Science

If Blaming Centre For Everything Wrong With Indian Science Is Scientific Temper, Then I’m Guilty Of Not Having It

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a convocation ceremony
Snapshot
  • A critical response to the concern expressed by a section of Indian scientists on growing intolerance and decreased funding.

This piece was sent by the author to 'Nature' was but was not published by the journal. It has been published here after edits made in accordance with standard checks.

This is with reference to the article titled, 'Intolerance and funding concern Indian scientists ahead of election' by T V Padma, published in Nature vol. 569, page 317, 2019, (accessed online on 10 May 2019). The article is almost a recycling of an open letter that was penned by a section of Indian scientists on April 3, 2019, where they appeal to the Indian voters that while exercising their franchise they should consider rejecting discrimination and violence that is being promoted by some extremist groups associated with the ruling party.

As an Indian scientist concerned with society and science, I have been observing the above stated opinion for quite some time and gathering data over the same. I am afraid that the opinions of this section of scientists do not match the data actually at hand. It is paradoxical that while the article is anxious at the perceived weakening of ‘scientific temper’, the article itself plays on perception stereotypes, media propaganda, and not hard data.

In the second paragraph of the article, the author has simply classified the ruling party as the Hindutva party opposed to ‘secularism’.

The term ‘secularism’, as understood in the political and common parlance of India is ostensibly different from the true meaning of secularism.

A recent instance from the southern state of Tamil Nadu would suffice to show the kind of secularism that is extant in India. In June 2018, the state government decided to introduce ‘Common Era (CE)’ and ‘Before Common Era (BCE)’ to replace ‘Anno Domini (AD)’ and ‘Before Christ (BC)’ respectively. This move was deemed anti-secular and all so-called secular parties opposed it. Within a few days of introducing it, the government had to revoke it and it reverted back to the religious terms ‘AD’ and ‘BC’. This was hailed as a victory of secularism.

All ‘secular’ parties in India have been at the forefront asking for book bans (Da Vinci Code) and stopping of film screenings (Angels and Demons). For example, during the previous regime, which was supposedly ‘secular’ for this group of scientists, a television broadcast titled ‘The lost tomb of Jesus’ was called off air and this too was seen as a secular step.

The letter and the article in question mention lynching in India. Again, this is a classic case of manufactured perception of threat by selective highlighting of one side of the story.

There have been violent incidents between cattle smugglers and cattle owners in North India for quite a long time. There have been an equal number of violent acts committed by cattle smugglers as well. It was a report in 2013 submitted by National Investigating Agency (NIA) under the previous government that exposed the link between cattle smugglers and a major radical outfit involved with terrorism.

The problem is not new. Researchers like Bayley have pointed that way back in 1963 there were more than 20,000 cattle theft-related arrests in the country. It is unfortunate that this section of scientists have allowed their ideological vested interests and political biases to override their ‘scientific temper’ by ignoring these facts.

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On the murder of activists and journalists, at the outset, let it be understood clearly that I consider ‘violence is the last resort of the incompetent’. Killing of intellectuals belonging to any ideological dispensation is a heinous crime against the intellectual health of the society as a whole and hence those who committed these murders should be considered as attacking the health of the nation apart from committing crimes of violence against humanity.

Unfortunately, here too, there is a selective highlighting of facts.

In my own home state Tamil Nadu, as early as 1998, Professor Paramasivam, a Gandhian intellectual, was murdered in cold blood. One of those arrested was rearrested in 2013 in the killing of another intellectual, one Salem Ramesh, an auditor by profession and an activist promoting social equality.

Systematic elimination of youth leaders and activists of a particular ideological dispensation has been carried out by an outfit in South India which has been implicated in many acts of horrible violence – from amputating the hand of a professor in Kerala to systematic killing of both Hindutva activists and leftwing students in the campus. The outfit is called ‘Popular Front of India’ (PFI) and let it be said, that, unfortunately most of the so-called intellectuals have attended the conferences of this outfit or outfits affiliated to PFI.

Such being the real situation in India, to blame one ideological dispensation alone, while remaining silent on others, is neither scientific nor can exactly be considered neutral.

Let it be stated clearly that as a scientist, I want the governments, irrespective of any party in power or in opposition, to eliminate this culture of violence and killing with all the resources at their hand. No person found guilty should be spared and no person thus killed should be denied justice.

Now, let us come to the question of funding. Science institutions in India in general, are modelled after Soviet institutions. Through decades they have produced a few islands of excellence but have mostly alienated larger India from doing science. There is a social stagnation in the arena of Indian science.

To understand what Nehruvian-Soviet model did to Indian science at large, one should just look at the way Indian scientists rose to the position of making India an Asian forerunner of science at the close of colonial rule but thereafter India fell from that position subsequent to India becoming independent..

