A solid, engaging, well-researched book on the history of the Indian state’s interaction with technological innovation and scientific progress
Viking | 256 pages| Hardback| Non Fiction/Technology/History/Politics
About the Book
Every Prime Minister of independent India has guided, if not personally overseen, one prized portfolio: technology. If, in the early years, Nehru and his scientist-advisors retained an iron grip on it, subsequent governments created a bureaucracy that managed everything from the country’s crown jewels-its nuclear and space programmes-to solar stoves and mechanized bullock carts.
But a lesser-known political project began on 15 August 1947: the Indian state’s undertaking to influence what the citizens thought about technology and its place in society. Beneath its soaring rhetoric on the virtues or vices of technology, the state buried a grim reality: India’s inability to develop it at home. The political class sent contradictory signals to the general public. On the one hand, they were asked to develop a scientific temper, on the other, to be wary of becoming enslaved to technology; to be thrilled by the spectacle of a space launch while embracing jugaad, frugal innovation, and the art of ‘thinking small’. To mask its failure at building computers, the Indian state decried them in the seventies as expensive, job-guzzling machines. When it urged citizens to welcome them the next decade, the government was, unsurprisingly, met with fierce resistance. From Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi, India’s political leadership has tried its best to modernize the nation through technology, but on its own terms and with little success.
In this engaging and panoramic history spanning the arc of modern India from the post-War years to present day, Arun Mohan Sukumar gives us the long view with a reasoned, occasionally provocative standpoint, using a lens that’s wide enough for the frame it encompasses. With compelling arguments drawn from archival public records and open-source reportage, he unearths the reasons why India embraced or rejected new technologies, giving us a new way to understand and appreciate the individual moments that brought the country into the twenty-first century.
Praise for the Book
‘I have no doubt that Midnight’s Machines will be heralded for years to come as the definitive account of India’s attempts to negotiate its technological destiny. In his trail-blazing book, Arun Mohan Sukumar masterfully blends history, science and politics to deliver a narrative that both enthralls and informs. He proves himself to be that rare historian with a journalist’s eye for detail and a novelist’s ear for prose. A must-read for all interested in
India’s technological role in the twenty-first century world’—Shashi Tharoor, Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram
‘Midnight’s Machines boldly addresses the great conundrum: why, despite the political will and technical ingenuity, has India since 1947 failed to become a more technologically advanced and self-sufficient society? Sukumar unveils a critical, often devastating, critique of what went wrong in the country’s “tortuous” relationship with modern technology. Religion, science, domestic politics, international diplomacy, sceptical leadership and public doubt—all make this a compelling work of insight and analysis. Splendidly researched and fluently written, Midnight’s Machines deftly combines historical causes and contemporary dilemmas. This is the masterpiece that other accounts of India’s technology will need to come to terms with’—David Arnold, author of Everyday Technology: Machines and the Making of India’s Modernity
‘There are some books which, once they appear, make the reader wonder why they hadn’t been written before. This account of India’s often tortured relationship with technology belongs in that genre. As a symbol of the modernity that defined imperialism, technology has always been suspect for Indians who wanted to create a new ideal of freedom. Sukumar traces the interminable debate over this problem in Indian politics and evaluates its very real consequences in fascinating detail’—Faisal Devji, professor of Indian history, University of Oxford
‘Midnight’s Machines is a sweeping and provocative exploration of postcolonial India’s romance with modern technology. It examines the record of this romance of over seventy years with admirable assurance and a keen eye to identify how attempts to engineer the nation with machines have always been bound up with political machinations, explaining a persistently contradictory approach to technology. Learned and thoughtful, the book offers an energetically written argument about the relationship between technology and politics in postcolonial India’—Gyan Prakash, Dayton-Stockton Professor of History, Princeton University)
About the Author
Arun Mohan Sukumar is a PhD candidate at the Fletcher School, Tufts University, and a junior fellow at the school’s Centre for International Law and Governance. He heads the Technology Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.