In his last speech to the Constituent Assembly, BR Ambedkar warned against the deification of men in power.
His worry was that in India, ‘Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world.
Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship’.
Ambedkar’s words were prophetic. In India today, there is a cult of slavish sycophancy around living political leaders — and sometimes dead ones too.
The tendency to hero-worship spills into other spheres of social life, such as business — witness the deference with which television anchors treat corporate leaders — and religious life, as with the blind faith displayed towards sants, maulanas, and bishops by their followers.
By tradition and temperament, Indians are extremely deferential to those older, richer, and more powerful than themselves.
This is so even in the realms of science and scholarship. Once an intellectual has achieved a certain status, he uses it to mark out a clear hierarchy between himself and those younger or less well known.
Whereas in some other countries senior scholars invite disagreement from their younger colleagues, in India they ask for — and receive — deference and even deification.
And so, to paraphrase Ambedkar, hero-worship plays a part in Indian intellectual work unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in any other democratic country.
Accustomed to displays of loyalty and servility, India’s most distinguished intellectuals often fall prey to self-love. When CV Raman left the Indian Institute of Science to start a new research centre, he named it after himself.
Thirty years later, a distinguished agricultural scientist did exactly the same thing. India’s most celebrated chemist presided over the naming of a scientific centre and even of a road junction named after him. India’s two most famous economists have allowed the naming of fellowships and prizes, and even professorships, after themselves.
This Indian tendency is symptomatic of a deep societal disease, where our leading intellectuals encourage flattery as readily as our leading politicians.
Like our netas again, powerful scholars each promote their own school of followers, who vilify their rivals while extolling their master’s virtues. University departments and research institutes thus tend to be run in an extremely authoritarian manner, with the director or resident guru enforcing his research programme on the subordinate staff.
This culture of intellectual dadagiri means that while there are many excellent academics in India, there are few truly top-class academic institutions. Among these exceptions is the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bangalore.
It was founded by Obaid Siddiqi, who was both an outstanding scientist (http://news.ncbs.res.in/story/catalyst-culture-creativity) as well as a thoroughgoing democrat. Siddiqi was a biologist trained in Aligarh and Glasgow, who worked in the United States before returning to India in the early 1960s to join the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). The TIFR was a fine centre of research, with two flaws.
One was personal, the halo placed around its founder-director, Homi Bhabha. The other was disciplinary, the fact that it was dominated by physicists, who allowed mathematicians an honoured place but looked down somewhat on chemists and even more so on biologists.
By the 1980s, if not earlier, it was clear that biology was the coming science. So Siddiqi moved to Bangalore, where he set up the NCBS, gathering around him a set of gifted young biologists.
Once he had laid its foundations, the founder withdrew, handing over charge to a first-rate scholar of the next generation. This was remarkable, for Indian scientists, like Indian politicians, do not usually give up control unless absolutely forced to.
Siddiqi’s atypical behaviour may have been partly contextual. He had seen how, when Homi Bhabha died, his room at the TIFR was converted into a shrine — for a full four decades afterwards, no director dared use it as his own office. Siddiqi knew that for institutions to flourish, they must not be identified with a particular individual.
He knew that change and debate were the stuff of scholarship, and knew too that in the sciences especially, the best work tends to be done by those under 45.
On my visits to the NCBS, I have been deeply impressed by its institutional culture — its lack of hierarchy, the warm and fraternal relations between students and faculty, the keenness to build bridges between science and the humanities. This democratic functioning is integral to the quality of its work. \
For it is widely acknowledged that the NCBS is India’s only world-class institute of scientific research. Its status, today, is comparable to the status of the Delhi School of Economics in the 1960s and 1970s, when its scholars likewise were as good as their Western counterparts.
D School’s success owed a great deal to its own founder, VKRV Rao, a great spotter of talent who had absolutely no problem in acknowledging the scientific superiority of a scholar younger than himself.
D School is still a decent place, if not quite at the cutting edge of global research in its field, which the NCBS undoubtedly is.
Obaid Siddiqi died late last month in Bangalore, yet, because of the person and scholar he was, his scientific and institutional legacy lives on. He was one of the greatest Indians I knew, in part because in some telling ways he was not really Indian at all.
Ramachandra Guha’s books include India after Gandhi. The views expressed by the author are personal.