Save Our Science: BJP is taking India's scientific standing to an all-time low
No, the Madhya Pradesh (MP) government isn't instituting astrology OPDs manned by palm readers and astrologers in state-run hospitals. The state's health minister slammed the claims, even calling them “absurd”, but his argument hinged on a technicality.
Though these OPDs were not being set up in regular hospitals, it was being instituted in the yoga centres of the Maharishi Patanjali Sanskrit Sansthan (MPSS) – the state nodal agency for the promotion of Yoga and Sanskrit. In the proposed 'OPDs', astrology and vaastu experts would indeed give health advice to the sick.
Speaking in defence of the idea, MPSS deputy director Prashant Dolas said, “Astrology and vaastu are established sciences.” Given that MP's infant mortality rate is worse than even Ethiopia's, this initiative is a criminal waste of government funds. If implemented, it will take advantage of the most desperate and vulnerable, while lowering the standard of healthcare in the state.
But this move should not come as a surprise. Under the current government, India is seeing a widespread dilution of scientific temperament, moving away from rationality, and towards Hindutva-inspired pseudo-science.
Just this past week, Infosys co-founder Narayana Murthy lamented that India has not produced any “earth shaking” technology or invention in the last 60 years. The solution, Murthy suggested, was open mindedness, interaction with global schools of thought, and freedom for scholars to pursue research. The Modi government, however, has vastly different ideas.
In tandem with its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP has embarked on a mission to “Indianise” our scientific pursuits. The Modi government's approach to this involves weaving a nationalist narrative into science, changing the yardstick of scientific merit from empirical evidence to Hindutva chauvinism.
As such, there has been an increased focus on areas like cow research, Vedic science, and, as in the case of Madhya Pradesh, astrology. These pursuits are propped up by both the BJP and RSS as a source of national pride, especially worthy of academic interest and government funding.
As in the case of opposition to the government's initiatives in the past, those who oppose these unscientific forays are derided as anti-Indian. We saw just this when AYUSH minister Shripad Yasso Naik called allopathic doctors “anti-national”, or when an RSS mouthpiece accused IITs of being “anti-India” and “anti-Hindu”.
This combination, of espousing pseudoscience while simultaneously attacking rationality, has already borne fruit. We've now had numerous cases where venerated institutes of higher education like IIT Delhi and Mumbai have held seminars dedicated to cow science.
While non-Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) scholars pursuing MPhils and PhDs have had their already meagre stipends scrapped, the government is planning to allocate funds toward cow research.
Just this month, the country's science and technology minister, Harsh Vardhan, announced that he would personally be leading a committee to select projects aimed at scientifically validating the properties of panchgavya – a mixture of cow dung, cow urine, curd, ghee, and milk.
These projects would receive funding from various government ministries, even as India's spending on science has remained stagnant at a woeful 0.8% of GDP.
Catch 'em young
Not content with just undermining scientific rationality in institutes of higher education, Vijnana Bharati (VIBHA), the science wing of the RSS, is teaming up with the government to launch a massive digital campaign to “promote scientific research”.
“Scientific research”, though, is a clever euphemism for the real purpose of the initiative. The project, aided by both the Ministry of Science and Technology, as well as the Ministry of Earth Science, is yet another attempt to add a nationalist narrative to science education. This time though, their targets will be younger and more impressionable.
Called the Science India Portal, the campaign is aimed at students from grades 6-12, and will reach close to two million children nationwide.
Worryingly for the future of Indian science, VIBHA is an organisation that, according to its own website, promotes “the harmonious synthesis of physical and spiritual sciences”. In addition to this, it lists practices like vaastu on par with engineering.
Speaking to Catch reporter Anurag Dey about the project, VIBHA member Arvind C Ranade said, “The young generation should also know about traditional Indian sciences and the country's rich history in the fields of science and technology. So, the agenda is also to promote Vedic sciences.” One wonders whether this is along the lines of Modi's infamous 'Ganesha is an example of ancient plastic surgery', or the claim made at the 2015 Indian Science Congress that Vedic India was home to spacecraft. All of this makes one question the sort of scientific temper VIBHA promotes.
If this campaign is successful, it could lead to an entire generation of aspiring scientists being steeped in unscientific ideas. This could significantly dent India's future scientific prospects.
It is no wonder then that scientists across the country feel under threat enough as to actually organise a protest against the government. Called the 'India March for Science', they will take to the streets on 9 August to demand extra funding for science, as well as the cessation of these government-backed unscientific ideas.
If the government is indeed serious about raising India's scientific standing, it should heed their voices. If not, expect an India where astrologers diagnosing illnesses are the norm, not the exception.