casteism Freethought Activism

Caste and Gender perspective of Modern Science in India 

Bigotry and science can have no communication with each other, for science begins where bigotry and absolute certainty end.

~Ashley Montagu

When we talk about science, we expect rationality and logical reasoning. But just like other people, scientists too are prone to the prevalent ideas of the times. It is no wonder then that gender and caste based discrimination would cast their shadow on Indian science. Recently, Madras HC ruled that The IIT-Madras had “committed gross irregularity” in selection of Associate Professor and Professor in the Department of Mathematics amounting to caste discrimination [1]. In IIT Bombay, students got an instruction to not use the ‘main’ plates for non-vegetarian dishes. Unfortunately, little seems to have changed from the times when Astrophysicist Meghnad Saha faced ‘food casteism’ in his hostel in 1911, while he was studying at Presidency College, Calcutta.

A 2016 study found that the gender gap in engineering colleges exists in India, but it is not as large as that found in other countries. However, the ratio of male-to-female engineers in the workforce was much higher than that found in college, producing questions as to the cause of the loss of female engineers from college to workplace (leaky pipeline- a metaphor for the continuous loss of women in science from college to the career ladder) [2]

In her book ‘Dispersed Radiance: Caste, Gender and Modern Science in India’ Abha Sur talks about her meeting with scientist Anna Mani (1993) who asked her “What is this hoopla about women and science?… It must be getting difficult for women to do science these days. We had no such problems in our time” Anna Mani was one of CV Raman’s (the 1930 Nobel laureate in Physics) students. Sur says “To be sure, Mani was not referring to ordinary women, rather, her “we” happened to be a highly selective and privileged group of women whose urban, upper-caste, and Western-educated families ensured their individual access to higher education”. During later conversations, Anna Mani seemed to be ‘not only deeply aware of but also “willing to discuss the pervasive but very personalized gender discrimination women endured as scientists. She seemed implicitly to differentiate between social relations in laboratories, which mimicked gender relations of the society at large, and the bureaucratic structures of scientific and technical institutions, which touted their “gender-blind” rules and regulations…In this respect, for women, doing science was not any more difficult than or qualitatively different from pursuing a career in literature or history. ” Sur thinks that another likely explanation of Mani’s attitude could be nationalism, which had a profound influence on women scientists of that era and tended to mask class, caste and gender differences as it asserted a self-conscious and self-confident Indian identity.’ Anna Mani, in later conversations realized that during the years when she had worn the mantle of science, had had the authority to hire women as scientists, and could have been a conscious role model for younger women, she had been unaware of the need to do so.’ [3]

Diversifying the scientific establishment is important as it helps change the nature of science: what questions are asked, what arguments are made, what observations are highlighted.

The Caste Aspect of Modern Science in India:

The beginning of institutionalization of Modern science by Indian scientists was marked by multiple and often contradictory visions. For some, science symbolized the continuity of a long tradition spanning centuries- Prafulla Chandra Ray considered “ father of Indian Chemistry” produced an impressive treatise on Ancient Hindu Chemistry to reclaim continuity of Indian scientific traditions. JC Bose ‘s research in Plant physiology led him to proclaim that Modern Science could only benefit from an infusion of Indian philosophy (Nandy 1980; Ray[1905]1909). For Chandrasekhar, the Nobel Prize winning astrophysicist, his motivation for doing science was a strong sense of nationalism (Wali 1991). Strongly critical of barbarism of the Vedic culture, Meghnad Saha ushered in the era of “science for the people”.

According to Prafulla Chandra Ray, the reason for the decline of the rich culture of medicine and surgery (of Charaka and Susruta tradition), was the introduction of the code of conduct by Manu: “According to Susruta, the dissection of dead bodies is a sine qua non to the student of surgery and his high authority lays particular stress on knowledge gained from experiment and observation. But Manu would have none of it. The very touch of a corpse, according to Manu, is enough to bring contamination to the sacred person of a Brahmin. Thus we find that shortly after the time of Bhagavata, the handling of a lancet was discouraged, and anatomy and surgery fell into disuse and became to all intents and purposes lost sciences to the Hindus.” He might have been the first working scientist in India to look at cause of decline of scientific spirit of India not within science but outside it. He felt that if one believes that the material world itself is unreal or “Maya”( Vedanta philosophy modified by Samkara) , it is impossible for him to harbor curiosity about it, let alone seek truth about it. [4]

Meghnad Saha (PC Ray’s student) was an astrophysicist best known for his development of the Saha ionization equation, used to describe chemical and physical conditions in stars. He was the first scientist to relate a star’s spectrum to its temperature, developing thermal ionization equations that unified astronomy and atomic physics and transformed astrophysics from a largely qualitative to a quantitative discipline. Astrophysicists often use the phrase “to Saha correctly,” making Saha one of the few scientists whose name is a verb. He was repeatedly and unsuccessfully nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Saha was born a shudra and faced casteism- At the Eden Hindu Hostel, some students objected to eating in the same dining hall with him because of his caste status. He believed that science was impersonal, objective and free from any and all social considerations and argued that a pernicious aspect of caste distinctions was the severing of mental and manual labor, resulting in stagnation and “backwardness” of Hindu society (hence the student doing science shied away from manual work) ; in contrast, the cooperation between mechanics and scientists had led to great advances in the western world.

