Lessons from the colonial past

Twenty-two years ago, the publication of a book, Indian Science and Technology in the 18th Century, by an unknown Gandhian, DHARAMPAL, took the academic world by storm. Until then, science in India was thought to be a Western import. Apologists of the British empire had always held that colonialism modernised the metaphysical Indians. But here was proof of the excellence of Indian science and the rationality of Indian minds, to whom science and technology was a part of everyday life. Over the years, many scientists, technologists and policy makers -- who realised the shortcomings of Western science in the Indian situation and sought appropriate technologies from within the country -- have been inspired by Dharampal's book. Recently, Amit Mitra spoke to the 73-year-old author about his ideas and their relevance in contemporary India.

Published: Saturday 15 January 1994

When you wrote your book, scholars used to study aspects like caste or land relations. What made you select science and technology?
I wasn't interested in science and technology at all. I was interested in my society -- in all its aspects. The question was: What happened to us 200 years ago at the time of the British conquest? I wanted to know whether we were always backward or whether it was more of a recent phenomenon. From what I heard, things were different then. There was a whole lot of unpublished material in the archives in Madras and in England, mostly government records, which provided a totally different picture. Though I got some clues in Madras, most of the work was done in England in 1966.

I had already talked about the work with my peers, but the question was, who would do it? Then I asked myself, who else but me? I went through official records and private documents and found a lot of material on the Varanasi region that showed how Indians related to authority. Then, sometime in 1968, I came across the first material on technology. The enquiry was very open and not meant merely to write a thesis.

You weren't trained as a technologist or historian. Did you face any problems in interpreting data?
No major problems, though I had to face many minor ones, especially in deciphering the names of ancient scientists, astronomers and the like. I understood the larger issues, but not all the minute details and if I found something particularly interesting, I picked it up.

Why did you want to take us back to the past, glorifying dead traditions?
I am not taking you back to the past. I start from the 18th century to demonstrate that tradition is a continuing thing. It is very much alive. When I talk of traditional science and technology, it is very much a part of the present for the people -- a little rusted perhaps, but very much there.

Science is not a neutral thing: it is bound to culture. Science per se may be objective, but it can't be looked at in isolation from the culture of a society. According to modern historians from Europe, China achieved everything Europe did in science and technology in the last two centuries 2,000 years ago.

But then why didn't the Chinese progress?
Maybe they didn't want to. In any case, the answer has to be found in the cultural framework. Similarly in India, I feel that the sciences couldn't be taken to their logical end, perhaps due to the colonial intervention.

What were the things you found interesting in the 18th century?
So many things. Not only in science and technology, but also in society. For instance, I have shown in my book, The Beautiful Tree -- on indigenous education in the Madras Presidency in the 18th century -- that the number of schools and colleges relative to the population was much higher in England at that time. The range of subjects was enormous and the proportion of lower class students receiving education was much higher than that of Brahmins and other upper classes in India.

What is the relevance of this quest for traditional science and technology?
Most of our people don't belong to the 20th century: they live very much in the past. By the 20th century, I mean the age of electricity, jets and computers. They live in their own world, which may be a world of dreams or reality, but it is their life. They are untouched, except when exploited, by the jet-age society. They are not participants of this modern world.

These are two different worlds, which just happen to be together. We want to transform them, bring them into the world of telephones, computers and taps without water. But they would rather stay in that world and if possible, transform us. They can understand and manipulate their world, but not the modern one because we do not let them do so. If they could be empowered to manipulate this world, if necessary by force, it would be fine. Today, they are just used, managed and manipulated in an effort to make them hedonists.

I believe only 5 per cent of the country can live the way we do, so we ensure that while we are there, nobody else can get in. I wouldn't object if the "other" society is modernised and brought into our world, but only on their terms. My effort has been to build up a respect for these people who live in the past and their lifestyles, and create an interest in them.

But aren't traditional industries that you talk about highly subsidised?
Yes, some of them are. Maybe it is necessary, maybe not. But considering the two sectors (modern and traditional) as a whole, is not that the deprivation of one nourishes the other? Who is then subsidising whom? People involved with traditional technologies are always at the receiving end. The extent of deprivation has increased tremendously in the last few decades.

Basically, you're a city person. What was it that attracted you to rural India?
Gandhi's ideas; or was it some kind of a romanticism or simply the spirit of adventure? Well, I am a town person. It was my readings and the theoretical framework I formed that made me see the importance of rural areas. Gandhi's influence began much later. I was in Lahore when Bhagat Singh and his colleagues were hanged. We took out processions, though I was only eight or nine. The social environment in those days was charged with politics and it was impossible not to be affected. Gandhian ideas were much around, though I might have been influenced by Leon Trotsky's works, too.

I did not immediately come into direct contact with villagers. That came much later, in 1942-43, when I went around from village to village, mobilising and organising people. I was very well received -- Indian villagers are very hospitable. But even at that time, I really didn't come very close to the people. That came towards the end of 1943, when my father made me stay for a few months in our farm in Gorakhpur Uttar Pradesh Bihar to keep me out of mischief, which was getting involved in politics.

Being in contact with the rural people, did your perceptions about yourself change?
No, that came later. Our place in Gorakhpur was a typical farmhouse, but not a village community in that sense. In 1944, I came in contact with Mira behn, Gandhi's disciple. She started her ashram in Saharanpur district in Uttar Pradesh and I went there. I was more of a political worker, which suited my temperament, in contrast to other workers of the ashram.

How relevant is Gandhi today? Everybody talks of him, but how many follow his world views and ideas, except in the matter of dress?
Well, that doesn't reduce the relevance of his ideas. We didn't bother to put them into practice, beginning with our planning process, going in for heavy industries and all that. Maybe that is why we are in such a mess. Our system of education, which started much before Gandhi and taught us to attach more importance to anything that came from the West, was partly responsible for this. I am not blaming Nehru alone because there were lakhs of Western-oriented people, including myself.

But even in the past, weren't things terrible at times? What aspects of the past would you like to wipe out if you could?
I accept that the past was terrible, but was it as bad as today? I don't think so. But if I could wipe out any of the past, I would do away with the colonial experience.

But wouldn't that mean doing away with Gandhi?
Yes, it would. But Gandhi was a product of Indian culture and I am certain that this culture would have thrown up many more Gandhis. I have enough faith in this country to say that it can happen even now.

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