C V Raman, Asia’s first Nobel Laureate in physics was a stringent critic of Jawaharlal Nehru in this respect. Raman warned about the Soviet style doing of science (C V Raman in his Independence Day Message to Indian Express in 1952).

“Looking around and sizing the situation, it seems to me that the real danger before our country is crushing down of individual freedom and initiative by the steamroller of government authority. Already we see indications of this in the ... legislative measures having an expropriatory character and the passage of taxation and other bills calculated to kill private enterprise in the field of industrial development. ... Democracy without freedom for the individual is a shame and a delusion.”

Raman later likened the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), a model Nehruvian institution of science and technology, to the Taj Mahal, a beautiful monument of course but essentially a tomb and in this case, for science.

Over the decades this prediction, of institutions with interference from the Nehruvian bureaucracy, becoming the cemetery for doing good science has come true.

Here is another instance of the dire consequences of the Nehruvian-Soviet model institution having severe traumatic effect on doing science for scientists. The words from an inquiry committee into a spate of suicides of scientists in 1970s in India’s premier agricultural research institute reveal the state of the rot in India’s science establishment:

The phenomenon is not confined to ICAR. Barring minor exceptions, it pervades the entire scientific and academic community in this country. At the root of this is the greed for bureaucratic power and love of a comfortable life which afflicts this class.

This is exactly the prediction made by C V Raman decades ago and today it is precisely this class which in my assessment is presiding over the protest against this particular political dispensation.

Next in the article is the charge about the initiation of research on panchagavya – a cattle-based liquid formulation. A few discerning scientists had expressed their ire both on panchagavya research as well as on the composition of the research panel.

However, there have been quite clear scientific voices which support the investigations into this traditional bio-formulation which has been well documented in the traditional knowledge systems of India. Just to quote one of them, Dr Sunil Kumar Verma from the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), while refuting the criticisms of the scientists opposing panchagavya, observed the following:

…..fact that ‘panchagavya’ is a rich source of microbiota present in fecal material, urine, milk, yogurt and butter, it is not appropriate to assail the current move of India to test the therapeutic potential of panchagavya. It is not an unscientific move, neither an insult to science. It has nothing to do with alleged Hindu agenda of current Indian government; and it is completely a scientific program, which deserve support and encouragement from scientific community.

Again, let me point out that the research on panchagavya precedes the present political dispensation. For example, the Pondicherry Science Forum, a leftist organisation, had an associated farmers’ science centre which prepared and distributed this formulation to the local population under a Department of Science and Technology project in 2005-08.

Actually, the intense media-based aversion for any research into the traditional knowledge base of India by Indian scientists and governmental support to these research initiatives is a worrying concern for real science enthusiasts in the country.

Here, it is noteworthy to highlight that the same sections of the media have criticised the research on Ayurgenomics. But these self-appointed guardians of ‘scientific temper’ did not care to update, revise or revoke their views even as a research paper on Ayurgenomics was published in the Nature journal.

Let it be clear again. Whether it is panchagavya or Ayurgenomics, scientific investigation into these traditional knowledge systems is very essential and if Indian scientists do not do it and if the Indian State does not support it, then, when transnational companies who are constantly knowledge mining these systems, patent these very knowledge systems, it is India that will be at a great loss.

With regard to the scientific outlook of the government at the centre, which is being thoroughly bashed in the said article and the letter, one wishes again, for a scientific outlook from the writers.

Towards the close of this article there appears the mention of pseudoscience and its rise. The letter refers to the incident when a junior minister in the Education department made a statement on Darwin’s evolution. But he was criticised at once by his senior colleagues in the cabinet. This little detail of the junior being admonished was allowed to be skipped in both the article and the letter.

However a light-hearted statement by the Prime Minister himself at a private medical institution, where he talked about genetic engineering in ancient India, has been exaggerated by a section of media and scientists as if it were a policy statement.

It is noteworthy to highlight that the apparent pseudoscience points are primarily championed by serials like ‘Ancient Aliens’ aired in the US since 2009. These have had massive reception and fan following and have been disseminated in a big way because of the commercial considerations. It is through this series that several pseudo-scientific ideas about high-end technology extant in the remote past are again brought to light.

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When the article and the letter try to picture the current ruling dispensation of India as similar to the other rightwing forces, they have again erred on the data.

While the global right-wing tries to deny or minimise the effects of global warming, the current dispensation at the centre has not only accepted global warming as a serious problem, it has promoted a global solar alliance, even in the face of resistance from the current ruling power of the United States.

