The Sciences

The Shrinking Space for Scientific Temper in India Is Worrying

We should celebrate India's constitutional provision for the scientific temper and vigorously safeguard it.

Indian television channels delivered a rude reminder of the arrival of a ‘new India’ when they blared news of defence minister Rajnath Singh emblazoning a Rafale fighter jet with an ‘om’ and decking it with flowers, coconut and lemons, purportedly to ward off evil.

Singh’s actions sharply contrast with the country’s older crop of politicians, many of whom kept their religious beliefs to themselves instead of advertising them in public. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was impatient with religious rituals; Vikram Sarabhai cited this attitude in one of his letters to a friend as an example of the newly independent India’s aversion to overt acts of religiosity.

Sudhir Kakar narrates an interesting incident in his autobiography, A Book of Memory (2011). Gujarati textile mill owners insisted on a Hindu priest performing the opening ritual for the new Ahmedabad Textile Industry’s Research Association building in Ahmedabad. Kakar quotes Sarabhai saying, “Panditji tolerated him to start with but when [Nehru] was asked to rub his shoulder to the door, he exploded! I was so glad.” From this time, when India was discovering a new future for itself, we appear to have arrived at one where the country seems to lack such imagination.

Also read: The Uncertainty and Obsolescence Vikram Sarabhai Saw in India’s Future

Jawaharlal Nehru coined the term ‘scientific temper’; he defines it as an attitude of logical and rational thinking. An individual is considered to have scientific temper if she employs the scientific method when making decisions.

Science and technology as we know them became popular in India in the mid-20th century, precipitating socio-economic changes in turn. Researchers and philosophers had anticipated these changes during the independence struggle. Nehru had said:

India must break with much of her past and not allow it to dominate the present. Our lives are encumbered with the dead wood of this past, all that is dead and has served its purpose has to go. But it does not mean a break with, or a forgetting of, the vital and life-giving in that past. We can never forget the ideals that have moved our race, the dreams of the Indian people through the ages., the wisdom of the ancients, the buoyant energy and love of life and nature of our forefathers, their spirit of curiosity and mental adventure. … There is in fact essential incompatibility of all dogmas with science. Scientific temper cannot be nurtured by ignoring the fact that there are major differences between the scientific attitude and the theological and metaphysical attitude; especially in respect of dogma.

Eminent scientists like C.V. Raman, Satyendra Nath Bose, Meghnad Saha and others were also at the frontline of this social revolution. In those days, the Indian Science Congress was an excellent platform for dialogues between the political and the scientific classes, both of which believed that science and its application could effect economic advancement as well as in the national social outlook.

The science policy resolution that Parliament passed in 1958 reflected these sentiments. In 1976, the Government of India reemphasised its commitment to cultivate scientific temper through a constitutional amendment (Article 51A), and setup a nodal agency called the National Council of Science and Technology Communication (NCSTC). But despite these efforts, scientific temper did not permeate through society and didn’t much alter the national psyche.

There is a deep relationship between scientific temper and the idea of secularism, another celebrated facet of our Constitution. The practice of secularism derives strength and support from the ideas of science while the science can best motivate change in a society that appreciates secularism. So the role of scientific temper cannot be overemphasised in a tradition-bound country like India, where dogma and superstations rule the roost.

Also read: When P.M. Bhargava’s Biochemistry Lesson on Beef Threw Golwalkar Into a Fit

Today, religious extremists question the relevance of science as a force that guides our spirit and culture. In the late 1990s, Murli Manohar Joshi, the then minister of human resources, sought to have astrology taught in universities as a branch of science. More recently, since 2014, the government has supported the idea that ancient Hindus achieved many feats that Western scientists are achieving only today, especially in physics and medicine.

Even today, there are people discussing scientific theories purportedly secreted in the Bhagavad Gita and how they outstrip general relativity and quantum mechanics in their ability to faithfully describe nature. Political leaders dispute the theory of evolution and declare cow urine can cure cancer. Even others have advanced a majoritarian lie that the Vedic civilisation originated in India.

Many of the world’s cultures were born when humans had little exact knowledge of the natural world and looked to religious doctrine for answers. The advent of modern science knocked back against this tendency. The progress of science is punctuated by conflicts with religious beliefs. Galileo Galilei’s support for heliocentrism was controversial during his lifetime as well as for him personally. In 1615, the Roman Inquisition concluded heliocentrism “explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture.” After Galileo reasserted his views, the inquisition forced him to recant and spend the rest of his life in house arrest.

Religion and scientific consciousness are two parallel streams. They don’t converge. As religious beliefs can’t be tested or challenged through experiments, it is difficult to explore the religious texts that motivate these beliefs using the methods of reason.

We recognise that there are no clear answers to all the questions raised in public conversations, so opinions expressed in public shouldn’t be based in religious ideas; instead they should be reasonable and welcome reasonable challenges. Blind faith has affected the course of science in India as well. The forces trying to take India back to the Middle Ages are undoing the idea of India that its people formulated after years of struggle and sacrifice.

The shrinking space for scientific temper in India today is worrisome for the same reasons, and doesn’t augur well for our development. It is not difficult to see that countries dominated by theocratic ideals struggle to make scientific and technological leaps. Iran, for example, was one of the major contributors to the Islamic Golden Age but today, a thick blanket of Islamic fundamentalism throttles its creativity. Closer home, Pakistan provides a similarly fitting example.

Also read: When Will Pakistan Get Its Slice of the Moon?

India’s failure to execute Nehru’s idea of scientific temper in its entirety could be one major reason for the growth and spread of superstitious beliefs and fundamentalism today.

When they met in May 1936, C.V. Raman told Gandhi, “Mahatmaji, religions cannot unite. Science offers the best opportunity for a complete fellowship. All men of science are brothers.” Gandhi joked, “What about the converse – all who are not men of science are not brothers?” Raman replied, “But all can become men of science.”

Let’s hope that someday all cultures free themselves from the shackles of blind faith – with science likely to play a major hand in this endeavour. Unto a similar goal, we should celebrate India’s constitutional provision for the scientific temper and vigorously safeguard it.

C.P. Rajendran is a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru.