This is why scientists are not joining the award-return bandwagon

Rukmini Bhaya Nair, in her recent article in NDTV has posed a question to scientists as to why they were not returning their awards when a lot of writers and other ’artistes’ were returning theirs.

At the very outset, to even suggest that not returning awards was akin to either being apathetic  to someone’s killing, or not having courage to speak up is very rash.  The entire structure of her argument stands on a very shaky foundation –  to first assume that this is the worst time for civic rights in the history of post-independent India without establishing it with any objective evidence, and then to try and win people with a  ‘you are either with us or against us’ logic.

Before we move on, I want to say this – in a recent debate on Times Now, Maya Krishna Rao angrily asked Anupam Kher and Arnab Goswami not to dictate to the writers when they should or should not be returning their awards (when they quite reasonably asked her why none of these people returned their awards during the earlier riots and incidents). Now, turning the tables, how would it be if a scientist said ‘’ Please don’t dictate to the scientists when they should or should not speak up’’?

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With that childishness out of the way, here is my  broad response to Ms. Nair.

1. Perhaps, the scientists could count up to 3, and realised quickly that only one killing (of Kalburgi) happened after the present govt came up at the centre. And since 2 out of the 3 killings happened during the previous govt, perhaps they did not rashly fit a trend and pronounce the current govt Fascist. In other words, one point does not define a whole curve.

Despite the media cacophony on this issue, they also perhaps saw that mob-rage and mob-killings are not a sudden occurrence in India in the last one year and have little to do with this or that government being at the centre. Also, why is it that the chief ministers of the respective states (Karnataka and UP respectively) do not seem to exist at all in the eyes of these writers and the onus of law and order is suddenly shifted to the central govt.? That brings me to my second point.

2. They (scientists) also perhaps noted that a lot of the writers who returned their awards and gave TV interviews in a huff and puff also seemed to have signed petitions against the current prime minister in last year’s election campaign and tried their best to see to it that he was not elected. One of them said quite undemocratically on live TV, as the results were pouring in showing a clear victory for the BJP, that it was probably time to get a new electorate in India to prevent such results. What elitism!

With so much evidence of an express bias, should one blindly discount it and believe that these writers have no political scores to settle? Nayanatara Sehgal went to the extent to say that Indira Gandhi was only a ‘’ democrat gone wrong’’, but the current govt was Fascist. Apparently  even the very act of usurping the democratic rights of people still somehow retains the democratic nature of Indira Gandhi. In what dream-land is this thinking rational (since Ms. Nair claims to be siding with rationalists)?

Now, given the slimy political plane on which all these players seem to stand, should the scientists blindly join the bandwagon?  By making false and rash accusations and using it for political ends damages the credibility of the intellectuals. That should have been left proprietary to the politicians (of all parties) who seem to know no better.

3. Ms. Nair herself makes this admission – ‘’ The media today, like it or not, brings to all of us news of ghastly hate crimes, of child rapes, of vigilante violence, with an everyday certitude that cannot but shock and dismay. In this ‘in your face’ or ‘in your Facebook’ world, we are thus being systematically forced as a collective to confront the big questions again.’’

Madam, seems like you need a hand to crawl out of this media-trap. It does not take any special training in any discipline to realise that the media are also on a massive hunt for such incidents (especially those involving social discord) day in and day out all of a sudden and also, if I may say, because THIS government is at the centre.

That does not in anyway mean that the issues are not pertinent . They do  need a deep look into ourselves as a society. But the dodgy credentials of the current lot of self-proclaimed agitators undercuts the efforts of the more honest ones and disenchants the public  at the disappointing quality of the so-called intellectuals.

4. Ms. Nair ends her article by asking how one should react in this age of media onslaught when the problems of the world are no longer isolated from your privacy, and rues the ‘long-standing neglect of the basics of a humane education’.

Madam, how about remembering that most humane education that tells you to meditate coolly with a calm head and not be swayed so much by sundry media reports, and not be urged to react to every news item you happen to read and drive yourself and the people around you into a frenzy? How about meditating and working out a solution to the problem, if you can, instead of creating more and more jargon in the name of your social theories, which invariably do not have a shelf-life longer than two years? If you come up with a solution, instead of adding to the noise, may be everyone, including those apathetic scientists, will stand with you. This does not mean that a discussion cannot happen. But the increasingly evident political bias of the agitators wreaks of insincerity.

Long standing problems need long-term solutions, and petty politicking, as some of these writers are doing, is not the beginning of anything fundamental. Standing up for a cause for the wrong reasons endangers the cause itself. People can see through this charade, and refrain from blindly joining the bandwagon. At the end, all you are left with is a conglomeration of petty minds.

To go into a few details of her article where Ms. Nair uses misplaced logic :

1. ‘’…. one group of national awardees, the writers, has spoken up strenuously. The other, comprising scientists, has not. Why? If the spate of Award-wapsi is a ‘motivated protest’ by persons who have been patronized by the Congress or the Left, that would be as true of the scientists. Why then have few, if any, scientists protested publicly? Are they immune to motivation?’’

This displays utter lack of awareness about how science works. Science does not have any patronage of the right or the left. Such subjective psychological divisions do not fall in the realm of science.  And yes, scientists are more immune to motivation, by training.

2. Ms. Nair invokes CP Snow’s thesis, with a twist. To quote her, ‘’ I suggest that, as postcolonial inheritors of the British system of education, we return to CP Snow’s memorable distinction between the ‘two cultures’ of the sciences and arts. Snow’s thesis is typically invoked when there is talk of ‘culture wars’, as in our country today. His specific conjecture was that the UK system of education made too sharp a distinction between these streams, wherein the humanities were unduly privileged to ‘speak for’ the culture, while the sciences, despite their powerful intellectual contributions, constituted a place of cultural silence. He pointed out that ignorance of Shakespeare was considered a social lack but this snobbery did not appear to extend to a parallel ignorance, say, of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In short, there was a deep, incipient ‘intolerance’ in British society. ‘’

First things first, Snow was only making a distinction between the traditionally accepted literary cultureand the rapidly progressing natural sciences (with which the former are largely cut off) in early 20th century England. So to off-handedly and loosely say that this thesis is typically invoked when there is a talk of ’culture wars’ is to apply it totally wrongly. Moreover, to say that there is a sort of culture war in India is an unqualified overstatement. Could Ms. Nair care to specify what cultures are warring and how Snow’s thesis is applicable there? Here is Snow’s essay. I strongly recommend reading it for both its humour and depth.

In fact quite ironically, Snow concludes his essay thus, “From that particular temptation, made up of defeat, self-indulgence, and moral vanity,the scientific culture is almost totally immune. It is that kind of moral health of the scientists which, in the last few years, the rest of us have needed most; and of which, because the two culture scarcely touch, we have been most deprived.”  Ms. Nair, the reading of that is quite clear I suppose!

Snow explicitly said that it was those unacquainted with the sciences that were losing more, both intellectually and more importantly morally. And this is because scientific thinking is devoid of this temptation to cosy up to this or that ideology.

In fact the scientists have been speaking through their continuous research publications on several issues, some of them concerning our own life and death (like developing vaccines, warning about pollution and air quality). How many of you have used the same passion for listening to their words and spreading them? So much for reverentially looking up to them.

Lastly, Ms. Nair, 11 Nuclear scientists of India have died under suspicious circumstances in the last 4 years. How come none of the writers uttered a murmur about that, and you are talking about scientists being apathetic?

-Hemalekha


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