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The history of science, technology and medicine in India during the colonial period, so often in the past treated as marginal, can be seen in the light of recent scholarship as having a far more central, but also far more complex, role. The more historians take into account the ideological dimensions of science, technology and medicine, the more we move from seeing them as ‘tools of empire’ to explore their social, cultural and political dimensions, the more apparent it becomes that there was no simple, one-directional process of scientific and technological ‘transfer’, but rather a series of cross-cultural exchanges and interactions.
If we take what has been categorised by Basalla and others as ‘colonial science’, we can see at work not only the extension to British India of metropolitan agencies and ideas but, no less powerfully, the strength of the British interaction with India’s culture and environment, and the consequent distancing of colonial from metropolitan science. In part this derived from a sense of the provincialism that divided Calcutta from London, but it also reflected the persistent belief that science, technology and medicine in India could not be identical with metropolitan models but needed to reflect local conditions and circumstances and the political imperatives of the colonial regime itself. Science was about India as much as being in India, as demonstrated by the nineteenth-century emphasis upon natural science and the scientific reconnaissance of the Indian landscape. India was understood and represented through science and medicine as an alien territory inhabited by a foreign race: the monsoon, the Himalayas, India’s tropical diseases, the ‘peculiar geography of Hindoostan’, the manner of Indian pilgrimages, diets, marriage customs and purdah — the physical and cultural idiosyncrasies of India constantly flickered across the imperial vision of India.
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