A scientific vision—conceived to encompass the social and the natural sciences—was profoundly a part of the Indian national movement. India’s struggle for independence was not simply to free itself from British rule. It was also to build a nation that would deliver development to its people. Independence would be bitter indeed if it did not lift people out of the abject poverty into which two centuries of colonial rule sank them. This idea united different sections of the independence movement, from left leaders to Nehru, Ambedkar and Bose. They knew India needed to advance in science and technology to develop its productive forces.
The leaders of the independence movement also knew science could not be borrowed or bought. And without developing science and technology capabilities, neither industry nor agriculture could develop. Our freedom fighters understood a newly-independent nation must adopt a scientific outlook on nature and society to develop. It would help people shed the shackles of superstition—beliefs that look back rather than ahead. Looking back to a mythical golden age when India had mastered flight with the pushpaka rath, nuclear weapons with the brahmastra, or genetic engineering, would impede the creation of a new India.
A scientific temper, or a scientific outlook towards nature and society, is how we develop productive knowledge for a new future. Accepting our past would allow us to understand our actual achievements, whether in mathematics, astronomy, medicine or metallurgy, not the mythical ones emerging from the Dinanath Batra school of false history.
State planning, science and the public sector
Our national movement leaders took on two complementary tasks: planning for all Indians and fashioning a state that would develop all its resources, including human resources. The Planning Commission and its precursor, the Congress Planning Committee, took on both roles. Subhas Chandra Bose, as Congress president, set up the Planning Committee in 1938, which he asked Nehru to head. Both drew inspiration from the Soviet planned development experiments following the 1917 October Revolution.
After independence, the Planning Commission propelled the vision of the Planning Committee to overcome the British legacy, the double burden of poverty and inequality. The national movement saw planning and the public sector as necessities, not just to regenerate industry and agriculture but redistribute the benefits of development to all sections. Its leaders wanted to develop productive forces using scientific knowledge and looked to education that advances scientific capabilities as the nation’s most significant resource.
Therefore, developing scientific and technological capabilities was a priority for the Indian state. It built the Central Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) laboratories, the five Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) and numerous scientific institutions. The University Grants Commission was greatly expanded to cover all universities in the First Five Year Plan. Indian capital, technocrats and industrialists, formulated the Bombay Plan, including such as JRD Tata and GD Birla, who shared the Congress leadership’s view that India needed infrastructure to develop and only the state could develop it on the scale required. Successive Five-Year plans embodied this vision.
The goal was not just to develop factories and machines but the knowledge embedded in the machines. Independent India set a goal of self-reliance or ‘Made in India’ to develop technologies. Insistence on transferring all technology to the Indian entity in any foreign partnership backed the policy. Transferring knowledge was as important as importing plants and machinery. Universities and other scientific institutions were central to India’s development plan for indigenous science and technology.
The colonial powers might have transferred political power to newly-independent countries but did not want to share technology or scientific knowledge. They believed countries like India—a part of the periphery—should confine themselves to agriculture and raw material production, leaving industrial goods to the “metropolitan” centre to produce. As a part of this policy, Western nations and/or manufacturers denied technology transfers related to manufacturing steel, turbines, boilers, pharmaceuticals, oil exploration, etc. Only when India successfully negotiated with the Soviet Union and other East European countries for technology and manufacturing plants did Western companies reluctantly agree to participate in India’s industrial development.
The Indian electricity sector, its oil and natural gas, steel and coal, atomic energy, and space sectors all emerged from this vision. If India is the world’s largest supplier of generic drugs, it is the result of CSIR laboratories (and changes to the Patents Act, 1970). The Ambanis and Mittals owe their origin to ONGC, Indian Oil, and Steel Authority of India Ltd.
India could also have become a major supplier of power plants to the world market. Unfortunately, India opened its market to western and Chinese players during the Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh governments, which aborted the possibility. BHEL, the leading power plant supplier, is now a far weaker international player than leading Chinese and South Korean companies.
The post-independence foreign policy view of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was to align with imperialist capitalist powers and not support national liberation movements. To the RSS, non-alignment and planning were two sides of the same evil socialist coin. Instead, they argued for a “holy” alliance of Christians—read ex-colonial powers and the United States—the Jews (read Zionist Israel) and Hindus on one side, against the “unholy” communists and Muslims.
