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When atavism and avatars
muscle out science

How Hindutva ideologues are undermining the very idea of India. The following is a single chapter - The Attack on Science - from a new book, 'The Paradoxical Prime Minister - Narendra Modi and his India', by Shashi Tharoor.

By SHASHI THAROOR
NEW DELHI, December 2018

BJP's attack on science in India is not based on rational thought or historical fact

The much loved Indian god Ganesha is just one of the accidental dramatis personae in the BJP-Hindutva onslaught on the scientific temper in India.

In his new book - The Paradoxical Prime Minister, Narendra Modi and his India - (Aleph Book Company October 2018), Indian National Congress parliamentarian, novelist and political commentator Shashi Tharoor pens a series of interlinked essays examining how India is coping with the Hindutva assault on science, education, minorities, women, the economy, foreign policy and indeed rational thought and historical fact. The book presents the 'paradox' of PM Modi's avowed pre-election promises and pronouncements - many of them appealing and unobjectionable - contrasting starkly with his government's actual practise once in power. The author argues that the intricate fabric of India is being steadily unravelled by India's saffron-leaning backward-looking BJP party.

AMONG the many ailments inflicted upon India by the BJP, the most cringe-inducing (in a rather long list) must be its leaders’ boastfully ignorant atavism. Not only do they claim credit, on behalf of their ancient Hindu forebears, for every invention of the modern era; they assert their point of view with a certitude that is immune to ridicule, or even common sense.

Shashi Tharoor

Shashi Tharoor


India’s Constitution calls for the promotion of ‘scientific temper, humanism, and the spirit of inquiry and reform’ amongst the populace. This is the state’s responsibility, and also the constitutional duty of every citizen

For example, the chief minister of the tiny northeastern state of Tripura, Biplab Deb, cheerfully declared that Indians had invented the Internet some two millennia ago. The proof of this particular hasty pudding, he insisted, lay in the fact that in the ancient epic the Mahabharata, one of the characters, Sanjaya, was able to provide a detailed narrative to the blind king Dhritarashtra of a battle that was taking place many miles away. This proved, Mr Deb averred, that in ancient times India had invented and used both satellite technology and the Internet.

The ridicule was swift in coming. American historian Audrey Truschke asked wickedly why Sanjaya had bothered to narrate the story when he could have used Siri instead—and why Lord Krishna hadn’t streamed the Bhagavad Gita on Facebook Live. Another social media user hoped that ancient Indians had better Internet bandwidth than their spectrum-starved descendants enjoy today. One said the longevity of the Internet in India, no doubt, explained why the country had the largest number of trolls in the world. A third dubbed the ancient invention the ‘Indra-Net’, a reference to the Vedic god Indra, and explained that the GPS used those days must have been the God Positioning System.

The unfazed chief minister remained defiant. ‘Narrow-minded people find it tough to believe this. They want to belittle their own nation and think highly of other countries. Believe the truth. Don’t get confused and don’t confuse others,’ he told the press. The political uses of his claim were never far from his mind; the BJP has been pressing ancient ‘achievements’ as an integral part of its hyper-nationalism. ‘I feel proud that I am born in a country with such an advanced technology’, the chief minister added.

India’s Constitution calls for the promotion of ‘scientific temper, humanism, and the spirit of inquiry and reform’ amongst the populace. This is the state’s responsibility, and also the constitutional duty of every citizen. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a passionate advocate of science who argued that while religion tends to close the mind and produce ‘intolerance, credulity and superstition, emotionalism and irrationalism’, and ‘a temper of a dependent, unfree person’, a scientific temper ‘is the temper of a free man’, and therefore indispensable in free India.

The Paradoxical Prime Minister - a book by Shashi TharoorIt seems, however, that such ideas are no longer fashionable in an India ruled by the BJP. Its leaders and acolytes are busy attempting to keep the theory of evolution out of school curricula, and insisting that the ancients had already discovered or invented every scientific accomplishment in the Vedic age, including jet aircraft (pushpak viman) and atomic weaponry.

The underlying message is that ancient India had all the answers, and that traditional and indigenous practices and ways of life are vastly better than imported modern scientific ideas.

The reverence for the past that is integral to the ruling ideology is also reflective of a fear of rejecting the past, since the promotion of a faith-based communal identity is central to the Hindutva project, and faith is seen as emerging from the timeless wisdom of the past. Traditionalism benefits those who want to uphold the social order, ensure discipline and conformity, and prevent radical change. Science and rationality threaten such conformism.

This is why the ruling dispensation’s political project of transforming secular India into a Hindu state requires the supremacy of religion over science, and the assimilation of science into the Hindutva project as merely something ancient India had had all along. Religion is no longer just a question of your personal beliefs, a form of stretching out your hands to the divine; it is part of the assertion of a politics of identity built around faith. This requires an assault on science, since science challenges the established verities as religion does not.

