InsightNovember December 2005

Engineering India: Religion, Nationalism and Technology

Peter Van Der Veer


Although it begins with a reference to relationship between western technology and “Islamic fundamentalism”, the article quickly moves to dealing with modernity (as modelled on Western pattern) and Hindu fundamentalism. In Nehru’s scheme for developing India, the education of science and technology (as mainly represented by engineering) was very vital. As a result, India despite being poor, and in spite of investing poorly in education, has been able to produce world class scientists and engineers. Many of these Indian brains, however, landed in USA enriching its economy. However, they have also contributed to the economy of India specially after the country began to open its economy in mid 1980s. Vishva Hindu Parishad, a rabidly communal outfit at home, however, has pursued its fundamentalist agenda in USA in a technology-friendly manner, and in a language that would appeal the highly-educated Hindu in order to remain in touch their roots.

A recent contribution to the British newspaper The Guardian by an American philosopher had the following argument: “It is a modern thought that faith is antagonistic to reason. Scientific reasoning does not sit easily with the presuppositions of any religion, and the work of Enlightenment philosophers made the belief in God appear irrational…It is easy to imagine Mohammed Atta, at Hamburg University, encountering the dichotomy between faith and modern reason, and turning to a form of Islam untempered by any rational morality. But, if so, Atta, like many others, followed a path first laid out in the Modern West.”[1] The strong presence of engineers and scientists in Muslim fundamentalist movements which is noted in work on Iran, Turkey, Indonesia, and Malaysia is indeed something that requires some thought, although I am not convinced that it is a separation of faith and science that allows them to participate in these movements. It is rather, I would argue, specific affinities between spirituality and science that allow this participation. In the case of Islam it is a newly militarised spirituality, which enables a radical negation of a conventional view of spirituality as composed of compassionate and merciful acts. This depends on a counter-orientalist argument that posits a spiritual, moral East that can use rationality and science for the welfare of Mankind and a materialistic, morally debased West that uses them to colonize and humiliate others. As Mohamed Tavakoli-Targhi has argued, one finds among these radical Muslims, such as Mohammad Atta, a readiness to destroy the hateful Other of Western civilization by going on a spiritual journey of physical self-annihilation in martyrdom.[2]

In this paper I will not examine Islamist views on science, rationality, and religion, but Hindu nationalist views, both because I know more about Hindu India and because I think that the kinds of arguments found in modern Islam can also be found in other modern religions. The focus on Islam in many studies is the result of a particular geo-political formation in which the Middle East –and especially the Israeli occupation of the West bank- make Muslim movements clash with American interests. It is not the result of the exceptionality of Islam as a world religion.

The Indian Council for Social Science Research -an institution comparable to the French CNRS but limited to the social scien­ces- is “making a major effort to bring into the Social Scien­ce arena advanced information technology and the Internet through the Syama Prasad Mookerjee Information Gate­way of Social Sciences” (from an ICSSR brochu­re). The effort to bring Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to Indian social sciences is laudable and much needed, but who is or was S.P. Mookerjee? Before the partition of the Indian subcon­tinent he was a leader of the Hindu Maha­sabha and in 1951 one of the founders of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the predecessor of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which is currently the leading party in the Indian government under A.B. Vajpayee. Mookerjee, a Bengali intellectual and one-time Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University, was known for a Hindu nationalism with a strong anti-Muslim and anti-Paki­stan bias. It should not surprise us, of course, that the Hindu natio­nalists who are in power in Delhi today want to honor their heroes and leaders of the past. After Independence Indian politics and Indian government have been dominated by the Congress Party that  had a socialist ideology, supported by a more or less left-wing social science establishment. The right-wing Hindu nationa­lists in Indian society and politics had been for a long time marginalized and seize their change to reverse the signs.[3] But why would one name the infor­mation highway after Mook­erjee? What is the connecti­on between ICTs and Hindu nationa­lism? One would perhaps have expected that these nationalists who emphasize the authenticity and superiority of Hindu culture and try to protect it from the vulgar influ­ence of the West would vehemently resist a­gents of globa­lization, such as ICTs. One would perhaps also expect that the scientists and engineers -and other highly educated professionals- who form the cadre of the informatio­nal revolution- would feel little affinity with the cultural politics of the Hindu natio­nalists or would even resist it. If it is not a scientific spirit that underpins their work then it might be an innova­tive and entrepreneurial spirit. Descrip­tions of the computer industry emphasize the anti-hierarchi­cal, anti-authoritarian culture of this group as well as a lifestyle that does not cherish ancient values but youthful experimentation. Especially the focus on ‘newness’ would seem to be incompatible with what is often seen as the traditiona­lizing, anti-moder­nist spirit of religious politics.

