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Science and National Consciousness in Bengal (1870-1930)

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Item Code: NAI352
Author: J. Lourdusamy
Publisher: Sangam Books and Orient Longman Limited
Language: English
Edition: 2004
ISBN: 9780863118654
Pages: 270
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 420 gm
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About the Book


This book gives a flavour of the Indian response to modern science by analysing the lives and careers of four scientifically influential personalities in Bengal. It throws light on some of the complex and paradoxical issues attending India’s engagement with modern science in the peculiar context of colonialism. While explicating the nuances of the response, this work also contests some broad generalisations which have a bearing on the subject.


Lourdusamy uses this study to emphasise the importance of a prosopographical approach. His analysis of the careers of two scientists, J. c. Bose and P. C. Ray, and two institution builders, Mahendralal Sircar and Asutosh Mookerjee, brings to light the issues related to science at a time of colonialism and nationalism. Scientists often had to depend on British institutions for legitimation and funding, while also supporting the nationalist cause for greater autonomy.


One of the central claims of this book is that the protagonists aimed to contribute to a modern world science, one based on a strong sense of universalism. They did not aim to construct any “alternative” sciences, though they did express and apply their work by drawing on their cultural heritage.


This makes Science and National Consciousness a work of particular relevance today, when a homogenous, instrumentalist and totally Western conception of science is being globally accepted.


About the Author


J. Lourdusamy is Assistant Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, which he joined after his doctoral studies at Oxford. His broad areas of interest include history of science and the interaction of science and religion.




This work is largely the product of research undertaken at the University of Oxford. I would like to express my profound gratitude (the long debt list-the acknowledgements-that follows, notwithstanding) to Dr David Washbrook, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, for the long hours of fruitful discussion. I also wish to thank Professor Robert Fox, University of Oxford, and Professor David Arnold, School of Oriental and African Studies, for their valuable criticism and suggestions, which have significantly shaped the final form of this work.


The (rather long) introduction sets out in detail what this work is about and the introduction together with the conclusion clarifies what this book is not about. It only remains for me to say that the present chapter 1 is a later addition. This chapter, which lays out a broad background, was added for the benefit of the wider audience who may not be familiar with matter contained therein. Therefore, being just a background sketch, it is based mostly on secondary sources.


I am very grateful to Ms Priti Anand of Orient Longman for guiding me admirably through the tmtire process of getting this work published. I am indebted to Mr Nikhil Bhoopal, also of Orient Longman, for his meticulous editorial work. Finally, I also owe a debt of gratitude to the confidential referee for the critical report and its suggestions.


This work constitutes a study of only a particular type of response to modern science in colonial India. However, I hope it will be of some use to scholars, general readers and scientists with an interest in the emerging elites’ engagement with modern science in that era.




On 21 August 1896 an advertisement proclaimed the manufacture of “Biscuits of all kinds” in The Indian Mirror. It commenced with the caption Indian Advancement, and its last line elaborated on what “advancement” meant: “Made by Machinery imported from Europe and worked by Steam Engine”. The concluding words of Daniel Headrick’s Tools of Empire offer a clue to this rather grandiose advertisement from a biscuit manufacturer. Headrick concluded his work on the role of Western technology in European imperialism in the nineteenth century with the observation: “In their brief domination, the Europeans passed on to the peoples of Asia and Africa their own fascination with machinery and innovation. This has been the true legacy of imperialism”. The present work seeks to discuss certain aspects of a closely related but deeper legacy-the fascination for modern science itself.


The lives and careers of four influential Indians-two practising scientists, Jagadis Chandra Bose and Prafulla Chandra Ray, and two institution builders, Mahendra Lal Sircar and Asutosh Mookerjee-are studied here. The professional careers of the four protagonists, their ideas about modern science, and their contributions towards its cultivation and growth in Bengal between 1870 and 1930 are analysed. The aim is to highlight and clarify some of the complex issues attending India’s tryst with modern science under British colonial rule.


Tools of Empire and Headrick’s other related work, The Tentacfes of Progress, portray how modern science and technology, and the particular ways in which they were deployed, served as effective weapons in the colonial project. In their pioneering books covering two different time periods, Satpal Sangwan and Deepak Kumar have brought out in great detail this unfolding of science as a colonial tool specifically in the Indian context. Other works like Michael Adas’s Machines as the Measure of Men, on the other hand, explain how modern science was deployed as an idea to buttress colonial rule as part of the “civilising mission”.’ This deployment of science, both at an ideological and instrumental level, as a facilitator of colonialism, in its turn, generated a corresponding interest among the colonised as to how the same could be done in the making of a nation and in furthering its future welfare.


