Building an India with a Scientific Vision25/04/2022
India’s struggle for independence was not simply to free India from British rule, but also to build a nation that would deliver development to its people. The fruits of independence would be bitter indeed, if independence did not lift people out of the abject poverty that two centuries of colonial rule had sunk them in. For this to happen, different sections of the independence movement—from the left leaders to Nehru, Ambedkar and Bose—were united in the vision that we need science and technology to develop the country’s productive forces.
The Planning Commission and its precursor, the Congress Planning Committee, embodied this vision of India’s development. After India achieved independence, along with planning of the economy and building the country’s infrastructure, scientific institutions like the Central Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and ICAR were strengthened to help India develop indigenous technology. Higher education, including science and technology institutions, were expanded, and new institutions like the IITs set up.
This can be contrasted with what the BJP has done through the Modi government. It has wound up the Planning Commission. More and more, it has handed over higher education to private and even foreign universities, planting people who have no understanding of science and technology to run advanced institutions. For the BJP-RSS, having the “right” ideology is much more important than the development of knowledge.
It might appear that the BJP’s contempt for knowledge is dangerous only to the social sciences. The way the BJP has destroyed the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) may be the most visible instance of their destructive approach—and it may be assumed that this is because JNU has groomed a generation of scholars in social sciences who are seen as a threat to BJP’s politics. But the BJP government and their plants in the universities have not limited their attacks to just social sciences. Or to JNU. Their attack is on knowledge itself. In institution after institution, people with no vision and little learning have been given powerful positions. The belief seems to be that knowledge is secondary; what matters is that universities indoctrinate the students with the BJP-RSS ideology.
Independence means indigenously developing science and technology knowledge
The leaders of the independence movement knew that science cannot be borrowed or bought. It needs to be developed indigenously. Without scientific and technological knowledge, neither industry nor agriculture can develop. They also understood that the development of a newly independent nation needed a scientific outlook, not only towards nature, but also society. This helps people shed the shackles of superstition—beliefs that looks backward rather than forward. Looking backward—to a so-called mythical golden age when India mastered flight through the Pushpak Rath, or developed nuclear weapons with the Brahmastra, or pioneered genetic engineering—acts as an impediment to creating a new India.
It is through the scientific temper, or a scientific outlook towards nature and society, that we develop new knowledge for a new future. Accepting our past instead of falsifying it would allow us to understand our real achievements in the past, whether in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, or metallurgy.
Independence means an independent national economy
National liberation struggles in different parts of the world have found that the blood and race framework of European nationalism did not work for them. Most of the colonised countries were composites of multiple identities—religious, ethnic and linguistic. The colonial powers divided people of the colonies on the lines of religion, language and ethnicity (always terming it as tribal in the colonial view). In contrast to the old divide-and-rule imperial game, the task of a national liberation struggle was to unite people in spite of these multiple identities.
In addition, the left and other leaders of the independence movement located the nation on the terrain of an independent national economy. The key element in all such national struggles was control over the state through which imperial oppression—economic and physical—was carried out. The starting point of the struggle against imperialism was the struggle against the colonial state; this struggle united the people and shaped the anti-colonial, national consciousness. These two elements—secularism as the basis of uniting the people and economic development—distinguished the vision and action of all the leaders of the independence movements in different parts of the world; including, of course, India.
For the RSS, the British were not the enemies; the nationalists, the secularists and the Muslims were. The view of the nation that Hindutva ideologues—Savarkar, Hegdewar, Golwalkar—held looked to the exclusionary ethnic nationalism of Nazi Germany (or Fascist Italy) for inspiration. They contested the inclusive vision at the core of the independence movement. They argued that the Indian nation should be based not on its desire to be free from colonial rule, but on “re-discovering an ancient nation”. The vision Savarkar formulated is of a Hindutva nation based on race, culture, and language: race as Aryan, culture as Hindu and language as Sanskrit. Savarkar himself clarified that the Hindutva on which he based the nation was different from the Hindu religion. RSS leaders took over this concept of the nation from Savarkar. Such a nation was based, said Golwalkar in We, or Our Nationhood Defined, “…on essential value of the five unities, Country (Geography), Race, Religion, Culture and Language towards making a complete Nation concept.”
Savarkar’s concept of an Indian nation was not original but borrowed from late 19th century-early 20th century German nationalism based on blood (race) and soil, which Nazism took over.
Blood and race are recurring themes in Savarkar’s writings on the nation.
