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When America stifled India’s digital aspirations

In the 1950s, India needed a computer to manage data, but the US blocked efforts to get one as it believed statistician P.C. Mahalanobis was a Communist sympathiser 

For years, P.C. Mahalanobis tried to get an American UNIVAC computer for use in India. The machine even featured on the cover of a Superman comic book and in a Bugs Bunny and Wile E. Coyote cartoon. Image screengrab from To Hare is Human, Warner Brothers, Merrie Melodies
For years, P.C. Mahalanobis tried to get an American UNIVAC computer for use in India. The machine even featured on the cover of a Superman comic book and in a Bugs Bunny and Wile E. Coyote cartoon. Image screengrab from To Hare is Human, Warner Brothers, Merrie Melodies

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Planning launched India’s globetrotting quest for computers. They represented a solution to the problem of big data, a problem that arose as a consequence of the decision to pursue centralized economic planning. India entered the computer age as only the second Asian nation to acquire digital computers. These machines began another expansionary stage in the growing knowledge infrastructures and data capacities of the state. Planning the economy demanded a variety of statistical indicators regarding Indian material life. Endeavours like the National Sample Survey now ensured a sudden deluge of such information. The magnitude of data generated was beyond the country’s computational abilities unless computers were harnessed. Apart from fulfilling a need the computer had other allures. Once invented, they quickly came to symbolize ultimate technological mastery and numerical omniscience, a swoon-inducing combination for technocrats. For techno-utopians like the Professor [P.C. Mahalanobis of the Indian Statistical Institute] and the rest of India’s scientific elite, computers were dizzyingly expensive dream toys.

Those involved in bringing India its first computers were those most closely associated with statistics and planning. The years during which computers made their entry into the subcontinent were ones in which Mahalanobis and the Institute acquired unprecedented national influence and gravitated towards the heart of the planning process…

The One That Got Away…

[T]he saga of the American UNIVAC was one of unrequited interest. Standing for Universal Automatic Computer, it had been unveiled in 1951 when its manufacturers handed it over to the US Bureau of the Census. It acquired national recognition the next year when it starred on CBS alongside the television news anchor Walter Cronkite. On election night it accurately predicted Dwight Eisenhower’s surprising landslide victory in the US Presidential election over Adlai Stevenson. This had been both the first presidential election that was broadcast on television coast to coast and the first time that computers were used to anticipate the result. In the 1950s, the UNIVAC became a byword for computers in the American public. It would later be featured on the cover of a Superman comic book and in a Wile E. Coyote cartoon, where it helped ensnare Bugs Bunny.

The Professor [Mahalanobis] pursued this machine for years. Its cost and the shortage of foreign currency in India, however, made outright purchase impossible—it was valued, three years later, at $10,00,000. But despite his persistent tugging at the sleeve of aid agencies for more than a decade, he never succeeded.

Cover of Nikhil Menon's book, Planning Democracy, published by Penguin Random House India,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>799
Cover of Nikhil Menon's book, Planning Democracy, published by Penguin Random House India, 799

The Indian government, like the Professor, remained unaware that the person spearheading the mission to bring computers to India was himself an obstacle. India was unable to get a digital computer from the United States through the 1950s partly because of Mahalanobis’ reputation as a Soviet sympathizer during the Cold War. Between 1950 and 1954, Mahalanobis engaged in numerous informal discussions in Washington, D.C., regarding the provision of technical aid to India and computers in particular. This was at the height of the Red Scare in the United States, with the fear- mongering Senator Joseph McCarthy leading a crusade against real and imagined communist influence in American society and Soviet infiltration into its government. It was not a context likely to favour the Professor. Files at the [American] State Department painted a menacing picture of him. Allergic to his political slant, they described him as ‘extremely sympathetic to communist doctrine’. A dispatch, classified ‘Secret Security Information’, from the American Embassy in New Delhi to the State Department in the summer of 1953 corroborates the ominous glare in which the Professor was viewed. It indicated that the State Department already possessed files that described him as a ‘notorious fellow traveler and sympathizer of the Soviet Union’ and the Indian Statistical Institute as a ‘Communist apparatus’.

The American consulate in Calcutta sent a confidential note to Washington, D.C. bolstering this view. It contained the transcript of a two-hour-long conversation between Mahalanobis and the President of Brooklyn College, Harry Gideonse. The report began complimentarily, describing Mahalanobis as a person of ‘exceptional personal charm and broad cultural background’. After that, it was downhill. It pointed out that Mahalanobis, unlike most Americans, was convinced that the Soviet Union had ultimately peaceful objectives. Gideonse even sensed sinister designs afoot. ‘To me, Mahalanobis is far more significant than straight communist propaganda. He has personal and moral authority, apparent integrity, and an impressive command of relevant information. His ideas are in my judgment a direct preparation for an authoritative solution to India’s economic problems.’

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By next winter, the view that Mahalanobis was a closet communist who was distressingly sympathetic to the Soviet Union had congealed in American back channels. Ironically, the Professor had himself become a liability in the attempt to convince America to grant India a computer. Another confidential memorandum sent from the US Embassy to the Department of State warned: ‘The problem of P.C. Mahalanobis . . . is well known to the Department . . . It will be noted that the present position of the Embassy and TCM (Technical Cooperation Mission)/India is not to give any assistance to the Indian Statistical Institute because of Professor Mahalanobis’ reputation of being at least a fellow traveler.’ Unsurprisingly, nothing came of the Professor’s negotiations with the Technical Cooperation Mission. It also appears he remained in the dark about his own unwitting role in stymying the progress of the proposal…

Aggravated, and no doubt puzzled, by Washington’s repeated unwillingness to part with a computer, the tireless Professor looked to the Ford Foundation. He communicated with Douglas Ensminger, the Ford representative in India, to inquire about the Foundation’s willingness to help. That autumn, some of the Professor’s friends in America—all of whom had recently spent time at the Institute [in Calcutta]— wrote to the President of the Ford Foundation. The Institute, they explained, was responsible for ‘collecting, tabulating and analyzing much of the social and economic data which provides the basis on which India’s plans are prepared and progress is evaluated’. Presenting them with a computer ‘not only would aid India in its planning and development, but would contribute greatly toward building a stronger bond between India and our own country’. Four years later—despite the Professor remaining an uncomfortable pebble in the boot of US agencies—nothing budged on the American front…

The Professor and the Institute had sought this contraption for a decade but had nothing to show for their Sisyphean endeavour. External forces effectively regulated the Indian computer programme through most of the 1950s. As the world leader in computer technology, America’s stance on India’s computing aspirations mattered a great deal. American agencies turned down Mahalanobis and the Institute due to misgivings about their political loyalties and their perceived vulnerabilities to Soviet encroachment in the harsh glare of the Cold War. Their proposals were either smothered behind the scenes or ignored, so they died on the vine. Even when such suspicions receded, the tepid attitude of American aid agencies and the Ford Foundation conspired to deny India this computer. By the end of the decade, however, Mahalanobis was confronting a much bigger issue—convincing his own government.

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Excerpted with permission from Planning Democracy: How a Professor, an Institute, and an Idea Shaped India by Nikhil Menon, published by Penguin Random House.

Nikhil Menon is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

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