It's Time Indian Scientists Answered Their Call to Be Responsible Citizens

Plurality and the scientific method have a civilisational context, and they must define a new civilisational morality. Scientists must help engender this.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru speaking to scientists at the inauguration of the 43rd annual session of the Indian Science Congress at Agra on January 2, 1956. Credit: photodivision.gov.in

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru speaking to scientists at the inauguration of the 43rd annual session of the Indian Science Congress at Agra on January 2, 1956. Credit: photodivision.gov.in

The Indian society is an excellent example of the actual realisation of plurality, with its rich texture of flexibility and absorbing capacity. It has come about because the region has a long and scintillating history of interaction with the world outside – of diverse mores, languages and faiths through trade over land and sea routes for over 2,000 years. This was also accompanied with cultural and scholarly exchanges. Added to all that were external invasions and campaigns that brought in their own impact and influences. This is how the Indian society has come to be a diverse and plural system as it exists today. Its physical expanse, encompassing high snow-clad mountains to plains fed by rivers to desert descending down through the Western and Eastern Ghats and onto the peninsula. In fact, it is no surprise at all that such a human system could be anything else but plural. It also possesses a rich linguistic diversity, with a few hundred languages flowering together as well as an impressive spectrum of communities abiding by different faiths and religions.

People and their social systems over a period develop their own nature and existential identities. Without so much of an iota of doubt or hesitation, one can say that plurality is the nature of the Indian people and the Indian society. Henceforth, this should become the most abiding concern above anything else.

Civilisation is essentially the measure of all that which is profound and sublime in human compassion, thought, creativity and imagination, and their actual realisation in people’s lives and living. One of the main concerns of civilisation is the creation of new knowledge – of knowing the world around us, why all things are the way they are and their situation in the overall structure of the universe. And one of the most profound questions in this framework is who we are and how we came into being.

For creating and acquiring knowledge, we need a method that is reliable. Modern science has been and is that method. It is objective because it is logically consistent and independent of the observer and her location in spacetime. Above all, it demands observational and experimental verification of whatever is being propounded. This is why it is pertinent that it should be employed in everything we do. It is a truthful and reliable method of probing and realising a truth. And the realisation of truth in its various manifestations and flavours is, in turn, the main civilisational concern. The adoption of the scientific method therefore attains civilisational meaning and concern. It was just this realisation that Jawaharlal Nehru was echoing when he pronounced the creation of a society with scientific temper. He was simply answering this call.

In the same vein, the adoption of the scientific method should be an integral part of an enlightened plurality.

Another aspect that is inherent in our investigation of nature is freedom. One should be free to give vent to one’s thoughts, to speak out, if only to create new knowledge, beyond the primary freedoms of what to eat, wear and worship. This is freedom in all its encompassing expanse and meaning. Apart from the social and cultural aspects of freedom, it is also an integral part of knowledge creation. Freedom is oxygen for creativity, for inventing and discovering the new and the sublime as well as for sustaining and strengthening pluralistic ethos. It is the supreme and paramount value that is nonnegotiable.

Now, a question: what is it that has agitated writers, scientists and intellectuals in general to raise their voices in protest these days?

A space for dissent

Any attack on the plural fibre of society that acts by constraining freedom and undermining the scientific method should in turn invite strong and effective protest from all stakeholders. This is exactly what one has been witnessing since the 2015 Science Congress at Mumbai University. There was a session in which the scientific method was undermined in the extreme at the altar of nationalism and jingoism. What was most surprising was that all this happened when the scientific programme had been scrutinised by a high-profile organising committee comprising the country’s top scientists heading various prestigious research and development organisations. The Science Congress is the largest gathering of its kind and is always inaugurated by the prime minister, a tradition founded by Nehru to indicate the government’s commitment to science. At the same, there was no visible protest, nor voices of protest, from the attending scientists, save a few individual and scattered voices outside after the event.

A question follows as to how the offending sections of the Congress were allowed to happen, having until then been forums tasked with safeguarding the scientific method and ethos as so passionately spelled out by Nehru. Wasn’t it a case of fear being in the air that top scientists could not resist the pressure building from different corners? They buckled and couldn’t stand up to their grain and training. Or, it is possible that they might have been in resonance with what transpired at the Congress. However, either way is bad. If they had indeed buckled, it is concerning for their ability to register their protest. If the latter, it is a sign of how far we are yet to go before the scientific method becomes a benchmark, and our scientists stand by it, whatever the consequences may be.  

Then, there were the cases of people being butchered on the suspicion of possessing beef, of slogans by the chief minister of Haryana and even a central minister one should “go to Pakistan” if one wants to consume beef. The high and mighty of the establishment remained silent while their peers kept on the heat on dividing the people and intimidating them. Ultimately, the prime minister speaks up – but not directly, only through the voice of the president. Is this not an attack on India’s plural ethos, which is the true Indian identity?

Dissent is an integral part of a pluralistic and democratic society, so much so that its absence is a signal of incompletion. There must be a healthy and respectful space for dissent. When the Maharashtra government came up with an ordinance that made dissent a treasonable offence, good sense did prevail in time. However, the question is how the state could even have entertained such a thought. Should this not be a matter of concern for us?