This paper begins -in a very tentative fashion- to explo­re some of the contradic­tions concerning the development of science and technology on the one hand and of religion and nationalism on the other. The BJP government has been extremely forceful in the promotion of the new ICT industry while, at the same time, its ideologues denounce ‘foreign’ (that is Muslim and Christian) influences on Indian culture. To give only one example: Ashok Singhal. leader of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (a major ally of the BJP), has denounced the award of the Noble Prize to the economist Amartya Sen as a ‘Christian conspira­cy’. Sen’s notion of the development of human capital through education (which, obviously, is a cruci­al factor also in developing the ICT industry) is seen as a threat to the inculcation of Hindu values in the curriculum.

First, I want to address some misunderstandings concer­ning the relation between science, technolo­gy, religion. Secondly, I want to look at that relation in the Indian con­text. Thirdly. I want to explore the trans­na­tionalism of ICT-workers and its relations­hip with reli­gion and Hindu nationa­lism. Finally, I want to draw some tentative conclusi­ons about religious nationalism and ICTs.

The Information Revolution

The rapid development of ICTs is often called a revolution. These new technologies, so the argument runs, cause a complete transformation of economy and society. The technolo­gical determi­nism, inherent in these arguments, resemble the claims made for the industrial revolution. Manuel Castells rightly rejects this determinism by arguing that “technology is socie­ty, and (that) society cannot be understood or repre­sented without its technological tools”.[4]. He thinks that what he calls “the rise of the network society” is a societal revolu­tion which requires a new sociolo­gical under­standing. Robins and Webster doubt that one can even speak of a techno­logical revolution and argue that it is a transforma­tion in the mana­gement and control over information resources which is at issue.[5] In their view the role of know­ledge struc­tures and education is still the key political issue to be addressed whatever the new technological possibilities.

Despite his emphasis on a new sociology, Castells slips, in the second volume of his impressive trilogy on the network society, called “The Power of Identi­ty”, in an understanding of religion as a purely reactionary force. This perspective is precisely part of a discourse of modernity that is esta­blished in the 19th century in the wake of the Indus­tri­al Revolu­tion and becomes dominant in the USA after the Scopes trial in the 1920s. This is therefore ‘old’ rather than ‘new’ sociologi­cal thinking. According to Castells, civil societies and national states are disin­tegrating under the influence of globaliza­tion and “the search for meaning takes place then in the recon­struction of defensi­ve identities around communal princi­ples” (II, 11).[6] Religion is therefore not anymore impor­tant as an apparatus in a Gramscian civil society, but has a new role as a communita­rian, defensive project. Castells ignores main­stream instituti­ons and focuses on religious funda­menta­lists, who are in the terms of the Chicago Fundamen­talism Project “always reactive, reactio­nary”. These religi­ous groups resist globali­zation and its effects on the commu­nity and the family, just as in the nine­teenth century they resisted moderniz­ation and its effects on community and fami­ly. The revolutionary world is, again, divided in progres­sive groups who creatively respond to the new challenges of the time and give them a positive meaning and the reactionary groups who try to rescue old types of life and would, as the Luddites, prefer to des­troy the agents of change, the new techno­logies.

Religion is portrayed as defensive and reactionary in this kind of argument, because there is an implicit assumpti­on about religion under modern conditions that science and scien­tific reaso­ning marginalizes religion and religious reasoning. Religion can therefore not be progressive, because it stands outside of the progressive history of rational, scientific thought. First of all, there is the enlightenment view that religi­ous absolutism hinders the growth of knowledge. The paradigmatic case is, of course, Galilei and his struggle against the Church, but there are many celebrations of the struggle of the powers of light, liberty and rationality, against the powers of darkness, the church and the inevitable victory of the secular mind. Second­ly, there is the notion that key discoveries by scientists have delivered a fatal blow to central religious doctrines. The paradigmatic case here is Darwin’s discovery of evolution and the blow it delivered to doctrines of creation. In British history it is the victory of Huxley over Bishop Wil­berforce in the 1860 Oxford Debate and the wonderful literary rendering of religious turmoil in Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son, while in American history it is the 1920s Scopes trial which illustrate the notion of a clash between Religion and Science best.

