studies whose analytical worth is dubious. However, in posing complexities, none of the essays lack focus; thus they are not a stray collection of random thoughts either. That the volume has managed to achieve a fine balance between nuance and focus is no mean feat. Whether and to what extent this thinking will find its way into altering the World Bank’s prescriptions, only time can tell.
MAXIMUM CITY by Suketu Mehta. Penguin/ Viking, Delhi, 2004.
Suketu Mehta’s epic loss and recovery of Bombay is a memoir of a city before and after it became Mumbai. The financial nerve centre of India has been an indicator of the changes sweeping over the political-economic landscape of the country. Indian cities fell in a few categories led by the leading lights from each limb of South Asia. From the early decades of India’s interaction with modernity, Calcutta positioned itself as a pioneer of urban civilization in India. Much before Calcutta there was Delhi, a sheher, the lover among cities made by the likes of Ghalib, Zauq and Taban. Madras was the South’s answer to an unfolding urbanism in colonized modern India.
The four cities in four corners of India were like imperial seats of extraction. On the long road of history colonial cities underwent change and assumed mutated identities. The rulers tried to strangulate Calcutta, their own creation, but failed. Calcutta learned to live with the triple trauma of 1905, 1911 and 1947. New Delhi was founded to be the bearer of a different variant of urbanity. The Mughal city had all the elements, administrative and cultural, forbidden by its Weberian model, fast coming up on its south downstream Yamuna. The city was promptly divided in Civil Lines, Police Lines and such places designating the population with character and expected professions.
Indian cities lived a very dynamic life under colonial rule. Colonialism thrived on innovative ideas. Cities were often the first terminal of arrival for such beings. Colonial cities were markedly different from the East to the West. New York and New Haven were toponyms that announced the immortality of the European city. They showed that Europe could replicate wherever Europeans went, in this case the English variety. Rules of engagement changed in the East. Delhi could not be changed into New Devonshire. It was beyond help. A ‘new’ Delhi could only be erected next to the empty shell of the ‘old’ city. The new exists neither as an affirmation of the old nor for its own legitimacy before the eyes of the next generation. The ‘new’ city often grows in the post-colonial world by denouncing the ‘old’ city, a colonial habit.
Indians emigrated in large numbers to all kinds of places throughout the 20th century. The best of Indians wafted across the globe like fragrance from an exotic incense stick. Wherever the fragrance travelled, it gave birth to the diaspora. Suketu Mehta’s parents were part of the movement. He was only 14 years old while joining this great mass transportation of capital and skill, adding another chapter to what had already been on for a few centuries. Unlike colonial conquerors, the Mehtas could not establish a New Bombay on the American east coast. He found it constructed close to his old city. It was called Navi Mumbai, another denial of the past that the author fails to shrug from the sheens of his memory.
Among all the Indian cities, Bombay was a different case. In independent India, it cautioned against a rapid provincialism of the postcolonial world’s probable metropoles. It became the epitome of the truly cosmopolitan Indian city. In Bombay, the city breathed unfettered from its relation with the guardian state. It truly remained an Indian city unlike others which were known as capitals of certain linguistic provinces first and a city later. This was the situation in Bombay, that is till the Mehtas left with their son, Suketu. Change came rapidly after that. Bombay slid throughout the 1980s to become Mumbai, the Maharashtrian city. But certain characteristic features were irreversible and remained the same in the gene pool of the city. Despite attempts at genetic transformation of the city, Bombay appeared as the natural leader in an era when India was rapidly hurtling towards a rather unplanned docking with the global economy. A new Bombay was thus born as a leader of India’s political and economic transformation. At the end of it, the city became an urban Janus, a face for the Janus-faced Indian economy and polity where extreme poverty and abundance sat at the same portal: the lost city sits beside the found city; the old city now out of work lazes around the new city. Suketu Mehta chronicles such a city.
A good part of Mehta’s work consists of his interaction with the people living in the extremes of the city. He indulges with ease both the city by day and its hidden half that slithers out of bars, gangster hideouts and red light areas as night falls. Bit by bit the author joins the crumbs of memory with the results of his voyage into the city and produces the lost identity of Bombay. He started the work in 1998, exactly five hundred years after the ‘discovery’ of India by Vasco Da Gama a few thousand kilometers south of Bombay in Kozhikode. His discovery is startling as well as disturbing to a man separated from the city of his love.
