How Indian science stopped being fun and turned into a formula

A colleague of mine told me a story about the physicist PC Mahalanobis which I hope is true. It was in the good old days. A young Mahalanobis was travelling with his father, a good Brahmo, in a train. In those days like now, a child was entitled to a half ticket if he was under twelve.

The train was chugging happily away to – let us say – Burdwan, carrying the junior with his half ticket. Suddenly the elder Mahalanobis jumped up and pulled the chain and insisted the son get down immediately. The flabbergasted passengers wondered what had happened.

The father said this young man had turned thirteen ten minutes ago and was now falsely travelling with a half ticket. Luckily good sense prevailed when a passenger suggested the father pay the other half and the journey proceeded uneventfully.

This story about Mahalanobis, like innumerable others, shows that the story of science in India was not about method. It was about ethics, integrity, about how to construct a public space for knowledge.

In fact, if one looks at the early autobiographies, there is very little on method. Science is seen as an ethical possibility. The autobiography itself becomes a method.

When one reads the memoirs of PC Ray, *Life and Experiences of a Bengali Chemist*, or of M Visvesvaraya, *Memoirs of My Working Life*, their life itself appears a statement on method. They are both exemplars and paradigms.

Ray tries to construct science as a rishihood for the future. Sadly it is all front stage without back stage. There is nothing really private about Ray in these pages, except the admission that he had a difficult stomach.

Reading Visvesvaraya is worse. You would think the whole man was constructed like a science experiment. In fact, Visvesvaraya’s biography is the only personal memoir I know which ends with policy recommendations! The life of the man appears as a cut- out, like those dolls children play with.

This view is heightened by the photographs of him. If you move from his immaculately polished shoes to sharply creased trousers, you realise that this is an Englishman till you reach the turban. Then you discover that he did not know how to tie it but hired a retired schoolmaster to do it for him.

One gradually realises that science as a role didn’t exist in India and had to be constructed. There were models from the UK and Germany but our science was a local quilt patch.

Gandhi’s My Experiments with Truth belongs to this genre. Gandhi, in fact, thought of himself as a scientist and, unlike other scientists, experimented on himself. His experiments were everyday – with his body, with food, with tools, with sexuality. But they were utterly candid and thoroughly transparent in the way a scientific experiment demanded.

The costume ball called Indian science was a variegated world. There was the mathematician Ramanujan who saw his solutions in a dream when Goddess Nammakkal rolled out her tongue. There was JC Bose who felt the Hindu hypotheses could be built into the mechanistic world of Western science without being dubbed communalist.

In fact, there was a confidence in the debates about science that one finds missing today. Mahendralal Sarkar, who established the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, stated as one of its goals the task of rescuing science from the violence of Christian civilisation. If the Indian national movement under Gandhi wanted to rescue the British from modernity, its scientists wanted to create an alternative science captive neither to dead tradition nor to mechanistic modernity.

In addition, we had a whole bunch of creatively eccentric Englishmen from Albert Howard and Patrick Geddes to JBS Haldane who wanted science to say things it could not say and dream in English and England. Howard is the “father” of organic farming, Geddes the exponent of an agricultural thermodynamic view of the world and Haldane, one of the most original minds on science and diversity. All of them sought to create in India a “post-Germanic science” based on biology.

Geddes, in fact, felt that Tagore’s Santiniketan needed a scientific extension to its aesthetic self. Tagore’s conception of a forest university positing a different relation between science and nature is superior to current statements on diversity which are mechanical.

The Indian national movement was thus a celebration of a carnival of science. Its role players ranged from Raman and Bose to Haldane, Fisher, Chatterton and Saha. To Gandhi’s “Industrialise and Perish”, Visvesvaraya had “Industrialise or Perish”. The quality of debate was playful and literate.

It is with independence that a playful science becomes a dismal science.

Science, rather than being one epistemé in the repertoire of a nation, becomes the solution. Nehru’s poetics that the “future belongs to those who make friends with science” is actually a prosaic epitaph to these grand debates.

Science became a statist effort which lacked both the ebullience of Bollywood and the aesthetics of cricket. Raman’s arrogant statement that the laboratories of CSIR were tombs for the burial of scientific instruments became true prematurely.

Independent India did not see science as a culture to be celebrated. It was only a formula to be prescribed or a drug to be swallowed, not a dance to be performed or a philosophy to be lived out.

There were exceptions – DD Kosambi living his double life of mathematics and history, Raman threatening a second Nobel Prize for his work on flowers, Haldane growling in Bhubaneswar about peacocks’ tails. But eventually our policymakers saw science in instrumentalist terms, as a “magic wand to create prosperity”. But science was never celebrated as a culture in itself.

Two examples illustrate it. One was the attempt to introduce the idea of scientific temper. During the debates that followed one discovered that none of the scientists who signed the declaration knew what it was. For some it was like a vaccine which one could inject to stop communalism. Even as late as the Babri Masjid demolition, one of our atomic scientists claimed that if we had the scientific temper the masjid would not have fallen.

The second example is the failure of our universities. The greatest innovation of modern Indian pedagogy is the tutorial college. The head of Brilliant Tutorials (BT) should have headed UGC rather than the Yashpals and other forgotten souls.

BT was subversive and it subverted Macaulay, the “father” of Indian education. Macaulay claimed that not all the civilisation of the Orient was worth a shelf of Western books. The tutorial college was eminently pragmatic about it. It accepted the statement and reduced Western civilisation to a mere shelf of books.

Think of it. BT and Sultan Chand and Sons have done more for science than all the TIFRs and IITs put together. More importantly, half of the IITs wouldn’t have got in without BT, Agarwal or some equivalent enterprise.

The bureaucratisation of science was a self-inflicted wound.

The loss of play was devastating, so was the loss of confidence. Indian science legitimised itself by talking of expatriate scientists like Chandrasekhar or Khorana or some stray reference to India in Nature.

The sense of loss comes out better if we compare cricket and science. Few Indians have internalised the mythology or the method of science. But everyone from the barbershop to NIIT is involved in the discourse of cricket. Cricket is a part of our culture but science is not, except as a commodified set of goods. Where in India does one celebrate gene or fractal or crystal or the vision of Vavilov or the sheer beauty of entropy?

Civil society should have a greater role in science. I am not suggesting that the cricket board run our science but science should have had more CK Nayudus and Mushtaq Alis. One wishes cricket writers like Neville Cardus and Jack Fingleton or SK Gurunathan had joined the celebration called science. They understood mythology and method, technique and rules in a way our Bhatnagars, Menons and Swaminathans did not.

One can quarrel about cricket as public knowledge but our science was rarely ready to go public about dams, nuclear energy or gene technology. Science today is a creature of the market or the state. It is seen as the IT of Azim Premji and Chandrababu Naidu without asking how cyberspace and justice can combine. There is no sense of fun, no invitation to ask why the sky is blue, or why a top spins or why a boomerang is the way it is.

We need to go back to our inventive history and bring science back into the celebrations called culture, to create a science as inventive as our music or our dance, a science that celebrates 50,000 varieties of rice and ensures that they do not become a monoculture of five to ten species. Next time you read the Mashelkars, the MGK Menons or the Murli Manohar Joshis, remember the need for the Mushtaq Alis of science.

First published in India Today, The Millenium Series, Vol 2, ‘Come Home to History’, 2000.

Excerpted from Theatres of Democracy: Between The Epic And The Everyday, Shiv Visvanathan, edited by Chandan Gowda, HarperCollins India.


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