From Mahatma Gandhi to Vannevar Bush: The MIT-India relationship

Ross Bassett, author of The Technological Indian, reveals a new vision of India’s growth as an engineering nation.

Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister, at MIT in 1949.
Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, at MIT in 1949.


Ross Bassett visited MIT on September 29th to discuss his new book, The Technological Indian, which traces the linked histories of MIT and modern India. The talk was sponsored by the MISTI MIT-India program.

Bassett, who is a professor of history at North Carolina State University, said it was a project 35 years in the making. He read the works of Mahatma Gandhi in high school, and while in college finally had the opportunity to visit India.

“I didn’t think of India as a very technological place,” he said, “but waiting at a bus stop in Bangalore, I saw a man reading a computer manual.” Bassett struck up a conversation, and gradually began to realize that some of his preconceptions about the country were not accurate.

Today, he said, everyone acknowledges Indian prowess in high-tech fields. The country has a booming IT industry, a system of elite engineering universities (the IITs), and has produced leaders of companies like Google and Microsoft. Bassett was interested in how that shift—both in reality and perception—occurred.

He decided to focus on the relationship between MIT and India so that he could get a manageable sample size, and see “if looking at these people could be an experiment in mapping it onto Indian history.”

He says his results “show a new perspective on the history of Indian technology,” and that through his book “we see Indian history in a little bit different light.”

The initial data pool came from a surprising source: MIT graduation programs. Each year the Institute produces a program listing the names and hometowns of all of its graduates. Bassett pored over these documents, and discovered about 1,300 Indian alumni. The first Indian was a man named Keshav Bhat, from Pune, who spent a year in Boston in 1882. After him, there would not be another Indian at MIT for 20 years.

But the discovery of Keshav Bhat led Bassett back to a 19th century newspaper, the Mahratta, that called for India to have its own industrial school, and to model it after MIT. The editor of the paper—Bal Tilak, a prominent Indian independence figure—felt that India was being held back by the British in this area (and many others). This was the beginning, Bassett argued, of Indians looking to MIT for “transformation of their country, their businesses, and themselves.”technologicalindian

Jumping ahead in time, Bassett then discussed the previously unexamined relationship between Mahatma Gandhi and MIT. While Gandhi had no overt links to MIT (unlike Jawaharlal Nehru, who visited in 1949), the data revealed a hidden story.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the largest group of Indian students who made the long journey to attend MIT came from a small princely state in western India called the Kathiawar Peninsula. It turned out that many of them were connected to Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram—famously the base of the 1930 Salt March.

Bassett found that Gandhi, who is often associated with notions of traditionalism and village life, was in fact a highly technical thinker. His primary values reflected those of a modern industrial society: time consciousness, work ethic, and the primacy of the organization over the individual. So it actually shouldn’t be a surprise that so many engineers sprang out of his circle.

For many, Bassett said, “Gandhi’s ashram could be one step on the road to MIT.”

One such young man was Bal Kalelkar, who participated in the Salt March, and ten years later was accepted into MIT to study mechanical engineering. He wrote to Indian industrialist G.D. Birla to request tuition assistance, and his letter was hand-edited by Gandhi.

Bassett also told the story of T.M. Shah, another Gandhi associate who studied at MIT with legendary engineer Vannevar Bush. Bassett speculated that Shah might be the only person to work closely with both men, “two of the most profound figures of the 20th century.”

He closed his talk with an exhortation to both MIT and India, calling for engagement and mutual growth: “Reclaim the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi and Vannevar Bush.”