Sur contrasts the cases of the physicists Meghnad Saha and C V Raman- Raman came from a south Indian educated and caste privileged family steeped in classical art forms, Saha from an uneducated rural family of modest means and underprivileged caste status in eastern Bengal. Both were non-believers. Raman was initially forced into a career in administrative services because of restrictions on travel by the conservative edicts of caste purity and pollution, while Saha was denied access to administration because of an earlier association with revolutionaries fighting for national liberation.

Saha was of the view that all castes, especially the ‘lower’ ones that he termed the “democratic classes”, be accorded “the same rights as members of other classes”. He was also politically active and was elected in 1952 to India’s parliament. His writings on river management, railway reconstruction, India’s need for power development showed a distinct cultural awareness not shared by many of his colleagues. In 1931 he founded the Academy of Sciences of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh (later India’s National Academy of Sciences). However, Meghnad was not very aware of gender aspect of science, disapproving of his daughter taking up science in intermediate college while encouraging his son to do so. But later in life, his views changed as he became more left leaning.

Sur also talks about Homi Bhabha, the founder of India’s nuclear programme, who was born into a wealthy, elite and Westernized Parsi family based in Mumbai. Saha’s differences with Bhabha, revolved primarily around differing notions about the goals of science and technology, and the means of achieving them. Saha emphasized equity and participatory democracy, even in highly technical engineering projects. This was quite at odds with the thrust of Indian policymaking in the 1950s, which was dominated by professional economists and technocrats who created a milieu ideally suited to Bhabha’s exclusivist and elitist approach. Thus, even though Saha had been engaged with formulating science policy since the 1930s and had deep political roots in the Indian nationalist movement, he was almost completely excluded from making decisions on science in independent India, especially in the arena of atomic energy.

Lest we think that caste’s role in shaping science and science policy is a characteristic of the distant past, there is the example of Raja Ramanna, former chairperson of India’s Atomic Energy Commission and one of the leaders of India’s 1974 nuclear weapons test. Sur discusses Ramanna’s autobiography Years of Pilgrimage as an example of how the “construction of illustrious genealogies” is deployed to naturalise a social order where privilege is inherited and maintained. He, like many other scientists of upper-caste background, claimed that his proficiency in science traced back to his caste’s traditional interest in higher learning, often of a religious nature which translates into the assumption that members of the upper castes, especially Brahmins, have an innate proclivity for science. [5]

What needs to be done:

Reservations are still not being properly implemented in some of the top science institutions based on the argument that reservations dilute merit (same people will have no problem with capitation fees being paid to buy seats)- Whether it be in case of admitting students or hiring faculties. A study of the impact of reservations in public sector jobs on productivity and efficiency has shown that the affirmative action did not reduce productivity in any sector, but had, in fact, raised it in some areas [6].


The Pioneer women scientists

The entry of women in higher education depended crucially upon the social reform movement and the educational programs of missionaries in nineteenth century India. Indian reformers saw women’s education as essential for the elimination of such social evils as child marriage, sati, polygamy, and the denial of property rights to widowed women [3]. They further saw education as a means to “improve women’s efficiency as wives and mothers and strengthen the hold of traditional values on society, since women are better carriers of these values” [Jaywardena 1986:88]

Kadambini Ganguly and Chandramukhi Basu were the first two female graduates from India and the entire British Empire. Kadambini Ganguly was also the first South Asian female physician, trained in western medicine, to graduate in South Asia. Like most of the earlier women scientists with a success story, she had the support of her family, mainly her father and husband. She and her husband were involved in activities for women’s emancipation. Her husband, Dwarkanath encouraged her to study medicine and she received severe backlash in the Bhadralok (upper caste Bengali) community. So much so that the editor of the popular periodical Bangabasi, referred to her as a courtesan in his piece. Dwarakanath confronted him, made him swallow the piece of paper where that comment was printed. He was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment and paid a fine of one hundred rupees. Even getting into a Medical college was not easy. Calcutta Medical College refused to admit Kadambini as a candidate despite her merit because there was no history of Indian women studying there. Dwarakanath, for the longest time, had also been campaigning to ensure accommodation and enrollment of female students in Calcutta Medical College. It was only after the couple legally threatened the authorities that she was allowed to study.

