[ Himal SouthAsian, Mar 2012, Hitavada, 4 Mar 2012 ]
Last month, February 28th was the ‘National Science Day’. Yes, there is such a day. And there been one for sometime. If you are hearing it for the first time, it is not your fault. It is reported that on this day in 1928, a 40 year old Tamil Brahmin called Chandrasekhar Venkar Raman sitting in 210 Bowbazar Street at the erstwhile building of the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science in Kolkata discovered certain phenonmena regarding the scattering of light, which would come to be known as the Raman effect. The Nobel prize in Physics followed in 1930. His was the first one in science, where an Indian had done the research in India. It was also the last one. Under the prodding of the National Council of Science and Technology Communication (NCSTC), the honourable government of the Union of india has designated February 28 as ‘National Science Day’. Since 1987.
With name as lofty as ‘National Science Day’, this event largely bypasses most universities of the Indian Union. The major organizers are those who receive patronage and blessings from the central government. In states where the provincial education boards and councils are still dominant (for example, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, etc.), this ‘Day’ is largely unknown. Mostly celebrated in schools with ‘national’ Delhi-controlled syllabi, central government offices, especially educational and research institutions, the events often bring in sarkari chief guests – from the dubious to the infamous to the occasional savant, lamps are lit, speeches are made, marigolds are worn and hung, a lot of tea and coffee is drunk, some samosas are consumed. And then they all go home. Some more things happen on this day. Awards are given for excellence is popularizing science and innovative science education. The prime-minister, the minister of science and technology, the minister of state for the same ( when there is one) light up the faces of some newspaper owners by providing full page ads exhibiting their gleaming faces and a one paragraph message to the nation. This is how we, the citizens of India, get our annual peg of the scientific spirit. In some schools there will be competitions and prizes. There will be energetic kids whose mirth will invariably be suppressed by the bureaucratic approach that many organizers will approach the event with. It will be made into one of that long set of state sponsored farces that a school year in this country is peppered with. A Raman, a Saha, a Bose, will meet an untimely death among those dreamy kids. Once more. Some functionaries and bureaucrats will breathe lightly at the end of this day – as if their niece just got married. Some decorators, caterers and suppliers will do a little business, some will get small kickbacks. Such is the fate of us petty people.
What more can we expect from such an unimaginative, top-down exercise so divorced from people and society? The idea is – this would create among the populace an appreciation of science, among youngsters a dream to unravel the mysteries of this world, this universe, this human condition. On the question of decreasing popularity of classical music in Pakistan, Professor Arifa Sayeda Zohra of the National College of Arts, Lahore had said that the contemporary ears that are tuned to the ka-ching sound of coins are blunt to the intricacies of khayal. A population whose idea of success is defined by 50 lakh salaries by IIM-types, whose best mathematicians-physicists-engineers end up being number crunchers for finance market speculators, has a rather poor appreciation of basic scientific research. In the absence of this appreciation, there is no social audit of science in India – hence many professors gleefully plagiarize, publish 3rd grade research work in 4th grade, mostly Indian journals which are read by few and cited by fewer. Some of them often pass of as experts, serving in sub-committees, exuding a cynical notion of time-serving. Looking at these creatures, many youngsters are turned off from pursuing science.
In stark contrast to such Indian Union government bankrolled cynical and routine initiatives for the inculcation of scientific culture, there lies the people-centric initiatives that have been present in India. India has had a long tradition of science and rationalism initiatives that have been broad-based, have attained movement status and have been sustained in a bottom-up manner, gaining strength from participation and support from the grassroots. This has happened without state patronage and has been most successful when the idea of scientific culture has been integral to the day-to-day life issues and social realities of the people. The brightest examples are from certain epochs of the Indian nationalist movement and the anti-caste rationalist movements of Dravidian political current.