One of the more memorable characters in Mehta’s journey into Bombay is the film maker Vidhu Vinod Chopra. The late 20th century history of Bombay has been chronicled best by film makers like Chopra. On the one hand of this cinematic history stands the suave films by Hrishikesh Mukherjee that show everybody who populate Mehta’s childhood memory of the city – Parsis, Gujaratis, middle class Maharashtrians, Catholics, and Iranians. The end of this history was being furiously written when Mehta landed in Bombay. The first episode of this side of history was written by Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda. Bombay’s transformation from the days of the author’s childhood to its dark contemporary Gotham City-like depiction in the gangster films eluded the author. He, however, captured its cinematic portrayals and their creators. Bombay’s obituary was written with great style by Ram Gopal Verma and Co. and Mumbai, till then a shy introvert, ascended the throne.
There is a question that springs to mind while reading and reviewing a book. The point is why a particular book deserves more attention than the rest. We have to ask ourselves, ‘What is so special about it?’ A chronicler of the city similarly needs to ask himself why the city deserves his literary attention. Suketu Mehta must certainly have asked a similar question while lavishing all his love on Bombay. One factor that can coax such a diary from a writer is the sense of alienation that the citizen feels towards his city. It is the distance between the observer or the inspector that has the accidental potential of becoming a catalyst of such a work. The distance can’t be too great because that might act against creativity; it neither should be too little because that would breed indifference. The chronicle of a city demands a kind of creative distance between the urban experience and the citizen-like alien. As an ex-Bombayite, Suketu Mehta is ill at ease with the mutated Mumbai all around him. He lived in Bombay and came to be greeted by the usurper, Mumbai. At the end of the book he claims to have discovered his lost Atlantis because despite visible changes, this city that the map addresses with a touch of suddenly discovered vernacularity as Mumbai, still performs the duty that made Bombay the City of Gold. Mumbai continues to grant wishes to people who come asking for them from across the spread of the country and the rest of the globe.
The author is not a Mumbaikar. Nor is he an alien. He is a visitor from the city’s past, its bhootkaal. He is a visitor who simulates citizenship with active aid from the cells of memory of the fourteen years of innocence he spent in Bombay. Yes, that is what he does in Maximum City. He simulates a relationship that does not exist any more. He tries to kill the creative distance that exists between him and the city. Each time he tries to eliminate the distance between the city and the author by getting into the hidden crevices of the city, he states that the work is not actually an insider’s account.
Despite the brilliance of his work, Suketu Mehta appears an estranged lover of the city when it was in heat for two full years. It is the distance between the two that dictates his writing that is programmed to speak back at the reader back ‘home’. It is through his confessionary narrative style that one is faced with the moment when Mehta finally gives up his efforts to rekindle his love for the city and quietly retraces his footsteps towards ‘home’. Mehta, initially disappointed with the loss of Bombay finds what he was looking for in a new form, in what is claimed to be the lost city of his childhood. His travelogue rediscovers his relation with Bombay; it also is an account of his rejuvenation of the relationship with New York, his ‘home’.
Mehta’s account of Bombay is seductive. But, it is not even a fraction of what the city actually is. A great city like Bombay/Mumbai cannot be summed up by one scribe alone. Such an urban genus demands the attention of many such travellers and admirers. The book stops talking when Mehta finds Bombay but lets it go. Its brief affair with the writer over, Mumbai is now shopping for genuine craft wielders for its next account. The author’s flight signified an illustrious vacancy that is now waiting to be filled. Maximum City narrates the biography of Bombay, the story of the city before and after it underwent the cosmetic surgery under the knives of the political and economic surgeons. The story of the New Bombay, Mumbai, is yet to be drafted.
PROPHETS FACING BACKWARDS: Post-modernism, Science and Hindu Nationalism by Meera Nanda. Permanent Black, Delhi, 2004.
DOES each society have its own distinctive norms of reasonableness, logic, rules of evidence and conception of truth? If so, is there no non-arbitrary, culture-independent way to choose among these various alternatives? And is modern science, unlike what we were taught in our earlier years, not a universal way of knowing and assessing the truth about natural phenomena but a culturally-loaded western and ethnocentric construct? Worse, has it not become a source of oppression, in effect colonizing the mind of non-western peoples, a tool in the service of neo-colonialism, designed to forever imprison and weaken Third World marginals and firmly ensconce the West on the top of the global heap?
