Aligning India in the Cold War Era: Indian Technical Elites, the Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur, and Computing in India and the United States
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Aligning India in the Cold War Era
Indian Technical Elites, the Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur, and Computing in India and the United States

In July 1963, a chartered DC-7 landed at a military airbase in Kanpur, India, a large but unremarkable city on the Ganges River, in a region often considered backward by Indians. The plane held an International Business Machines (IBM) 1620 computer, commonly used in American universities, which was destined for the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) at Kanpur, an institution supported by a nine-university American consortium. At the institute, a group of young Indian men muscled the machine into place (fig. 1). There to greet the computer was Harry Huskey, one of the foremost figures in U.S. computing. Huskey, who had consulted on the pioneer computer ENIAC, worked with Alan Turing in England, and served as president of the American computing professional society, was a professor of electrical engineering and head of the computer center at the University of California, Berkeley. Shortly after he and two computer experts from Princeton University had the computer up and running, they began an informal course for twenty-five specially selected IIT Kanpur first-year students, who, after completing their normal class work, would stay long into the night programming the computer (fig. 2).1 [End Page 783]

Fig. 1. Delivery of the IBM 1620 computer to IIT Kanpur, July 1963. (Source: Normal C. Dahl, “Revolution on the Ganges: A Report on the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur,” Tech Engineering News, April 1967, 18, photographer unknown. Reproduced courtesy Institute Archives and Special Collections, MIT Libraries, Cambridge, Massachusetts.)
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Fig. 1.

Delivery of the IBM 1620 computer to IIT Kanpur, July 1963. (Source: Normal C. Dahl, “Revolution on the Ganges: A Report on the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur,” Tech Engineering News, April 1967, 18, photographer unknown. Reproduced courtesy Institute Archives and Special Collections, MIT Libraries, Cambridge, Massachusetts.)

Fig. 2. Students working on the IBM 1620 computer at Kanpur, circa 1964 (note the IBM “Think” sign on the wall). (Source: Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, 1965 Convocation publication, p. 23. Reproduced courtesy IIT Kanpur and CMU University Archives.)
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Fig. 2.

Students working on the IBM 1620 computer at Kanpur, circa 1964 (note the IBM “Think” sign on the wall). (Source: Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, 1965 Convocation publication, p. 23. Reproduced courtesy IIT Kanpur and CMU University Archives.)

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The historiography of Indo-American relations during the cold war has been focused on a pair of bipoles: the United States–Soviet Union, and Pakistan–India. Jawaharlal Nehru famously declared India nonaligned, which for the United States meant refusing to take its side in the cold war, and India’s independent foreign policy was a continual irritant to the United States. America’s close relations with, and arms sales to, Pakistan, which was willing to align itself with U.S. interests, was a provocation to India, driving it closer to the Soviet Union. The United States and India became “estranged democracies” that maintained a “cold peace.”2

One can see parts of this narrative in the story of Kanpur. Kanpur was one of four IIT sites developed with programs of assistance from individual nations; the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and West Germany also provided assistance to these IITs, putatively reflecting India’s nonalignment. Unlike any of the other programs, the U.S. program of assistance had an abrupt and unceremonious ending in 1972 as relations between the United States and India deteriorated due to the crisis in East Pakistan, which culminated in the creation of Bangladesh. However, from the perspective of the early twenty-first century—now that India has become an important information technology (IT) business partner with U.S. companies and Indian engineers play prominent roles in America’s technical workforce—focusing solely on the twin-bipoles narrative has the effect of a magician’s distractions: flashy motions drawing the eye one way, while important action takes place elsewhere.3

The end of the cold war, along with the U.S. interventions in Kuwait and Iraq, has led to a reconsideration of the country’s role in the world—a reconsideration focused on the question of American empire. While their authors come to different conclusions as to whether the United States meets the conditions to be called, literally, an “empire,” many studies analogously apply concepts from the study of well-recognized empires to the United States and its interactions with the world.4 This article borrows [End Page 785] from studies of empire the concept of a transnational elite and its role in mediating between entities. In...