Three murders, one suicide and a surge of political agitations across Indian universities have thrown the country’s academia into an uproar against the current nationalist government that has its ideologies rooted in Hindutva. Renowned writers, artists, historians and scientists have now started to speak out against the intensifying climate of religious intolerance and political intervention in academic affairs.
“What’s going on in this country is really dangerous,” said Rajat Tandon, a number theorist at Hyderabad Central University.
Tandon is only one among over 100 renowned scientists, including heads of several institutions, who have recently signed a petition protesting the various ways in which science and reason are being throttled in the country. Citing the murders of three prominent rationalists, men who dedicated their lives to counteracting superstition and championing science, the petition condemns what it describes as the Indian government’s silent complicity.
Narendra Modi, leader of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), assumed office as Prime Minister of India after winning the general elections of 2014 in a landslide victory. Both Modi and BJP are believed to be affiliated with the extremist saffron group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). While this unholy alliance could be compared to the relationship between the Republican Party and the Tea Party of the United States, the truth of the matter is that RSS is a paramilitary group that could inflict a lot more violence than the Tea Party has so far. With more than little help from RSS, BJP has largely promoted a Hindutva agenda, which revolves around the notion that India is the homeland of Hindus only and every other religious denomination, including the hundreds of millions of Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains, living in the secular democracy is an intruder.
“The present government is deviating from the path of democracy, taking the country on the path to what I’d call a Hindu religious autocracy,” said Pushpa Mittra Bhargava, founder of the prestigious Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology in Hyderabad.
Despite his unabashed anti-secular, anti-science stance, Modi’s vision for economic development is rather popular among the country’s voting majority though academicians and intellectuals have only recently started to condemn the government’s systematic throttling of the citizen’s right to freedom of speech and expression.
Last year, at the 102nd Indian Science Congress, many members of BJP came together to host a session on ancient Indian science. At the session, they claimed that several thousand years ago, Indians built airplanes that could fly not just between countries but also planets. Other, even more outlandish claims were made during this session. For example, the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha was cited as an example of ancient Indians knowing the secret of cosmetic surgery. While most scientists were stunned by these claims, with some even demanding that the session be called off, the hosts were predominantly made the butt of jokes and ridicule instead of outrage.
A month after, economics Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen resigned from the post of chancellor for Nalanda University in Bihar, citing “considerable government intervention” in his academic decisions. That was the same month when Leftist politician Govind Pansare was fatally attacked by right-wing Hindu activists. A few months later, leading rationalist and scholar Malleshappa Kalburgi was killed at his home by armed gunmen, possibly linked with yet another saffron organization.
“They were a threat, so they were eliminated,” said Tandon.
While these heinous attacks shocked the country’s academic community, igniting protests from filmmakers, writers and historians, scientists were a little late to join the team, possibly because most scientific research in India depends on government funding. Finally, in October 2015, three different groups of scientists, totaling over 1,000 signatures, made statements protesting the government’s utter lack of diligence in tackling these incidents of religious intolerance.
“Other people were protesting and we scientists were keeping quiet, and all these things were going on around us,” said Tandon. “Keeping quiet just didn’t seem right.”
However, not everyone has been agreeable to scientists joining this brewing debate.
“If you’re a social activist, if you’re a politician, if you’re a journalist with strong political view, no problem, you take part in the debate at whichever part of the spectrum you want to,” said K. VijayRaghavan, head of the Department of Biotechnology, the largest grant-making organization in the life sciences. “But I don't think it’s an issue which is a core scientific one.”
He said that such a debate runs the risk of distracting scientists from focusing on more important issues such as public health and technological development but those who recently decided to join the protesting academia, disagreed saying every scientist is first a citizen of the country.
“I signed [the petition] as a scientist but this is something I would have signed even if I was a professor of English,” said Sharath Ananthamurthy, a professor in the physics department at Bangalore University. “If we are quiet and if we let this kind of rubbish be propagated without strong dissent, a lie told a 100 times becomes a truth,” he says. “Talking about it, protesting, clarifying is the right thing.”
Photo Credits: Times of India