MIT Trained Swadeshis and Indian Nationalism (1880-1947)

This paper generated a huge interest in India’s business history. Well I just discovered this super archive of Godrej Group which has maintained all the records on the group’s history and so on..

It has this annual lecture series where noted speakers speak on business history/related topics. Unfortounately, not all have a link of the lecture.

Ross Bassett of North Carolina State University (Associate Professor, Department of History) gives a fascinating account of MIT’s connection with India’s Nationalism/ Swadesi movement. There is a pdf of his lecture and is quite an interesting read.

It shows how certain visionaries sent their relatives to train at MIT to help build engineering skills. The idea was to build capacity  and help develop India both during struggle for independence and post-independence. More interestingly. they came from families associated with Mahatma:

During the colonial period, roughly one hundred degrees were awarded by MIT to Indians. However their importance to India and to the historical understanding of  India is disproportionate to their numbers. These men—and they were all men—often from elite families, formed a technological elite in the last days of colonial  India. Their careers show a technological nationalism in India—several men came  from families associated with Gandhi—and represent an important foreshadowing of the period after independence.

What turned the tide from Oxford to MIT?

Perhaps one reason Indians were drawn to MIT was that it was based on a notion of engineering and engineering education largely antithetical to that held by Indian engineering colleges. The first engineering college in India began operation in Roorkee  in 1847. The British established the engineering college at Roorkee and the later engineering colleges in Sibpur, Poona, and Madras, as a way to produce intermediate-  grade engineers for the British Public Works Department, which had control over the  schools. As a consequence, these schools had a very limited curriculum, focused on  civil engineering, the discipline most needed by the Public Works Department, and within civil engineering, focused on narrow vocational training in such areas as surveying and estimating. Given their restricted conception of engineering for India, the  British in India argued that there was a limited need for engineering education and  that expanding colleges beyond the needs of the Public Works Department would  simply lead to unemployment. British mercantilist policies did not encourage the industrialization of India, as might have happened with a broader and wider technical  education. In contrast to its position on engineering, the British encouraged scientifi c training to improve agriculture, which would then lead to higher crop yields and  higher tax revenues. In fact, the government of Bengal sent eight students to Cornell University to study agriculture between 1905 and 1909.

He divides the paper in three phases:

  • THE FIRST INDIANS AT MIT AND  THE EARLY INDIAN NATIONALIST MOVEMENT, 1861–1920″
  • INDIANS, MIT, AND THE AGE OF GANDHI, 1920–1940:  I. DEVCHAND PAREKH AND BHAVNAGAR
  • INDIANS, MIT, AND THE AGE OF GANDHI, 1920–1940: II. BAL KALELKAR
  • ENGINEERING A NEW NATION: INSTITUTIONALIZING MIT IN INDIA, 1944–50

Apparently first Indian at MIT was in 1880 but the movement picked up as Swadesi movement picked in early 1900s. A key role was played by a certain Devchand Parekh. He was advised by none other than Alfred Marshall to goto MIT:

Devchand Parekh was born in 1871 in the city of Jetpur on the Kathiawar peninsula, the son of a wealthy lawyer. In 1893 Parekh left to study at Cambridge, where  he received a bachelor’s degree in 1896 and his master’s degree in 1899. While in Britain he studied for the bar exam and received his calling to the bar from the Middle Temple in 1897. Although Devchand Parekh returned to India in 1899 seemingly  well placed to have a lucrative career as a barrister, according to Parekh’s son, something happened in Cambridge that changed the course of his life.

That something was an encounter with the economist Alfred Marshall. According to Parekh’s son, Marshall counseled Devchand Parekh that Indians should not be  coming to Britain to study liberal arts; instead they should go to America—specifically to MIT—to study engineering, and then return to India to set up industries that would improve the Indian standard of living. In response to this, Parekh went to the United States in 1893, visited MIT, and began a correspondence with MIT officials to receive catalogs.

This started a kind of wave with relatives of Parekh and many more admits in MIT in future..

Contribution of MIT into developing India’s engineering skills and industrial development..

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