voicing dissent

Here is why India's leading scientists are also speaking up against intolerance

Some have returned awards and almost 700 have signed an online statement condemning 'the assault on reason and scientific temper'.

Scientists have now joined filmmakers, sociologists, historians, artists and writers in issuing statements and returning their awards in an effort to draw attention to growing intolerance in the country.

Some of the country’s foremost scientists, including Ashoke Sen, recipient of the world’s most prestigious award for physics, Pushpa Bhargava who founded the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, former director of the Indian Institute of Science P Balaram, former president of the Indian Academy of Science, D Balasubramanian and around 100 others issued a joint statement.

Many are recipients of Padma Bhushans and Padma Shris. On Thursday, Bhargava announced that he would return his Padma Bhushan.

“The scientific community is deeply concerned with the climate of intolerance, and the ways in which science and reason are being eroded in the country,” the statement said. “It is the same climate of intolerance, and rejection of reason that has led to the lynching in Dadri of Mohammad Akhlaq Saifi and the assassinations of Prof Kalburgi, Dr Narendra Dabholkar and Shri Govind Pansare.”

While around 100 scientists had signed the statement at the time of its release, they have now uploaded the document as an online petition. At the time of publication, in less than two days, 631 of a targeted 1,000 people had signed the statement.

“Scientists have not been known to articulate opinons in public,” said Amit Sengupta, a signatory of the statement and national convenor of the People’s Health Movement. “We have of course private opinions, but it shows the extent of concern that people who do not normally respond to socio-political issues are speaking up.”

The statement of normally reticent scientists lends weight to hundreds of writers, artists, historians and academicians, who many had accused of having ulterior political agendas when they began to return their awards.

“The writers have shown the way with their protests,” the scientists’ statement said. “We scientists now join our voices to theirs, to assert that the Indian people will not accept such attacks on reason, science and our plural culture. We reject the destructive narrow view of India that seeks to dictate what people will wear, think, eat and who they will love.”

Why they protest

Scientists had many reasons for speaking up, but foremost was a perceived deterioration in reason and debate.

“Discussions being mocked now passes as acceptable social behaviour,” said Vineeta Bal, a scientist at the National Institute of Immunology. “People are getting away with saying that this is what they want and that there can be no argument. Many scientists may not have political opinions or support parties, but when academic rigour is infringed, they will take a stand.”

Scientists, Bal pointed out, were also in a way more dependent on government funding than artists and writers, which might also make their protest have a different meaning to the government.

“Natural scientists have more direct contact with the government because of funding,” she said. “It is not a better or worse thing, just different. To encourage rationality, it is important to have the freedom we are talking about.”

Even so, scientists are unlikely to take the streets, Sengupta said.

“If you look at the community of scientists, the overall majority might not be concerned enough to speak,” he cautioned. “But it is a trend that some of the best minds in the country are speaking out.”

T Jayaraman, a retired physicist now teaching at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, added, “We have no illusion that we are a decisive voice, but we had to stand up and be counted. We could have spoken up for [Narendra] Dabholkar, but there is a tipping point and this was it.”

Jayaraman acknowledged that such statements might be easier for established scientists to endorse, as opposed to younger scientists working as temporary faculty or in institutions directly under the government.

Hundreds of voices

The flurry of award returns and statements of dissent began a month ago, when Hindi writer Uday Prakash returned his Sahitya Akademi award to protest the organisation’s silence about the killing of writer MM Kalburgi. A day later, writer Nayantara Sahgal returned her award and then former Lalit Kala Akademi chairman Ashok Vajpeyi.

Soon, more than 300 writers had returned awards or voiced their dissent with the atmosphere in the country, so much so that for a week in October, not a day went without another writer publicly voicing their condemnation of the murders of Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar.

So many statements have been made in the last month and half that it is beginning to be difficult to keep track of them all.

In Bengal, 163 intellectuals wrote a joint letter to the President on October 14, to highlight their concern about growing intolerance in the country.

On October 17, 73 sociologists issued a statement condemning the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri.

Two days after that, on October 19, theatre actor Danish Hussain, also known for his roles in Ankhon Dekhi and Dhobi Ghat, returned his Sangeet Natak Akademi award.

When Gulzar spoke on television on October 25 about growing intolerance, he was duly attacked on social media. The musician had said that he, “Never thought that a situation like this would come where a person's religion is asked before his name. It was never like this.” Several on social media thought that he was a Muslim and began to target him accordingly, until they realised he was a Hindu after all.

On October 27, 300 artists signed a statement condemning social violence against ordinary citizens in places such as Udhampur, Dadri and Faridabad.

A day later on October 28, as FTII students returned to classes keeping a strike running for 139 days, 12 filmmakers returned their National Awards.

The scientists’ statement ended, “We appeal to all other sections of society to raise their voice against the assault on reason and scientific temper we are witnessing in India today.”

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