In the history lab, delving into the South Asian experience at MIT

Researching history in the MIT archives is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, according to junior Jupneet Singh. “You get a name from here, a picture from here” and you begin to piece together stories about people from the past, says Singh, who has been diving into the archives this spring for class 21H.S04 (South Asian MIT Oral History and Digital Archive), a special topic in history taught by Associate Professor Sana Aiyar.

Following in the path of similar research courses such as 21H.S01 (MIT and Slavery), which Singh took online during the pandemic, the South Asian history class is introducing students to the techniques and methods of historical research while building up a body of materials that sheds light on the experience of MIT students and faculty from South Asia — a region comprising Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan — and of South Asians from around the world, including the United States.

Students are also generating digital and visual content for a website and an exhibit. The exhibit will open in October 2022 in the MIT Libraries’ Maihaugen Gallery in concert with a series of events that include a day-long conference and a gala organized by the MIT South Asian Alumni Association.
Interviewing alumni

The idea for an exhibit to preserve this rich history came from Ranu Boppana, president of the MIT South Asian Alumni Association who was inspired by the "China Comes to Tech" exhibit hosted by the MIT Libraries in 2017-18. The South Asian Oral History Project began in earnest in January 2021 during Independent Activities Period. It was the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, and MIT-India — one of the experiential learning programs run by MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives, better known as MISTI — was unable to send students abroad as usual. So, the program funded students to conduct research at home instead.

“That was my first time actually doing history research on my own, trying to find my own sources,” says senior Kathryn Tso, a double major in history and materials science who worked on the project in 2021. Tso interviewed several alumni for the oral history part of the project, including Canadian author M. G. Vassanji '74 and Pervez Hoodbhoy PhD ’78, a Pakistani nuclear physicist and activist. “It was a lot of fun,” Tso says. “We got to hear people’s incredible stories, through MIT and beyond.” Tso had no previous experience with primary source research and says the experience of working on the South Asian project was “enlightening.”

Aiyar says the engagement she saw in students like Tso is what prompted her to offer the class. “It was clear to me that offering a class like this would cater to an interest that was coming organically from students,” she says.
Insights into the past

The first South Asian student arrived at MIT from India in 1882, when India was still a British colony; the second didn’t show up for another 20 years. Finding detailed stories about the earliest students can be challenging, but Aiyar says it’s already clear that the history of South Asian students and faculty at MIT is “fantastically rich.”

For example, although the project is still in its early stages, researchers have already identified one early MIT student affected by the racially charged politics of the early 1900s: Madan Bagai from the Class of 1934.

Bagai was the son of Vaishno Das Bagai, a native of British-ruled India and a naturalized U.S. citizen who had his citizenship revoked in 1923 following a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that declared that Indians were not “white,” and could not therefore be accepted into the country. Having already surrendered his British citizenship, the elder Bagai was left stateless. He ultimately committed suicide, leaving behind a public suicide note protesting his denaturalization. Aiyar says, “To have Bagai’s son show up in our MIT database just a few years after this traumatic event gave me goosebumps."
Hands-on research

“The Technological Indian,” by Ross Bassett (Harvard University Press, 2016) serves at the primary textbook for the class, providing a deep dive into the experience of Indian students at MIT and how they helped transform their home country into a technological powerhouse. Aiyar also provides context on such topics as inclusion and exclusion in higher education, anti-colonial nationalism, the Cold War, and globalization.

The bulk of the class, however, is devoted to taking oral histories and conducting historical research using the MIT archives. For Singh, whose parents immigrated to the United States from India to provide “a better life to their children,” this work is personally meaningful. “These are the people who paved the way,” she says.

A chemistry major and a Burchard Scholar who hopes to minor in history, Singh has been working to provide a fuller view of the experience of South Asian women at the Institute. She has learned, for example, that the first woman from the region graduated in 1958 with a master’s degree in ceramics, but it wasn’t until the 2000s that records show a South Asian woman student had been present in every MIT department.
“I’m going into the archives to find information on the women, such as from PhD theses, to find out what they studied and tell a narrative about the first women here,” Singh says. “It’s harder than I expected.” Still, Singh says she loves the work. “It was really special to be in the archives, because you’re literally touching things that are 100 years old,” she says. More recent documents can also be exciting, she says, such as when she went through papers belonging to James Killian, the MIT president (1948-59) for whom Killian Court is named. “It’s surreal. There’s Killian Court and this is President Killian’s letter!”

While the class and the project focus on MIT, Aiyar stresses that students are also learning a lot about the history of South Asia — from British colonialism to the partitioning of India from Pakistan to today — and about the region’s growing interest in engineering and technology, which has been supported by MIT. 

“This is a story that’s broader than just MIT,” Aiyar says. “The South Asian experience at MIT becomes a lens by which we can explore and understand the historical context of important contemporary issues such as race and immigration in America and decolonization and nation-building in South Asia. Students in this class — what I like to call the history lab — learn to historicize and contextualize their archival research and the deeply personal individual oral histories they conduct with alumni in multimedia class projects. For this semester, they aren’t just students of history — they get to be historians.”

Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Senior writer: Kathryn O'Neill
Editorial and design director: Emily Hiestand