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Castes and moulds

By M V Ramana

5 April 2013

Abha Sur exposes how caste, class and gender prejudices continue to shape Indian science.
Homi Bhabha and Australian physicist Mark Oliphant, 1954. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Homi Bhabha and Australian physicist Mark Oliphant, 1954. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Those Brahmans who sit on their bottoms all day are not just sitting. They are thinking, and they have been doing it for thousands of years. When the young ones turn their thinking to physics, they quickly get rather good at it.

– Homi Bhabha in Time magazine, 1955

The late 19th century and the first few decades of the 20th century saw a flourishing of scientific activity in what was then British India. Driven partly by nationalist fervour, several people carried out remarkable work on a range of subjects. One physicist, C V Raman, won the Nobel Prize, and another, Meghnad Saha, was nominated for one. A third, S Chandrasekhar, did seminal work on black holes that would eventually win him the Nobel Prize decades later. Starting with the mathematician S Ramanujan in 1918, ten Southasian scientists had been elected fellows of the British Royal Society before Independence in 1947.

It is this period that Abha Sur examines in her book Dispersed Radiance: Caste, gender, and modern science in India. She investigates hitherto unexplored territory, primarily how caste and gender played out – obviously or unobtrusively – in the lives, careers and, perhaps most controversially, in the scientific output of the scientists of that period, especially in that of Meghnad Saha. Sur justifies her choice of subject, stating that by and large:

postcolonial histories, especially of modern science, use colonialism and nationalism as the only salient analytical categories in which binary oppositions are created between the colonisers and the colonised, and between the indigenous elite and the subaltern, erasing from each society their internally differentiated power structures.

Dispersed Radiance is, therefore, a rare effort. It stands out in sharp contrast from many histories of science in India, which often feature what can best be termed hagiographies, with uncritical portraits of various famous scientists. Sur’s work is all the more remarkable since in standard scientific narratives, the inner workings of the discipline are not determined by external factors such as class, gender, race and caste. Scientists are often told that they should disregard such factors as they work on a problem, which then feeds the oft-heard assertion that science is neutral and objective.

Sur’s work is all the more remarkable since in standard scientific narratives, the inner workings of the discipline are not determined by external factors such as class, gender, race and caste

But over the decades, a substantial canon of literature has arisen to investigate how scientific work is actually performed, and also the complex, even tortured, evolution of scientific theories. These studies have identified how influential those ‘external’ factors are in shaping the content of science. Sur follows partly in this tradition, and her examination of the Subcontinent’s scientific history shows that “the ‘intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’ determinants of science form a continuous surface produced collaboratively through the interaction of science with colonialism, nationalism, caste, and gender.” In other words, the so-called ‘interior’ and ‘exterior’ are not clearly separable. This conclusion is reminiscent of Donna Haraway’s outstanding study, Primate Visions: Gender, race, and nature in the world of modern science, which argues, inter alia, that the “inside/outside boundary … itself gives a misleading map of the field [of primatology]”.

While it is impossible to adequately summarise the arguments that form the basis of Sur’s assertion in this review, she does lend considerable substance to her claim, largely through argument. That said, considering the nature of Sur’s investigation, we cannot expect the kind of proof that we might expect for other sorts of assertions, such as statistical claims of correlation between caste and the number of women obtaining PhDs in astrophysics. By its nature, science has a strong individualistic component, and measures of scientific expertise and method are necessarily qualitative. At the same time, there is something plausible about the assertion that physicists in the Soviet Union were more apt to use terms like ‘collectivisation’ to explain physical phenomena in crystalline solids. Indeed, this is what historian Alexei Kojevnikov showed in his 1999 paper on the key roles Soviet physicists played between 1930 and 1950 in introducing the concept of quasiparticles to represent collective excitations in some physical systems.

Men of science

Going back to caste, class, and science, as part of her examination, Sur contrasts the cases of the physicists Meghnad Saha and C V Raman, before briefly discussing Saha’s interactions with Homi Bhabha, the founder of India’s nuclear programme. Saha and Raman’s backgrounds couldn’t be further apart:

Raman came from a south Indian educated and caste privileged family steeped in classical art forms, and Saha from an uneducated rural family of modest means and underprivileged caste status in eastern Bengal. Raman was initially forced into a career in administrative services because of restrictions on travel by the conservative edicts of caste purity and pollution, while Saha was denied access to administration because of an earlier association with revolutionaries fighting for national liberation.

Saha and Raman also differed in their science. Sur points out that during the 1920s and ’30s Saha’s research on variations among how atoms respond to an external stimulus, uses a theoretical framework that “situates agency in different chemical elements rather than in the selectivity of external stimuli.” Through an extensive analysis of his methods, and more importantly of the language Saha used, Sur finds “a marked congruence between Saha’s understanding of selectivity in nature and his views on caste.” She draws an analogy between Saha’s emphasis on the “constancy of the stimulus” and his view that all castes, especially the ‘lower’ ones that he termed the “democratic classes”, be accorded “the same rights as members of other classes”. The democratic impulse in Saha demanded that the playing field be level for all castes and classes – that there be a “constancy of stimulus”. From these examples, Sur draws the lesson that “cognition of the physical world cannot be easily dissociated from cognition of the social world.”

