Social Scientist. v 17, no. 190-91 (March 1989) p. 51.


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S. IRFAN HABIB,* DHRUV RAINA**

Copernicus, Colombus, Colonialism and The Role of Science in Nineteenth Century India

Science is predominantly a transforming and not a conserving influence... The acceptance of the ideas of science carries with it an implicit criticism of the present state of man and opens the possibility of its indefinite improvement.

J. D. Bernal7

Text book versions of the history of modern science begin with Copernicus, while conventional accounts of the social history of modem science begin in addition with Colombus's discovery of the Americas. But in coming to the introduction of modern science into India one inevitably addresses the question of colonialism. While this paper is neither concerned with Copernicus nor Colombus, it is concerned with modern science and colonialism, the ancestry of which is tied up with processes that Copernicus and Colombus, respectively, had a hand in inaugurating. In order to grasp the modes of percolation of modern science into the cultural and socio-political matrix of nineteenth century India, a change in focus is necessary. Rather than commence with much addressed questions on the impact of modern science on traditional Indian society, or the constraining function of colonial science,2 one asks how the recipient culture perceived science and located it within the framework of the social transformation of their own society. In doing so, the history of science acquires a dynamism that reflects the ongoing social conflict and struggle. In this sense, as Pecheux has pointed out the history of production of knowledge is not above or separate from the history of class struggle 3. Thus one is also investigating the modification of imperial structures, once modern science comes to stay in the Indian environment. Colonial science is characterised by Mcleod on four counts: in that it is a science carried out at a distance from Europe, it is an imperial science seen from below, it is a derivative science of lesser minds, and this science is restricted to fact gathering, the task of theoretical synthesis being performed elsewhere4.

However, the Indian response during the period 1870-1914 cannot be encapsulated by the category colonial science, which at best defines offical /institutional science in the colonies. A discussion on the history of the Indian intelligentsia's adoption of science in a very significant way.

* NISTADS. New Delhi

**NISTADS.New Delhi



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