Free and Open Source Software in India: Mobilising Technology for the National Good

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis, based on ethnographic fieldwork in India, explores how Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) is mobilised by individuals, the government, NGOs and the private sector in efforts to improve the lives of fellow citizens. As such, FOSS in India must be understood as a nation building project and can be considered an inheritance of Swadeshi, Gandhi’s call for India self-rule via home grown craft and technology. This is not to say that those who work to create and utilise FOSS in India do so as an explicit extension of Gandhi’s legacy, though some do. Rather, the Indian FOSS community envisions this software as a way to develop the nation in particular moral and material ways and underlying their efforts is an assumption/belief that material development must be understood in moral terms. Further, Swadeshi heritage has to be understood as the corollary to the colonial legacy and the contemporary Indian FOSS movement entails complicated relationships with postcolonial entities as well as contradictory goals within the community. Using both pragmatic and idealistic arguments, Indian FOSS advocates, who are predominantly members of the middle class, push for changes in technology policy and practice at local, regional and national levels. The most common activity of the Indian FOSS community is not the creation of FOSS but its “evangelism.” Members of the Indian FOSS community evangelise the merits of this technology to engineering students, policy makers, and the private sector. As such, FOSS is mobilised towards a particular ideology of the national good, and this ideology is valued as much as if not more than technical practices of actually creating FOSS. This study explores how the ideological project of FOSS imagines ideas of the national good as well as the ways in which it melds with traditional Indian middle-class values. Despite a sincere commitment to freedom and openness as technical and philosophical tenets, the Indian FOSS community also demonstrates limits to freedom and openness by reproducing hierarchies in class and gender. Although efforts of members of the Indian FOSS community have resulted in the adoption of pro-FOSS policies at the national level, relatively little FOSS is actually produced or used in India. Several hurdles to widespread adoption are explored. One challenge to implementing FOSS in government and industry is that the Indian government and software industry must balance desires for technological autonomy with the need for jobs from multinational corporations via outsourcing and development aid from NGOs including the Gates Foundation, with its ties to Microsoft. By attending to the sociological aspects of the FOSS community as well as the wider political, economic, and historical contexts of technology in India this study demonstrates that FOSS in India represents both similar and different concerns than it does in the West, where it was first developed. In so doing this thesis shows the value in including such contexts in the analysis of technologically concerned communities that benefit and expand the anthropology of FOSS not only in other developing nations, but in the West as well.
Date of Award1 Aug 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorJeanette Edwards (Supervisor) & Soumhya Venkatesan (Supervisor)

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