Midnight's Machines. A Political History of Technology in India

Sukumar, Arun Mohan
Gurgaon, Haryana 2019: Penguin Books
Anzahl Seiten
272 S.
₹ 599.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Michael Homberg, Leibniz-Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung Potsdam

Forty years ago, the Indian-born British American writer Salman Rushdie published his now canonical novel Midnight's Children. In the novel, the protagonist’s biography, born precisely on the stroke of midnight, is closely linked to the new-born republic and its collective quest for identity. Alluded to this book’s title with its horological metaphor, Arun Mohan Sukumar, PhD candidate at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, Tufts University, has recently chronicled another, perhaps less magical, however equally political story of India’s way to modernity. Sukumar’s narrative goes as follows: when the clock struck midnight on August 15th 1947 and India’s democratic “start-up” began, the country’s experiments with technology commenced, too. Since then, this is the main theme of Midnight’s Machines, technology has singularly altered the course of political history. In post-independent India, the author thus claims, technology has emerged as a crucial sector for the country’s development. With that perspective, the book takes up a vibrant, expanding debate on the history of technological change in the non-western world in general, and the Global South and India in particular.[1]

Sukumar starts his remarkable political history of technology in India with a “cautionary tale against channelling science for political ends” (p. 20): On March 21st 1952, India awoke to news that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had eaten “sun-cooked” cabbage and steamed vegetables for dinner – thanks to a solar cooker installed in the Prime Minister’s residence by the National Physical Laboratory. As the Times of India euphorically reported, these cutting-edge devices were expected to soon move to commercial production, with only 50 Indian Rupees a piece. However, merely a few years later, as neither the cooker nor the promised solar revolution was in sight, the same newspaper’s editorial declared the “utter failure” of the labour-intensive contraption. The “cooker-affair” – as it was known in New Delhi – destroyed the rosy-eyed views on indigenous technology and homemade technological advancements in the 1950s and caused a severe crisis in the country’s scientific community which began to retreat, as the author concludes, to the “ivory towers” of its laboratories for the years to come. India’s and Nehru’s gaze subsequently shifted away from “niche” technologies towards big industrial projects under the leitmotif of prestige, while collaborations between scientists and entrepreneurs became even more seldom. Besides, linkages between the scientific community and political leadership had been ruptured: “political intervention manipulated and hindered technological progress” in order to “engineer a narrative of technological self-reliance soon after India’s independence”. In short, “Indian science was no longer a distinguished peer of Indian politics: it had become a puppet” (pp. 30f.). It is episodes like this one that make the book an exciting, provocative reading.

Sukumar’s panoramic narrative spans the arc of modern India from the post-War years to present day, depicting the country’s “tortuous” history with technology (p. 115). Alongside, he analyses the ambivalences and dilemmas which political leaders and policymakers, from Nehru to Modi, had to face while navigating the country’s course to modernity. In Sukumar’s view, the contradictory approaches to and the clash of values vis-à-vis technology eventually caused “a great psychological and material distance [...] between the citizen and the machine” (p. 50). Hence, he states, technology became a “distant and elite invention” just as its scientific and industrial exploration was an “exclusively elite enterprise” (pp. 16f.). This state-centred, technocratic political apriori is already outlined in the prologue to the book: “As technological advancement became crucial to the sustenance of the Indian republic – and the electoral fortunes of those who governed it – the state resorted to political machinations to amplify its rare successes and obfuscate its many failures. This is a history of those machinations, and their role, over seven decades, in shaping public attitudes towards technology” (p. xxix). Sukumar’s relatively small monograph ambitiously covers the entire post-independence era, as the author concurrently aims to explain the reasons how and why the country embraced or discarded new technologies from small innovations – as the “solar cooker” – to large missile and nuclear, atomic space and electronics programmes. Technology, he asserts, triggered high hopes as well as huge disillusionments. For some technocrats, technology even became a “divine” solution to all problems the newly emerging country encountered: a deus ex machina (pp. 1–10).

The book is divided into four chapters entitled as the “ages” of innocence, doubt, struggle and rediscovery – much resembling a pilgrim’s progress. These chapters are mainly structured chronologically. However, there are some detours, foresights and retrospects. Based on open-source reportage and documents as well as selected public records, Sukumar brings to light the characters, events and phenomena that played a pivotal role in shaping the country’s engagements with technology, both in domestic and international contexts.