Junior education minister Satyapal Singh said that Darwin’s theory of evolution was ‘unscientific’—on the grounds that ‘no one has ever seen an ape turn into a man’. This is a minister of state responsible for higher education

Another BJP stalwart, Rajasthan’s education minister, Vasudev Devnani, dealt science another body blow by claiming that the cow was the only animal that inhaled and exhaled oxygen. As we have seen, the veneration of the cow is something of an obsession for the BJP, whose followers have assaulted human beings in the name of cow protection, but this was a step too far even for many of its sympathizers among the educated public.

No greater proof of the BJP’s religion-trumps-science agenda can be found than the prime minister himself. Narendra Modi likes to be portrayed as a technology-friendly twenty-first-century leader, but as I have mentioned earlier in this book, Mr Modi startled the world at the inauguration of a Mumbai hospital with the claim that the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh was proof of ancient India’s knowledge of plastic surgery.

This was not the prime minister’s only offence. Before heading off for the Paris climate change negotiations, Mr Modi told schoolchildren on Teachers’ Day in 2014 that climate change was a myth because it was actually human beings whose capacity to cope with heat and cold that had changed, rather than the environment. Global warming, he explained on national television, ‘is just a state of mind’. What made it worse was that this came as an answer to a schoolchild’s question about climate change. ‘That’s because as you grow older you are less able to withstand heat and cold. The climate isn’t changing,’ he said, ‘we are.’

The disease is catching. In May 2017, Justice Mahesh Chandra Sharma of the Rajasthan High Court, reportedly a science graduate himself, told a television channel that India’s national bird, the peacock, ‘is a lifelong celibate’ who ‘does not indulge in sex’ but impregnates the peahen by shedding a tear. He cited Lord Krishna’s use of a peacock feather as proof of its celibacy. The idea of a peacock reproducing through tears may seem laughable, but there is nothing lachrymose about the ruling dispensation’s dominant Hindutva ideology, which has helped propagate an astonishing amount of pseudoscience across the country. Narendra Modi associates like the yoga teacher and Ayurveda entrepreneur Baba Ramdev are regular offenders. Ramdev pronounces his pseudo-spiritual wisdom to the world, seeking, for instance, to sell medicines to ‘cure homosexuality’.

There’s more in a similar vein. Junior education minister Satyapal Singh said that Darwin’s theory of evolution was ‘unscientific’—on the grounds that ‘no one has ever seen an ape turn into a man’. This is a minister of state responsible for higher education in the Government of India. More worryingly, Mr Singh is an educated man (he is a Chemistry graduate) as are most of the others whose examples I’ve cited. But then of course, we must understand that Mr Singh’s statement had very little to do with the quality of the science education he received, and more to do with the ruling party’s ideology.

To reiterate the point I made earlier in this chapter, the ruling dispensation’s political project of transforming secular India into a Hindu state requires the supremacy of religion over science. When an education minister questions Darwin or another minister asserts the miraculous powers of the cow, he is not merely offering a choice between a scientific theory and a faith-based one, he is reminding the public of their allegiance to a total world view. That world view embraces a larger political project that prescribes a set of beliefs and behaviours incompatible with science, scepticism and enquiry.

Science and rationality threaten such conformism, because they encourage scepticism, free enquiry, and testing of the traditional perspectives that the BJP is so eager to entrench. That is why, as the BJP attempts to transform secular India into a Hindu state, it must weaken the role of science. It is difficult to overstate the tragedy that this trend represents. The obscurantist and atavistic state that Narendra Modi’s BJP wants to create would look nothing like the one that made India the scientific superpower of the ancient age. It is enough to make one shed a tear. One can only hope that there are no peahens around.

Reprinted with the author's permission


Prolific author, Indian member of parliament from Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, and former Minister of State for External Affairs, Shashi Tharoor has also served as a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, and as a senior advisor to the UN Secretary-General. His website is www.tharoor.in

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Margaret Reid (22 December, 2018) – Australia
The author describes the changes, and none to too subtle they are, with flair and wit. I wish the country luck. It has been a joy and inspiration for so many.
Govind (21 December, 2018) – India
I have followed Shashi Tharoor's writings for many years and always found him to be a voice of reason. This chapter on the attack on science is a wake-up call to all in India who wish to see the country maintain its ideals and civilization. There is a difference between being a proud Hindu and the daily murderous violence under the Hindutva banner
Robin Black (21 December, 2018) – United Kingdom
A very accessible primer on India in its current and rather difficult passage. I read the book recently. This chapter is particularly telling. Well, written, cogent, and sweeping in its scope yet elegantly presented. I hope the country finds its usual 'unity in diversity'
G Upadhyaya (21 December, 2018) – India
The author is biased and a Congress mouthpiece

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