Short essay on early historiography

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The British rule over India found a moral justification for itself by virtue of the benefits of reason and modern science it had extended to the colony. The British view of Indian civilization was that it was long on religion and short on science. Seven centuries ago, early Muslim visitors to the country had a different view of the civilization then prevailing in the land. A1 Bruin gave equal and serious attention to both the religion and science of Hind around 1030.

The Muslims themselves brought with them several new technical products, such as paper and the Persian wheel. Europe, which at that time borrowed several techniques from China and the Islamic world, later strode ahead in course of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century and the industrial revolution in the eighteenth century. This constituted, upon the British conquest of India, the ground for the European claim of scientific and civilization superiority.

The Indian scientists who emerged during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century's in the colleges and universities of British India did not deny the positive role the British had played in bringing modern science to India. At the same time, they maintained that India had an ancient scientific tradition.

This dual attitude is reflected in the work of the Chemistry Professor of the Presidency College of Bengal, Dr. P.C. Ray, who, besides making major chemical discoveries in the field of nitrates, wrote a work on The History of Hindu Chemistry. Published in two volumes in 1902 and 1908, this was a world-renowned scientist's historically substantiated refutation of the imperialist idea of science as the achievement of Western enlightened thought alone. That science had multicivilisational origins would be argued by many other historians in the future, including Joseph Needham of Science and Civilization in China.

Within the leadership of the nationalist movement in India, two distinct attitudes crystallized at about this time as regards modern science and its historical effect on Indian civilization. Mohan Das Karamchand Gandhi denounced railways, lawyers and doctors, and declared machinery to be a 'great sin'. He said in Hind Swaraj (1990): 'It is machinery that has impoverished India'.

Jawaharlal Nehru, his disciple, could not agree with this view of the matter. In a tract entitled The Unity of India (1941), he declared: 'Politics led me to economics, and this led me inevitably to science and the scientific approach to all our problems of hunger and poverty.'

As Prime Minister he transformed the landscape of India by means of the Five Year Plans, the great dams and the steel plants. Modern day radical environmental historians invoke Gandhi rather than Nehru in the debate about science, technology and the ecological question. In the later colonial period, an ecological query emerged: how far had the face of the country changed over time? The economist Radhakamal Mukherjee, who wrote a work on Social Ecology (London, 1942) in this period, examined historical evidence of reverie and ecological change in an interesting work entitled The Changing face of Bengal: a Study in Reverie Economy (Calcutta, 1938).

Nor was he the first to record ecological evidence of change. Even in the early nineteenth century, the British official D. Butter, in a report entitled An Outline of the Topography and Statistics of the Southern Districts of Oudh (Calcutta, 1839), had reported the 'unremitting advance' of the hot summer wind in recent decades.

It may be noted that the northern Gangetic plains, the area he reported on, had experienced large-scale deforestation from the Mughal period onwards. But in the other areas, agriculture was still considerably mixed with jungle in the early nineteenth century, a fact commented on, for instance, by James Taylor in the A Sketch of the Topography and Statistics of Dacca (Calcutta, 1840).

Colonial officials showed an interest in historical geography, and a pioneering work in this respect was Alexander Cunningham, The Ancient Geography of India (London, 1871). Later Jadunath Sarkar wrote The India of Aurangzeb (Topography, Statistics and Road), (Calcutta, 1901) Such works recorded evidence that even before modern science and technology intervened, demographic and commercial factors had been changing the face of the country over time. It is only recently, however, that this issue has been explored by historians in a self conscious ecological manner.


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