The first chapter traces the initial development in India’s technological landscape in the “age of innocence” under the leadership of Nehru and Indira Gandhi. It depicts Nehru’s ideal of a “scientific temper” and encompasses the government’s interventions in industrialization and academic research towards indigenous technologies as well as the politics behind these technological developments. In this context, the author epitomizes the national outlook and planning initiatives while having a closer look at the community development program, the experiments of the “solar energy group” in the 1950s and the beginnings of the Indian space and nuclear programmes in the late 1960s. Quite generally, India ran across a dilemma in these decades: should it endeavour a course of rapid technological modernisation as in Japan and the “West” to develop the nation, or rather adopt a Gandhian approach which limited everyday interaction with technology in order to prevent “corrupting” the souls of the masses? This namely issue became even more pressing, as international development aid programs and policies, such as the Colombo Plan, promoted trade and technology transfers and thus shaped national (economic, technological and social) scopes and priorities (pp. 1–45).

The second chapter depicts the 1960s as a belligerent era of radical oppositions, conflicts and doubts over India’s technological course. Here, scientists and experts – against the backdrop of the Sino-Indian War 1962 – noticeably proclaimed to invest in technologies that could contribute to India’s security readiness and reinforced a perception that “technology was essentially the preserve of powerful states”. From that moment on, Sukumar apodictically states, the war “shaped the trajectory of electronics in India”. (p. 50) Yet, at the same time, a controversy was raging on the priority areas in the national landscape of technology and thus on the question to which degree this technology, which had continuously been dominated by the production of heavy machinery and which was supposed to turn to rather small consumer goods, specifically in the electronics sector, should be accessible to the common men. Here, the introduction of computers in the late 1960s and early 1970s impressively illustrated how highly controversial the issue of technological change became, particularly as India worked on its plans to build up its own computer industry. For Sukumar, overall, the much-cited “digital” and “green revolution” in India occurred despite of, rather than because of the government’s attempts. In a very lucid section, he hence dwells on the limits and ambiguities of the “appropriate technology” movement, too, and shortly touches on the precarious technopolitics during the emergency state. (pp. 46–99).

The third chapter reconstructs India’s struggles to participate in a global economy and to simultaneously expand the state’s technological policies during the 1980s. Sukumar narrates how India made its way to “the world’s pharmacy” (p. 113) – depicting the rise, failure and eventually unintended consequences of the “India-US Vaccine Action Programme” in 1985 – as well as the new strategies to modernize the nation’s military arsenal by implementing a Guided Missile Development Programme in 1983 and the ongoing attempts to build a national computer network which was envisaged to cover the whole country and especially the rural regions. As the author later argues, this dawn of “big data” in India paved the way to biometric approaches which were recently realized in the nation’s database “Aadhaar” (pp. 100–145).

The last chapter details the story of India’s technocrats – reaching from the early 20th to the 21st century (among others mentioning Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya, Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, Vikram Sarabhai, Sam Pitroda and Nandan Nilekani). Focusing on emblematic men and their diverging concepts and plans to develop India, the author claims that contemporary visions such as Modis “Made in India” rooted in older concepts and can be read as rediscoveries. Hence, he finally replays his main argument that technology generally aligned with the direction of politics, government and the state in India. In the chapter’s last subsection (“Man, Modi and Machine”) he thus summarizes the long continuity until the present day (pp. 146–204).

On the whole, Sukumar has published a beautifully written, insightful story of India’s technology development since independence. However, there are some blind spots and shortages to mention. First, regarding the book’s sources, research design and methodology: The author views Indian technology policies mainly based on discourses and controversies about their implementation. As such, the book lacks insights from (un)disclosed archival records. Instead, the narrative presented is mostly taken from news articles, speeches, government reports, articles in magazines, etc. Interestingly, it has neither examined nor quoted any of India’s science and technology policy documents.[2] Besides, it might have been valuable to distinguish more precisely between diverging concepts and approaches towards the country’s technological “development” and its impact on diverse processes like “modernization”, “industrialization” and “digitalization”. Here, Sukumar’s narrative sometimes remains vague. Further, in this context, it would have been interesting to read more about the commonalities and particularities of the Indian case in an international perspective. How could we locate the interplay between ideas, interests and institutions compared to other (non-)western states? Where have been path dependencies and where alternative ways to and views on development, considering the intrinsic limitations to the country’s developmental approach? And, after all, did things really change “over (mid)night”, as the book’s title and some chapters indicate? Here, it would have been advantageous to think much more about the colonial legacies of the depicted technological policies in post-independence India.