There is the scientific aspect of the idea of self-reliance often floated in Indian nationalist movement. This came to fore first during the Swadeshi movement in the first decade on the 20th century when boycott of British-made goods were aimed to be followed up by developing technologies ‘of our own’, especially in Bengal. Small scale industrial units inspired by a ‘Swadeshi’ bent were taking baby-steps. Swadeshi institutions of technical learning were also conceived – the most important one being the National Council of Education’s Bengal Technical Institute, which was to become Jadavpur University. Later, during the non-cooperation movement, when large-scale boycott of Raj-sponsored educational and research institutions was taking place, a concomitant stress was placed on building up independent institutions of science and higher learning. The saw the birth of the National Medical Institute (Jatio Aurbiggyan Bidyaloy) which would later become the Calcutta National Medical College – the Medical College, Bengal being the favourite of the Raj. Stalwart science figures like Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose, Meghnad Saha and Satyendranath Bose were invariably science communicators to the masses. They were not simply denizens of the laboratory but wrote extensively in mass-circulation publications in fiction and non-fiction forms, gave extensive public talks, started popular science magazines. Jagadish Chandra Bose became an especially potent symbol of the ‘scientific’ flank of the emerging pan-Indian nationhood. In the first half of the 20th century, one can see that also in the writings of Rabindranath Thakur and Rajshekhar Basu ‘Parashuram’, literary giants who also penned lucid articles of recent scientific discoveries and their muses on such issues. These point to a greater public engagement with science and a culture of being intrigued by scientific inquiry and discoveries. These articles generally went beyond the narrower formulations of nationalism inspired ‘Indian’ science. This is important for already those of the Hindu-nationalist ilk had started to claim that many new scientific discoveries and technological innovations were already present in ancient times in India and that looking into the scriptures of the elders would yield knowledge- that one would be able to rediscover and hence recapture some long lost glory. Meghnad Saha gave rebuttals to such claims, with his famous sarcastic quip ‘Shob byade achhe’ (Everything is in the Vedas) being elevated to the level of a common idiom in Bengali. But when it comes to a more muscular presence of scientific culture, the crown goes to the anti-casteist and anti-Brahminical movements spanning present day Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. Rationalism being the core-principle, this no doubt elevated the status of scientific inquiry in those areas. . It should not be forgotten that in a so-called ‘essentially spiritual’ area like Southasia, Tamil Nadu has elected stated atheists and irreverent leaders to chief-ministership time after time. M Karunanidhi, a product of this current and a legatee of the E V Ramaswamy Naicker ‘Periyar’’s politico-phillosphical currency, publicly questioned the divine status of Ram on the question of building a land bridge to Sri Lanka by dismantling the mythical Ram Setu and has politically survived that statement, which is not a small achievement. This tells us more about the gallery he was playing to. In more recent times, especially in the 70s and 80s, in West Bengal, ‘science and rationalism’ groups were formed sparked by popular science and rationalist publications like Utsho Manush (Human Origin) and others. Some of these reflect science in the use of the country , as opposed to science in the use of the nation-state.
In many ways, science policy in the Union of India reflects the nature of the Indian state – a ultra strong centre that aims to dominate the provinces by formulating common principles of policy. Before the Delhi-centric system of science policy implementation took hold after the paritition of 1947, a few things may be noted about what were the major forms of science communication. Especially important in this was the role of India’s languages and not only Hindi or English as languages in which science would be taught, conceptualized and discussed. Before partition, scientific discourse and education in India’s many vernacular languages was a living and expanding body of activity. Satyendranath Bose ( of ‘Bose-Einstein condensate’ fame) created the Bongiyo Bigyan Parishad ( Bengal Science Council) and also started a science magazine called Kishor Gyan Bigyan ( Youth Knowledge Science) in the first half of the 20th century which continues to be published till the present day. These trends have now been sapped of their vitality by lthe general lack of support for non-Hindi languages in post-parition India. In the early days post-partition, India even served as a magnet for foreign stars of the scientific world to come to India to pursues their scientific careers. This included giants like JBS Haldane who joined the Indian Statistical Institute at Kolkata. Mediocrity, lack of autonomy, bureaucratic shackles and lack of inspiration has snapped this once-budding link between science and society in India. Bureaucratism has also kept private trusts and people of wealth from espousing causes of science and research with funding. While the house of the Tatas have a long record of such endeavours, the patronage of Rajen Mookerjee of the Indian Statistical Institute also merits mention. These grants to build up institutions are markedly different from the private businessman-educationalist model of science and technical education that has evolved in the Indian Union ever since, where people of wealth create low-grade institutions of science and technology largely as money-making machines. The contribution of private players in research and development spending in India is abysmal.
