Category Archives: Madraj

Why the Tamil struggle for Jallikattu is historic

[ Firstpost, 19 Jan 2017]


All over Tamil Nadu, tens of thousands of people, largely not under any political party banner, have assembled in protest. The most widely broadcasted protests are from Marina beach. That massive protest at Marina beach is actually very small compared to ones happening in other parts of Tamil Nadu including Madurai, Erode, Salem and Coimbatore. And its not only big cities but small towns and villages, where such protests are taking place – thus uniting the length and breadth of Tamil Nadu in its demand “We want Jallikattu”, which is both a cultural demand and a political demand. Thousands of people had assembled from last night in protests, but “national media” didn’t live-telecast this since this was not Delhi and hence didn’t matter to the “nation”. As the day progressed on 18th January, young people from all walks of life spilled on to the streets, from students to IT professionals to farmers, including many, many women. As we speak, this has become too big for “national media” to ignore, and since this is not Kashmir from where independent media and telecom connectivity can be blacked out at will, “national media” wants to explain to the ‘rest of India’, why are Tamils angry and why are they protesting? While they ask that, they are quick to add that the protests are apolitical. Nothing could be farther from truth. The protests are not partisan but are intensely political – uniting the Tamil national polity in a united voice. More things unite Kashmir and Kanyakumari than the Delhi establishment would like to admit.

In its limited imagination, the non-Tamil media is likening this to Tahrir Square of Cairo. If they had more local grounding and less of an imaginary that is inspired by Anglo-American talking points, they would have reached back into the not so distant Tamil past. They could have looked closely at the site the protesters chose. The Marina beach is not an ordinary spot. It houses the memorial to C.N.Annadurai, the giant of Tamil politics, the biggest votary of Tamil pride, a staunch oppose of Hindi imposition and one of the fathers of federalism in the Indian Union. If they had tried to understand Tamil Nadu from the Tamil stand point and not from the Delhi stand point, they would have found that the present protests, in their spontaneity, intensity and popularity come close to the anti Hindi imposition protests of 1965 when Union government tried to forcibly shove Hindi down the throats of non Hindi citizens of the Indian Union. While protests happened in various states, Tamils took the lead. The response from New Delhi was swift and central forces killed nearly 400 Tamil protesters that year. In 1967, the Congress was voted out and never again has any Delhi headquartered party ever held power in Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu branches of Delhi –headquartered parties failed miserably in 1965 and are failing miserably now in representing the Tamil sentiment for their priorities are ideologies are decided elsewhere, without an eye to Tamil interest. Since 1967, Tamils have politically opted for their own representatives and not Tamil agents of Delhi interests. It is because Tamil Nadu stood up against Hindi imposition that all non Hindi states have been able to protect their cultural and linguistic turf against homogenization ordered from Delhi, that is designed to benefit a certain ethno-linguistic group that holds huge sway on power in Delhi. Even today, with the Jallikattu protests, Tamils have opened the space for the rest of us to assert of cultural rights against whims and fancies of Union government agencies about animals and humans that imagine the Indian Union as a bloated form of the NCR. The way the Union government has been criticized by the Tamil protesters on the ground show that they understand this political dynamic very well.

The huge presence of women for a “male sport” shows that this issue goes beyond the particulars of Jallikattu and stems from something bigger and wider. This has been joined by Non Resident Tamils around the world ( in USA, Ireland, Mexico, Thailand, South Korea, Uktaine, Russia, Malaysia and elsewhere) as well as the Tamil social media space where unlike in NOIDA, Whatsapp messages about bovine animals are being used to unite people and not dividing them. The Jallikattu protests show that against the cosmo-liberal stereotype of “Indian young people”, there are young people,, millions of them, to whom roots matter, identity matters, culture matters and they do not aspire to lose their Tamil-ness to make the cut in the Delhi-Mumbai idea of Indianness. These are the people, who know English very well but have chosen to respond in Tamil to Delhi media questions posed to them in English. If this appears odd, remember the number of times Delhi-based English media carries responses in Hindi without any translation. Try to think why that is not considered odd, when a majority of the citizens of the Indian Union do not understand Hindi.

