The state of history of science in India (part 1)


As Ernest Renan said a century ago: ‘Getting history wrong is an essential part of being a nation.’ It is the professional business of historians to dismantle such mythologies, unless they are content – and I am afraid national historians have often been – to be the servants of ideologists.

Eric Hobsbawm, On History, p.35

Several contemporary interpretations of the history of science in India are close to being questionable, to put it mildly. These accounts of the history of science in India are replete with specifically Hindu renditions, which present India’s past contributions to science as dazzlingly glorious and modern, only to be ruined later by Islamic and British rulers. The past, according to these accounts, has been so glorious that the Defence Minister claims scientists in the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) must learn the ancient hindu metallurgical practices of turning human and animal bones into indestructible metals. There has also been a recent push to distance the history of India from the ‘external’ imagery of the Christian and Islamic West and create a Hindu historical vision of ‘our modernity’ as opposed, and much superior, to ‘their modernity’. This has led to people making claims, amongst many others, of manned flights existing in ‘Hindu’ India almost 3000 years before the Wright brothers’ construction of the aeroplane.

Such focus on India’s ‘Hindu’ specialness neglects crucial aspects of the history of science in India – the exchange of knowledge with the West and the East; and Indian intellectual traditions that influenced, and were influenced by, Western, Islamic and Eastern knowledge. While it is not wrong to write revisionist histories, historical claims should nevertheless be supported with extensive archival and historical research. This isn’t the case with most recent claims made regarding India’s history of science. It cannot be said that scholars in India are not producing definitive research, but the growing number of dubious research and researchers is just one of many reasons why the history of science must make its presence felt as an academic discipline in India.

The problem though is not just the absence of history of science as an academic discipline, but also the status of humanities studies in general within the Indian education system. In a 2014 interview for the Wall Street Journal, the cultural and literary theorist Homi K Bhabha said what almost all humanities academics in India agree with: “The prestige of humanities is at an all-time ebb, partly because there is a public sense that the most profitable way of making a livelihood in the global era is through technology or finance.” This has resulted in what Eric Hobsbawm states to be one of the reasons why  the importance of history and its lessons have diminished: “the a-historical, engineering, problem-solving approach by means of mechanical models and devices.” Such an approach, although successful in producing marvellous results in several fields, does not allow for science and engineering students to discuss the historical, social, political and cultural dynamics of the field they study, and to understand how the roles and values of inter-disciplinary and cross-cultural research that the humanities strives for are crucial to the creation of better technologies and societies.

I worked (and hope to continue working in the future) in this direction in 2014-15 through my involvement in the Science Park in Pune, India. I not only worked to help the Science Park develop its outreach and education programmes, but also drew heavily on my experience as a student undergoing the conversion from being an engineer to an aspiring historian in helping science and engineering students and trainees engage with historical, social and cultural issues outside their curriculum. Thinking about the historical and social aspects of the subjects they study forces students to think critically about the world around us, and their place in society as future scientists and engineers. However, exposing engineering and science students all over India to historical approached and methods would require bringing together more research-active historians, philosophers and sociologists of science and technology, with their participation facilitated by universities and institutions such as the History of Science Society, the British Society for the History of Science, the Society for the History of Technology and many more.

One of the many ways in which institutions such as the HSS can contribute to these efforts is by not only reaching out to academics and researchers studying the history/philosophy of science in India (either in India or abroad), but by also facilitating dissemination of their research in public forums in India. Science museums and centres in India provide the most lucrative platforms for such endeavours, since these would only add to a centre’s reputation, thereby increasing footfall and funding. The HSS could also look into training academics and researcher, who would then train staff and curators in science museums and centres in India , since almost all such institutions suffer from a lack of trained staff and funding for training. Such endeavours would not only help the HSS reach out to historians of science (and other historians) in India, and improve its presence in India, but also help academics and researchers be involved in curriculum reform in, beginning with science centres, schools and universities.

There are several other advantages to institutions such the HSS reaching out to academics and researchers working on the history of science and technology in India, and helping them collaborate with formal (colleges, schools, policy authorities, research institutions, companies) and non-formal institutions (science centres, museums):

  1. working with companies and research institutions can help such organisations enhance public understanding of complex and controversial scientific and technological issues.
  2. increasing access to historical and archival collections, thereby enhancing educational innovation.
  3. creating networks and stimulating dialogue.
  4. providing improvements to public space and urban quarters through an increased public understanding of the history of buildings and cities, also enabling constructive engagement for those sections of society generally excluded from a range of conventional public debates and decisions.

… Continued