This essay emerged out of a lecture I recently gave on India in 2030. It has a simple premise—how did breakthrough knowledge spread in the 19th century, and what do those mechanisms tell us about our present moment in India. My argument is to compare the democratisation of knowledge that came with the Bengal Renaissance and suggest that a similar outburst is happening through the profusion of digital technology in India today.
The Bengal Renaissance was a moment of the spread of modernity and knowledge in the late 18th and 19th centuries led by a series of reformers in the eastern state of Bengal. This period, memorably captured in Bengali writer Sunil Gangopadhyay’s two standout books of historical fiction, Prothom Alo (First Light) and Shei Somoy (Those Days), threw up characters who redefined the contours of knowledge and curated a unique East-West meeting that triggered forces that led, finally, to the independence of India from colonial rule. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, the pioneering writer, and leading light of the Bengal Renaissance, could not have known that the song he wrote in his seminal novel Ananda Math (1882) called “Vande Mataram” would be sung by freedom fighters marching to British gallows.
Something got triggered in that period, and it all started because of two critical things—an unprecedented spread of knowledge which was different from the existing traditional knowledge, and it had a different idiom, different diction, and tonality (not just because some of it was in the English language) which not only took new ideas to places, and classes, where it had not reached before, but also taught revolution-minded Indians how to use the voice of the colonial masters against them. It had a certain democratising effect.
It is forgotten today that all this started amidst great turmoil. The year 1857, for instance, is not just the year of the First War of Independence, led by revolting Indian sepoys and the Rani of Jhansi and others, but it was also the year when the universities of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay were set up. To understand this wellspring of knowledge note, as the researcher Anup Kumar Das has in his paper The Legacy of Bengal Renaissance in Public Library Development in India during the Colonial British Rule: A Historiographical Study, that a host of important universities were born at that time: Fort William College (1800), Hindu College (1817), Serampore College (1818), Sanskrit College (1824), Scottish Church College (1830), and St. Xavier’s College (1860). It is because of this enlightening spread of education at that time that when Swami Vivekananda started travelling in the West (he spoke at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893), he could boast that even though he came from a country under colonial rule, his university in Calcutta opened its doors to women far before many of the best universities in the West.
As luminaries like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar were pushing the boundaries of education, democratising both English and Sanskrit education, there was also a parallel spread of libraries across Bengal. More than 80 libraries in Calcutta are more than a hundred years old. These libraries were the foundational stones of the revolution that brought India freedom. Two of the most powerful social movements of that time, the Brahmo Samaj (of Ram Mohun Roy and others including the Tagores), and the Ramakrishna Mission (of which Vivekananda was a founding member), were deeply interconnected to the spread of ideas and the library movement. The Anusilan Samiti, one of the most potent revolutionary movements of the time, also owned and distributed a collection of around 4,000 books. One of Kolkata’s finest libraries is still run by the Ramakrishna Mission in the Golpark area of the city.
This unprecedented democratisation of knowledge is happening again. This time through digital technology whose spread and use in India is going deeper, and becoming cheaper, each day. India is one of the world’s leading digital players these days. In many fields like the use of fintech or financial technology, it has some of the best processes anywhere. Technology is fronting every significant unfolding change in India—whether in the transfer of goods and services by the government, the spread of online education, and digital health, or the power of digital technology setting the narrative in Indian politics. The country is becoming a pioneering user of artificial intelligence. Quite simply, never before in history has any larger group of people in a single democratic nation used technology, or spread information, at quite the same grassroots manner that India is adopting today.
In each of India’s digital projects, whether it is in the use of technology in identification, or the dream of a digital health record for every citizen, or the ever-rising numbers of digital payments, or the record sums Indian digital education companies are raising on the back of soaring volumes of students, the country is in unprecedented territory.
There is a palpable sense that this will change everything. This digital renaissance is triggering forces perhaps most people cannot imagine today—as Bankim could not have imagined where the power of his “Vande Mataram” would go, or Vidyasagar could not have imagined that his championing of English language education would one day give his country a competitive global edge. Quite like the democracy (one person, one vote) that was universally given to every Indian in 1947 without any filter, digital technology is providing the tools of a new kind of democracy, of being able to voice the hitherto unvoiced in a manner and scale that could never have been imagined before.
Decades later when we look back, we will realise that this, our present moment, was a turning point in the history of our nation. And a digital renaissance made that change possible.
Views are personal. The author is vice president and head of research at Invest India, the national investment promotion agency of the government of India. He is a multiple award-winning author.