The Indian Machine: History & Future
In collaboration with the JCB Prize for Literature
EL-11: The Indian Machine: History & Future (JCB)
Venue: Savoy State Room
Panelists: Tanuj Solanki, Arun Mohan Sukumar
Moderator: Manish Sabharwal
Date: 22 November 2020
The session, ‘The Indian Machine: History & Future’ was an engrossing discussion
between Tanuj Solanki, author of The Machine is Learning and Arun Mohan Sukumar, author of
Midnight’s Machines: A Political History of Technology in India. The session was moderated by
Manish Sabharwal. The times that we are inhabiting is marked by baffling uncertainty. The
recourse to technology and sudden shift to virtual alternatives of literally everything make this
discussion extremely significant for our times.
Sukumar’s book, Midnight Machines charts the political and historical trajectory of
technology in India. Political constraints always influence the introduction of new technology in
India. Techno-skepticism is a consequence of such political debates which have delayed the
application of technology. Solanki works in the digital department of an insurance company and
from his experience he formed the template for The Machine is Learning. The novel is set in
Bombay of 2017-18. The protagonist Saransh is part of an ‘insidious’ project that involves the
development of an Artificial Intelligence system that would leave approximately 500 employers
jobless overnight. The book explores the emotional effects of machine learning and the conflict
between capital and labour. It examines the facets of the question of automation replacing
workers in a micro-environment.
Anti-automation protests are an inevitable reaction to the introduction of new technology
in workspaces that makes traditional jobs redundant. The concept of ‘appropriate technology’
entails the small-scale, localized, environment-friendly application of technology. Sukumar
described this movement as a ‘Gandhian view of technology.’ Nehru played a crucial role in
acclimatizing India to appropriate technology.
Sukumar elucidated the approach of three prominent political leaders-Jawaharlal Nehru,
Rajeev Gandhi and Narendra Modi towards technology. Nehru was acutely aware and attempted
to absorb technological advancements. However, he engaged in a certain doublespeak, providing
scientists who engaged in atomic research a certain leeway while at the same time urging the
common people to not be too dependent on technology. Rajeev Gandhi was a young technocrat
who computerized the machinery of the government. He endorsed a visceral attitude to
embracing technology. Modi embodies Malavya’s stance of uncritical embracing of technology.
His political philosophy is close to reality. Solanki remarked that Modi is indeed the ‘child of
The session provided a larger perspective of the dynamics of the relationship between
technology and politics in India. Manish Sabharwal concluded the session by asserting that
technology cannot be separated from politics.