The recently concluded polls in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) have brought to light an interesting phenomenon: The victorious Left alliance dominated the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) in the social science and language schools, but the trend was reversed when it came to the science school.
Social media reacted to this trend with a righteousness of sorts. The idea seemed to be that the political disposition of science students is more valid by virtue of being more scientific and therefore correct. At the same time, another set of reactions on social media questioned the curious affinity of the science school with an ideology that is anything but scientific. Why did the science students of JNU vote for an ideology that propagates myths in defiance of modern science?
The answer to this question is not simple, as it rests on the complex relationship of academic disciplines with broader social and political milieus.
The scientific enterprise is typically understood as a value-free and neutral inquiry to uncover truths about the world we inhabit. The knowledge derived from such scientific inquiry is deemed universal. Yet, its relationship with the human civilisation has not been free of contradictions.
On one hand, the advancement of science in the western world went hand-in-hand with the industrial revolution, secularism and democracy. On the other hand, the universality of science became the justification for colonialism. What began as a search for new markets gradually gave way to the white man’s civilising mission across the rest of the world. One of the most influential thinkers in the liberal tradition, John Stuart Mill, has been guilty of justifying colonialism on these lines.
The social sciences identified with the scientific enterprise as they set out to understand patterns of human behaviour which would aid efficient administration. However, by the middle of the 20th century, many such disciplines were spurred by black and feminist movements in the West, and anti-imperialist movements in Asia and Africa.
The notion of universal truth that was directly linked with the victory of science over religion came to be challenged in this new political context. As hitherto unheard voices highlighted their distinctive experiences, humanistic disciplines became more and more amenable to the idea of multiple or subjective truths. It became important to distinguish the domain of the physical sciences from the realm of human experience. A single objective truth could not account for human conditions shaped by oppression, indignity, exploitation and servitude. Empathy and understanding were deemed far more potent in the pursuit of such knowledge.
In the context of Indian politics, the Hindutva ideology propagated by the Sangh parivar represents a unitary vision of the country. Even a benign interpretation of Hindutva suggests that a unifying Hindu identity supersedes differences based on religion, sect, caste, region or language. Such a unitary vision is consistent with the language of development employed by the BJP government.
The current discourse on development rests on the monolithic narrative of a bright, shining, prosperous and powerful nation, but one that does not accommodate the voices of weaker sections of the population. For example, the Swachh Bharat campaign speaks of a clean India, but without making any references to the sanitary and scavenging occupations of the Dalit population. The concept of digital India has now merged seamlessly with India’s most powerful business house. Yet, the discourse seems to be that Reliance is fulfilling the prime minister’s dream of digital connectivity. The means by which Reliance may have procured its resources, and how that may have come at a significant cost to the society, is irrelevant.
A unitary vision of politics and development can be more easily aligned with the scientific rather than humanistic mode of thinking. This explains the intuitive affinity of JNU’s science students with the ABVP, while the students of social sciences and languages were less enamored by such politics. The occurrences of February 9, 2016 and subsequent developments deepened the divide in JNU. The sedition charges slapped on students for defying a unitary vision of India would have been nothing short of abhorrent to students trained to value multiple perspectives of reality. Science students tend to be less amenable to such a position, and therefore more susceptible to the dominant mode of thinking on the issue.
Left politics has traditionally offered a broad platform to the diversity of students at JNU. An admission policy that gives special consideration to women, as well as students from backward regions, has amplified the impact of reservation on the student demographic in the university. Besides, the university is host to a vibrant queer movement. Such a student body is incompatible with the ABVP, which remains male, upper caste and Hindi speaking at its core.
The rise of the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association as principal opposition to the Left alliance is further testimony to the inability of ABVP to accommodate voices that may have been marginalised in Left discourses.
As far as the larger discourse on social media is concerned, the denigration of humanistic disciplines reflects a much larger problem in India’s education system. In western democracies, humanistic knowledge played a considerable role in shaping education systems, especially in the post-war period. The perils of science that did not operate within ethical bounds led to a premium on teaching ethics and humanism through history and language curricula in schools. Further, universities ensured exposure to various subjects, enabling conversations across disciplines and ideologies.
Indian education, on the other hand, came to be characterised by a disconnect between the sciences and the humanities. More specifically, technical education took precedence, as it was a better guarantor of employability and socioeconomic mobility in a developing country. Over time, this has come to reflect in school education as well, which gears students for competitive exams based on science curriculum. Further, colleges and universities dedicated exclusively to technical education have precluded the scope of broader conversations.
The original vision for scientific and technical education in India was deeply embedded in a larger socioeconomic milieu. It was meant to propel industrialisation and lift the Indian society out of poverty, superstition and backwardness and thus create the conditions for democratic government. This link between science and society was even written into the charters of institutions such as the IITs, resulting in the inclusion of humanities departments. While the premium on scientific and technical education has remained, the social and political context has gotten lost along the way. In its absence, science at the service of the nation, can scarcely exceed political rhetoric.
Simantini Krishnan is an independent researcher and columnist based in London.