The historical evidence shows, however, that instead of being a reactive and even reactionary force in the wake of the Indus­trial Revolution religious movements and institutions have been exceedingly creative in shaping the transformation of society in which new scientific and technological knowledge was increasingly available.[7] Imperial­ism, the form of globa­li­zation that dominates the nineteenth century, with its new technologies of government, especially in the fields of educa­tion and leisure, was profoundly shaped by religion. And it is imperial culture that provides the infrastructure for scien­tific and technological progress. There have also been almost no attempts to stop the progress of scienti­fic inquiry in the modern period on the basis of reli­gious argu­ments. The battle in some societies, such as the USA, about the science curri­culum in primary and secon­dary education is specifically about the role of evolu­tion theory in it, but besides that there are very few religi­ous claims that immedi­ately clash with scien­ce. In fact, most of what happens in the natural sciences remains entirely beyond the comprehension of the uninitia­ted.[8] New technologies do, however, touch the lifeworld of the wider society, but they are in general (sometimes with a time-lag) readi­ly accepted in most religious cir­cles except for a few margi­nal groups. In fact, it is hard to discover a clash between scien­ce and technology on the one hand and religious doctrine on the other. That this is so may well be the result of the rapid declericalization of scienti­fic re­search and the shift in power from the humanities (including theology) to the natu­ral sciences. There is a large autonomy of scientific research which is not affec­ted by larger religi­ous or moral debate. The social environ­ment in which this research takes place and in which research­ers live is, howe­ver, in important ways shaped by religious instituti­ons. The development of these instituti­ons determines the importance of religious or secular doctrine in society. The growth of scien­ti­fic knowled­ge does not result in an automatic secularization of the mind.

The relative autonomy of scientific research would seem to depend on the separation of different spheres of life and what some sociologist have called the ‘compartmentalization’ of the mind. Jurgen Habermas (while referring to Hegel) summa­rizes the development succinctly: “In the process, the spheres in which the individu­al led his life as bourgeois, citoyen, and homme thereby grew even more apart from one another and became self-sufficient. This separation and self-sufficiency. which, considered from the standpoint of philos­ophy of histo­ry, paved the way for emanci­pation from age-old dependencies, were experienced at the same time as abstracti­on, as alienati­on from the totality of an ethical context of life. Once religion had been the unbreaka­ble seal upon this totality; it is not by chance that this seal has been broken. The religious forces of social integra­tion grew weaker in the wake of a process of enlightenment that is just as little susceptible of being revoked as it was arbitrarily brought about in the first place.”[9] Religion has thus developed in modernity from an all-embracing worldview to an autonomous sphere, like science and art, as Max Weber argued. This is, obviously, also a corners­tone of the secula­rization-thesis in modernization theory. In his celebrated essay ‘Religion as a Cultural Sy­stem’ Clifford Geertz distin­guishes a religious perspective from a scientific one “in that it questions the realities of everyday life not out of an institu­tionalized scepticism which dissolves the world’s givenness into a swirl of probabilistic hypotheses, but in terms of what it takes to be wider, nonhy­pothetical truths. Rather that detachment, its watchword is commitment; rather than analysis, encounter.”[10] In response Talal Asad has argued that ” “the optional flavor conveyed by the term per­spective is surely misleading when it is applied equally to science and to religion in modern socie­ty: religion is indeed now optional in a way that science is not. Science and techno­logy together are basic to the structu­re of modern lives, individual and collective, and religion, in any but the most vacuous sense, is not.”[11] Science and technology, then, are domi­nant, and religion is marginal. For Habermas the project of Enlighten­ment entails that the ratio­nality of science and universal morality replaces religion in the orga­nization of everyday life. He rejects the celebration of fragmentation in postmo­dernism and sees the modernist project of the En­lightenment to restore somekind of unity as “not yet fulfil­led”.[12]

The notion that religion signified the unity and totality of life before modernity seems to me a stereotypical, romantic representation of the holism of ‘pre-modern’ life. It fits a sociological approach to society, as found in structural-functionalism, which sees society as a system with sub-sys­tems. Sociological (and political) discourse about integration and about norms and values which hold a society together belong to this perspective. If we approach social phenomena and historical change from a history of power with an emphasis on the production of knowledge by movements and institutions (as Asad does), it seems clear that science and technology, as produced in uni­versities and industries, have become very power­ful in produ­cing knowledge that affects people’s lives and that churches and religious movements have no role anymore in the production of this kind of knowledge. This would imply that they can still be creative forces in shaping social life and creating religious dispositions, including responses to scien­tific and technological changes, but are not anymore the institutional sites for the creation of such changes. While this definitely shows a marginalization of religious institu­tions in the production of important knowledge, it does not imply a marginalization in social and political life.

