It seems almost sacrilegious to be less than sentimental about Chandrayaan 2. Such a huge and heroic effort! Such a massive investment of scientific skills! Such a national fervour worked up to a feverish pitch! The pride of 130 crore Indians!
However, the truth is greater than any scientific breakthrough, and it must be reckoned with at all costs.
First, the national hysteria about Chandrayaan 2 was deliberately worked up. The excitement and expectation that the common person was made to feel over the event didn’t require her to understand what the Moon mission was about or its bearing on her own predicament.
We must distinguish here between two kinds of achievements in science. The first category addresses real-life issues and aims to improve the lot of the people, as in the case of discoveries in preventing and treating diseases, improving locomotion and communications, breakthroughs in thinking that liberate people from superstition and irrational beliefs, and empowers them to attain dignity and freedom.
The second category is a collection of magic tricks. Of course, they are scientific in the sense that they are made possible by scientific know-how, but they are aimed at mesmerising the people or to deflect their awareness using the spectacle of scientific achievements, away from their avoidable destitution.
Such scientific exploits are in inverse proportion to the people’s welfare, and serve the interests of the social, political and economic elite. Several of them have the net result for the common person of eroding her freedom and of deepening the ominous shadows of invasive state surveillance.
The pervasive effect of communication and information technologies and the development of state-of-the-art snooping gadgets, and a whole lot of other technologies, prove this beyond doubt. It was this that prompted the French philosopher Jacques Ellul to call technology ‘the betrayal of the West’.
I am particularly concerned about two aspects of modern high-level scientific research. The first is that its main purpose is to sophisticate military warfare and to spread the curse of violence and weaponise space. This is even more reprehensible than terrestrial wars. The principal interests of the US and the erstwhile USSR in the Space Race was the prospect of space wars.
Second, technological ‘progress’ of this kind tends to stifle individual liberty. With each new stage in the expansion of the reach of such technologies, citizens are being brought increasingly under state surveillance. Our private space is being invaded as much as space itself is.
The idea of private space has already become notional. The state knows every detail of our movements, every one of our associations and activities, every statement we make and, soon, every thought we entertain. But for technology the idea of ‘urban naxals’ for example would have been impossible.
A development of particular significance in our times is the growing intimacy between the scientific community and the political dispensation – symbolised, among other things, by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s presence among scientists of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) as well as the visual of ISRO chief K. Sivan crying on Modi’s shoulders, like a man distraught in bereavement.
Even a cursory glance at the history of science should indicate that science did not progress for a long time as a maidservant of the state. Scientists often developed scientific knowledge and offered its blessings to humankind in situations of privation and opposition. The situation is vastly different today. The scientific community is becoming, by and large, a glorified circus attached to the state, subservient to the biddings and interests of political masters.
The public rhetoric fashioned Chandrayaan 2 into a sort of special gift to the prime minister. But this is not science, it is sycophancy, and it doesn’t augur well either for science or for the country. For science to be entirely on the state’s side is a cause for worry.
From Modi’s perspective, Chandrayaan 2 seems part of an overarching project to ‘make the impossible possible’. The public attention was focused for the most part on the mission’s Vikram lander, which was supposed to land on a part of the Moon’s surface that no one else had landed on before.
The concept of ‘make the impossible possible’ is the secular counterpart of magic. Magic has no bearing on lived realities. It is fantastical, thriving on fleeting impressions. One magical feat follows another. Great spectacles are unveiled but life for the people remains the same or deteriorates. But they are pleased to be treated to their daily fare of wonder, distracting them from the deprivations of daily life.
Why can’t our great scientific community apply their skills and expertise to solving the issues that plague the life of the common man? They fill the land in their thousands.
As the ISRO ground station lost its communications link with the Vikram lander, my thoughts connected to the people of Kashmir. This moment was a parable on their predicament: the communications link between Kashmir and Delhi has been cut for over a month now, and the rest of India remains mostly indifferent to this vast human tragedy.
The worst thing about human suffering is not its intensity but its enforced invisibility. It makes a cynical and callous statement – that your suffering doesn’t count. There is no harsher way to reduce a people to a no-people than consigning them to such a state. Every vestige of freedom has been torn away from the people of the Valley, and reaching them is a greater task now than to reach the Moon. It is significant that such realities do not exist for our scientific community.
Swami Agnivesh is a spiritual leader, social reformer and global president of the Arya Samaj.