Decolonisation, science and nationalism

Our scholars have a responsibility to design history of science curricula that appreciate our scientific traditions and locate them in a global history of sciences

In early 2017, some students and faculty at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London launched the Decolonise Our Minds campaign, which quickly gained momentum in the English-speaking campuses in western Europe and North America. This campaign came in the wake of another student-led movement that had begun in South Africa less than two years ago. This movement—called Rhodes Must Fall—matured into a larger constellation of movements ranging from issues concerning race and decolonisation as well as critiquing a neoliberal education system.

The SOAS campaign called for a shift in narrative of English-speaking campuses in western Europe. It called for the faculties of humanities and social sciences to decolonise their degree programmes to fit its scope. This meant, for example, that a course taught on the history of philosophy must not be titled so if it teaches only west European philosophy. This also meant that such programmes must be redesigned from a post-colonial perspective.

I argue that the same can be said about decolonising history of science curricula in Pakistani schools and universities. To make this argument, we need to understand the discourse and narrative of decolonisation and nationalism. I focus first on decolonisation theory, then on the relationship between nationalism and science. At the end I will argue for a trans-cultural science.

Discourse means the construction and flow of information (narratives) and actions as well as their reproduction. Decolonisation theory uses discourse analysis as a method to expose the strengths and weaknesses of social and historical narratives. However, as a theory it may be abstract—and thus may not synchronise with real life scenarios—or it may be top-down—meaning it is not grassroots.

The narrative(s) of decolonisation may not always be well-founded, albeit well intended. Post-colonial theory itself cannot always guard against Euro-centrism and a top-down approach, reproducing the binaries of West v Rest and Metropole vs. Colonies. It means that this theory sometimes takes for granted the European origin of ‘modernity’. Moreover, decolonisation narratives may also—and have been—used by populist nationalists.

Furthermore, decolonisation discourse may be closely related to nationalist discourse in ex-colonial societies. For example, different nationalist discourses in South Asia are produced by focusing either on reviving pre-colonial social and political narratives, or by locating the origins of European ‘modernity’ in its interaction with Asian, African and American historical-intellectual traditions. This may be called a borrowed or assimilated modernity. A similar argument is made about decolonising science discourse in South Asia.

Directly after independence, nationalism in India and Pakistan established a particular narrative around science. Nehru’s science policy, perceived and endorsed science as a ‘gift’ of the Europeans, drove the nationalist awakening and ‘rationalist’ agenda of Indian sciences. In Pakistan, however, science was received as European but with a Muslim influence. It is also common in Pakistan to imagine that modern science owes its ‘modernity’ to a Muslim tradition of rationality. Therefore, Pakistan’s history of science curricula reflects quasi-Muslim, nonetheless European, science.

A trans-cultural history of science brings our attention to back-and-forth exchanges between European, Greco-Arab and South Asian science and philosophy of science—which suggests that philosophically and historically there is no single ‘objective science’.

However, reproduction of imperial science is problematic as it takes for granted its ‘success’ and we cannot learn the same lessons from its failures. For example, Zaheer Baber in his 1996 book The Science of Empire argues that medicine in colonial India was a mix of European biomedicine and administrative policies, which favoured more political power than the pursuit of knowledge.

His argument shows that British science policy in colonial times did not necessarily follow an epistemic (knowledge-generating) agenda, rather an imperialist one. How, then, should we formulate the decolonisation discourse in Pakistan to escape this imperialist narrative? Perhaps, including this narrative as well as revisiting “indigenous” science in South Asia is a better approach to decolonising science curricula.

The argument is that while acknowledging European and quasi-Muslim science in South Asia, we can still appreciate several South Asian scientific traditions before both of these traditions appeared. For example, traditional medicine in South Asia has been incorporated in modern biomedicine since colonial era.

There was extensive research done by imperialist botanists, such as William Roxburgh during the end of eighteenth century, to classify and analyse the flora of Indian subcontinent to use their active compounds in European medicine. This is not to argue, however, that we must revive the past. The meaning of this exercise is a fresh examination of what elements of indigenous South Asian science have been ignored and replaced by European science.

This brings us to a completely new research agenda in Pakistan: the trans-cultural sciences. This agenda is the reimagination and fresh understanding of scientific thought and practice that existed before and during colonialism.

A trans-cultural history of science brings our attention to back-and-forth exchanges between European, Greco-Arab and South Asian science and philosophy of science—which suggests that philosophically and historically there is no single ‘objective science’.

Although Pakistani students of science are already taught European and quasi-Muslim scientific traditions in our curricula, the agenda is still a European science, not a trans-cultural science. This means that we still learn only the ways in which Muslim science influenced European science, not the exchange between the two. Decolonisation of science curricula in Pakistan, therefore, demands that we include in taught courses a history of ideas in the subcontinent, e.g., the Indus Valley civilisation and their exchange of ideas and technological innovations with neighboring civilisations in the Fertile Crescent.

Such exchanges transformed organised thought and practice around the construction and reproduction of practical knowledge and innovation. Another example of local knowledge exchange that transformed agriculture in Pakistan is the Punjabi Nanakshahi calendar (adopted ca. early 18th century) which combines the traditional cycles of crop cultivation and harvest with the Indian astronomical tradition.

Thus, the history of (travelling) ideas and technological innovation brings into our curricula the essential element of multidirectional exchanges in scientific traditions. As a result, this kind of history suggests that development of scientific ideas and innovation do not occur in socio-historical isolation.

To teach trans-cultural science and to rediscover the history of South Asian science is not to say that it is superior or inferior to European science. On the contrary, it is a call for a more inclusive and a globalist position on the role all scientific traditions have played in bringing together a holistic and shared knowledge about nature and its relationship with humanity.

Decolonial narrative of science is far from a reality in Pakistan since the historical foundations of science are located in foreign traditions, isolated from our historical local rationality. Most degree programmes and school curricula in Pakistan on history of science are based largely on assimilation and top-down model of knowledge production rather than on trans-culturality. Our universities and schools, scholars and leaders have a responsibility to design a history of science curricula that appreciates our scientific traditions and locates them in a global history of sciences.

The writer is a graduate student of history and philosophy of science at the University of Bielefeld (Germany).

Decolonisation, science and nationalism