Let me illustrate this with the development of science and Christianity in contem­porary US society. There is no doubt that the research institutions in the US are the major sites of the production of scientific and technological knowledge in the contemporary world. At the same time a Gallup poll in the mid-1970s showed that over one-third of adult American (50 million Americans) described themselves as ‘born-again’, that is as having experienced ‘a turning point in your life and when you committed yourself to Jesus Christ and felt “that the Bible is the actual Word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word”.[13] Do these two facts -scientific productivi­ty and religious fundamenta­lism- in one society conflict? No, they do not, except for the debate about creationism and evolutionism which is marginal to most science. Even the fact that so many Ameri­cans are bibli­cal literalists does not seem to affect their participation in the scientific and technolo­gical activities in their socie­ty. Does this imply that there is a separation of spheres which are relatively autonomous? Only in the sense that laboratories and churches are different sites of the production of knowledge and that these knowledge have different effects, but not in the sense that they can be reified as separate spheres. The relative irrele­vance of science for religious doctrine and vice versa does not margi­nalize the public role of religi­ous institu­tions and movements in the US. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority was per­haps the most important poli­tical movement in the US in the 1980s. The support it gave to the military-industrial complex in its Christian patriotism has been of crucial importance to the funding of scientific research for military purposes and that includes the development of the Internet. The development of the new ICTs has been and will be overwhelmin­gly dependent on military research.[14] Moreover, the Moral Majority made ample use of the technological advances in communica­tion and con­sumption (telemarketing, television, theme parks) to bring the message of the literal truth of the Bible. This is continued in the 1990s with the full use of the new ICTs by these move­ments. What is particularly striking is the extent to which these movements occupy the same terrain as secular humanist move­ments and with a similar flexibility and versatility. They are not outside modernity, but fully part of it.

Hindu Science and ICTs

Compared to the USA India is definitely not at the cutting edge of scientific and techno­logical production. It is a relatively poor country with low literacy rates and low life expectancy. It does not have the wealth which would be requi­red for huge invest­ments in research. Neverthe­less, from the nine­teenth century there has been in India, as in the rest of the modern world, a constant development of modern science and techno­logy. Moreo­ver, there can be little doubt of the centra­lity of science to the Indian nationalist project in its vari­ous incarnations, including the Hindu one. Even more than elsewhere the Indian idea is that science and religion belong toge­ther. One of the questions posed by Hindu nationa­lists was how it happened that modern science and technology had not been deve­loped in Hindu civilizati­on, superior as it was. This question had also been persis­tently raised by the British and answe­red by them in terms of an essential diffe­ren­ce between Indian backward­ness, mainly ascribed to Hin­duism, and British forwardness, mainly ascri­bed to a combination of rationality and Christian morali­ty. The British could not get enough of stories about the bewilderment of natives when they saw the railways or telegraphs. They mixed this view of the naivete of the common people with the quite Protestant view about Hindu priests who had misled the common people with false knowledge. The respon­se to this notion of Western and Christian superio­rity naturally was one of Hindu superio­rity. Hindu scientists searched for and found an archaic Hindu science in the Vedas and other sacred scripture. Some of the assertions were simply that rituals had results which could be scientifically demon­strated or that certain technological inventions were already mentio­ned in ancient scriptures. Others were more sophistica­ted in their use of scientific experimentation to show some basic philosophical points of Hinduism, such as the research done by J.C. Bose (1858-1937), the renowned physicist, who used his work on electric waves to explore consciousness in plants in order to prove Hindu monism. Perhaps the most impor­tant and lasting effort to connect Hinduism and science can be found in the field of health practices, from the Ayurveda, an indigenous system of doctrines and practices concerning he­alth, and Unani, its Islamic counterpart, to the system of yoga which unites noti­ons of Hindu spirituality with discipli­nes of the body to create mens sana in corpore sano. The extent to which allopa­thic (Western) medicine is combined in India with homeopathic and Ayurvedic  medicine and not seen as conflicting systems is quite striking till the present day.

Modern science then was not rejec­ted, but embraced and crea­tive­ly trans­lated in Hindu civilizational terms. The idea of scienti­fic ratio­nality was used both by secular moder­nists, like Nehru, to nationalize science and to margina­lize religion and by Hindu nationalists to natio­nalize religi­on and approp­riate the ‘scientific spirit’  and apply it in the reform of certain Hindu customs. Scien­ce is a field that both secula­rists and religious natio­nalists wished to take away from the impe­ria­list project and celebrate as truly their own. This was done with such fervor that science and technology came to be the hallmark of Indian civiliza­tion for all members of the Indian intelligent­sia whatever there political views, except for Gandhi and the Gandhians who remained radi­cal outsiders in this regard. All this is, obviously, quite contrary to the popular view in the West that Indian civilization is a mysti­cal one, focused on renouncing the world and instrumental rational­ity.

