Science under the shadow of religious politics


India remains a deeply religious country, yet the public at large has debated notions of secularism, scientific rationality and modernity there for more than a century. For more than 50 years, the state has supported that debate. However, recent developments have shown a resurgence of religion, and that has included religious violence, writes Prof Gauhar Raza.

Soon after India's Narenda Modi became prime minister, he said that Lord Ganesha, a god with an elephant's head mounted on a human body, was proof that plastic surgery had been mastered in
ancient India.
Photo: Sarah Welch, Wikimedia Commons

The debate in India on the use of scientific approaches to life’s challenges is rooted in the nation’s struggle against the dominance of British imperialism. When India became independent from the British in 1947, the emerging ruling classes and political elite recognised the need for a wider acceptance of scientific ideas in the society if they wanted to build a modern industrialised nation.

In 2016, Dr Subodh Mahanti wrote in the Journal of Scientific Temper about the use of the term ‘scientific temper’ by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India. Nehru had lauded the term as “the temper of a free man” and praised a “scientific attitude beyond [the] four walls of [the] laboratory” a year before India achieved independence. A widespread consensus was built around this notion, and, in 1976, the Indian constitution was changed to include the “spreading scientific temper, humanism and spirit of inquiry and reform” as one of the fundamental duties of every citizen. By the late 1980s, anti-science Hindu right-wing forces had enlarged their politico-religious bases and turned violent. Large numbers of Hindu “god-men” had established ashrams (places for worship, sermons or other religious activities) and amassed enormous wealth, and their mass following had increased exponentially. By 1999, when the first Indian government to be led by the right wing was formed, the nexus between the right-wing political leaders and the god-men had been cemented. In 2014, a second right-wing government came to power when Narendra Modi led the Bharatiya Janta Party into office.

Mixing science and religion
Soon after Modi became prime minister, he addressed a gathering of medical experts in Mumbai. The meeting set the government’s ideological agenda, deciding how science and scientific knowledge were going to be treated in the years to come. According to a 2014 report in The Guardian Weekly, Modi said that Lord Ganesha was proof that plastic surgery had been mastered in ancient India. Ganesha, with an elephant’s head mounted on a human body, is one of the most popular gods in India. Modi also said that the birth of Karna (a character in the epic Mahabharata) was evidence that India practised reproductive genetics thousands of years ago. There were two messages in his statement. Firstly, from now on, Hindu religion would be mixed with scientific facts; and secondly, the boundary lines between science and myths and superstitious beliefs would blur. The speech was a frontal attack on the scientific temper.

General Dwight David Eisenhower bestowing an honorary degree on Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, at Columbia University in 1949. Nehru was one of the first leaders to use the term "scientific temper", recognising the need of a wider acceptance of scientific ideas in the society.
Source: Photo Division, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Government of India

Ridicule and policy
The reaction was equally sharp. Scientists and even common citizens, not only in India but all over the world, ridiculed the statement. Jokes making fun of the speech were circulated on social media, cartoonists worked overtime and made fun of it, and many serious articles have since referred to it. On the one hand, this was a clear signal to the policymakers that in times to come they would have to work to change the nature of science and technology syllabuses and science communication, spread myths and superstitions with impunity, and withdraw from projects that aim to spread the scientific temper. In 2016, Vijetha S.N. reported in The Hindu about the protest of historians when Delhi University purged an essay, Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five examples and three thoughts on translations, from its history syllabus. The Ramayana is one of two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India. The institution was accused of succumbing to pressure from the right wing rather than making an academic decision.

Modi’s statement was an instruction to funding agencies to support projects that ratify myths and superstitions and establish causal relationships between scientific facts and mythical stories. On the other hand, it was also a ratification, instigation, encouragement and approval of past and future outrageous anti-science statements by ministers, members of parliament, party leaders, bureaucrats, media channels and even judges. In 2017, for example, Rahul Bedi reported in The Telegraph about an Indian judge being mocked on social media for claiming that peacocks do not mate, but sire their offspring through tears.

A political agenda
When a prime minister, completely disregarding historical and scientific scholarship, precision and correctness, makes such statements repeatedly, it may translate into a policy, which in turn encourages the spreading of myths and superstitions to suit the political agenda. Such statements made in public by the political leadership are well thought-out appeals to right-wing religious nationalists’ anti-rationalist and anti-science consciousness. A scientist may laugh at such assertions, rejecting them as idiotic attacks on the scientific temper and rationality, but they are not naive statements made by mistake.

The evidence suggests that these seemingly outrageous yet harmless statements shaped the future of science policies. Science funding was slashed and scientific activities were hampered. As a result, during the past five years, the number of publications in serious science journals reduced, and meagre funds were diverted to initiate pseudo-scientific research, such as a massive project launched to look into the “anti-cancer properties of cow urine”.

Author: Prof. Gauhar Raza is a retired chief scientist of India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, a member of the National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources in New Delhi, India; and an honorary research fellow at the HSRC.