Dividing Lines: No science of dissent

Years ago, C.P. Snow delivered the Rede Lecture which popularised the idea of two cultures. He argued that there was a wide cultural divide between the humanities and the sciences. He called it one of the great divides of history preventing a conversation between two primary models of knowledge. Part of this bias is echoed in W.H. Auden’s lines, “Thou shalt not commit a social science, nor submit to questionnaire”. Auden’s contempt for the banality of social science, of behavioural psychologists obsessed with IQ while ignoring creativity is understandable.

Yet there are moments when intellectual life must be seen as a whole. A threat to creativity is a threat to intellectual life in general. When a dictatorship comes into being, a poet cannot be silent. When dictatorship had to be fought, all shades of intellect combined and an Andrei Sakharov, an Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and an Anna Akhmatova — all used their creativity to undermine and survive the regime. One sees this again in the Vietnam War, where a Noam Chomsky, a Daniel Ellsberg, a Marshall Sahlins or a Benjamin Spock challenged the American involvement in Vietnam. There was a unity of the sciences and solidarity of the intellectuals across a range of interdisciplinarities.
India faces a similar situation today. The Modi government also threatens the life of intellect in many ways. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is rewriting history attempting to diminish the aura of the Nehruvian era. The attempt to rework the Nehruvian exhibits and collate the Nehru museum into a different reading of history has been seen as simplistic and illiterate. The government’s ban on books and films makes one wonder whether policing intellectual life is its preoccupation. It’s opposition to environmental groups began with three blatant steps: First, it discarded the Gadgil report on the Western Ghats with its classification of the forest into grow and no-grow areas. Secondly, it cracked down on environmental groups fighting against vulnerability by contending sustainability is not an equal partner to security. Thirdly, the government attacked foreign foundations for supporting dissenting intellectuals and environmental activists. Greenpeace did put up a battle, but surprisingly Ford Foundation folded up its operation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s response to the academic world and the world of science is a bit different. The RSS attacked the world of the university with impunity. All Mr Modi had were inane statements about the need for “skilling”. He has had little idea of the role of the university in a knowledge economy, preferring to be ecstatic about the role of non-resident Indians in Silicon Valley, praising their hard work and success. But both, his ecstasies at Silicon Valley and his emasculation of the university, show he had little sense of the knowledge economy.

Like many populist politicians he confounded the information revolution and the changes in the knowledge economy. Mr Modi misunderstand the power of indigenous knowledge and confounds it with myths of ancient knowledge. He induces the Indian Science Congress to talk of the creativity of science in the Vedas, claiming that plastic surgery was invented in India. He offers as an example the figure of Ganesha. By creating a rhetorical frame around ancient science, he ignored the creativity of indigenous knowledge. While he sees creative cultural and innovative power in ancient science, he offers a baniya model of science, claiming that the mission to Mars is a paisa vasool system, underplaying the technological creativities involved.

Less critical of science and more hostile to history, his contempt for the writer is most obvious. When M.M. Kalburgi was killed, Mr Modi watched indifferently. When censorship and bans rocked the intellectual community of novelists and filmmakers, he was indifferent. When Nayantara Sahgal objected, she started a chain reaction where top writers in the Sahitya Akademi returned their awards. The writer as a trustee of culture had struck back. But there is a silence of intellectuals at another level. The silence of science and scientists in India seems puzzling.

One wonders whether they have become too bureaucratised on government money. Yet, many a laboratory scientist understands the roots of creativity. Science also is a search for beauty not utility. One cannot wax eloquent on innovation chains and yet keep silent about attacks on the culture of creativity. True, one might have drop out of committees — the networks of patronage that bolster the intellectual ego. A search for ethics and values marks all these disciplines. As writers return the Sahitya Akademi awards, one would have expected the scientists to step forward. During Vietnam or during Pugwash, what a Chomsky did, a Linus Pauling could match. A Bob Dylan and Joan Baez also understand both the price and creativity of dissent.

Science in India was once a powerful dissenting imagination. Even within the Nehruvian dream of science they were powerful dissenting figures. One can invoke the name of astrophysicist Meghnad Saha, or cite the many clashes physicist C.V. Raman had with the establishment. One can think of India chemical engineer C.V. Seshadri, the chemist or Amulya Reddy who started the centre for Application of Science and Technology in Rural Areas at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, in 1974, challenging the Nehruvian dreams of energy. Men like the late Satish Dhawan, chairman, Isro, 1974, would always stand up for the truth. But today science is silent. When Mr Modi claims that nuclear energy is the second modernity, has it become an act of epiphany for our scientists?

One wonders where all the dissent, the radicalism, the eccentricity went. Have the compulsions of an annual report tamed the dissenting imaginations of science? How does one account for the silence of the sciences? Have they hypothecated or outsourced decision-making to the technocrats or the hawks of the defence establishment? Science, we have been taught, is not only a search for beauty, but of truth. Science as a culture has to remain knowledge talking to power. This moment cannot be lost. The scientist has to rally around the writer and the historian expresses solidarity with the author. If truth is a form of solidarity, the time for truth-telling is now. One is not asking for an inane return of awards but a letter, an editorial in Current Science, a statement by the scientists as part of an intellectual community. The question really is — does science care about the difference it makes to democracy and the democratic imagination?

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