For Nehru especially it was quite clear that the spirit of science had to be harnessed to the project of modernizing India. He did not see science and technology as in themselves solving the basic needs of life, unless it was harnessed to a superior morality than that available in imperialism. In The Discovery of India (1946) Nehru showed that Indian civilizati­on possessed great moral resources which would help it to approp­riate modern science for the common good.[15] Gandhi, on the other hand, could easily be portrayed as a Luddite with his spinning-wheel. But, as Gyan Prakash has pointed out, he was not against technology as such, but against the enslave­ment that industrialization had brought India.[16] Only if one could resist the capitalist drive which was destroying the world one could use technology appropriately. Both Nehru and Gandhi, then, had (often opposite) visions of the use of science and technology, but they agreed that they should be embedded in a civilizational morality and that India was superior to the West in this regard.

While there was some lip-service paid to the Gandhian philosophy of appropriate technology in the post-independence period (ironically described in V.S. Naipaul’s A wounded Civilization, 1977), Nehru’s views dominated the scene for several decades. Nehru cared less for the growth of pure science than for the ratio­nal planning of India’s development. Science (and especially the science of Economics) and techno­logy (especial­ly applied in heavy industry) would be instru­men­tal to a social change which would be scientifically plan­ned and executed. It is immedia­tely clear why engineering had such an importance for Nehru. He gave full support to the education of scientists and engi­neers and this is a major reason why especially engineering colleges (as well as medical colleges) have flou­rished in Independent India.

Transnational Engineers and Hindu Nationalism

The very top of the education pyramid in India is formed by the Indian Institu­tes of Technology which have a competitive selection that can only be compared to the top echelon of American institutions such as MIT and CalTech. Below that one finds a whole range of engineering colleges of varying quali­ty. This system of higher education depends on a huge system of pre-college education in which math and science are very important topics. In inter­views with Indian engineers that I held in the USA an often-heard view was not only that educati­on was a prime value, but that Indian education was superior to American primary and secondary education especially in the fields of math and science. Some of them wanted to send their children back to India for that very reason. Even when one considers that we are dealing here with an elite group that can afford private schooling in India this remains a striking observation about Indian education.

Thanks to this high level of education for the most gifted (and socially best positioned) in India there has been a long-standing tradition of pursuing higher research educati­on and training (at the Ph.D. level) in Western universities. It has been observed that Graduate Schools of Engineering in the US in the 1970s would have had to close because of too little interest in engineering careers in the US population, if not for the influx of Chinese and Indian students.[17] This coincided with the Immigration Act of 1965 in the US which allo­wed for a much larger quota for immigration for highly trained and educated professionals. The Immigration and Natio­nality Act of 1990 tripled the number of visas granted on the basis of occupational skills and thus further enhanced the immigration of engineers. These new laws made it also possible for Indian students to stay on in the US. The earlier prefe­rence for going to the UK was replaced with a craze for ‘green cards’. Nehru’s vision of an Indian modernity which would be created by Indian engineers and scientists and would allow India to be fully self-sufficient ironically laid the basis for the emergence of a transnational cadre of Indian engineers who would be instrumental in crea­ting wealth in the West.

The informational revolution, if it is a revolution, is being created, primarily, by engineers and many of them are Indian. There is a recent study of Chinese and Indian entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley by Saxenian that shows that be­tween 1975 and 1990 the foreign-born popula­tion of the region doubled to almost 350.000.[18] Accor­ding to the 1990 census more than half of Asian-born engineers in the region were of Chine­se or Indian des­cent. In 1998 24 % of the High-Tech firms started in Sili­con Valley were run by a Chine­se or Indian CEO. Together they employed more than 58.000 workers. A difference between Chine­se-run and Indian-run firms is that the former are more con­centrated in computer and electronic hardware manufacturing and trade, while the latter are in software and business services. Saxenian relates that to the superior English language skills of Indian immigrants.