Unmaking the scientific vision
In stark contrast to what we built after independence, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has wound up the Planning Commission and replaced it with a powerless Niti Aayog with only an advisory role. It is increasingly handing higher education over to private, even foreign, universities and appointing people who lack any understanding of science or technology to run advanced institutions. It has handed over major public sector enterprises to private hands or invited foreign capital in without having to transfer technology.
The difference between Atmanirbhar Bharat and self-reliance is how they view the economy. For the Modi government, all that matters is production takes place in India. Self-reliance meant not only that the final production is local, but both knowledge and equipment required for production are indigenised. The Modi government does not recognise that people and knowledge are essential in technology development today.
Today, among the top six companies in the world by market capitalisation, five are digital monopolies. Take Apple Inc., the biggest company in the world in terms of market cap. It does not own a single factory. How does it do this? It owns the designs, software and Apple brand. Apple gets about $300 for each iPhone it sells, while Foxconn, the company that manufactures the phone, gets only about $8. This is the nature of the knowledge economy. It is not where you produce but the knowledge you have that determines winners and losers in today’s global economy. Inviting Foxconn to set shop in India adds much less to the economy than the government acknowledges. Developing people is key to the future of a country. That is why nationalism that defines itself through land and not people belongs in the past.
Unsurprisingly, despite Modi’s Make in India hype, India’s year-on-year GDP growth has been slowing significantly. Even after the second wave of Covid-19 ended, India’s estimated 2022 GDP was only 1.5% above the 2019 figure, making a mockery of claims that it will soon become a five trillion dollar economy.
For the RSS-BJP, having the “right” ideology is much more important than developing knowledge. The BJP’s contempt for knowledge might appear dangerous only to the social sciences. The way it has destroyed the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) may just be the most visible instance of its destructive approach. But this government and its plants for universities are not limited to attacking just the social sciences. Or JNU. Their attack is on knowledge itself. In institution after institution, people with no vision and little learning have been given powerful positions. It seems knowledge is secondary to the BJP. What matters is that universities indoctrinate students with the RSS-BJP ideology.
In contrast to the decades following independence, a continuous assault on education and research institutions—and reason and science—defines the present moment. Myths and madness are masquerading as science and history, alongside flying chariots and interplanetary travel, genetics in the Mahabharata, and falsification of evolution. Or it is being superseded by the “much superior” theory of dasaavatar, as Andhra University Vice-Chancellor G Nageshwar Rao said in the 2019 edition of the Indian Science Congress. The objective today is a “nationalist” India based on religious identity. That is why its adherents need to demolish reason and history. It wants a majoritarian India, where minorities would have very few rights, an India where reason must surrender to myths old and new and where wealth and caste mean merit.
The RSS bitterly opposed planned development and the public sector and regarded them as unholy “socialism”. They wanted India left entirely to market forces and unfettered entry to global capital. The only role the state should play is to help Indian capital negotiate with foreign capital. In other words, crony capitalism is in action today. It is an invitation to global capital to exploit India’s cheap labour while getting tax breaks and subsidies, including virtually free land. It is why Modi has replaced the Planning Commission with a toothless think tank it calls Niti Aayog. It is why he is dismantling the public sector, selling it to friendly capitalists, and inviting foreign capital under the Make in India slogan. It is a journey of betrayal, from self-reliance to just Reliance!
In Hindutva’s exclusionary view of nationalism, the land is the nation. And it is the land that is pure: Savarkar’s punya-bhumi and pitru-bhumi. That is why Modi—quoting Deendayal Upadhyaya on his birth centenary in September 2016, said Muslims have to be ‘purified’ (parishkar) to be fully Indian. And yet, presumably, global capital becomes fully Indian just by coming to India!
The attacks against minorities and certain castes and communities are not aberrations. They are fundamental to how the RSS, the BJP and their front organisations think. These attacks are on the fundamental values enshrined in our Constitution, including economic democracy. The attacks are taking place when India has become as unequal as it was under the British. Or we have gone, as the French economist Thomas Piketty calls it, from British Raj to Billionaire Raj. India added forty new billionaires during the pandemic, while the income of 84% of households fell. India now has two billionaires, Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani, among the top ten richest men in the world, and the largest increase in global poverty anywhere in the world in the same period was also in India.