Rewiring Bodies: Technology and the Nationalist Moment [1]

This is the second post in a series by Asha Achuthan on her project, Rewiring Bodies. In this blog entry, Asha looks at the trajectory of responses to technology in India to understand the genesis of the assumption that the subjects of technology are separate from the tool, machine, or instrument.

The question of technology perhaps arose in greatest relief in India in development and the responses to development. In order to understand this, we need to understand the pre-history of this activity in the nationalist moments.

A version of Marxism pervaded Nehru’s nationalism – one that espoused the 'scientific, economic sense' of progress. Some of the emphasis placed in the Indian National Congress on economic issues, particularly during the 1937 elections, was the direct result of Nehru’s urgings. This changed after 1937, but Nehruvian socialism, inasmuch as it valued a materialist conception of history, or considered the economic as important in the last instance, continued to pervade nationalist agendas. Analyses of India’s problems too were in this mode – 'Parties [in an independent India] will be formed with economic ideals. There will be socialists, anti-socialists, zamindars, kisans and other similar groups. It will be ridiculous to think of parties founded on a religious or communal basis' (Nehru 1931: 284, quoted in Seth 1995: 212).

Nehru’s stand on nationalism, by distinguishing between oppressor and oppressed nations, also legitimised certain nationalisms, while remaining critical of nationalism in general.[1] Needless to say, this vision of nationalism had as its underlying philosophy rationalist Enlightenment thought, and was also tied to internationalism[2] and progress – a progress that would bring socialism as a 'saner ordering of human affairs' rather than as a 'moral issue' (Nehru, Selected Works,  'Whither India': 8, quoted in Seth 215). To that end, the scientific temper, as Nehru reiterates again and again, is the requirement.[3] And to realise that requirement, Nehru did, apart from his policy efforts, take up the philosophical debate, pointing to 'the essential basis of Indian thought for ages past … [which] fits in with the scientific temper and approach' (Nehru 1946: 526, quoted in Chatterjee 1986: 139). This temper informed, for this version of nationalism, analyses of colonialism, cultural difference, religion, and industrialisation; each of the first three were attributable to economic backwardness and disparity, and the removal of these disparities, accompanied by the development of ‘big’ science and technology, was the answer.

As far as Nehru was concerned, the colonial state was the enemy of such industrialisation, partly owing to its own selfish commercial interests, but more importantly because such interests went against the universal models of economic growth wherein developing nations also needed to grow in order to keep the rich nations healthy. For his version of scientific socialism, then, a critique of colonialism could not simultaneously be a critique of reason or modernity – colonialism was ‘wrong’ primarily because it did not fulfil the requirements of modern growth. Clearly, this also involved for Nehru certain expectations of the national bourgeoisie who would provide political leadership.

What confounded him, therefore, were the ‘spontaneous’ peasant uprisings, as also the Gandhian philosophy of development that was singularly in conflict with his own notions of progress. Both of these meant for Nehru a shift not only from reason to unreason, but, in parallel, from the political to the utopian. Chatterjee (1986) suggests that Nehru solved the problem by granting to Gandhi a stage in the ‘passive revolution’ – an intervention – where, once the stage had been set for the real political battle, the ‘masses’ could be won over to the larger nationalist cause through faith, emotion, or other such means both incomprehensible and vague of objective (to Nehru). The larger nationalist cause was the promotion of large-scale industry over small-scale or cottage industries, since 'the world and the dominating facts of the situation that confront it have decided in favour of' the former' (Nehru Discovery of India, 1946: 414, quoted in Chatterjee 1986: 144). The ‘masses’, by whom Nehru usually meant the peasantry, needed to recognize, like the rest of India, that small-scale industry in these 'dominating facts of the situation' could only function as a 'colonial appendage' (413). Industrialisation and expert knowledge were what were needed for progress and a modern nation.

After independence, this project of the modern nation was taken up by planning – what Chatterjee calls the new systems-theorists’ utopia. In this scheme of things, once political independence had been achieved and independent state control set up, economic disparities would gradually disappear, for the only real problem would be one of access, a technical rather than political issue. Planning, as far as Nehru was concerned, would take care of this. Planning involved experts, and an approach to individual concrete problems at a practical level, not a political philosophy. 'Planning essentially consists in balancing ...' (Nehru 1957: 51, quoted in Chatterjee 1986: 159) and 'co-operation in planning was particularly soothing ... in pleasant contrast to the squabbles and conflicts of politics' (Nehru 1946: 405, quoted in Chatterjee 1986: 160). Further, '[s]cientific planning enables us to increase our production, and socialism comes in when we plan to distribute production evenly' (Nehru 1962: 151, quoted in Chatterjee 1986: 159).