In the protests, a recurring theme is that the Tamil interests have been marginalized in the Indian Union. Tamil culture is older than the Indian Union and all its institutions and self-respect is a very important part of that culture. The situation that Tamil Nadu now doesn’t have control over its own maritime trade, foreign relations or for that matter most aspects of Tamil internal affairs is hardly two centuries old. The Tamil political memory and historical consciousness goes far beyond that and is a living thing that influences politics of here and now. Thus, whenever the Union government has destroyed state rights, the Tamils have been at the forefront of protesting it – a strain of politics that has recently widened to include of Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, who has been regularly voicing concerns about the destruction of the federal structure. Tamils gave up their autonomous rights over their land, resources and people, when they signed up for the Indian Union. Any giving up of rights have to come with concomitant compensatory benefits. That has not happened. While Tamil Nadu produces a huge amount of revenue, much of that is siphoned off by the Union government through its constitutional powers and through the discriminatory schemes of Delhi, it gets much less money (so-called “central funds” which originate from resources based in states) than the amount that Delhi makes from resources in Tamil Nadu. In short, Tamil Nadu’s resources are used to subsidize Union government schemes outside Tamil Nadu. During the Eelam Tamil genocide, the Union government explicitly sided with the Sri Lankan government, thus making clear that Tamil Nadu’s sentiments matter little to Delhi even when it comes to genocide of Tamils elsewhere. Thus it is only natural that many Tamils that many Tamils have a feeling that they are getting cheated in this deal called the Indian Union.

At this juncture, it doesn’t help when the so-called “national opinion” brands makes fun of Tamils as irrational or barbarous people who love to be cruel to their animals. If at all, it is quite duplicitous, since Delhi doesn’t mind the revenue that is extracted from Tamil Nadu while using its institutions like the Animal Welfare Board of India to undercut Tamil cultural practices. That is the tragedy of a centralized administration where bureaucrats from high female foeticide states get to decide the women’s rights policies of socially progressive states like Tamil Nadu. Whether Jallikattu is right or wrong, should it be discontinued or continued or continued with modifications, is an out and out Tamil affair. That the Animal Welfare Board of India, which doesn’t exactly reflect Tamil opinion, gets to decide on this shows how Tamils are infantilized as being incapable of deciding their own affairs, including their own cultural practices or for that matter, animal welfare issues. This stems from the two long lists called the Union and Concurrent lists of the Constitution of India that gives almost unfettered right to distant people from Union government agencies over the lives and issues of people of various states. It is this false federalism, in which state rights have been completely disrespected, are the source of most of the problems and solutions to this are achievable within the ambit of the Indian constitution by large scale move of subjects from Union and Concurrent lists to the State list in keeping with the federal democratic spirit of the Cabinet Mission plan of 1946, to which most elected lawmakers of the time agreed, only to turn their back on it after 1947. Yes, reforms are needed and they can take many shapes. The ambit of the Supreme Court can be limited to Union and concurrent list subjects with state based apex courts becoming the highest authority on state subjects. This along with a move of most subjects to the State list can realize the full federal democratic potential of the Union of India. Otherwise, such deep-rooted political grievances promote alienation and make their presence felt in some way or the other, in not so palatable ways.

The defence of Jallikattu on the basis of practice and culture has been likened to the defence of Sati. That so many have learnt to instinctively make this Sati argument in fact has a long past in British imperial pedagogy’s imprint of brown colonized lands. As my friend Ritinkar Das Bhaumik said, “we should stop drawing parallels to Sati. We already have one group that sees an analogy between cattle and women. We don’t need others.” While deciding to hang Afzal Guru, in spite of many grounds of reasonable doubt about the case, the Supreme Court of India said, “The collective conscience of the society will be satisfied only if the death penalty is awarded to Afzal Guru.” If “collective conscience” of the society has already been admitted by the Supreme Court to be a decider in handing out judgements, what prevents it from listening to the “collective conscience” of Tamils regarding Jallikattu that is on display in the protests all over their land today?