Second, regarding the book’s style and narrative: Sukumar’s appreciation for the anecdotical story, the exemplary presentation and individual moments takes its toll, as the author tends to overstretch its arguments, especially when he deduces larger trends from his rather sketchy case studies. For instance, it seems over-simplistic to state that the “solar-cooker affair” caused the sweeping countrywide policy change towards big technology (p. 28). Also, Sukumar’s inspiring, yet sometimes provocative style tends to unsourced, speculative pronouncements on psychological dispositions, political insights and motivations (cf. p. 11; pp. 79–85; pp. 146–148). Lastly, the author seems to overstate the room for manoeuvre governments and policy experts had. Although he repeatedly mentions the global, overriding Cold War environments and the country’s limited resources, notably its shortage on foreign exchange reserves, he misses to place greater emphasis on India’s role as a developing country and its socio-economic as well as demographical problems, above all the entrenched and only slowly changing poverty.

Third, regarding the empirical conclusions: The author sometimes falls short in explaining and framing its episodes within broader historiographical contexts. While admiring India’s status as “the world’s pharmacy”, he neglects the global controversies on substandard quality certain Indian medicines provoked. Occasionally, his analysis even becomes flawed. For instance, the author only scarcely mentions the long and chequered history of the country’s indigenous computer and computer-services industry. To Sukumar, this history began in the 1980s and gained momentum in the early 2000s when Indian programmers laid the ground for the “Gilded Age of Koramangala” in Bangalore and beyond (pp. 171–183). As the author states, the world only discovered the utility of Indian computer programmers during the Y2K-crisis, when US technology companies began to capitalize on their skills and cheaper billable hours (p. 190). Yet, more accurately, it was already back in the 1970s when India’s software dreams took flight and the transition to offshore businesses began. Thanks to new legal regulations and economically favourable conditions, mainly in special economic zones such as the Santacruz Electronics Export Processing Zone, new start-ups and international “Joint Ventures” were established which paved the way for India’s triumphal march in the global IT services-business. Considering this, one may doubt that the eventual emergence of the IT-sector in India was “hardly the culmination of some aggressive effort by the state to bring computing to the masses”, but rather “occurred overnight, and almost entirely by accident”, as Sukumar claims (p. 145). However, due to the author’s narrowed focus on products, materiality and machines (which actually lags behind his diligent analysis of the terminus “technology” at the beginnings, cf. p. 8f.), he loses sight of India’s advances as a technology nation – as measured in mobile expertise, know-how and service capacities.

Notwithstanding these critical remarks, Arun Mohan Sukumar has written a rich tour de force of the history of the Indian state’s relationship with technology. Engaged in contemporary debates, it is an important contribution to both historiographical and political sciences and may equally enrich and enliven broader research on new media, technologies and nation-building in the Global South as well as social, political and technological perspectives on India’s role in the world since 1947.

[1] On India cf. exemplarily: Robert S. Anderson, Nucleus and Nation. Scientists, International Networks, and Power in India, Chicago 2010; Jahnavi Phalkey, The Atomic State. Big Science in Twentieth-Century India, Ranikhet 2013; David Arnold, Everyday Technology. Machines and the Making of India’s Modernity, Chicago 2013; Dinesh C. Sharma, The Outsourcer. The Story of India’s IT Revolution, Cambridge, Mass. 2015; Ross Bassett, The Technological Indian, Harvard 2016; Suman Gupta, Digital India and the Poor. Policy, Technology and Society, Abingdon, Oxon 2020.
[2] Since 1947 four policy documents have been released: The Scientific Policy Resolution (1958), The Technology Policy Statement (1983), The Science and Technology Policy (2003) and The Science Technology Innovation Policy (2013), URL: < -scenario/science-technology-and-innovation-sti-policies-in-india-a-flashback> (10.05.2021).

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