These seemingly esoteric concerns have been at the centre of a furious debate in intellectual circles for at least a couple of decades. What, unfortunately, is insufficiently realized is that the politically correct sounding project enjoining each culture to be true to itself and cultivate a modernity in keeping with its own ways of knowing ingrained in its own culture can become retrograde. While seeking to overcome the reductionism of modern science and bring to the centre of debate the concerns and thinking of marginals, it simultaneously valorizes traditions most responsible for justifying traditional inequalities based on gender, caste and race. Simultaneously, it undermines the possibility of a universal, shared history.
Meera Nanda is a feisty, though difficult, writer. What she does not lack is courage. To take head-on prominent public intellectuals like Ashis Nandy, Vandana Shiva, Claude Alvares, Shiv Visvanathan – each erstwhile colleagues at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and Lokayan – alongside sundry eco-feminists, neo-Gandhians, communitarians, popular science movements like the Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad, struggles against multinational seed companies and agri-business, particularly those advocating genetically modified crops, modern medicine, just to name a few, appears daunting if not foolhardy. These, of course, are only her Indian targets; the global list is equally unending. Nevertheless, she builds up a persuasive case for an emancipatory, scientific modernity, in the process forcing all of us to examine the epistemic presuppositions of our formulations.
Her thesis flows from two separate but interconnected concerns. On one plane is the increasingly fashionable intellectual trend of post-modernism and post-colonialism, tendencies in philosophy of science studies which interrogate the normative and epistemic claims of science as a knowledge enterprise, as method. Unlike the earlier distinction between science and technology, theory and practice, wherein only the latter was seen as socially embedded and generated and thus responsible for negative externalities, the new theorists postulate a critique of modernity which rubbishes the foundational assumptions of post-Descartes science – that there is a world in which there are objects, processes and properties which are independent of us and our beliefs about them; that the aim of science is to give a reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative description and explanation of these objects, processes and properties; that science has developed a method – of observation, logic, inference – to learn about nature; that it progresses through skepticism and refutation demanding constant testing against empirical reality; and that there is only one science valid across national and cultural barriers.
All this is now attempted to be discredited by arguing that there is nothing special or universal about science, that western science is but a highly local form of knowledge which is given not by the natural world but through social interactions between/among scientists and their instruments. In other words, change the social environment and the conceptual categories and you will have different facts which will be equally scientific – and there will be no reason to prefer the facts arrived at by what we know as modern science over any other science of other cultures.
This relativization of scientific culture is no longer the preserve of right-wing, proto-fascist fringes but extends to a wide spectrum of even left-wing intellectuals and movements, both in the developed and Third World. This is Nanda’s second concern – the increased proximity of disparate social and political groups and projects from the RSS type religious nationalists to ‘formally’ left-wing and egalitarian movements against destructive development. What unites them, she argues, is the suspicion of scientific modernity, an organicist reading of culture and tradition which in effect leans backwards.
In attributing renewed relevance to all that modernity has set aside, the current preoccupation becomes one of preservation and cultivation of ‘local knowledges’ embedded in traditional cosmologies, religions and practices seen as legitimate sciences in their own right. Judging them by standards of rationality set by modern science thus amounts to western hubris. In brief, recent trends in social studies of scientific knowledge get aligned, contrary to the self-perception of many participant-interlocutors, to reactionary agendas in developing nations, for here, what we experience is not the hegemony of modern science and its cultural accompaniments but the deadening impulse of tradition, often sanctioned by religion.
The above is a somewhat schematic rendering of Meera Nanda’s thesis which examines, in some detail, the implications of reactionary modernism, the foregrounding of Vedic science, its philosophic justification through a simplistic reading of quantum physics, and the growth of epistemic charity and hybridity in knowledge. Of particular interest are the linkages she traces between feminist epistemology, deep ecology and critical traditionalism as they evolve in societies such as ours and the science as culture programmes based on post-modern multiculturalism in the academe of the West.
Equally fascinating is her pointing out that the effort to seek out sources of vitality in local cultures, in itself a desirable project, almost invariably falls captive to old, religious elites. So, rather than seek to build on philosophical systems like Lokayata or draw on the Buddhist critique of Brahamincal Hinduism, our nationalist-cultural project presents the Vedic past as not just fully developed and relevant for all times but as a precursor to subsequent advances in modern science. No wonder our religious ideologues claim that their formulations are validated by the latest scientific theories and often embellish their names with ‘science’ degrees. Nor should it surprise us that those on the receiving end of our pre-modern social arrangements so enthusiastically embraced modernity, seen by them as the best route to escape traditional oppression and in the process were often denigrated as western toadies, viz. Ambedkar and Periyar.