This racial European nationalism was accompanied by external wars to establish national borders and acquire colonies. Alsace-Moselle saw three wars between France and Germany, the Franco-German War of 1870-71 and the two world wars. European “explorers” such as Christopher Columbus and Vasco Da Gama “discovered” already inhabited lands, and established the first European colonies. The Spanish and Portuguese enslavement of people in Africa and the Americas was justified by the Doctrine of Discovery, a Papal Bull issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493. It essentially argued that non-Christians were not fully human and so could be dispossessed of their lands, enslaved, even killed by Christian colonisers.
The European colonisers’ “belief” in the superiority of Christians as people, transformed itself, quite painlessly, into scientific racism: the white man would bring “civilisation” to the natives. Both these “civilising missions”—the Christian one before, and then the explicitly racist one—were accompanied by slavery, genocide, loot and plunder.
This vision of the coloniser’s nation—based on exceptionalism and racial superiority—reflects in the blood and race version of Savarkar-Golwalkar’s Aryan Hindu nation. How did colonised subjects such as Savarkar and Golwalkar come to use the very concepts that had led to their subjugation? Perhaps they explained it away by viewing the British not as colonisers but liberators from Muslim rule! For them—as for their descendants such as Modi, who in his maiden Lok Sabha speech refers to 1,200 years of servitude and the notion that foreign rule begins with Muhammad Ghori’s victory over Prithviraj Chauhan. Or did a Brahmanical world-view with a caste supremacist vision of India make it easier to readily assimilate a racist vision, as Raosaheb Kasbe describes in his book, Decoding the RSS?
Building a nation through Constitution, planning, public sector
The colonial conquerors looted, enslaved, massacred the people of Americas, Africa and Asia on a grand scale, finally building a system that continually created wealth in the colonial metropolis while impoverishing their colonies. Prof. Utsa Patnaik’s research indicates 44 trillion dollars were siphoned away by colonial Britain from India. India and China, which till the 18th century, produced about 50% of the world’s GDP, came down to less than 10% within 200 years.
It was slave trade from Africa, colonial plunder from India and other parts of the world that “financed”, or provided the capital necessary for the industrial revolution. As Marx noted,“… capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” It also led to the destruction of the weaving community and the de-industrialisation in India. Marx writes vividly about this, “The misery hardly finds a parallel in the history of commerce. The bones of the cotton-weavers are bleaching the plains of India.”
While capital was and is extremely destructive, it married science and technology to the production process, continuously revolutionising it. Development today is not just that of factories and machines but also the knowledge embedded in the machines.
For the national movement, independence meant not only kicking out the colonial rulers but also the development of its people. Independence would truly be achieved if India could develop and became free from the absolute poverty, abysmal life expectancy and illiteracy British colonial rule had left behind. It, therefore, had to act on a vision that embodied two complementary tasks: an India for all its people, and a state that would develop all its resources, including human resources.
Bose, as Congress President, set up the Planning Committee in 1938, which he asked Nehru to head. Both drew inspiration from Soviet experiments with planned development after the October Revolution. After independence, to overcome the double burden of poverty and inequality left by the British, the Planning Commission carried the vision of the Planning Committee forward. The leaders of the national movement viewed planning and building a public sector as a necessity, not just for India’s industrial and agricultural regeneration, but for the re-distribution of the benefits of development to all sections of people. They wanted the development of productive forces based on scientific knowledge, and the biggest resource to developing it is its people’s scientific capability, expanded through education.
After independence, developing scientific and technological capabilities was a priority for the Indian state. It built the CSIR laboratories, the five Indian Institute of Technologies (IITs), the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) and a host of other scientific institutions. Beginning with the Bombay Plan formulated by Indian capital, there was a common agreement that development needed infrastructure, and only the Indian state had the capacity to develop infrastructure on the scale India required for rapid development. This is what the successive Five-Year plans embodied.
Many identify Nehru as the creator of the hydro-electric projects India undertook after independence. While Nehru fully supported multi-purpose irrigation and hydro-electric projects, people forget that the blueprint of multi-purpose projects—combining irrigation and electricity generation—and a unified national grid, was developed by Ambedkar. As law minister, Ambedkar drafted and introduced the Electricity Act, 1948. He believed developing electricity generation and a national grid were the basis of industrialisation and saw “…industrialisation as the surest means to rescue the people from the eternal cycle of poverty in which they are caught.” (Read: Ambedkar’s presidential address to the Policy Committee on electric power in Sukhdeo Thorat’s ‘Ambedkar’s Contribution to Water Resources Development’.)
