TO proclaim to the world that Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of auspicious beginnings for the Hindus, signifies ancient India’s prowess in plastic surgery as Narendra Modi did to the consternation of the world, may have pushed up his ratings with his Hindu chauvinist constituency. However, as the prime minister of a country that needs to muster all the technology it can to fight a spectrum of problems from chronic diseases to climate change, Modi knows that his
bête noire Jawaharlal Nehru had the right prescription: the importance of a scientific temper.
In a rare admission that it needs more than religious mobilisation, the BJP-led government has launched an initiative to “foster the scientific temper and reinforce a rational attitude”. Under way in smoggy Delhi just now at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) is the first India International Science Festival which has the participation of all its top scientific organisations. It concedes that although India has “a huge number of technically qualified professionals, [the] scientific temper is not evident across the nation”. Hence, fostering a scientific temper is more relevant today than ever before.
But it is doubtful how far the government is willing to go to bring about this radical shift in thinking. As a party that espouses Hindutva or the Hindu supremacist philosophy it might be hard put to allow the freedom of thought and debate that Nehru considered essential for the scientific approach: “The adventurous and yet critical temper of science, the search for truth and new knowledge, the refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity to change previous conclusions in the face of new evidence, the reliance on observed fact and not on preconceived theory, the hard discipline of the mind — all this is necessary, not merely for the application of science but for life itself and the solution of its many problems.”
If it were willing to debate it would be instructive to know how the BJP interprets the scientific temper.
That’s what Nehru wrote in his Discovery of India in 1946.The BJP, on the other hand, is crippled by the fundamentalist philosophy of its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which has a fixed Hindu supremacist view on history, science and culture that precludes any questioning. Even if Modi, a lifelong RSS man, subscribes to the view that India needs more science in its developmental push, it is not likely to come at the cost of less religion. Opposing views and any kind debate is no longer an option in the Republic of Unreason where rationalists are killed by those affiliated to RSS organisations and even BJP supporters who take an independent line on foreign policy risk public humiliation.
For the BJP-RSS combine, it’s a kind of schizophrenia in which the past, largely phantasmagorical, is never far from the present. Take the science festival at IIT. The nodal agency in organising it is Vijnana Bharati, an RSS affiliate, which spearheads the “movement for swadeshi sciences and technologies”. Point to note: M.S. Golwalkar or Guruji, the most revered of RSS supremos, who defined its theocratic ideology, maintained the North Pole was in India at one time!
According to him, the “North Pole is not stationary and quite long ago it was in that part of the world, which, we find, is called Bihar and Orissa at the present … it moved northeast and then by a sometimes westerly, sometimes northward movement, it came to its present position”.
The board of Vijanana Bharati, also known as Vibha, is a good example of how the RSS has infiltrated key institutions in the country. Nuclear scientists and space scientists are its patrons, while Vijay Bhatkar, chairman of IIT – Delhi, is its national president. Vibha is in regular contact with governments and is not embarrassed to state that its inputs to government are based on scientific evidence available in the Vedas.
The humbling of IIT-Delhi, and perhaps of others in different locations, is stunning. Of late it has been collaborating with RSS-linked outfits and religious organisations patronised by it. There has been no discussion on such changes in the institutional framework of India’s cultural, academic and scientific institutions.
It is true that many such appointments are in order when governments change and political camp followers are rewarded for their services to party. But rarely has any government, not even past BJP regimes, made appointments on purely ideological grounds, throwing the yardstick of competence to the winds. For the party, capturing the cultural and educational sector is of paramount importance in order to propagate its Hindutva ideology. When the BJP first came to power in its earlier avatar as the Janata Party in 1977, it was not an accident that L.K. Advani chose the information and broadcasting ministry. But politically and culturally, it has been bereft of cultural and intellectual capital.
Apologists for Hindutva say it is because the right has been preoccupied with political activism and has had little time to create an alternative intellectual tradition. This failure, they argue rather perversely, is because the liberal atmosphere did not allow the right to thrive and marginalised what they term the ‘traditional intellectuals’. For instance, journalist Swapan Dasgupta argues that the academic environment in Indian universities since the late 1960s “has been unrelentingly hostile to anything inimical to the liberal and Marxist paradigm”. Because of this traditional disciplines were neglected and traditional knowledge systems were destroyed “under the spurious guise of implanting a scientific temper”.
If it were willing to debate it would be instructive to know how the BJP interprets the scientific temper. Amartya Sen’s Argumentative Indian makes the point that the scientific temper has been the leitmotif of Indian thought over the millennia and is not a Western import. From the earliest times, Indians are said to have questioned and debated everything — even beliefs on how the world was created. This is enshrined in the Rig Veda, one of the oldest religious texts said to have composed between some 3,500 years ago.
The verses that make up the ‘Hymn of Creation’ have been held up as the earliest example of sceptical inquiry. Today’s believers in ancient Indian culture are full of certainties that have no basis. Many would not even know of this particular hymn and its radical doubts.
The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi.
Published in Dawn, December 7th, 2015