Let it also be noted that when it comes to policy decisions on the history of science and spreading science culture to the masses, this government did not rely on any pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo but have chosen eminent scientists like Dr Manjul Bhargava and Dr Subhash Kak.

There is no doubt that pseudoscience has serious political ramifications. At the same time, it is not an exclusive phenomenon of the present political dispensation as the critics of the current Indian government allege it to be. But, in this emergence of pseudoscience and its criticism by the secular media, the genuine scientific heritage of India is pulled into its ambit thus classifying all of Indian scientific achievements in the past as something to be loathed.

Let us look at few of the data which our scientists have safely ignored. Following is the data on the government expenditure on higher education as percentage of GDP from UNESCO Institute for Statistics:

We see that the maximum was around the year 1999-2000 (when the previous BJP-led NDA government was in power) and since then it has been a constant decline understandably due to the world economic meltdown through these past years. In the last 5 years, the expense has not drastically come down. But this fact has to be seen in the light of another dimension, namely the increase in the number of universities as revealed by the NITI databases. From 621 Universities in 2010-11 we have 799 in the year 2015-16.

Almost all states have seen a significant jump in the number of universities. It is indeed a no brainer that with increased Universities, cuts elsewhere are imminent.

Decades of keeping larger India from science learning has been rightly corrected through the Atal Tinkering Lab Mission that has taken science learning to distant villages.

Also, the huge response to the Mentor India initiative that sought support from domain experts and experienced individuals to render their services pro bono for this initiative reveals its pan India appreciation. Further, the success of this mission could perhaps be gleaned from the way India’s ranking in the Global Innovation Index has rapidly changed.

It is appalling to note that this ranking had touched the nadir point under the previous government as seen in the following figure (data taken from the portals of Global Innovation Index):

The effort needed in bringing about this phenomenal change can only be appreciated if we look at the first derivative plot, shown below, of the above trend:

A look at other parameters like construction of National Highways, reveals that most of the states have added several hundreds of kilometers of road on their terrain.

Then, if we look into electrification of households, what the country could not achieve for half a century, this government has made possible in less than 5 years. Other projects like the mission for cleanliness taken up on a war-footing, must in fact be acknowledged, if not praised by these scientists, if at all they were truly concerned about the welfare of the country. Success of the Swachata Mission can partially be gleaned from the following WHO report on several health related parameters:

A: Tuberculosis treatment coverage

B: Number of under-five deaths (thousands)

C: Number of infant deaths (thousands)

D: Number of neonatal deaths (thousands)

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E: Malaria - number of reported deaths

F: Number of new leprosy cases (in thousands; rounded at the first decimal place)

G: Deaths due to tuberculosis among HIV-negative people (per 100 000 population)

Ease of doing business is one of parameters through which the financial, fiscal and industrial sanity of a nation can be gauged. A look at the trend of ranking of India in this global index would suffice to speak for the sincere efforts of the current government (Data taken from Doing Business portal):

One can go on and on with statistics to show that the current dispensation at the centre is everything not what these set of scientists want their readers to believe. What is actually happening, is an attempt to breakdown the well-guarded feudalism and this, naturally irks the benefactors of Nehruvian establishment.

Constructive criticism is inevitable for success, but, spewing venom with baseless allegation in the garb of freedom of expression, that too from the ivory tower, is repugnant.

It is not as if scientists should toe the line of the central government. Physicists C V Raman and Meghnad Saha who differed bitterly among themselves on various issues were united in criticising Nehru. What the Science Establishment of India today needs is a Glasnost and Perestroika of its own.

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But, if the criticism is merely to tarnish the image of the government and make one’s voice heard for the sake of ideological and other vested interests, then, it is really unfortunate that those who call themselves scientists are indulging in it.

It is time to accept, that, despite the high-sounding flowery language of Jawaharlal Nehru, his approach to science was a Soviet-feudalist institutional approach. Today, this has become a great threat to doing science in Indian society. Nothing is more injurious to science than scientists who have developed a bureaucratic mindset who lead campaigns because of ideological biases.

Let it be said, that, despite the stray individual voices of factoid ignorance, which need to be criticised and corrected, the present government is actually trying to change the system in favour of taking science to the masses. And, from the empirical data they are succeeding in it.

There is an imminent threat to the breakdown of the Nehruvian socialist-feudalistic set up with the possibility of the current dispensation winning a second term. This is the more probable reason for the current media campaigns than a genuine concern for science.

Some of the scientists who have participated in this campaign are members of the prestigious Indian National Young Academy of Science, a body of INSA that was actually created in 2015. So, anything positive in the realm of science is because of the autonomy and sheer intellect of the scientists and anything bad is to be blamed on the government at the center! If this is scientific temper, I am guilty of not having one.

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