L. V. Prasad Eye Institute
Professor Emmanuel Dongala's article, "Clearing the Horizon: Science, Social Sciences and Africa", makes several points about how local historical experiences mould the approach and the applicability of science and technology to a given region of the world. He points out that the representations of man or woman in society and the political, economic and social structures must take into account simultaneously all the myriad forces passing through them in all their dynamics and complexity. Indeed, this thesis is relevant and applicable to India as well.
It would seem that the dynamics that operate here owe their origin, in part, to the history of colonization by the European West, since the situation that obtains in the other great countries with equally hoary cultures, namely China and Japan, is somewhat different. Western science, it would seem, has come to be accepted and practised with less societal misgivings and reluctance in these countries, which were not colonized by the West for any significant length of time as to leave its cultural marks.
India has been a country in transition for over six hundred years. Well before the Moghuls came to rule a large portion of the country, India had a tradition of scholarship and native forms of science and technology. A point of note is that technology in societies of this kind developed quite separately from science. Largely the province of the artisan and the craftsman, it grew out of empiricism and need-based approaches as well as out of aesthetic compulsions. It was largely plebian in creation and practice, quite divorced from the concerns of the philosopher and the metaphysician who created science as natural philosophy. Arabian science entered India through the Persians and the Moghuls. But it did not cause any fundamental philosophical problems of acceptance or practice. The approaches of "Islamic Science" and "Indian Science" have both been largely "holistic"; they did not remove the practising person as a confounder but included him as part of the process. Reductionism did not find a place in them in the insistent manner in which it had been embedded in "Western" science. Thus there was no clash of approach and applicability in the scientific systems of the Shah and his subjects in Moghul India. Even philosophical systems tended to borrow from one another, absorb mutually between them and generate an acceptable hybrid as with Sufi mystics or the acceptance, nay ownership, of the writings of Kahlil Gibran. Mahatma Gandhi was heir to such a synthesis and absorption of philosophical systems. Non-violence, kinship with and respect for all forms of life (plants, animals and human) and similar ideas could easily fit into existing systems of scientific thought. Science was thought to be an enhancer of the intellect, and not to be used for material purposes or for winning over Nature.
A perceptible shift occurred with the introduction of the British type of Western education in India about two hundred years ago. The introduction of the English language opened the doors to Western knowledge and European science. The Colonials might well have introduced them with the idea of using the natives as clerks in administration but it also had other consequences. Western science was seen to be applicable in terms of the technology and the public use that it could be put to. The fruits and uses of Western science and the spillovers of the Industrial Revolution began to be felt in the colonies. The geological, botanical and zoological surveys of the subcontinent, census of the people, the railways, and medicine to treat and heal communicable diseases were some of the introductions. With the opening of universities and departments of science, engineering and medicine (and law), youngsters in search of better jobs and greater opportunities went into them. At the same time, this also produced a competent set of intellectuals and patriots ready to work towards the freedom of Colonial India and running the liberated nations. Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (the first Prime Minister of Free India and architect of its course during its infancy), Mohammed Ali Jinnah (the father of Pakistan), D.S. Senanayake (of free Ceylon or Sri Lanka) and several other leaders of the newly independent nations of the subcontinent were products, in part, of the British educational system. (Interestingly, all of these, and many of their contemporaries, traversed both worlds the East and the West with a strong grasp and appreciation of the values and traditions of the East and the spirit of freedom, adventure and utility of the West, and did not seem to have suffered from any "existential angst".) On the other hand, however, it led to the sidelining of the traditional sciences and technology, for example architecture, water harvesting and storing, medicine and health practices. There were some valiant, if unsuccessful, attempts to marry Western science with traditional Indian thought. An example is provided by the Calcutta physicist Jagadis Chandra Bose. He was an eminent experimental physicist, who trained in England under Lord Raleigh, and invented remote radio signalling before Marconi did, and a semiconductor junction before semiconductors were known. In later years, he also concerned himself with the effect of electromagnetism on plants and suggested that plants feel pain and have feelings. He tried to build a theoretical system that would encompass the living and the non-living and suggest a seamless transition between the two, an idea in keeping with his philosophical and metaphysical beliefs. His pronouncement of these ideas at the lectures he gave in England gave rise to "alarming reservations about the oriental mind being prone to mysticism and synthesis".