Filed under Change, Colony, Community, Delhi Durbar, Democracy, Federalism, Foundational myths, History, Identity, Madraj, Memory, Nation, Uncategorized

Dilli dur ast / Delhi and the rest of us – a gangrenous old saga

[ The Friday Times (Lahore), April 27-May 03, 2012 – Vol. XXIV, No.11; United Kashmir Journal(web); Frontier(web); Globeistan(web)]


Contrary to the claims of the Indian National Congress (INC), the 1946 Indian election results showed that though the INC was by far the largest force in the British governed territories in the Indian subcontinent, there were other players with considerable mass support, including the All India Muslim League, Communist Party of India, Scheduled Caste Federation and others, who altogether won nearly 40% of the seats. The false dominance of the Indian National Congress in the Madras province was largely due to the election boycott by the Dravidar Kazhagam, in part a continuation of the Justice Party current.  Indeed in some British constituted ‘provinces’, the Indian National Congress was a minority force. This was largely true for the 1937 elections, where the results were similar – a Congressite dominance in most provinces, but its marginality in populous provinces like Punjab and Bengal. The All Indian Muslim League (AIML) in the 1937 election had received a serious drubbing, virtually everywhere it contested. Though compromised by the factor that all these elections, 1937 or 1946 were far from representative in the absence of universal adult franchise (a point that is often forgotten in discussions around the events of 1946-47), one thing is clear – significant sections of the population were not with the INC, for whatever reason. A considerable section of the INC’s leadership always harboured ‘strong-centre’ ideas, though their inspirations were varied. It ranged from the necessity of a strong policy-driving centre congruent with ideas of command economy in vogue, the need of a tutelary centre that would provide the right lessons of modern citizenship so that a ‘sack of potatoes’ become ‘Frenchmen’ to the outright fantastic one that wanted a strong centre that would make sons of Bharatmata out of the wayward multitude that practiced ‘non-classical’ and plural Indic religions.

Given the INC’s serious marginality in more than one province at that point, the future of an Indian Federation was envisaged as a liberal union of provinces, where the Union government would only administer a few things and the provinces (or states) would be having pre-eminence in most matters.

The centralizing hawks of the INC were kept in check, for the time being, by the political realities and power equations. It is in this backdrop the Cabinet Mission plan, the blueprint of a future self-governing Indian Union was proposed.  Not going into the validity and judgment of making communal provincial groupings envisaged in the plan of May 16th, one does see the other aspect of the plan. The ‘centre’ would be in charge of defence, communications and foreign affairs – everything else would be within the ambit of provincial rights. Indeed, the centre would be the meeting ground of the provinces, not the imperial powerhouse from where the provinces would be governed. The latter was the British model of colonial domination – and such systems do facilitate smooth extraction of resources from far-flung areas but they are hardly the model of welfare where democratic aspirations of the people for self-governance has the priority.

In the political class, there was a general sense of resignation ( not necessarily agreement) to the basic thrust of the cabinet mission plan as a way to contain the diverse aspirations that India constituted and also politically expressed. It is this thrust or rather the destruction thereof that has grown to be a serious issue which goes largely undebated in post-partition Union of India.

In 1946, when the Cabinet Mission plan was proposed, the India that was conceived in it had provinces with powers that would put today’s Kashmir’s moth-eaten ‘special status’ to shame. Senior Congressites like Abul Kalam Azad, Vallabh-bhai Patel and numerous other mandarins of the party publicly and privately were more than prepared to give this dispensation a shot. The problematic idea of a sectarian grouping notwithstanding, the plan was overtaken by a breakdown of agreements between the INC and the AIML. The intense ground-level hostility in ‘mixed’ provinces in 1946 no doubt seriously undercut the chances of a grand federal Indian union, in the immediate context of prevailing circumstances. Whether the AIML’s motive on a sectarian grouping of people was holy or cynical, anti-people or liberating, is a question I will not visit here. But what is true is that the exit of the AIML due to the partition of India in 1947 suddenly changed the entire scenario. Till then, the field was a contested one. Now, one opposing side had left. Virtually unchallenged in the legislature, the Congress centralizers started scoring goals after goals in the unguarded field. These goals for the Indian centre turned out to be disastrous same-side goals as far as a democratic federal union of India was concerned.

Post-partition India was hardly any less heterogeneous and the principle of provincial autonomy with federal non-imperious centre still made democratic sense. But in that field without serious political opposition, the centralizing proponents of the INC had smelled blood, taking the idea of a strong-centre to the extreme. The lists that divide power between the union centre and the states in India are a stark testimony to this process by which states were reduced to dignified municipal corporations. They would thereafter be found forever standing with begging bowls, making depositions and cases in fronts of central government bureaucrats and ministers. Among the elite’s of that generation, the strong centre idea had appeal – it provided an excuse and an opportunity, of ‘shaping the masses’ into what was the elite’s definition of an ‘Indian’, a presentable citizen of a new nation-state.