Socialism too, then, becomes, rather than a system of thought or a violent class struggle, the pragmatic planning of a national economy – one that, if adequately planned, would automatically produce the 'classless society with equal economic justice and opportunity for all, a society organised on a planned basis for the raising of mankind to higher material and cultured levels, to a cultivation of spiritual values … ultimately a world order' (Nehru 1936: 552, quoted in Chatterjee 1986: 161). For Chatterjee, this selective appropriation of scientific Marxism was how the reason-unreason binary was precipitated, giving rise to a different politics for the elite and the subaltern in mature nationalist thought. In the next post I will try to demonstrate how this formulation of Chatterjee’s was one of the foundations from which the critiques of development too took off.[4]

My point here is to cull, from among these debates, both the routes taken in development thinking and the contexts for postcolonial approaches to the science and technology question. Marxism, in its early nationalist avatar, presented an approach to science that involved its accurate interpretation, application and access, rather than any critique. As is evident from the debates between Nehru and the CPI,[5] and Nehru’s own writing on the subject,[6] colonialism was equal to capitalism, the anti-imperialist struggle of the Indian masses was the route to independence, and the change in forces of production would needs must bring about a change in the means of production. For Nehru then, the nationalist agenda consisted at least in part of bringing to the third world access to technology and a transformation in the forces of production that would address poverty and unemployment. In the Marxist-nationalist space, the debate was about what would be the agent of change – the nationalist bourgeoisie or the working class; also whether it would be forces of production by themselves or the subjective sense of the proletariat.

But both third-worldism and Indian nationalism had other, powerful and different approaches to the same questions – the analysis of colonialism and the required response, the question of technology, the concept of the state/cultural difference. Was there then a nationalist alternative to the technology offered by the West? We will, in the next post, look at the Tagore-Gandhi debates on technology to throw some light on this question.


[1] To identify within oppressed nations overarching standpoints was also therefore, in this frame, problematic, for, '[d]o we place the masses, the peasantry and the workers first, or some other small class at the head of our list? Let us give the benefits of freedom to as many groups and classes as possible, but essentially whom do we stand for, and when a conflict arises whose side must we take?' [4-5] Nehru, Whither India 1933]

[2] 'Differences [in national realities] there are but they are chiefly due to different stages of economic growth.' [ibid, 5]

[3] 'It is better to understand a part of the truth, and apply it to our lives, than to understand nothing at all and flounder helplessly in a vain attempt to pierce the mystery of existence … It is the scientific approach, the adventurous and yet critical temper of science, the search for truth and new knowledge, the refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity to change previous conclusions in the face of new evidence, the reliance on observed fact and not on preconceived theory … not merely for the application of science but for life itself …' (Nehru 1946: 523, quoted in Chatterjee 1986: 139).

[4] Seth has concluded, differently from Chatterjee, that this was not a simple appropriation of scientific Marxism, leaving its political core alone.

[5] See Palme Dutt and his efforts to bring together the communist movement, the democratic camp and the nationalist movement. Nehru’s truck with the communists more or less dissolved around the response to the August 1942 revolution and the dissent over relations with the Muslim League.

[6] At his second Presidential address to the Indian National Congress in Lucknow on  April 12, 1936, Nehru repeated some of his earlier commitment on this, 'I am convinced that the only key to the solution of the world’s problem and of India’s problem lies in socialism, and when I use the word I do so not in a vague, humanitarian way but in the scientific, economic sense.' From Jawaharlal Nehru, Selected Works, vol. 7, p. 180, quoted in Seth 1995: 222.


Asha Achuthan

My disciplinary training is in medicine. Some of my questions about science and politics led me to a Women's Studies programme in Jadavpur University, from where I did an M.Phil with a focus on "women and development". I have recently submitted my PhD dissertation, "Feminist Standpoint Theory and the Question of Experience". I am also working as Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Contemporary Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, on a project of curriculum revision in the natural and social sciences.