C.V. Raman (left), 1930, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in October 2020. Photos: Public domain and PTI
- The government organised a ‘Vigyan Sarvatra Pujyate’ last week, leading up to National Science Day on February 28. This was India’s National Science Week.
- India marks National Science Day to commemorate the discovery of the Raman effect, but in doing so sidelines C.V. Raman’s sexism in favour of scientific glory.
- But now that Prime Minister Modi’s government has coopted the occasion in such crass fashion, perhaps it will undermine the day and its place in the calendar.
This article was first published on February 21 and was republished today on the occasion of National Science Day.
The government organised a ‘Vigyan Sarvatra Pujyate’ last week, leading up to National Science Day on February 28. This was India’s National Science Week. According to a press release for the occasion, written by India Science Wire:
A week-long commemoration titled Vigyan Sarvatra Pujyate is being held from February 22 to 28 simultaneously in 75 locations across the … country. … As a feather in the cap, a mega expo, science bookfair are being held in New Delhi.
According to the same text, the purpose of the week-long celebrations is thus:
The programme has been designed to inspire India’s youth and help them navigate into building a progressive nation; bring to the fore stories of people in science who made these achievements possible; reinforce the commitment of the scientific community towards the economic and social development of the country; present the awe inspiring futuristic mega science projects embarked by the nation and highlight the work being done by R&D organisations from across the country…
I have no expectations from this event other than that it will be a platform for the BJP to point to something, call it scientific or technological innovation and then take credit for it.
It is curious why reinforcing “the commitment of the scientific community towards the economic and social development of the country” is part of the agenda, however. The government has been responsible for casting most of the doubt on the integrity and purpose of scientific enterprise of late. Recall the MCVR, NCBS and INSACOG incidents and the Centre’s response to various expert groups and recommendations. If anyone has anything to prove, it is the government – that it understands what ‘science’ means.
Three kinds of pseudoscience
In fact, Narendra Modi has been India’s prime minister for almost eight years, building up a considerable body of pseudoscientific work. Unlike this administration’s early days, we can now stratify this pseudoscience into multiple levels, each with its own purpose.
The most basic, most pervasive effect of his government’s confused use of ‘science’ has been the passive condonement of pseudoscience in various spheres of life. This extends from emboldening anti-intellectualist sentiments in both public and private conversations to the perversion of science and history.
The effects of the former are all too visible on social media platforms, especially Twitter and Facebook: all public conversations have become vitiated. The Wire’s investigation into the ‘Tek Fog’ app, with ties to the Bharatiya Janata Party, reported how the party’s supporters have automated hate, directing it through a firehose at journalists, politicians, scientists and writers who criticise the government’s policies.
While the app’s use has many great implications, there are some important ones for science journalism, and its opposition to pseudoscience, as well.
Next, there is the systematic sidelining of scientific thinking even as the government champions the importance of science. The Union environment ministry has exemplified this by promoting ease of business and single-window clearance systems, while talking about sustainable development and pro-climate action at international fora.
The government has also executed this form of pseudoscience by standing up for good education while appointing its puppets as institute and university leaders, to bring them in line with the government’s nationalist mission. The recent “Vedic calendar” out of IIT Kharagpur is a good, recent example: it was the product of a research centre at the institute, and used the institute’s standing to promote the Hindutva brand of science while also expressing staking space for right-wing ‘intellectualism’ in the academic space.
The most pernicious example of this kind of pseudoscience, of course, transpired when Prime Minister Modi allowed the Kumbh Mela to proceed during India’s deadly second wave of COVID-19.
The third level is the bullshit that ministers – including the prime one – spew so that they may hijack the headlines of publications, while the latter’s editors don’t suspect that they’re inadvertently providing a platform to spread pseudoscience. An exemplary instance of this was when the country’s science minister Jitendra Singh called M.K. Gandhi’s ahimsa a “scientific tool for biological warfare”.
However, according to the ‘Vigyan Sarvatra Pujyate’ press statement, the government is restricting the event’s venues to 75 in number – because this is the 75th year of India’s independence. The signs that this whole thing is a gimmick doesn’t end there. Ahead of Independence Day last year, the Department of Science and Technology had announced the year’s programme: 75 events, 75 lectures, 750 talks by scientists, 7,500 participants, 750 popular science articles, 75,000 school children, 75 competitions, etc.
The bit about “75,000 school children” is particularly curious: will children who wish to participate be turned back if the quota of 75,000 has been met?
The worst, of course, were the programme’s “themes”:
Ending Raman effect discovery day
I dislike the foundations of National Science Day. It commemorates physicist C.V. Raman’s discovery of the scattering effect named for him, and for which Raman was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1930.
As such, National Science Day is the Indian government’s, and India’s, valorisation of a single discovery, of the prize that it won and of the scientific and social circumstances in which the scientist and the prize-giving entity operated. The mores of these circumstances are today vastly outdated, but celebrating them continues to reinforce their importance and desirability in India.
The Modi government will also find easy resonance with the darker aspects of Raman’s legacy. Raman, while an accomplished physicist, was deeply sexist. He refused to admit women to study at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, when he was its director, while hypocritically rooting for women’s education. Kamala Sohinie had to expend considerable mental effort, energy and time to break this barrier – for herself and for all women – when in fact she could have spent them doing good science.
As feminist science practice and communication have elucidated, the institutionalised appreciation of one privileged male scientist who made one privileged discovery, to the exclusion of many women in science as well as other scientists and their work, is of a piece with the centrality of patriarchy in official policy and the control it seeks to exercise over women. (People of other gender, and sexual, denominations are not admitted.)
One might say Raman’s actions were par for the course then, that he was a product of his time. But this only implies that we should do better to be a product of ours – and exercise the choice we have to pick someone more suited to being a role model for the entire country.
India has produced many thousands of scientists who have done good work. Why didn’t we pick any of them to commemorate (or pick a different group every year) instead of Raman? Is his Nobel Prize supposed to excuse his narrow-mindedness?
We can set a much better example for children – especially the 75,000 who will be allowed to join – by commemorating the work of, say, Bibha Chowdhuri, Kamala Sohonie, Savitribai Phule, Anna Mani or Meghnad Saha.
India celebrated its first National Science Day in 1987, and the government at the time, helmed by Rajiv Gandhi, certainly deserves blame for framing such a potent occasion in such an insular way (although the idea came from the National Council for S&T Communication).
But as Gandhi launched science day, Narendra Modi could help end it: the latter’s administration has coopted National Science Day in such crass fashion that, like a big rock tied to a corpse, it could drag the occasion down to the abyss.
So, happy national science day!