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Scientific Research in Colonial India

Within a limited scope, the Indian Scientists could pursue original scientific research in Colonial India.

Scientific Research in Colonial India: The colonizers were quick to realize that a thorough knowledge of the geography, geology, and botany of the areas being conquered was essential. They fully recognized the role and importance of science in empire-building. The British made investments in botanical, geological, and geographical surveys from which they hoped to get direct and substantial economic and military advantages.

The scope of the Indian Scientist was limited because of the following reason.

  • The medium of Education was English
  • The subjects that led to economic exploitation and exploration were given precedence to botanical, geological, and geographical surveys and hence institutions were created to consolidate the data.
  • Literature was taught more than science and technology
  • The design of the education system was such that it promoted Yesmanship it trained individuals for subordinate jobs rather than entrepreneurship
  • With the popular revolts, movements, and hardship of first-generation scientists coupled with the news of advancements made by Japan, steps were taken to promote self-reliance, and hence Science became a mainstream subject.

The excerpts below are taken from E-gyan Kosh for a complete document can refer to the PDF

Medical and zoological sciences did not hold such promise and, thus, they were neglected. Research in physics or chemistry was simply out of the question because these subjects were related to industrial development which the British did not want to encourage. India was considered to be only a source of raw materials and a wonderful market for all sorts of articles manufactured in Britain, from needles, nibs, and pencils to shoes, textiles, and medicines.

A fact of great significance, however, was that the entire direction of colonial education was not towards opening up the minds of students or developing a questioning attitude. Rather it encouraged passive acceptance of what was taught or written in the books

Scientific Research in Colonial India
Scientific Research in Colonial India

Scientific Research in Colonial India

In the absence of higher scientific education, scientific research remained an exclusive governmental exercise for a long time. It was, therefore, linked to the economic policies pursued by the imperial power. A scientist serving the colonial power was supposed to not only discover new economic resources but also to help in their exploitation.

In agriculture, it was basically plantation research with an emphasis on experimental farms, the introduction of new varieties, and the various problems related to cash crops. These were basically cotton, indigo, tobacco, and tea, which were all to be exported to Britain. Next came surveys in geology to exploit mineral resources, again for export as raw material. Another major area of concern was health. The survival of the army, the planters, and other colonizers depended on it.

It was in 1857 that the Universities of Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras were set up more or less on the pattern of the London University. However, it was only in 1870 that Indian universities began to show some interest in science education. In 1875, Madras University decided to examine its matriculation candidates in geography and elementary physics in place of British history. Bombay was the first to grant degrees in science

Impact of the Freedom Movement On Scientific Research in Colonial India

As mentioned earlier, in colonial India the environment was not conducive to higher studies, much less to research. Indians were allowed only. subordinate posts and even those who had distinguished themselves abroad were given less salary than the Europeans of the same grade and rank. This ‘apartheid’ in science made the Indians react strongly. J.C. Bose, the first noted Indian physicist, refused to accept this reduced salary for three years. Not only this, till the Royal Society recognised Bose, the college authorities refused him any research facility and considered his work purely private.

Sir C.V. Raman
Sir C.V. Raman

J.C. Bose was one of the pioneers of Scientific Research in Colonial India, unorthodox in one more sense. He was one of the first among the modem scientists to take to interdisciplinary research. He started as a physicist but his interest in electrical responses took him to plant physiology. To fight for a place and recognition in the scientific circles in Britain was no less difficult than fighting against the administrative absurdities of a colonial government. Bose persisted and won.

J.C. Bose
J.C. Bose

Self-Reliance and WW1

In the wake of the First World War (1914-18), the Government realized that India must become more self-reliant scientifically and industrially. It appointed an Indian Industrial Commission in 1916 to examine steps that might be taken to lessen India’s scientific and industrial dependence on Britain. The scope of the resulting recommendations was broad, covering many aspects of industrial development. But few of the Commission’s recommendations were actually implemented. Similar was the fate of numerous other Conferences and Committees.

Whenever requests were made by India for starting new institutions or expanding existing ones, the government pleaded insufficiency of funds or inadequacy of demand. The interests of the colonial administration and those of the nationalists in most instances often clashed.


This question was asked in UPSC Civil Services History Paper 2 in the mains examination in the year 2022

Kanishka Singh Rathore

Engineer Financial Planner Editor

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