The transnational migration of what sometimes are called ‘knowledge workers’ has economic effects on both the country of immigration and on the country of origin. Saxenian’s study demonstrates clearly that the politi­cally motivated fears in California about Asian immigrants who take jobs away from native workers are false, because these Asians have massively created new jobs. There is a clear awareness in the American business community that the arrival of Asian engineers and scientists has been a great blessing for the American economy. The effects of the departure of these professionals on the Indian economy have generally been captured under the negative term ‘brain-drain’. Clearly many more Indian professionals stay in the US after having benefitted from Indian education than return. In short, India’s brain drain is the USA’s brain gain. The ef­fects of this can be probably calculated in terms of invest­ments in education versus remittances, but the issue is more complex and interesting than that. Binod Khadria distin­guishes financial resource flows, technological resource flows and human resource flows back to India and comes to a very sceptical assessment of the benefits for India thus far.[19]

The negative effects on Indian economy and society from the emigration of scientists and engineers could, however, be reversed by the ‘death of distance’ inherent in the new ICTs which makes it in principle possible that the work done by Indian ICT specialists in the US (and elsewhere in the develo­ped world) is also done in India itself. The rise of high-tech sites in Bangalore and Hyderabad, as well as in a number of other cities in India, mainly initiated by US-based or US-returned Indian entrepreneurs may bear that possibility out. This development has great potential which is already clear in the effects of this industry on Indian economy, but the real issue is whether this industry which is still by-and-large providing low-grade, low-wage, low value-added services to the global market can develop into a more upgraded software indus­try. Transnational networks of NRIs and their India-based counter­parts would be essential for such a development. The social field created by transnational migration would then really grow into a decentred economic field, enabled by ICTs.

What could motivate NRIs to return to India and/or invest in its development? My suggestion would be that the histori­cally established notion of the superiority of Hindu culture and the prominent place of science and technology in it is crucial here. These notions are not only inculcated in the upbringing of Indian migrants who were born in India, but also actively propagated by the Vishva Hindu Parishad, the religi­ous ally of the BJP. The VHP is a movement that is very active glo­bally and one of the prime agents of the globaliza­tion of Hinduism. In the USA it is active since 1974, follo­wing siza­ble immigration from India. The anti-Muslim politics which is central to its activities in India, does not make much sense in the USA. Anti-globalizati­on rheto­ric is conspicu­ously absent from the VHP propa­ganda in the USA and rightly so, since its supporters there are stron­gly in favor of the libe­rali­zati­on and globali­zation of the econo­my.[20] As NRIs they have also direct per­so­nal advantage in the free flow of capi­tal. The focus of the VHP in the USA is, as with many religi­ous move­ments globally, on the family.  The great fear of Indian mi­grants to the USA is not so much the threat to the patriarchal nature of the Hindu family (as one would expect from Castells’s analysis), since many of these migrants are well-educa­ted professi­onals, and depend on two incomes. Rat­her, it is the struggle to reprodu­ce Hindu culture in a for­eign environ­ment in order to sociali­ze their chil­dren in the hybridity of Indian-Ameri­cans. The fear is often that the children will lose all touch with the cultu­re of the parents and thus, in some sense, be lost to them. Both Inter­net-chat­groups and youth camps are organised by the VHP to keep Hin­duism alive among young Indi­ans in the USA. As Arvind Rajago­pal rightly observes in his insightful article on the VHP in the USA, the VHP needs different tac­tics, different objectives in different places in order to be able to recruit members. In India it is a nationalist move­ment, but in the US it is a global religious movement. Arjun Appadurai’s work on globali­zation has reminded us how important it is to keep these disjunctures and differ­ences in global flows in view.[21]

Even with all this cultural politics it would still be difficult for Indian entrepre­neurial engineers to be intere­sted in India economically if the state would not encourage them. This it has been doing to some extent already under the Congress governments from 1985. The global economic ideo­logy of liberaliza­tion and priva­tization has affected India in a major way. In India this was introdu­ced by Rajiv Gand­hi’s govern­ment in 1985 in terms of ‘brin­ging India in the 21st century’ and with a major effort to bring ICTs into India. The favorite themes of the Rajiv Gandhi administration were the introduction of advanced tech­nology, imported from outside of India and the replacement of the old ethos of authartic asce­ticism with a new ethos of westernized consumerism. It is crucial to realize that ICTs not only made consumerist identi­ties more viable, but also became a new avatar of a technolo­gical nationalism, reminis­cent of the Nehruvian pride in great hydraulic works and heavy indus­try of the fifties, but diffe­ring from it in its stress on individualism instead of collec­tivism.