With Raman, Sur’s analysis of the effect his caste background had on his work focuses on a scientific controversy from that time involving the scattering of light by crystals, specifically diamond crystals. The well-known physicist Max Born, a subsequent Nobel Prize winner, emphasised one aspect of the experimental observations and explained them using the idea that the crystal’s atoms were vibrating chaotically. For Raman, on the other hand, those same experiments and observations reinforced his ideas of symmetry and order in nature. For Sur, this illustrates the influence on Raman’s work of “brahminic aesthetics”, which “embody a deeply internalised notion of a strict and orderly social organisation”. She elaborates on this in various ways, ranging from Raman’s interpretation of results to the forms of argument he favoured.

Sur then comes to Homi Bhabha, who was born into a wealthy, elite and Westernised Parsi family based in Mumbai. Armed with an undergraduate degree and a doctorate from Cambridge University, in 1939 Bhabha was on the verge of a career as a physicist in the United Kingdom, having obtained a grant to work at the Manchester laboratory of the experimental physicist P M S Blackett. But before taking up that position, Bhabha made a trip to India and was unable to return to England because of the outbreak of World War II. His initial reluctance to stay on in India eventually gave way, and in 1948 he started the country’s nuclear programme. In a brief discussion of the way nuclear science and technology was organised in India under Bhabha, Dispersed Radiance illustrates how relatively privileged groups managed to monopolise state resources.

Diversifying the scientific establishment will change the nature of science: what questions are asked, what arguments are made, what observations are highlighted, and so on

Saha’s differences with Bhabha, as described in the book, revolved primarily around differing notions about the goals of science and technology, and the means of achieving them. Saha emphasised equity and participatory democracy, even in highly technical engineering projects. This was quite at odds with the thrust of Indian policymaking in the 1950s, which was dominated by professional economists and technocrats who created a milieu ideally suited to Bhabha’s exclusivist and elitist approach. Thus, even though Saha had been engaged with formulating science policy since the 1930s and had deep political roots in the Indian nationalist movement, he was almost completely excluded from making decisions on science in independent India, especially in the arena of atomic energy.

Lest we think that caste’s role in shaping science and science policy is a characteristic of the distant past, there is the example of Raja Ramanna, former chairperson of India’s Atomic Energy Commission and one of the leaders of India’s 1974 nuclear weapons test. In a short section, Sur discusses Ramanna’s autobiography Years of Pilgrimage as an example of how the “construction of illustrious genealogies” is deployed to naturalise a social order where privilege is inherited and maintained. Ramanna, like many other scientists of upper-caste background, claimed that his proficiency in science traced back to his caste’s traditional interest in higher learning, often of a religious nature. This claim, illustrated by the epigraph to this review and still common today, translates into the assumption that members of the upper castes, especially Brahmins, have an innate proclivity for science.

Women of science

In another fascinating chapter, Sur tries to reconstruct the lives of three female students – Lalitha Chandrasekhar, Sunanda Bai and Anna Mani – in Raman’s laboratory at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore between 1936 and 1944. They were in a difficult position. Raman believed that it was inappropriate for male and female students to interact, and maintained a strict separation of the sexes in his laboratory, thereby isolating the women from their peers. These women’s efforts were never adequately recognised and, despite publishing numerous papers, Mani and Bai were never awarded their doctorates. Chandrasekhar had earlier left the laboratory to marry the astrophysicist S Chandrasekhar, effacing her career in his. For reasons still not understood, Bai committed suicide in 1944. That act, which Sur describes as a “perceived social transgression”, seems to have resulted in there being no more women students in Raman’s laboratory from that time on. More generally, the history of these pioneers shows that “survival in science demanded from the women social conformity and conservatism”.

Sur’s study has multiple implications. Let me suggest just one. In an April 2012 opinion piece in the British journal Nature, Gautam Desiraju, a chemist at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore suggested the government should adopt “longer-term measures that include modification or removal of caste-based quotas and reservations in the educational and research sectors” as one of a handful of measures to improve the performance of Indian science. Perhaps unsurprisingly, and certainly without any sense of irony, the article ends with the rhetorical question: “When will this country see another C V Raman?”

Leaving aside problems with the way these reservation schemes are currently implemented, there are two possible reasons underlying Desiraju’s recommendation. First, that the current over-representation of upper-caste men in Indian science is beneficial and should continue. This sentiment is often expressed by stating that bringing in the lower castes or women would diminish the quality of scientific work. Second, that science is independent of scientists’ backgrounds, and so there is no need to insist on including scientists of disadvantaged backgrounds. While the first reason has been roundly criticised for its obvious prejudices – although it could still do with more challenging – the importance of Sur’s and similar works is to debunk the second reason, which is seen as more benign and acceptable. Diversifying the scientific establishment will change the nature of science: what questions are asked, what arguments are made, what observations are highlighted, and so on. Increased diversity of views will strengthen science and scientific models, and also enrich the working culture of scientific institutions.

Sur’s book isn’t without its problems. Her attempt to trace Raman’s aesthetics to the “cultural traditions he inherited and learned to appreciate”, especially Carnatic classical music, is jarring. She goes on to state that the “classical art forms of India, especially music and dance, follow a rigid structure, where individual innovation is strongly discouraged to maintain purity of form and tone.” The history of Carnatic music, however, demonstrates that its present form is the result of a long series of individual innovations, many of which were initially considered improper but were eventually adopted as standard.

But such quibbles are minor. Sur’s book is worth reading, and its methods of analysis are worth applying to other arenas of science, both because they allow for a more accurate history of science, and because understanding the social factors that shape science is “necessary for the democratisation of science itself”. In a world where science has come to exercise great power over the lives of us all, that goal is vital to the process of democratising society.

M V Ramana is with the Nuclear Futures Laboratory and the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University, USA. He is the author of The Power of Promise: Examining nuclear energy in India (2012).

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