The marginalization of traditional medical practices such as the Indian Ayurveda, Arabic/Greek Unani, folk tradition of Siddha and Tibetan medicine, and the Hindu/Buddhist system of Yoga has been particularly unfortunate in this context. The success of reductionist science in improving national development, particularly in food production, in reducing mortality and increasing longevity was a major factor behind this process. Added to this were the lure to the young of being "modern" or "with it" and the anxiety of the bureaucracy to "deliver", which have made them ignore or refuse to analyse whatever appropriate or useful that is in tradition. When Nehru declared upon opening national laboratories of science that "these are the new temples of India", modernization of India was ushered in, but not what Dongala has termed modernity. The synthesis that Nehru could achieve in his personal life was not transmitted to the young of the nation. Instead, it was trivialized into a disdain and neglect of all traditional systems of scientific and technological approaches from the "modern" educational curriculum and research laboratories. The insular coexistence in two separate boxes of traditional knowledge and of Western science and technology leads to incongruous situations; one encounters some active Indian physical scientists who practice rituals to ward off the evil effects of lunar or solar eclipses. This is perhaps true of other societies with long histories, but is striking in a country which is counted to be among the top dozen science nations of the world.
A particular feature of Indian society is its stratification into castes, each with a defined professional role. Moving out of its pigeonhole to pursue endeavours out of what is assigned for it to do was difficult. Bureaucracy that came with the rulers, be they the Moghuls or the British, reinforced the boxing in and added further layers. Even as democracy was ushered into free India, in the form of "a socialistic pattern of society", the Orwellian dictum of some being more equal than others has continued. Herein perhaps is a clue to the poignant question that Dongala asks "Why has the graft of democracy not taken or why do we continue to have all the outer signs of democracy without actually achieving democracy?"
India is in transition again today. It is going through a grand sociological experiment. Science and technology are being used to improve the quality of the livelihood of its billion people. And the people have taken to these with enthusiasm. We have found that education is the key to development and an improved quality of life. Enabling a girl child to go one further year of primary school and not drop out in the middle has the result of a reduction in infant mortality. That extra year gives her the ability to read and comprehend instructions about the steps to be taken when, at a later date, her own child falls sick. Among all the nations of the Indian subcontinent, Sri Lanka has the highest human development index, thanks to its higher literacy rate. As an aside, sociological or ideological impediments and objections to scientific practices and procedures have not come from the traditional section of society in the villages and small towns of India. The introduction of hybrid high-yield dwarf wheat from Mexico, cattle from New Zealand and soya bean from the U.S. have been received and absorbed just as enthusiastically as the dozens of fruits, vegetables and plants from the colonizing Portuguese were over the centuries. On the other hand, it is a tiny but vociferous activist minority that has raised objections to laboratory experimentation using animals, or the introduction of transgenic plants. As Richard Leaky pithily remarked, "You have to have at least one square meal a day to be a conservationist or an environmentalist".
Currently, India is going through a churning experience. The once untouchable castes have gained political voice and power in a few states of the country, realizing in part Mahatma Gandhi's dream. A quota system in education, government jobs and career ladders has been introduced, providing new openings to the centuries-long disadvantaged classes. Expectedly, the process has been awkward, beset with opposition, occasional misuse and bending-over-backwards. We shall know the results only a decade or two later, but that this is a profound experiment and a new paradigm has been agreed upon by many sociologists. A similar move to reserve a certain proportion of seats in the state legislatures and the national parliament is under discussion. Would these steps attack and win over the hidden structural obstacles of the Indian society? We need social scientists to monitor the course of the experiment and help us understand how well "the old order changeth yielding place to new", and what new contours emerge.
|Dorairajan BALASUBRAMANIAN is Director of Research, L. V. Prasad Eye Institute, Hyderabad, India and was formerly, Director, Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology, Hyderabad as well as Professor and Dean, University of Hyderabad. Foremost among his research interests is 'Molecular and Cellular Approaches to Understand and Treat Diseases of the Eye' and he has published 145 research papers and two books on related topics. Other major interests include work in the area of 'Public Understanding of Science' through popular science newspaper columns, radio and TV programs and more than 300 popular articles and six books. This interest is furthered by working with governments and agencies on issues of science and technology. Among Professor Balasubramanian's many Honours & Awards are the "Kalinga" Award for Popularization of Science awarded by UNESCO in 1997, the "Padma Shri": National honour by the President of India, 2002 and the "Chevalier de l'Ordre National du Mérite": National honour by the President of France, 2002.|