“For many men of the times, the aspirations to educate a wife or a daughter became a driving passion- pushing them to disregard the sentiments or even the protests both of the women they were educating and other members of the family” (Chitnis 1992). As in the case of Anandi Gopal Joshi who graduated as a physician the same year (1886) in the United States as Kadambini Ganguly. She had suffered domestic violence at the hands of her husband who coerced her to study even when she didn’t want to. Unfortunately, she contracted TB and had to return to India. She received no treatment: Western doctors refused to treat a brown woman and Indian doctors would not help her because she had broken societal rules. Joshi died in 1887 at 22 years of age. Though she was the first Indian woman to qualify as a doctor, she never practiced as one. That credit goes to Dr Rukhmabai who studied medicine in London and qualified as a doctor in 1894. Married at the age of 11, Dr Rukhmabai contested her husband’s claim to conjugal rights in a court case that led to the passage of the Age of Consent Act in 1891.

The growing numbers of educated men desired “limited and controlled emancipation of [their] wives” in order to reconcile the grave disjunction between their social position and that of their wives (Sarkar 1985: 160). As women began to get more educated, they became more aware of their subjugation by men. The cause of gender equality was taken up by the younger women. For instance, students of all-women Bethune College argued against a separate university for women claiming that a university exclusively for women would necessarily limit competition.

Janaki Ammal was a botanist who conducted scientific research in cytogenetics and phytogeography; her most notable work involved those on sugarcane and Brinjal. She faced sexism and casteism in her field of work. Her efforts to publish results of her research in the prestigious journal Nature led her to face discrimination at the hands of the male, upper caste establishment. She decided to fight it and got two articles published in Nature in 1938. Another scientist Asima Chatterjee who worked on organic chemistry was the first Indian woman to be awarded a DSc. In rural Punjab, mathematician R. J. Hans-Gill had to pretend to be a boy and wear a turban to attend school — a secret that was kept between her family and the headmaster.

When Kamala Sohonie, the top student at her undergraduate university in 1933 had applied for admission to the graduate studies program at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, CV Raman, the 1930 Nobel laureate in physics reportedly retorted, “I am not going to take any girls in my institute.” He finally admitted her although not as a regular student. She completed her course with distinction in 1936 and earned a doctoral degree from Cambridge University [3]. After her, Lalitha Chandrasekhar, Anna Mani and Sunanda Bai joined Raman’s class. Anna Mani like many other women of her times had aspired to be a medical doctor but due to paucity of medical schools for women, had to go for science.

Abha Sur writes about how ‘The lives of the women scientists in Raman’s laboratory evince an ongoing tussle between individual agency and societal discrimination. If Kamala Sohonie’s perseverance and academic success opened doors for Lalitha Chandrasekhar, Anna Mani, and Sunanda Bai, perhaps a perceived social transgression by Sunanda Bai may have closed them, at least in Raman’s eyes, for subsequently there were no women students in his laboratory.’ Adding that ‘Survival in science demanded from the women social conformity and conservatism.’

The segregation by sex insisted upon by Indian society found its way into the research laboratories, severely limiting the intellectual contact so essential for full participation in scientific life. Raman maintained a strict separation of sexes in his laboratory. Mani and Bai for the most part worked alone, isolated from their peers. The crucial practice of discussion and debate about scientific ideas among peers was denied to them, rendering the women peripheral to the scientific enterprise. Casual, informal association with male colleagues was strictly out of bounds. Raman frowned upon any interaction between men and women. Mani recalled how he would mutter “Scandalous!” every time a male and a female student walked together by his window.

Educational and research institutions are seen primarily as admission granting bodies that ignore gender and caste and are concerned only with merit and excellence in their pursuit of knowledge, and not as cultural and social sites. This helps perpetuate the myth of gender neutrality in science. The gender and caste prejudices embedded in the interactions of the laboratory are not seen as reproductions of the social relations of the society at large, but as individual actions. The merit -based admission process helped to establish the gender-neutral credentials of the institutions. However, the academic credentials of the women students were brought into question again and again by some of their male colleagues as every action of theirs was minutely scrutinized with suspicion and doubt, undermining their position and slowly eroding their sense of belonging to the laboratory. Women students received more than their share of the ridicule and banter – Every woman student was given a derisive “nickname.” that ‘struck at the core of the woman’s personality, setting her apart from the other women students. The women, even as they were targets of this insidious practice, participated in the game, masking their individual embarrassment in the jovial mockery of their friends’ [3].

Lalitha Chandrasekhar ‘epitomizes the educated woman visualized by the Indian religious reformers; her education made her the ideal wife, willing to forego her career to be a supportive companion’ – She married Chandrasekhar the renowned Astrophysicist who went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1983.

