India doesn’t need a national science day like this
CV Raman (left), 1930, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in October 2020. Photos: Public Domain and PTI
- The government is holding a Vigyan Sarvatra Pujyate this week ahead of National Science Day on February 28. It is National Science Week in India.
- India celebrates National Science Day to commemorate the discovery of the Raman effect, but in doing so, it dismisses CV Raman’s sexism in favor of scientific glory.
- But now that Prime Minister Modi’s government has so crudely co-opted the occasion, it may undermine the day and its place in the calendar.
The government is holding a Vigyan Sarvatra Pujyate this week ahead of National Science Day on February 28. It is National Science Week in India. According to an occasional press release written by India science thread:
A week-long commemoration titled Vigyan Sarvatra Pujyate is being held simultaneously from February 22-28 at 75 venues across the country. … Like a feather in the hat, a mega expo, a science book fair is held in New Delhi.
According to the same text, the purpose of the week-long celebrations is therefore:
The program was designed to inspire young Indians and help them navigate progressive nation building; highlight the stories of scientists who made these achievements possible; strengthen the commitment of the scientific community to the economic and social development of the country; showcasing the awe-inspiring science megaprojects launched by the nation and highlighting the work done by R&D organizations across the country…
I have no expectation of this event other than it will be a platform for the BJP to point to something, call it science or technology innovation and then take credit for it.
It is curious to know why the strengthening of “the commitment of the scientific community to the economic and social development of the country” is however part of the agenda. The government has been tasked with casting most doubts about the integrity and purpose of the scientific enterprise in recent times. Let us recall the MCVR, NCBS and INSACOG incidents and the Centre’s response to the various expert groups and recommendations. If anyone has anything to prove, it’s the government – that they understand what “science” means.
Three Types of Pseudoscience
In fact, Narendra Modi has been Indian Prime Minister for almost eight years, accumulating a considerable body of pseudoscientific work. Unlike the early days of this administration, we can now stratify this pseudoscience into several levels, each with its own purpose.
The most basic and widespread effect of his government’s confused use of “science” has been the passive apologia of pseudoscience in various spheres of life. These range from the emboldening of anti-intellectualist sentiments in 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 stale. Threadinvestigation in the app “Tek Fog”, linked to the Bharatiya Janata party, reported how the party’s supporters have automated the hatred, directing it via a fire hose at journalists, politicians, scientists and writers who criticize the government policies.
Although using the app has many important implications, there are a few important ones for science journalismas well as his opposition to pseudoscience.
Then there is the systematic sidelining of scientific thought even as the government champions the importance of science. The Union Department of Environment has exemplified this by promoting ease of doing business and one-stop customs clearance systems, while talking about sustainable development and climate action in international forums.
The government has also executed this form of pseudoscience by championing good education while appointing its puppets to head institutes and universities, to align them with the nationalist mission of the government. The recent “Vedic Calendar” of IIT Kharagpur is a good recent example of this: it was the product of a research center of the institute and used the position of the institute to promote the brand of Hindutva science while expressing a staking space for the right. “intellectualism” in the academic space.
The most pernicious example of this type of pseudoscience, of course, occurred when Prime Minister Modi allowed the Kumbh Mela to continue during India’s deadly second wave of COVID-19.
The third level is the bullshit that ministers – including the first – spit out to hijack the titles of publications, while the editors of the latter do not suspect they are inadvertently providing a platform to spread pseudoscience. An exemplary example of this was when the country’s science minister, Jitendra Singh, called MP Gandhi’s ahimsa a “scientific tool for biological warfare”.
However, according to the ‘Vigyan Sarvatra Pujyate’ press release, the government is limiting the number of venues for the event to 75 – as it is the 75th anniversary of India’s independence. The signs that this is all a gimmick don’t end there. Prior to Independence Day last year, the Department of Science and Technology announced the program for the year: 75 events, 75 lectures, 750 lectures by scientists, 7,500 attendees, 750 popular science articles, 75,000 schoolchildren, 75 competitions, etc.
The mention of “75,000 schoolchildren” is particularly curious: will children who wish to participate be turned away if the quota of 75,000 is reached?
Worse, of course, were the “themes” of the program:
End of the day discovery of the Raman effect
I don’t like the basics of National Science Day. It commemorates physicist CV Raman’s discovery of the scattering effect that bears his name and for which Raman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1930.
As such, National Science Day is the recognition by the Indian government and India of a single discovery, the prize it has won and the scientific value and social circumstances in which the scientist and the awarding entity acted. The mores of these circumstances are now largely outdated, but celebrating them continues to enhance 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 in Bengaluru, when he was its director, while hypocritically supporting women’s education. Kamala Sohinie had to expend considerable mental effort, energy and time to break down that barrier – for herself and for all women – when in fact she could have spent it doing good science.
As feminist scientific practice and communication has elucidated, the institutionalized appreciation of a privileged male scientist who has made a privileged discovery, to the exclusion of many female scientists as well as other scientists and their work, is consistent with the centrality of patriarchy in official politics and the control it seeks to exercise over women. (People of other gender and sex faiths are not admitted.)
One could say that Raman’s actions were normal then, that he was a product of his time. But that only implies that we should do better to be our product – and exercise the choice we have to pick someone better suited to be a role model for the whole country.
India has produced several thousand scientists who have done good work. Why didn’t we choose one of them to commemorate (or choose 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 us – by commemorating the work of, say, Bibha Chowdhuri, Kamala Sohonie, Savitribhai Phule, Anna Mani or Meghnad Saha.
India celebrated its first National Science Day in 1987, and the government of the day, led by Rajiv Gandhi, certainly deserves blame for staging such a powerful occasion in such an insular fashion (although the idea came from National S&T Communication Council).
But as Gandhi launched Science Day, Narendra Modi could help end it: the latter’s administration co-opted National Science Day so crudely that, like a large boulder tied to a corpse, it could lead the opportunity into the abyss.
So, happy National Science Week!