Voices of protest against this environment are against the fear and anxiety causing the anguish and discomfort. And in this environment, neither is the government doing enough (at least visibly) to send a clear signal nor are the people, many of whom are complicit in having created this unhealthy and disturbing situation. We scientists stand against all this and not specifically to any action and event.

It is true that scientists have traditionally and generally remained aloof from broader social concerns and happenings. It would, however, be worth recalling the glorious tradition of socially concerned scientists like Bertrand Russell, Arthur Eddington and Martin Ryle, who were conscious objectors and refused to have any part in the World Wars. They were all very distinguished scientists of great repute and influence: Russell was the twentieth century’s most influential scientist-philosopher; Eddington’s expedition to study the total solar eclipse of 1919 found that gravity bends light, too, making Einstein a household name overnight; and Martin Ryle was a Nobel laureate and the father of radio astronomy, a new eye on the universe (at the time).

(On the matter of respect for dissent: the British government had supported Eddington’s proposal for an eclipse expedition even in 1914 while he remained a conscious objector to the government policies. Unfortunately, the expedition had to be aborted because clouds obscured the sky on the day of the observation.)

In India, it was Meghnad Saha who was perhaps the only distinguished scientist who participated in issues of wider social concern. He was a forceful critique of big dams and the Nehruvian development model. He fought the Lok Sabha elections as an independent and won. But apart from him, scientists of his calibre have have mostly remained silent.

Scientists and a civilisational morality

One of the reasons for this silence is that all scientific research is almost completely supported by government-funded institutions and laboratories. Experimental science needs a considerable amount of money. Another reason, possibly, is that our leading science and technology institutes recruit students right after school, and they largely host one or two perfunctory social science courses. Students, then, mostly remain oblivious to the general liberal intellectual discourse. This is a serious drawback in our higher education system. To be fair, administrators have recently become more aware of this and have introduced more liberal arts courses as well as helped organise off-course lectures and cultural activities.

But it remains that scientists, leaving aside some people in their individual capacities, have not joined any social protests as a group – except the one against the nuclear weapon. Following the protests by writers, some of us thought that scientists should also express themselves as concerned citizens, and so we put up a petition on change.org for colleagues to sign on. While this picked up momentum, the ethics committee of the three science academies, perhaps suffering under the guilt of silence at the Science Congress, also came out in support, as did some very distinguished scientists. This was indeed very encouraging and gratifying: to see scientists join a wider, socially conscious and intellectual community for the first time.

Scientists should respond to their call as citizens. It is time for them – us – to be citizen-scientists and public intellectuals. It is the people at large who pay for our reasonable upkeep as well as for our equipments and experiments, and it is for us to be able to give full vent to our creative callings. In return, the people expect to receive guidance and advice on involved issues of science, as well as on anything else that has a bearing on the society, so that the people can make informed decisions. Even in a limited sense, scientists should contribute to raising the public understanding of science through outreach activities. This should become a part of the country’s scientific culture. And when that happens, the question as to why scientists have joined in wouldn’t arise. It would also be most liberating for us to be part of a wider community.

Dissent is not only to be tolerated but to be appreciated and encouraged as well for a healthier and enlightened society. In India, we have a rich tradition of dissent and debate; our mode of scholarly discourse makes it mandatory to present opposing viewpoints and then to establish the view in question, countering previous arguments and presenting new and clinching arguments in favour. This makes for a healthy and enriching intellectual interaction. This is our heritage that we ought to be proud of, rather than machining it into a narrow-minded definition and using it to conflate a government’s interest with the national interest. How deprived are they of this enlightened heritage who thought to sue dissenting people with treason?

Plurality is not just necessary for any society to be stable; in its enlightened form, it encompasses peace and harmony. It should therefore be sought after. This is one way in which we have been wealthier than those in the developed West, and we should all be aware and proud of it. And this wealth should be reared and preserved with much care and compassion. Adopting the scientific method should be taken as a new social value, like speaking the truth, because it is the only way to get a truthful, reliable view of something, as well as how we will eventually receive the knowledge of truth in its entirety. Plurality and the scientific method do have a civilisational context and they, therefore, must define a new civilisational morality. Anything that could even be construed to go against or be injurious to plurality and the scientific ethos should be taken as being civilisationally immoral. Civilisational morality, I believe, should override all other moralities that have contextual scope.

In raising a voice of dissent and protest against the spread of fear and anxiety among the people, I have simply answered my civilisational call. It is also a little offering to the glorious tradition of dissent set by our great predecessor scientists as conscious objectors.

It is an enlightened plurality that promotes and brings about peace and harmony and that is what we should all be seeking and working toward. When we don’t know and don’t understand each other, we fear each other. A lack of knowledge and understanding of others breeds fear. And the only antidote for fear is to know and learn about others through dialogue, discourse and investigations. It is therefore not enough to stop at tolerance – though it still is a prime and necessary condition; we have to strive toward engaging interactions and so create an enriched and enlightened society.

Naresh Dadhich is former director and emeritus professor at IUCAA in Pune and the M.A. Ansari Chair, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.