Some years ago, I spoke at the National Chemical Laboratory in Pune (NCL). The NCL had just completed 60 years, and my talk was part of the anniversary celebrations. I spent a day at the institute, being taken around the laboratories, talking to faculty and Ph D students.
The NCL is one of our premier scientific institutions, and it heartened me to see that a culture of serious research prevailed there. When I congratulated the director, he answered: ‘Thank you, but the real reason we can maintain quality is that we are far away from Delhi. The science institutes where you live, Bangalore, are even better than the NCL, because they are further away from Delhi.’
I was reminded of this exchange when reading a joint statement by our top scientists expressing concern at the growing ‘climate of intolerance, and the ways in which science and reason are being eroded in the country’. The scientists worried that the pluralism mandated by our Constitution was under threat from a ‘destructive narrow view of India that seeks to dictate what people will wear, think, eat and who they will love’.
The scientists’ statement reminded us that the Constitution urged Indians to ‘develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform’. Yet what we were witnessing instead was ‘the active promotion of irrational and sectarian thought by important functionaries of the government’.
The evening the scientists’ statement was made public, I was watching a debate on television. The anchor noted that the scientists had now joined groups of writers , artists, film-makers , sociologists and historians, who had previously made their own statements about what they saw as a rising culture of intolerance in the country. Asked to comment, the BJP spokesperson on the show dismissed these statements as ‘juvenile’ (a word he used several times) and as ‘bordering on the anti-national’.
Watching in Bangalore, I was staggered. The scientists’ statement had been signed by past or present directors of what are arguably our top four research centres: the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and the National Centre of Biological Research (NCBR), both in Bangalore; the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), in Mumbai; and the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), in Hyderabad. Among the other signatories was one of the world’s greatest theoretical physicists (Ashoke Sen, who works at the Harish-Chandra Research Institute, in Allahabad).
Many of these scientists had abandoned prestigious (and lucrative) jobs in the West to nurture high-class research institutions in India. But for the BJP spokesman they were merely juvenile anti-nationals. Perhaps, as one commentator sardonically put it on Twitter, for those who believed in ‘Ganesha Genetics’ any scientist less than 4,000 years old qualified as juvenile.
In three major respects, Indian scientists are different from Indian artists and writers. First, their intellectual work is virtually free of politics or ideology. Few (if any) writers or artists are totally apolitical. While the aesthetic or literary quality of their work matters most to them, their novels, poems or paintings often make statements that have a political meaning. On the other hand, in his or her professional life, the scientist is concerned exclusively with the growth of knowledge about the physical or natural world.
Second, writers and artists are far more visible in the public eye. They write articles, have their shows and books written about, appear on television. On the other hand, scientists focus on their work in the laboratory or classroom. Of the signatories to their statement, Ashoke Sen is known to a few ordinary citizens because he won a famous international prize and Stephen Hawking praised him. But many of the other signatories are also very distinguished. P Balaram, Satyajit Mayor, D Balasubramaniam and Chandrasekhar Khare may be unknown to the aam aadmi, but they are hugely respected by scientists in India and abroad.
The third difference may be the most important. This is that the work of artists and writers has limited practical use. Literature, art and music can enhance our sense of beauty, educate and entertain us. But they are not crucial to material well-being. On the other hand, the work of scientists contributes both to the growth of knowledge and, when innovatively applied, creates jobs and furthers economic growth too.
The IISc, the NCBR, the TIFR, the CCMB — in each of these institutes there are world-class scientists doing cutting-edge research. At the same time, the students they produce staff our information technology, pharmaceutical, and biotechnology industries, as well as our space, atomic energy and defence research programmes. Along with the IITs, these institutes constitute a knowledge ecosystem whose contribution to economic growth and national security has been considerable.
The world of Indian science is distant from the centre of political power in New Delhi. The worldview of Indian scientists is even more distant from the locus of cultural power in the present dispensation, namely, the headquarters of the RSS in Nagpur. The claims made by ministers schooled by the RSS on how ‘Hindu science’ is superior to other knowledge systems, can scarcely be comforting to Indians who have devoted their lives to nurturing modern scientific institutions.
The petitions of writers and artists have been met with contempt by the government. One senior minister went so far as to characterise the protesters as ‘rabid anti-BJP elements’. I hope our best scientists are not dismissed in the same manner. Unlike writers and artists, scientists are not prone to signing petitions or to seek out the press. That they sought fit to draft and issue a public statement is a reflection of their deep concern as citizens, and as scientists. For the government to dismiss the protests of writers and artists was stupid and short-sighted; for them to do likewise with the scientists would be tragic.
Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India
You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_Guha
The views expressed are personal