In the absence of sterling scientific research happening at home, science has become something that white men do. This not only leads to a lack of confidence in engaging with science, but in a broader sense, makes science, as a living body of knowledge, that much distant from reality, that much alien to the imagination of youth. Languages in this part of the world, especially Bangla, has had a century long heritage of widely read science fiction. In 1879, Jagadananda Roy penned Shukra Bhraman (Travels to Venus) with imaginary descriptions of aliens, notably about a decade before H.G.Well’s The War of the Worlds. He was not a one off figure – in 1882, Hemlal Dutta published the famous science fiction piece Rohoshho (The Mystery) in Bigyan Dorpon (The mirror of science), a picture-heavy science magazine of the time. This trend continued with Hemendra Kumar Ray, Satyajit Ray, Premendra Mitra, Mohommod Jafor Iqbal, Shirshendu Mukherjee and still holds seriousk currency up until the present day. Fictional scientist characters like Professor Shanku, Dr.Bhootnath Nondy have initiated a whole generation of Bengali-reading teenagers to the romance of scientific discovery. This no doubt gave science a wider currency in the populace and made the figure of the scientist something more tangible, the idea of discovery slightly more conceivable. With the increasing grip of Hollywood on the content of entertaintement in public consumption and hence the long shadow of alien idioms in even in sci-fi fantasies, the limited currency that local produce had, has been damaged, possibly irreparably.
How Southasia views its scientists also point to deeper pathologies in Southasian nation-states. It is in Southasia we have Nobel laureates being reduced to pariahs due to a religious identity that the state is not comfortable with – I am talking of Abdus Salam who was born in an Ahmadi Muslim family and and such was shunned during his lifetime by the powers to be in Pakistan who consider him a heretic due to his religious identity. It is also in Southasia where the most well known faces of science are those who represent a muscular nuclear toothed state – I am reminded to APJ Abdul Kalam of India. It is in Southasia that we have absurd myths ascribed to scientists, stemming from ignorance, insecurity and blind nationalism – the enduring lore that Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose ‘first’ ‘disoovered’ that plants have life. There are necessary pre-conditions to create a culture of science – they include freedom of speech and expression, an audacity to be loyal only to truth, an environment that supports iconoclasm in the world of ideas, however towering the icon may be, however sacrilegious the idea may be. If that were so in India, many would have protested the hoodwinking of people that is done in the name of scientific achievement by showing swadeshi aerial bombers, tanks, missiles and other mass-murdering devices. Against this dystopic idea of what science is and its fruits are have stood Indian scientists like MV Ramanna, S Ramasubramanian, T R Govindarajan, Ashok Sen and others -scientists worth their salt, the Dandi variety. In 2012, the focal theme of the ‘National Science Day’ is ‘ Clean Energy Options and Nuclear Safety’. When the government is actively trying to reduce the liability to suppliers in case of a nuclear disaster, the tom-tomming of the Nuclear Safety slogan only shows how cynically the state can convert public awareness programs into theatres of propaganda. But all propaganda can be exposed. It will take time. Critical enquiry, a spirit of questioning dogma and culture of social communication of these values – in science and beyond – let these be our arsenal. Lets us not worship science. Like pujas where chant-words have lost meaning to those who offer it, soon enough the rot sets in and it become meaningless to the priests themselves. The gods of science have left for other spaces – where there is dance, mirth, inquiry, freedom of speech and thought, freedom to make love to science, the chance to be loved back, the opportunity to share the love of science, in the family, in the neighbourhood, among colleagues. Lets stop the invocation and start questioning. Let us occupy ‘National Science Day’.