April 24, 2022

Building a Nation with a Scientific Vision

Prabir Purkayastha

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 freedom would be bitter if independence did not lift its people out of the abject poverty that resulted from two centuries of colonial rule. For this to happen, different sections of the independence movement – from the Left leaders to Nehru, Ambedkar and Bose – were united in a shared vision of development: we needed 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 the planning of the economy and building of the country's infrastructure, scientific institutions like the CSIR, and later ICAR, were strengthened to help India develop indigenous technology. Higher education, including science and technology institutions, was expanded, and new institutions like IITs were set up. 

Contrast this 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. In existing institutions, people who have no understanding of education have been brought in to run advanced institutions. The way the BJP has destroyed the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) may be the most visible instance of their destructive approach. 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. 

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 – due to the arbitrary divisions of the colonial powers. The colonial powers divided the people of the colonies based on religion, language and ethnicity. In contrast to the old divide and rule imperial game, the task of the national liberation struggle was to unite the people despite these multiple identities. 

The Left and other leaders of the independence movement located the nation on the terrain of an independent national economy. The starting point of the struggle against imperialism was, therefore, 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 as the objective of independence – distinguished the vision and action of all the leaders of the independence movements in different parts of the world, including India. 

For the RSS, the British were not the enemies: the nationalists, the secularists and the Muslims were. Their view of the nation – held by Hindutva ideologues such as Savarkar, Hegdewar, and Golwalkar – looked to the exclusionary, ethnic nationalism of Nazi Germany (or Fascist Italy) for their inspiration. They opposed the inclusive vision 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". This is the vision that Savarkar formulated, 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. The RSS leaders took over this concept of the nation from Savarkar. Such a nation was based, said Golwalkar, "...on essential value of the five unities, country (geography), race, religion, culture and language towards making a complete nation concept." ( Golwalkar, We Our Nationhood Defined)

Savarkar's concept of an Indian nation was not an original one, but borrowed from late 19th century and early 20th-century German nationalism based on blood (race) and soil, which Nazism took over. Blood and race are both recurring themes in Savarkar's writing on the nation. 

This racial European nationalism was accompanied by external wars to establish national borders and acquire 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. This essentially argued that non-Christians were not fully human and so could be dispossessed of their lands, enslaved, or even killed by the Christian colonisers. The European colonisers' "belief" in the superiority of Christians as people transformed later to "scientific racism": the superior white man would bring "civilisation" to less evolved black and brown "natives". Both these "civilising missions" – the earlier Christian one and the later explicitly racist one – were accompanied by slavery, genocide, loot and plunder. Science and religion were used to give the brutality of colonisation an external cover of religion or science.

The colonial conquerors looted, enslaved, massacred the people of the Americas, Africa and Asia on a grand scale and finally built a system that continually created wealth in the colonial metropolis while impoverishing their colonies. According to the research by Prof. Utsa Patnaik, a total of 44 trillion dollars was siphoned by colonial Britain from India. India and China, which till the 18th century, produced about 50 per cent of the world's GDP, came down to less than 10 per cent within the next 200 years. It was the slave trade from Africa, colonial plunder from India, and other parts of the world that "financed" or provided the necessary capital for the industrial revolution. As Marx noted, "... capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt." 


For the national movement, independence meant not only kicking out the colonial rulers but also the development of its people. 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 its human resources. 

Bose, as the Congress president, set up the Planning Committee in 1938, which he asked Nehru to head. They both drew their inspiration from the Soviet experiments with planned development after the October Revolution. After independence, the Planning Commission carried forward the vision of the Planning Committee to overcome the double burden of poverty and inequality left by the British. The leaders of the national movement viewed planning and building a public sector as a necessity, not just for the industrial and agricultural regeneration of India but also for the re-distribution of the benefits of development to all sections of its people. 

After independence, developing scientific and technological capabilities was a priority for the Indian State. It built the Central Scientific and Industrial Research laboratories, the five Indian Institute of Technologies (IITs), the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) and a host of scientific institutions. Beginning with the Bombay Plan formulated by the 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 that India required for rapid development. This is what was embodied in the successive Five-Year plans.



The difference between the idea of genuine self-reliance and the current vacuous slogan of Make in India is this: one involves the insistence for the transfer of knowledge and developing of that knowledge further; the Modi version is an invitation to global capital of exploiting India's cheap labour, along with various tax breaks and subsidises, including virtually free land. 

To develop technology, independent India set for itself the goal of self-reliance in knowledge as the basis of developing the country. In BJP's India, we are witnessing 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; of genetics in the Mahabharata; of evolution as false; or if true, superseded by the "much superior" theory of dasaavatar (Andhra University vice-chancellor G Nageshwar Rao speaking to the 106th Indian Science Congress, January 2019). 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, both old and new; where wealth and caste mean merit. 

The RSS was bitterly opposed to planned development and the public sector and regarded planning and nationalisation of India's resources as unholy "socialism." They wanted India to be completely left to the market forces and wanted the unfettered entry of global capital. The only role the State should play is to help Indian capital to negotiate better with foreign capital; in other words, the crony capitalism we see in action today. 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!

In the 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 pitru-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. Today, Apple is the biggest company in the world in terms of market capitalisation. Yet, 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. It is not where you produce, but what knowledge you have that is transferred to the products that determines winners and losers today in the global economy. 

The attack against minorities and certain castes and communities is not just an aberration. It is fundamental to how the RSS, the BJP and its various front organisations think. These attacks today 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, or what the French economist Piketty called it: from British Raj to Billionaire Raj; where nine families now own more wealth than half of all Indians.  

A scientific vision of the past and the future is the key to this fight. Giving up knowledge in the belief that the ex-colonial powers will readily hand it to us is a project of re-colonisation of India.