Gyan Prakash’s Another Reason discusses at length such an appropriation of modern science by the indigenous elite in colonial India. It seeks to demonstrate how some of the ideas associated with modern science, such as reason, universalism and progress, were deployed by the elite in the “imagination” of Indian nationhood. This work, on the other hand, seeks to examine how the political context of colonialism and nationalism shaped Indian responses to modern science and its associated ideas as such. Reference to “ideas” is made here only in so far as they relate to those held about modern science and how it might be encountered and absorbed in a colonial situation. “National consciousness” as used here refers to the ideological equipment with which the protagonists faced the restrictions and challenges posed by colonialism in the execution of their projects of science. It also refers to the ways in which they related themselves and their work to a background in which political nationalism was evolving.


Zaheer Baber’s The Science of Empire underlines the importance of “structure” (as represented by colonial policies and scientific institutions) and “agency” (of scientists, British and Indian) as heuristic tools in studying the growth of modern science in India. Baber’s book is panoramic in perspective, trying to address almost all the facets of the arrival of modern science in India and its encounter with existing traditions. Owing to that broad framework, which is useful in its own way, the book does not address adequately the intricacies of the Indian response. This work, in focusing on the Indian response, tries to unravel in greater detail the “complexities of colonial rule and its consequences for the development of science and technology”, and the “mutually constitutive interplay” of various factors within its chosen area.


In talking of the diffusion of science, Steven Shapin-albeit in a totally different context-writes that the “success or failure of diffusion hinges on the contextual perceptions of science as a potential-resource”. Although this work does not deal with the diffusion of science as such-that is, the popular spread of science in society at large-it brings out the importance of “contextual perception” as voiced and personified by the four protagonists. The rationale and importance of this study lies in the highly consequential part they played as interlocutors.


With their crucial role in the interface between new opportunities and the existing social realities, the protagonists laid out an agenda for modern science to take deeper roots in the local soil. They took upon themselves the tasks of interpreting modern science for their society and of devising strategies for its acceptance under the peculiar conditions engendered by colonialism. Thus, the protagonists-with their various ideas about science and its importance, their critiques of indigenous society, their strategies for dealing with the colonial situation, and their practical activities-left a distinctive mark on the nature of the acceptance and the growth of modern science in India under the colonial dispensation.


Although this work does not seek to engage itself in the wider debates on “tradition” and “modernity”, the issues it discusses would perhaps be of some consequence to such studies. But it is hoped that the more important and substantial value of the work would pertain to the field of the history of science itself In the existing literature on science and colonialism in India, not much attempt has been made in the direction of prosopography to study such major players as our protagonists here. However, a notable exception by way of a biographical approach is Ashis Nandy’s Alternative Sciences, which analyses the career of. J.C. Bose. Nandy’s very insightful work is a psychoanalytical study of Bose which sheds much light on the domineering presence of colonialism and nationalism in Bose’s vocation. In the process, however, it puts forth some ideas which are problematic, and they are addressed here.


Dhruv Raina’s study of P C. Ray, and particularly of his History of Hindu Chemistry highlights the politics of knowledge wherein Ray contests the French chemist Marcellin Berthelot’s account of the history of chemistry. However, Raina’s central concern in his illuminating essay is the cognitive connection between Ray’s choice of areas for his historical research and his actual researches in chemistry.


It does not, therefore, deal at length with the issues of colonialism and nationalism (though it does not totally ignore that dimension). Two recent works by A. K. Biswas on the diaries of Mahendra Lal Sircar and Sircar’s close associate, Father Eugene Lafont, contain a wealth of information on the efforts to build an active science movement in India. However, these two well-researched volumes, like Biswas’s earlier work, Science in India, do not adequately historicise their subjects and place them in the dialectics of colonialism and nationalism. In any case, there is little work as yet that has systematically studied a set of lives with identical missions within a particular context of space and time to bring out some of the lineaments of the Indian response to modern science. It is hoped that the present work will in a small way redress that lacuna.


The first of the four protagonists, Mahendra Lal Sircar (1833-1904), was a product of the Calcutta Medical College (founded in 1835). He spent the greater portion of his professional career campaigning for the establishment of the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science (IACS). The association, founded in 1876, was the first of its kind and scale in India to propagate modern science through lectures and demonstrations. As a pioneer, Sircar faced the greatest difficulty of all the four in “educating” his countrymen at large on the importance of cultivating modern science. He also had to depend to a significant degree on the colonial state for the realisation of the “fully independent” and “indigenous” institution conceived by him. His relationship with, and his dependence on, the government reflected to a great extent the character of the emerging political nationalism, whose strategy aimed at appealing to the “generosity” and liberal principles of the colonial state. In Sircar’s case, he had to look up to the colonial state not only for its contribution, but also to tap the resources of his own countrymen. Another significant feature of his project was the fact that it became a reality due largely to the vigorous support it received from a Belgian Jesuit priest and physics teacher, Father Lafont.

















The Background



Assembling for Science



Redefining Science



Sanctifying Science



Administering Science Conclusion












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