This vision of electricity as a necessity (not a market commodity to make profits) formed the basis of Ambedkar’s 1948 Electricity Act. The vision was destroyed jointly by the BJP and the Congress in the new Electricity Act, 2003. That the Congress should have laid the groundwork for this dismantling of the electricity sector though its policies of privatisation and fragmenting the grid, speaks volumes for the road it has travelled from the independence movement and its earlier vision of India. As for the BJP, they never supported a Nehru’s or an Ambedkar’s view of planning and the economy. So their view of the electricity sector is no surprise.
The other vision: Fake nationalism or BJP’s Fake in India
To develop technology, independent India set a goal of self-reliance—Made in India. The goal of self-reliance in technology was backed by a set of policies that insisted on transferring all technology to the Indian entity. In this policy of self-reliance, transferring knowledge was as important as imported plant and machinery.
In contrast, we now witness a continuous assault on institutions of education and research; on reason and science, of myths and madness masquerading as science and history; of flying chariots and interplanetary travel; genetics in the Mahabharata; evolution as false; or, if true, superseded by the “much superior” theory of dasaavatar (Andhra University vice-chancellor G Nageshwar Rao’s address 106th Indian Science Congress). For them, the objective is a “nationalist” India based on religious identity. That is why the need to demolish reason and history; a majoritarian India, in which minorities would have very little rights; an India where reason has to be surrendered to myths old and new; where wealth and caste mean merit.
The RSS bitterly opposed planned development and the public sector and regarded planning and nationalisation of India’s resources as unholy “socialism.” They wanted India completely left to market forces and unfettered entry of global capital. The only role the state should play is help Indian capital negotiate better with foreign capital; in other words, the crony capitalism we see in action. That is why Modi replaced the Planning Commission with a toothless think tank called the Niti Aayog. That is why he is dismantling the public sector, selling it to friendly capitalists, and inviting foreign capital under the slogan of Make in India. It is a journey of betrayal—from self-reliance to just Reliance!
The difference between the idea of genuine self-reliance, and the current vacuous slogan of Make in India is this: one involves the insistence on transfer of knowledge and developing that knowledge further; the Modi version is an invitation to global capital to exploit India’s cheap labour, along with tax breaks and subsidises, including virtually free land.
In Hindutva’s exclusionary view of nationalism, it is the land that is the nation; it is the land that is pure: Savarkar’s punya-bhumi and pitra-bhumi. That is why Modi—quoting Deen Dayal Upadhaya—said recently that Muslims have to be “purified” (pariskar) to be fully Indian.
Presumably, global capital becomes “purified” and fully Indian by just coming to India.
The Modi government does not recognise that people and knowledge are key in technology development. Today, the top five companies in the world by market cap are digital monopolies. Take Apple Inc., the world’s biggest company in market capitalisation terms. It does not own a single factory. How does it do this? It owns the designs, the software and brand of Apple. Apple gets about $300 for each iPhone it sells, while Foxconn, the company that manufactures the phone gets only about $7. This is the nature of the knowledge economy.
Not surprisingly, despite Modi’s Make in India hype, India’s year-on-year GDP growth had started slowing down significantly. Even after the Covid-19 second wave is over, India’s GDP is well-below the 2019 figure, making a mockery of soon becoming a “five-trillion dollar” economy.
It is not where you produce, but what knowledge you have that determines winners and losers in the global economy today. Developing people is key to the future development of a country. That is why any nationalism that defines itself through land, and not people, belongs in the past.
The vision to align with imperialist capitalist powers and not support national liberation movements was also the post-independence foreign policy view of the RSS: it viewed non-alignment and planning as two sides of the same evil, socialist coin. Instead, they argued for a “holy” alliance of Christians—read ex-colonial powers and the US—Jews (read Zionist Israel), and Hindus on one side, against unholy communists and Muslims.
The struggle for an emancipatory vision of science
The attacks against minorities and certain castes and communities are not an aberration. They are fundamental to how the RSS, BJP and their various front organisations think. Today, these attacks are on the fundamental values enshrined in our Constitution, including economic democracy. These attacks are taking place when India has again become as unequal as it was under the British, as the French economist Piketty called it—from British Raj to Billionaire Raj; where 9 families now own more wealth than half of all Indians (Read: Oxfam Inequality Report, 2019).
A scientific vision of the past and the future is key in this fight. Giving up knowledge in the belief that the ex-colonial powers will readily hand it to us is a project of re-colonising India. This is why we must fight, this is our battle for a sovereign, socialist, secular democratic republic that we fought for during the independence movement.
(This is an edited version of the author’s M. Basavapunnaiahh Memorial Lecture delivered on 14th December 2021.