Anna Mani and Sunanda Bai spent long hours in the laboratory, snatching a few hours of sleep under the table whereas men could rest in the corridors or out in the patches of green outside the lab. They did a lot of pioneering work. Raman himself had nothing but praise for Sunanda Bai’s work. Among other things, she worked extensively on the phenomena of light scattering. However, at the end, neither of them was awarded a degree. Anna Mani claims that the lack of a PhD degree made little difference in her life. In August 1944, Sunanda Bai submitted her PhD dissertation, but attempted suicide with her friend Sharda, just before she was to leave for Sweden for post-doctoral work in experimental physics. Sunanda Bai could not be saved but her friend survived. Her colleagues and friends remain disquietingly silent about the reason behind her suicide denying any role of science or IISc in her death. Sur says that ‘The secrecy shrouding her suicide serves to heighten the sense of a scandal surrounding a social transgression. ‘

Anna Mani was the most successful among the three. She went on to pursue a career in meteorology. She was unmarried and never regretted the decision. The incompatibility of marriage and a career in science is a recurrent theme in the lives of women scientists in colonial India. [3]

The scale of the gender problem :

The fact that two out of every three scientists in India today is a woman seems implausible given that just three generations ago, in the 1900s, there were only a handful of women enrolled at the collegiate level and these included women in all disciplines (See Krishnaraj 1991 and Jayawardena 1986).

Among the Ph.D.’s in science, about 25-30% are women with fair distribution among different subjects, life sciences and chemistry dominating. Of the 25-30% Ph. D.’s, the proportion in faculty is between 15 and 20% and at higher levels the number further drops. Women heads of laboratories, science departments of the government, or as members of governing or advisory bodies are rare. The numbers indicate that the fraction of women as recipients of an advanced degree decreases along the line of undergraduate degree in science (40%, 20% in engineering) to Masters (35%, with only 15% in engineering) and similarly for the Ph. D. Thus the fraction of women Ph.D. holders is not insignificant, but this is not reflected in the number of women faculty in institutions of higher education or research in science. The most significant drop in the leaky pipeline seems to be after the doctoral degree and not before. The serious attrition as far as participation of women in science in India is concerned is during the transition from the pursuit of degrees in science to that of scientific careers. [7]

At the core of the problem is the inability to balance a family and career, the inherent assumption being that the family is solely the responsibility of the woman. The proportion of women scientists who never married (14%) is higher than that of similar male scientists (2.5%), and further, the number of women scientists married to scientists (40%) is more than double the reverse case (19%). When speaking of work post-marriage, many scientists recounted that family support was not only essential, but that it enabled them to do better work or more work. Indian Academy of Science (IASc) and National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) undertook a survey which included women who could not continue in Science after a Ph.D., along with scientists of both genders who had continued in science or related professions. In the survey all but the women who had had to leave, said that in their perception those who left had left due to family reasons whereas those who had actually left answered that it was because they did not find appropriate job or support. This survey, in spite of the small sample size, indicates that the normal perception that marriage and family is responsible for leaky pipe line needs further analysis: the leak may arise from other biases as well.

The way forward:

8 March, International Women’s Day, is celebrated in many research institutes, with discussions on Women in Science. Committees that address sexual harassment at work place are a must. Research institutions and Universities in India should aim for greater awareness on gender parity and addressing implicit bias. Pinjra Thod, seize the night are movements that have created awareness about the plight of women students in colleges and hostels. Challenging stereotypes, better support for parents in childcare, awards and programs to encourage participation of women and non-cis, non binary individuals are steps that can ensure diversity in the establishment.



[2] Aspiring Minds. (2016). National employability report: Engineers. Annual Report 2016.

[3] Dispersed radiance: Caste, Gender and Modern Science in India







About the author

DrBeena Kayaloor


  • As brilliantly explained, caste and gender had a lot of impact on scientific education. Gender gap and caste bias are social antagonistic contradictions that plagued society for long and even continuing to this day, although to a lesser degree. Many of the scientists had reservations regarding gender and caste and they discouraged both women and lower castes from entering the field.
    There is a need for scientists to ‘ scientifically’ view social contradictions and demystify caste and gender discrimination. A true scientist must treat women scientist as well as a dalit or adivasi scientist on par with higher caste or elite scientists. That is only th

  • As brilliantly explained, caste and gender had a lot of impact on scientific education. Gender gap and caste bias are social antagonistic contradictions that plagued society for long and even continuing to this day, although to a lesser degree. Many of the scientists had reservations regarding gender and caste and they discouraged both women and lower castes from entering the field.
    There is a need for scientists to ‘ scientifically’ view social contradictions and demystify caste and gender discrimination. A true scientist must treat women scientist as well as a dalit or adivasi scientist on par with higher caste or elite scientists. That is only the true ‘ scientific temper ‘ for a scientist to be called a ‘ scientist’ . Otherwise, the person is just a student learning science without imbibing the basics of science

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