The erosion of provincial rights in the post-partition Indian Union has seen a concomitant development of a veritable army of carrion-feeders who have mastered the process of carrying the spoils from the length and breadth of the land to pad their Delhi nests. These are the new ‘Indians’. In some way they are no different from Hindustan’s emperors and their hanger-ons who would deck up the capital by squeezing the country. What is different is that the earlier forms of ferocious extraction, of explicit carriage of loot to Delhi is now replaced by the fine art of legislative injustice. The process has been honed to near perfection over the decades, now designed and lubricated to work smoothly without making a sound. Delhi and its surrounds are showered with money that Delhi does not produce. It is peppered with infrastructure that India’s provinces had toiled hard to pay for. It is lavished with highly funded universities, art and cultural centres, museums that are designed to sap talent from India’s provinces and handicap the development of autonomous trajectories of excellence beyond Delhi. Over the decades, numerous white elephants have been reared, maintained and fed in Delhi – none of them paid for by those of live in Delhi. Of late, there is the perverse politics of infrastructure development. Who could oppose a cow as holy as infrastructure? In essence what infrastructure development in Delhi has become is the following – a method by which revenues extracted from India’s provinces are lavished in and around Delhi by making good roads, snazzy flyovers, water supply infrastructure, urban beautification projects, new institutes and universities, big budget rapid transport systems like the metro and numerous other things that India’s impoverished wastelands as well as other towns and cities can only dream of. This is perfectly in line with the new ‘expansion’ of Delhi in which Delhi’s political class has major stakes. Essentially this is cash transfer of a very sophisticated kind. Delhi’s richer classes acquire nearly uninhabited land or rural farmland. The ‘centre’ chips in by ensuring the areas get ‘developed’ from scratch. This ensures that these areas become quickly habitable or investable by Delhi’s perfumed classes, thus pushing up real estate prices, making the rich of Delhi richer. This is backed up by real infrastructure that is backed up by real cold, cash from India’s central government. The only thing unreal here is the process of pauperization of India’s provinces, of the great cities of Chennai, Kolkata and Bhopal, which have been systematically decimated by this distributive injustice. The other pauperization that has happened is more insidious, though equally corrosive. I am talking of the process of internal brain drain. Delhi’s bevy of highly funded institutions, lavish research funds, impeccable infrastructure, creation of a semblance of high culture by governmental khairati, has made Delhi the centre of aspiration for the brightest in India’s provinces. Delhi poaches on the intellectual capital of Kolkata and Chennai by the way it knows best, the baniya method.

The largesse that Delhi gets flows over to various other sectors. The large concentration of central government jobs in and around Delhi ensures that those who live there or are from those areas are more likely to end with those jobs, especially the jobs in the lower rung. This artificial support to a certain geographical area with ties to the national capital goes against all principles of natural justice, let alone those of a federal union based of equality. The Delhi-based political class uses various events and excuses of ‘national pride’ like the Asian Games or the Commonwealth Games to bestow Delhi’s residents and in effect themselves and their families, better infrastructure, inflated asset values, a better life, so to say – underwritten, as always, by India’s parochial and provincial masses. The provinces, West Bengal, (East) Punjab continue to pay for partition, by paying for Delhi.

Even the media is a part of this process. A summary look at newspapers in Kolkata and Delhi will show that Delhi-based newspapers have page after page of central government advertisements – while the population of the two cities are not too different. The media is an integral part of that Delhi-based illuminati, also consisting of policy wonks, security apparatchiks, immobile scions of upwardly mobile politicians, bureaucrats, professors, defence folks, hanger-ons, civil society wallahs, suppliers, contractors, importers, lobbyists and all the stench that connects them. This cancerous network of self-servers are curiously termed simply ‘Indians’ – largely devoid of the visceral rootedness that this large land provides to its billion. Their regional identity is hidden shamefully, displayed diplomatically, cashed in cynically and forgotten immediately. This is a window to the mind of the deep state at Delhi. This deep state – eating away at our plural fabric, creaming at the thought of the Delhi-Mumbai urban corridor, holds a disproportionate sway over the billion who are not simply Indian. This unacknowledged billion comes with its proud identity and sense of autonomy. Its diversity is still a robust one, not a browbeaten domesticated version fit for India International Centre consumption.