In 1991 the techno­logical enthu­siasm for ICTs, depending, as it is, on the lifting of import restric­tions, was further enhan­ced when the government agreed to imple­ment a comprehen­sive libe­ralization and reform package negoti­ated by the IMF. Already much earlier the Indian government made special arran­gements for the remittances of that hyphenated social catego­ry: the non-resident Indian (NRI). The Foreign Exchange Regu­lations Act of 1973 includes in this category: 1. citizens of India living abroad for the purpose of carrying on a busi­ness or career, but declaring their intention to stay in India for an indefinite period. 2. Per­sons of Indian origin holding a passport of another coun­try. One is of Indian origin if one has held an Indian pas­sport, or if either of the pa­rents or grandpa­rents was Indian. The wife of a person of Indian origin is held to be of Indian origin too. Citizenship nor residence is thus the criteria for deci­ding on this cate­gory, but ‘ori­gin’ is and in that sense it has much in common with the German genealogical definiti­on of belonging to the German nation and having the right to return to Germany. The main reason for the Indian state to create this category is to raise foreign exchange, since NRIs are allowed to deposit money in Indian banks with competitive, guaranteed rates of inte­rest. Transnational investment and the cultural capital of ‘belonging’ go hand in hand here.[22]

Some final observations

Science and technology are central to conceptualizations of Indian modernity, both in its secular and its Hindu variants. The enlightenment notion that there is an opposition between science and religion has been an important element in sociolo­gical theories of modernity and secularity, but cannot be historically justified. It has been an ideological notion in particular secularist movements, especially in Western Europe, but has to be sociologically recognized as such. It is quite striking how provincial the sociological understanding of modernity often has been.[23] In societies as diverse as India and the USA ‘Enlightenment fundamentalism’ (to use Gellner’s term) has only played a very marginal role. There is no reason at all to expect Hindu engineers and scien­tists to ‘lose their religion’ and become secular. Hindu modernity includes an ideological valuation of science and technology. The empirical question is rather to explore what reli­gion does for them; what kind of specific needs it produ­ces or addres­ses. The globalization of producti­on and consump­tion, inclu­ding the flexibility and mobility of labour, is addressed by movements like the Vishva Hindu Paris­had and is a major ele­ment in their nationalist politics of ‘belonging’. The idea that ‘symbolic analysts’ (to use Robert Reich’s term) are rootless because they are highly mobile misunderstands the imaginary nature of roots. To have roots requires a lot of work for the imagination (dream-work). One element of that dream-work is that pride in one’s nation of origin is important in the construction of self-esteem in the place of immigration. It gives a different feeling to admit that one is from a country ravaged by famines and floods than to say with pride that one is from a superior civilization that is also very good in high-tech develop­ments.[24] The coherence of a Hindu moder­nity tied to the sover­eignty of India’s past and territo­ry is gradually given way to a postmo­dern bricolage of deter­ritoria­lized and dehistoricized discourses on family values and cyber-spirituality which is very hard to capture. Contrary to what their opponents think these movements are not ‘outside of modernity’, they were very much part of it and are now moving beyond it.

Science and tech­no­logy are in­strumental in the trans­formation of the lifeworld and therefo­re have a considerable impact on religi­ous communi­cation and on religious notions of the self and of belonging. The mediation and virtuality invol­ved in the new technologies of communication, like the inter­net, may have a profound impact on religious communicati­on. Religion is not only mediated, but is also crucially concerned with the forms and practices of mediation. According to Willi­am James religi­on is founded on the subjective experience of an invisi­ble presence. This may be true, but we only have access to that subjective expe­rience through the mediation of concrete prac­tices, such as speaking, writing, acts of wors­hip, while, at the same time, these acts may be considered to produce the experience. There is a whole range of activi­ties which induce religi­ous dispositions and which are about the relation be­tween human subjects and, what I would like to call provision­ally for lack of a better term, ‘the supernatural’. Crucial in that mediation is the relative invi­sibility of the supernatural or, perhaps better, its virtuali­ty. There is always in religious mediation an ambivalence about the addres­see and about the arrival of the message which is connected to epistemological uncertainty. I cannot explore this here, but it is clear to me that this is an area of substantial interest if one wants to understand religious transformation.[25] To give one example. One of many websites with the word prathana (means ‘prayer’) in it is E-Prartha­na, where one can ‘click a deity’ and address Hindu deities in more than 450 temples in India.[26] This might be interpreted as just a technological advance to prayer by mail and money-order, but the communicative possibi­lities are much larger.

