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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday/  How MIT fired India’s engineering mania

How MIT fired India’s engineering mania

MIT served as the model behind the IITs, but the role it has played in shaping technical education in India is far deeper than that


Ross Bassett’s The Technological Indian sheds light on how the US, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in particular, played a part in taking “Indian" and “technological" from being mutually exclusive to practically synonymous with the Indian middle class.

Edited excerpts from the book:

On May 30, 1884, M.M. Kunte, the headmaster of the Poona High School, addressed a group of middle-class Hindus in that western Indian city’s spring lecture series. His speech was a remarkable piece of proselytization for a new global faith that he called “the art of mechanization"—what we would today call technology. The Marathi-language periodical, the Kesari, recounted Kunte’s speech, which had been given in English.

Kunte said that if Hindustan wanted its glory to be revived, then the Hindu people needed to suspend the activities of all their religious, social, and sporting groups for a century and a quarter and then Hindus needed “to travel from village to village, taluka to taluka, district to district and start the activities of blacksmithy with frantic haste and zeal."

His speech reached a climax: “For eradicating the undesirable and establishing the desirable in society, there is no option but to follow and spread widely the art of mechanization. If you want to eat, be a machinist. If you want to win freedom, you have to learn to be a machinist. If you want to live as luxuriously as our rulers, you have to run the machines. If you want this country to progress like that of England, all of you have to become blacksmiths."

He concluded that the art of mechanization “has become a Kalpavriksha," referring to the mythological Hindu wish-granting tree, stating that “achieving our desired progress would be next to impossible without its shadow and shelter."

Kunte was part of a small group of English-language-educated Indians who in the late nineteenth century sought to respond not only to British control of their country, but also to a world increasingly dominated by machines. India had an ancient and rich technical tradition, where for centuries its manufactured goods, most notably cotton textiles, were sold and prized in Asia, Europe, and Africa.

When the Europeans (increasingly British) came to India they took control of India’s system of making and selling cotton textiles before they seized control of the country. Then in Europe, the British, through a series of transformations of the processes of production known today as the Industrial Revolution (as well as through tariffs and laws blocking Indian imports), captured cotton textile manufacture for their own country.

The work formerly done by Indian spinners and weavers was now done in huge steam-powered factories in Manchester. India, under the control of a foreign power, became an increasingly poor and agricultural society left out of the benefits of what British writer Thomas Carlyle called “the age of machinery." What was to be done? Kunte saw India’s salvation in mechanization.

Kunte’s speech contained a hint of unreality, even absurdity. Kunte had never been abroad, and his reference to starting village blacksmith shops, at a time when the United States was making 4 million tons of pig iron a year, suggested that he had not fully grasped the tenets of the religion he was preaching. Kunte had originally made his reputation as a student of Sanskrit and had no formal qualification for the role that he adopted as “apostle of industry."

Implicit in Kunte’s exhortation was that Indians were not machinists—in today’s language they were not technological. Many British would have agreed with Kunte. Indeed, in 1881 the former Governor of Bombay, Sir Richard Temple, asserted that “the Hindus are not a mechanical race."

As Kunte spoke to this middle-class audience, whose background was more literary than technical, he implied that they could no longer leave making things to the thousands of craftspeople in Poona—they had to step in.

In the early twenty-first century, the Indian middle class has no need for Kunte’s exhortations. Under an expanded definition of the terms “blacksmith" and “machinist," his city (now known as Pune) is full of blacksmiths who build a wide range of machines, most notably automobiles. And today indeed all of India is full of those who “run the machines" through the programs they write that control the twenty-first century’s quintessential machine, the computer.

Today, young middle-class Indians (in either India or the United States) so commonly seek engineering careers that the stereotype is now of a people who avoid liberal arts in preference to engineering—the exact opposite of what Kunte faced in 1884.

In the spring of 2014, 1.4 million young Indians sat for the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE), which serves as the primary entrance point to an engineering education. In recent years the city of Kota in Rajasthan has become famous as a center of the JEE coaching industry, with over 100,000 students annually flooding the city to take classes in the hopes that they can gain entrance to the elite Indian Institutes of Technology.

Perhaps because the competition is less fierce, wealthier middle-class Indians increasingly come to the United States to enter undergraduate engineering programs, while Indians account for a large portion of the graduate student population in some American engineering programs. Second-generation Indian Americans also show a similar technological bent, swelling the ranks of engineering programs throughout the United States.

Indians’ focus on engineering has led to remarkable achievements in India and America. Indian firms produce a wide array of technologically sophisticated products sold in a global market. India’s information technology (IT) industry has become famous worldwide, generating over $100 billion of revenue and employing 3 million people.

In 2012 a trade journal noted that IBM was on track to have more Indian than American employees. In the United States, the role of Indians in Silicon Valley is widely recognized.

In 2015 Indian engineers occupy the presidency of major American universities and hold or have recently held deanships at Harvard, MIT, Penn, Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, and UCLA. Indians’ position in the American technological workforce is so central that the appointment of Satya Nadella as CEO of Microsoft was hardly noteworthy.

How did this change happen? How did “Indian" and “technological" go from being mutually exclusive to being practically synonymous for the Indian middle class? And how did Indians fit so well into the American technological system, which was so foreign to Kunte in 1884?

This book argues that beginning in the late 1800s, a small group of middle-class, English-language-educated Indians began to imagine a technological India, and to do so, they looked to the United States and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in particular. For more than a century, Indian elites have gone to MIT, but perhaps more importantly, their technological imaginations have been shaped by MIT.

The fact that MIT served as the model behind the original conception of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) between 1944 and 1946 is widely known. But the role that MIT has played in shaping technical education, and indeed technology, in India is far deeper than that. The first Indian attended MIT in 1882 and the first suggestion that MIT had something to offer India came in 1884 from Indian nationalist Bal Tilak’s newspaper the Kesari.

After independence, the government of India explicitly sought MIT’s help in developing the Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur, resulting in a ten-year program anchored by MIT and supported by nine American institutions.

Later, four other IITs, ostensibly designed to showcase other nations’ models of technical education, increasingly converged on the IIT Kanpur/MIT model. While the IITs were designed to make India self-sufficient in technical education, from the time of their founding, they were increasingly integrated into an American system of technical education, where MIT stood at the apex.

MIT’s hold on the technological imaginations of the Indian middle class might be seen in Godavarthi Varadarajan, who in 1972 was an eight-year-old boy in a Tamil Brahmin family. That summer, his mother took her children from Ahmedabad, where her husband worked as a geophysicist for the state-run oil company, to her family’s home in Madras.

There, she and her father sat the young boy down for a serious talk about his future, laying out the path they thought he should aspire to. He should aim to be one of the winners of the National Science Talent Search Exam, given after tenth grade. After high school, he should secure entrance to one of the Indian Institutes of Technology. After IIT, he should win admission to MIT for graduate study. Finally, he should earn an MBA at Harvard Business School.

These goals, part of a “joint journey," were continually reinforced throughout young Varadarajan’s schooling. Varadarajan followed this path (except for the Harvard MBA), earning a doctorate in engineering from MIT.

Excerpted from The Technological Indian by Ross Bassett, published by Harvard University Press. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

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Published: 09 Apr 2016, 11:14 PM IST
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