It is not that Nanda is an uncritical admirer of modernity and the project of Enlightenment or that she rules out alternative pathways to modernity, as if the historical route that the West took is the only one we have to tread. Nor is she unappreciative of the intellectual effort to interrogate both the epistemology and practice of modern science. What she is unwilling to accept are standpoint epistemologies which not only speak of Hindu/Islamic science or feminist/dalit science and worse, privilege the understanding of the ‘oppressed’ as truer and better. As she repeatedly asserts through the monograph, the magic of the shaman cannot be equated to the practice of the scientist.
More controversial is her take on the various alternativist movements, both at home and abroad, which have come into prominence in the last couple of decades. Most specifically, she examines the struggles against destructive development, green revolution agriculture and genetic seeds represented for instance by eco-feminist, Vandana Shiva. She also takes pot-shots at the various people’s science movements like the Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad. And here, I think, she lapses into the same reductionism and ‘damning by association’ that she accuses the ‘other side’ of. To lump together those skeptical of the claims of our scientific establishment and question our fascination with big dams, nuclear technology or genetically modified seeds as risky, unproven and thus dangerous, and others who ‘uncritically’ foreground our traditional practices in agriculture, medicine and metallurgy as ‘scientific’, is mistaken. Equally, to place everyone from Mahendra Singh Tikait’s Bharatiya Kisan Union to the KSSP in the same box – just because both oppose the WTO terms in agriculture – is politically naive. Just because the science for social revolution movements may not have engaged in as thorough a programme of public secularization, or failed to take the religious establishments head-on, is little reason to classify them as defenders of unreason.
Ever so often, Meera Nanda seems to be fighting shadow battles, setting up straw persons just so as to more easily knock them down. Take some of her favourite targets – Ashis Nandy of the CSDS or Ashok Jhunjhunwala of the PPST group. Whatever differences one might have with Nandy, a defence of the Hindu right is not one of them. Some individuals within the PPST network did support the demolition of the Babri Masjid but Jhunjhunwala’s work in computer sciences is world class. Like the earlier generation of scientists such as C.V. Raman or more recently Raja Rammana, many of them operate on multiple registers, combining their work on the frontiers of modern science with a fascination for astrology. To reduce the complexity of the Indian debate and individual biographies to a focus on pamphlets like ‘a statement on scientific temper’ is only an indicator of the political side that Nanda favours, hardly fair to the rich discourse on science, culture and society. As Shiv Visvanathan pointed out in a discussion, there is nothing Hindu about P.C. Ray’s book Hindu Chemistry, barring the title.
Meera Nanda would find it difficult to deny that the modern system of knowledge production and validation marginalizes and devalues the skills, and knowledges that through generations of practice developed immense sophistication and often served the communities well. Take, for instance, the work of Vijay Jardari and the Beej Bachao Andolan in the Garhwal, documenting and preserving traditional seeds and farming practices which are both more productive and eco-friendly. Are we to disregard this work just because it is not a product of the modern science establishment or is sometimes clothed in the garb of Hinduism? True, some of this knowledge may no longer be valid in our changed circumstances. But as A.K.N. Reddy so persuasively argued, the need is to test it against our newer (better?) knowledge, modify it where possible and thus adapt it to our needs rather than dump it in the rubbish heap. Let us not forget that more recent researches on yoga or ayurveda too have proven their worth and been incorporated in modern science.
This is not an easy book to read, much less digest its many strains and levels of argumentation. It attempts to question, preferably push back, at least a couple of decades of discourse. In so doing, Meera Nanda takes on many of the holy cows of the alternativist movement, a move not designed to increase her popularity. At a time when the BJP is out of power, and with our intellectual establishment busy in the exercise of detoxification, purging all classified as saffron, it may even contribute to a reverse witch-hunt. Yet, even as one does not agree with all her formulations, the plea to revitalize the core of the modern scientific method – continuous skepticism, testing all claims and seeking advance in knowledge through refutation and falsification – cannot but be welcomed. Equally, the politics of foregrounding difference cannot be permitted to introduce an unbridled relativism, as if Truth has only multiple meanings. A failure to vigorously engage in this debate may once again make us prisoners of religious certitudes or avoidable national pride about our civilizational greatness. Surely that we can do without.