The preference for things Delhi-based or things ‘Indian’ and not ‘provincial’ has resulted not only in cash transfer of epic proportions, but has surreptitiously help develop the ideology that the roots of success in India go through Delhi, by denying one’s own rooted identities, clinging onto some rung of a ladder to Delhi, moving away from one’s origins. In short, this distributive injustice serves to disincentivize aspirations that don’t hold ‘Indianism’ as the ideology, Delhi as the location.

In the era of long indoctrination, Delhi has been built up as an imperial zoo, where all we provincial rustics have to come to gawk, to be awed, and expunge ourselves of our ‘parochial-ness’ to become ‘Indians’, hailing a very specific kind of motherland. But we are people who happen to have our own mothers, those on whose lap we slept, those whose milk we drank, that whose smell we recognize. She is beautiful in a sari. She does need ornaments of gold to make her beautiful. But there sits a woman, decked up with precious jewels, none earned by herself, but brought as tributes by servile ones who want to be seen in a photograph with her, the queen. That queen is called Delhi.  And she is the reigning goddess, gathering devotees by throwing money – devotees who are working feverishly to move closer and closer into the charmed circle, into Delhi’s gilded embrace.  For all her glitz based on loot, the queen attracts awe and fear, not love and respect, from peoples who have mothers less shiny.

Some final thoughts on India’s provinces. States, provinces, nations – none are designed to contain the aspirational trajectories of the plural multitudes in the Indian Union. Democracy is a deity that has seen a lot of empty, cynical and faithless obeisance be made in her front. Increasing democratization, transfer of the locus of power away from the centre, is a way of deepening democracy. There have been very few attempts to do this. The Sarkaria Commission of 1983 was a positive step in this direction with clear recommendations of making a more inclusive, federal and democratic union of India by transferring certain rights from the central list to the state list. Predictably, the commission’s report is in suspended animation. For all that we know, it might have died already. The Indian state may not admit it. All too cynically, the centre has often tried to bypass the provinces by speaking over the heads the state governments through its army of central bureaucrats and law enforcers posted as imperial minders in every district. This friction between the different levels – between the local bodies and the state governments, assures the centre’s stability. It has also tried to project an ultimately false sense of autonomous empowerment at the local level by the Panchayati Raj institutions by not giving the local bodies any power to veto decisions and proposals that affect their own futures. The blatant disregard of these institutions when ‘higher authorities’ push a project through in the face of massive opposition to loss of livelihood, destruction of homestead and displacement shows what lofty catch-words peddled by the higher level of administration like ‘local empowerment’ or ‘deepening democratic institutions’ really mean, when push comes to shove.

Some ‘states’ in India vaguely are entities that existed even before the modern idea of India was conceived and will probably outlive the idea too. Some of them would have been among the top 20 entities in the whole world in terms of population. They are repositories of plural cultures that the myopic Delhi-based circus called Dilli-haat cannot even fathom, much less domesticate, package and consume – with a bit of ‘central funding support’ thrown in for window dressing. The union of Indian exists, but it is and never was an inevitable union. To take that myth seriously, for that matter to take foundational myths of any nation-state seriously, is a dangerous error – realities are glossed over by textbook manufactured pride. The past of the constituents of the Indian Union were partially intertwined and largely not. To change this balance decisively, so that a Delhi-prescribed and Delhi-centric path to the future becomes a pan-Indian obsession is dangerous dream.  Whether the future of the Union of India will look  a joint family where the feared patriarch sets the rules for all or more like a split joint family living in proximity who are in good terms but cook separately, is a choice we need to make. The latter is much closer to our social reality anyway. Structures that limit aspirations and exile imaginations are fundamentally sociopathic. I am sure, Delhi wants to be loved. Like the plural pasts, to unlock the greatest potential, we need a plural future – an Indian union with thousands of sisterly centres. Delhi no doubt will be one of the sisters in that love-in. Distributive justice would be the glue holding together that future circle of sisterhood. I hope.

Leave a comment

Filed under Democracy, Elite, Foundational myths, Hindustan, History, Identity, India, Jal Jangal Zameen, Kolkata, Madraj, Nation, Open futures, Pakistan, Partition, Plural pasts, Polity, Power, Urbanity

Occupy National Science Day

[ 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’.

1 Comment

Filed under Acedemia, Bengal, India, Knowledge, Language, Madraj, Science