Towards Freedom, Towards Progress
As the month of August begins my thoughts always turn to India’s freedom movement and the national journey since Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent country, memorably declared “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom”.
The Indian people traversed a dark path illuminated by the sacrifice of millions and the leadership of remarkable men and women—the tallest among them being Mahatma Gandhi---to reach that point in history when Nehru could eloquently say that India had awakened to ‘life and freedom’. The tortuous and difficult way towards freedom entailed not only emancipation from foreign political rule but the vision of comprehensive transformation of a feudal, exploitative and unequal social structure into a modern and progressive state and society. It is that vision that became the foundational principle of the constitution and it is the progressive realization of that vision into reality which can be the only basis to assess India’s successes and shortcomings since independence and the foundation of the Republic.
For Nehru, the foundations of a free India which aimed at social and economic progress had to be rooted in science and modern technology. Indeed, many Indians, irrespective of their ideological preferences, and their religious beliefs agreed with Nehru. This view was well founded because the reason for India’s decline and colonial subjugation was the stagnation in science and technology in the country at a time when Europe began to make great progress in these areas. In order to ensure that India caught up with the advanced world in the science and technology Nehru sought to ensure that a network of institutions both for teaching and research were established which would enrich India’s human capital in these critical areas. While Nehru is blamed today for many policy failures his contribution in this vital area is undeniable.
By the first three decades of independence the fruits of Nehru’s policies to develop scientific and technical human capital in India became evident. What was also remarkable and a great asset for the pursuit of Indian interests abroad was the country’s willingness to share its experience in science and technology with developing countries. Under a programme for technical and economic cooperation India welcomed students from developing countries to India and sent Indian experts abroad. Many persons who were beneficiaries of Indian assistance reached top positions in their countries. In fact, the Indian insistence on developing expertise and a desire to be at the frontiers of the latest knowledge was an inspiration to many countries emerging from colonial rule.
Along with the accumulation of scientific and technical knowledge, for Nehru, it was also important that Indians developed a scientific temperament. The imperative of shedding superstition and relying on reason and logic as guides is necessary for fostering a modern society. Necessarily, matters of faith have to be relegated to the personal sphere in such a society. Such attitudinal changes are the most difficult both at personal and collective levels and it would not be wrong to state that the country is still struggling to achieve a transformation in the mental spaces of our society. And, such changes are not linked to financial and economic success of individuals.
By the 1980s it seemed that India’s efforts at closing the gap in science and technology with the advanced world was closing. The quality of Indian scientists and technologists began to be recognized the world over and issues relating to ‘brain drain’ began to emerge. Despite this factor there was no dearth of excellent human capital within the country. However, from the early 1980s the digital revolution began and it has transformed the world in the past for decades. The stark question that India now has to ask itself, even as it aspires to and achieves economic growth, is this: as the world is now in the fourth industrial revolution marked by artificial intelligence, robotics and the internet to things is the gap in science and technology production between India and the advanced world growing? The emphasis is on the word production as distinct from application.
India is doing remarkably well in applying digital products in various business and administration areas. This is important but in order to a leader in science and technology India has to be a producer in the frontier areas of digital knowledge. It is not sufficient to become a leader in the application of knowledge produced by others even though the development of ‘apps’ is important. This is because no one shares the latest knowledge with anyone else. It is here that India is lacking at a time when its main strategic competitor, China has gained ground.
The international order has always been cutthroat. There is no mercy of altruism in the game of nations. It is therefore imperative that Indian state institutions as well as the private sector show a willingness not only to prepare the population for using the technological products of the digital age but allocate sufficient funds for the development of human capital which makes India a genuine science and technological power. Perhaps a sectoral approach may have to be adopted but these are matters of policy and there are experts who can assist political decision makers on the strategies to be adopted.
What is relevant is that if the gap in science and technical knowledge production with the advanced world and China increases Indian dependencies will increase in vital areas and this will inevitably impact independence of action and policies of the Indian state. That will go against the spirit of the freedom movement and the aspirations of those who sacrificed so much for the people and the country.