India produces on an average 1.5 million engineers each year. Among the middle class and the lower middle class in contemporary India, a first degree in engineering remains the most coveted dream even though only a small proportion of such graduates actually make it to engineering as a profession given the declining importance of manufacturing and industry in India’s output and employment structure. This essentially middle class aspiration possibly has its material roots in the limited import substituting industrialization policies of the first three decades after Independence. Aparajith Ramnath provides an explanation of the prelude to this aspiration. The Birth of an Indian Profession: Engineers, Industry and the State 1900-1947 provides an account of the rise of engineering as an ‘Indian’ profession under British colonial rule and the conflicts and contestations that led to the proliferation of an entirely new profession in the sub-continent.
In doing so, the author’s focus is on institutions and processes of Indianization and industrialization ‘closely related to the educational backgrounds, identities and work cultures of engineers in the first half of the twentieth century’ (p. 14). The rise of the profession is located by the author within the historical peculiarities of India’s limited industrialization under colonialism, a point to which we shall come back later.
One of the main arguments in the book is that professional institutions were the terrain of contestation and affirmation of an Indian identity among engineers. The author studies the changes in structure and composition of the engineering cadre spread across the military, the PWD and the Railways and their professional composition in terms of British, Europeans, Eurasians, and Indians between 1858 and 1914. The foundation of professional journals and the formation of professional organizations ‘invoked a collective identity for engineers in India’ (p. 64). However, institutionalized discrimination in recruitment, service conditions and pay were deterrents to this forging of a collective identity and this was manifest in the contestations and demands repeatedly raised by Indians and those domiciled in India. The two processes of industrialization especially of the inter-war period, the need for expanding technical expertise that arose out of that and the simultaneous though limited demands of Indianization, led to the formation of the Institution of Engineers (India) in 1920 in Calcutta. Such an institution was envisioned in the report of the Indian Industrial Commission (1916-18) and was by no means a radical anti-colonial institution. But, as the author shows that the IEI evolved within a decentralized structure and faced hostilities from the PWD Congresses. But the IEI took up a host of governing functions as opposed to the PWD Congresses that met annually for discussion of papers on engineering. The detailed account of the structure and institutional functioning of IEI supplemented by the other professional institutions that predated it both in Britain and those which had chapters in India along with the PWD Congresses presents a very intricate institutional history of the professionalization of a rising discipline in the first half of the twentieth century within the colonial context and its inherent limits.
The book presents a detailed account of the Indianization of the Indian railways and the PWD in the inter-war years in a situation where the Indian Railways had a primarily military role, Indian recruits faced a disadvantage in terms of experience as compared to their British counterparts and also the fact that Indians’ loyalty to the colonial regime was suspect (p. 162). The author argues that in both cases ‘…colonial officialdom had to contend with nationalist demands and the changing structure of Indian polity’ in the first half of the twentieth century.
The third major argument through a case study of the technical experts in the Tata Steel Works and the Jamshedpur Technical Institute is that a cadre of professionals emerged in the private sector, which were neither loyalist nor nationalist. The book also argues that there existed a two-way relationship between science and technology and the ‘heterogenous and evolving’ colonial state between 1900 and 1947. Thus constitutional reforms, the formation of provincial governments etc., played a role in not only financing and structuring Indianization but also had an impact in the understanding of the state of the ‘role of its engineers and other officers’ (p. 211).
In its conclusion, the book claims that structuring the study of engineers around the themes of Indianization and industrialization serves to situate the history of engineers within the broader framework of Indian history. It is in this claim that several questions also arise.
The first question relates to the structures of trade, capital and technology within which the profession of engineering developed in India. These structures cannot be delineated without studying the nature of the capitalist class in India, its composition and fractions and its relationship with the metropole that structured certain colonial dependencies that characterizes the peculiarity of India’s industrialization under colonial rule. AK Bagchi’s Private Investment in India and Nasir Tyabji’s Industrialization and Innovation: The Indian Experience along with other works by these two authors and the works of Sabyasachi Bhattacharya (2005) are some of the glaring missing references in this work. This leaves the framework of industrialization rather inadequate in its positing of the process as either ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ in the introduction which is very much a false and needless dichotomy—a point that can be established by the author’s own intricate handling of the institutional history of the IEI and Tata Steel.
The second question relates to the relationship between India’s anti-colonial struggle and its emergent engineering professionals. This has two aspects—individuals and institutions. The book does not adequately address either. For example, in the entire delineation of the history of the profession, M Visvesvaraya does not feature even though he was one of the central figures in promoting a vision of building institutions that promoted manufacturing and engineering as opposed to mercantile activity and in some ways epitomized the struggle of manufacturers and against traders. This struggle largely shaped the capital and technology constraints that characterized the first half of the twentieth century industrialization process in India and carried over and shaped India’s development trajectory after Independence (Das Gupta 2016). Other important missing institutions are Engineering and Iron Trades Association that later became the Indian Engineering Association (IEA) and the later rise of the Indian Engineering Association challenging the British supremacy of the IEA (Tyabji 2000).
The third question relates to the actual direct anti-colonial interventions with an aim towards self reliance in expertise and technology that led to the formation of, for example, the National Council of Education by Aurobindo Ghose, Rabindranath Tagore and others, and Tagore’s own institutional efforts in Sriniketan that had internationalist and humanist underpinnings. These anti-colonial efforts in the forging of a professional identity of engineers and technologists have no place in the book essentially because the book rejects at the very outset all approaches except one that sees industrialization as ‘positive’. Thus the framework itself limits the book to archival sources that are bound to present a narrow statist account.
To conclude, the book does not really engage with a broad framework of Indian history in the delineation of colonialism, and anti-colonialism and the role of industrialization and Indianization within that even though it claims to do so. But it is certainly an important addition to the empirical institutionist accounts (emanating from the Cambridge School) of specific institutions and processes that shaped the engineering profession in India.
Bagchi, A K (1972), Private Investment in India, 1900-1939, London, Cambridge University Press.
Bhattacharya, S (2005), The Financial Foundations of the British Raj: Ideas and Interests in the Reconstruction of Indian Public Finance 1858-1872, Revised Edition, Hyderabad, Orient Longman.
Das Gupta, C (2016), State and Capital in Independent India: Institutions and Accumulation, New Delhi and Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Tyabji, N., 2000, Industrialisation And Innovation: The Indian Experience, New Delhi, Thousand Oaks.
Chirashree Das Gupta teaches at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.