In order to assess the relative centrality or margi­nality of religious discourses and practices in society one has to examine processes of state formation and the dyna­mics of religious institutions and movements. For Nehru the state was central to the project of modernity. His entire conception was tied up with the idea of engineering and naturally scientists and engineers played a dominant role in that. This kind of view of the role of the state has been entirely discredited since the 1980s almost everywhere and also in India. The transnational class of IT engineers is obviously a carrier of the ideology of deregulation, privatization and economic liberalization. It is individual entrepreneurship which they have learned to celebrate in California, not the planning commission. With that they have become postmodern in the sense that they will not accept Nehru’s socialist vision that moder­nization can only be brought about by the state. Contrary to what one sometimes thinks, howe­ver, the tremen­dous transforma­tion of Indian society required to deve­lop the IT-sector requires not less state, but a diffe­rent state. The process of regionalization which has developed quite rapidly in Indian politics in the 1980s and 1990s seems, to give only one exam­ple, to be precisely one of those proces­ses of state formation which are required for the development of certain cities in certain regions for the IT-sector. Hindu nationalism is the major force which counterbalances these centrifugal develop­ments and it operates exactly in this field of tension between territorial and cultural unity. Before our eyes the spectacle of a postmodern India seem to emerge in which ICTs enhance regionalization, in which relisoaps transform Hin­duism, in which the huge problems of spatial mobility and transport might be partly undercut by the electronic highway, in which house prizes in Bombay are higher than New York, in which Hindu nationalists support ICTs, but try to boycott Miss World elections.

[1] Sam Fleischacker in The Guardian, Friday October 19, 2001

[2] Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, “Frontline Mysticism and Eastern Spirituality. ISIM Newsletter, 9, 2002.

[3] About Hindu nationalism, see Peter van der Veer, Reli­gious Nationalism. Hindus and Muslims in India. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1994.

[4] Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford, Blackwell, 1996, 5.

[5] Kevin Robins and Frank Webster, Times of the Technocul­ture. From the informati­on society to the virtual life. Lon­don: Routledge, 1999, 91.

[6] Manuel Castells, The Power of Identity, Oxford: Black­well 1997.

[7] Peter van der Veer, Imperial Encounters. Religion and Modernity in India and Britain. Princeton, Princeton Universi­ty Press, 2001.

[8] My stay at the Institute for Advanced Study in Prince­ton (which is dominated by mathematicians and theoretical physi­cists) in 1995 made that annoyingly clear to me,

[9] Jurgen Habermas, Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. Cambridge, MIT Press, 1987, 83.

[10] Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973, 112.

[11] Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993: 49.

[12] Jurgen Habermas, ‘Modernity-An Incomplete Project’ acceptance speech for the Adorno Prize in 1980, New German Critique, 22, 1981, 3-15. See also J.F. Lyotard’s response, Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism’ in I. Hassan and Hassan S. (eds) Innovation/Renovation. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983, 71-82.

[13] see Susan Harding, The Book of Jerry Falwell. Funda­men­talist language and politics. Princeton, Princeton Univer­sity Press, 2000.

[14] see Robins and Webster, op.cit.

[15] I take here Gyan Prakash’s interpretation in his Anot­her Reason. Science and the Imagination of Modern India. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999, 213.

[16] This follows an argument, generally accepted, by Indian nationalists of all persuasi­ons that Britain’s indus­trial ascendancy (the Industrial Revolution) had ben accom­plished by ruining the Indian economy. This thesis had been brilliantly formulated in R.C. Dutt’s Economic History of India (1901-1903) which became a nationalist classic. Its argument is very close to the ‘development of underdevelop­ment’ thesis formula­ted in the 1960s by Andre Gundur Frank.

[17] Between 1985 and 1996 62 percent of all the doctorates in science and engineering granted to foreigners in the US were given to Chinese and Indians.

[18] The data on Silicon Valley are based on Anna Lee Saxeni­an, Silicon Valley’s New Immigrant Entrepreneurs. Public Policy Institute, San Francisco, CA, 1999/

[19] see Binod Khadria, The Migration of Knowledge Workers. Second-Generation Effects of India’s Brain Drain. New Delhi: Sage, 1999. I am grateful to Jan Breman for bringing this book to my notice.

[20] Arvind Rajagopal, ‘Transnational Networks and Hindu Nationa­lism’, Bulle­tin of Concerned Asian Scholars, 29, 3, 1997.

[21] see Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

[22] see the interesting argument by Arvind Rajagopal, op.cit.

[23] I think here in specific of the work of the late Ernest Gellner, but I single him out only for his extraordina­ry combination of extreme clarity and wrongheadedness.

[24] see Peter van der Veer (ed) Nation and Migration. The Politics of Belonging in the South Asian Diaspora. Philadelp­hia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.

[25] see also Peter van der Veer, ‘Religious Mediation’ in Enrique Larreta (ed) Media and Social Perception. Rio de Janeiro: Unesco, 1999, 345-356.

[26] I am grateful to Sudeep Dasgupta for pointing this site out to me.


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