In 2009, I was having dinner with two distinguished academics, directors of top-ranked centres of scientific research. Both told me they had been receiving a stream of excellent applications for faculty jobs from researchers based abroad. This was unprecedented; they were far more familiar with Indian scientists leaving for jobs overseas. That was still happening, of course, but now there was also a substantial flow of scientific talent in the other direction, from the West back to India.

There were several reasons for this partial reversal of the brain drain. The global financial crisis had led to a funding squeeze in Western universities, which now had less money to hire new faculty. At the same time, India was spending more on research and scholarship. The Union government had recently established a chain of high-quality research centres known as Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research. Several new IITs had also come up in recent years. These had all attracted a stream of talented individuals to join their faculty.

In the 1940s and 1950s, some fine scholars with PhDs garnered overseas returned to India, even though they could have got prestigious positions in the West. (They included such world-class scientists as EK Janaki Ammal, Homi Bhabha, MS Swaminathan, Satish Dhawan, and Obaid Siddiqi.) The primary driving force was their patriotism. These individuals had grown up in the time of the national movement and were deeply inspired by its values. Now that India was independent, they wanted to return to their homeland to help shape its future.

In later decades, however, those who did their PhDs abroad were more likely to stay abroad to work too. This is because for most scientists, patriotism is often not a primary motivation. They also want the freedom to pursue independent research, the means to live moderately well, a social environment in which they can raise a family. They would like to work in their own country, but only if these other criteria are also met.

In 2009, the year that I had that conversation in Bengaluru, the Indian scientific ecosystem looked more promising than it had in recent times. The economy was doing well, leading to the augmenting of academic salaries. And the social fabric also appea­red more tolerant, more accommodating, than in past decades. The communal polarisation of the 1990s and early 2000s appeared to have abated.

For a young scientist seeking to pursue independent research, while hoping for financial security and social stability, 2009 was therefore a far better time to be looking for a job in India than 1999 or 1989 or 1979. And so, more scientists educated abroad were turning their back on the West and returning home to work.

Fifteen years later, would the situation be as attractive now for a young scientist wishing to return to India after a PhD abroad? I seriously doubt it. This is largely because the current government, led by Narendra Modi, is far more hostile to scientific research than that led by Manmohan Singh. Himself a scholar, educated at two of the world’s greatest universities, Singh deeply appreciated the contributions of modern science.

Modi, on the other hand, is an autodidact, and has contempt for those with an intellectual pedigree (consider thus his comment that he preferred “hard work to Harvard”). It is true that men educated at prestigious universities (perhaps women less so) can be arrogant and snobbish and out of touch with the lives of the aam aadmi. But without a solid infrastructure of scientific research, no economy or nation can ever enjoy sustained progress.

This was clearly the thinking of Jawaharlal Nehru, who set up the IITs and strongly supported the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, and of Manmohan Singh, who helped establish the IISERs. Prime ministers between Nehru and Singh likewise promoted basic research, particularly in biology, which was now rivalling physics as the most important of the sciences.

By the 1980s, if not earlier, home-grown institutions were producing a stream of outstanding PhDs themselves. Indian science could now draw as much on domestically trained talent as on people returning from overseas.

All this has changed since 2014. Narendra Modi has some time for tech­nological applications whose fruits can bring him political capit­al. Hence his patronage of the Indian Space Research Organisation. Yet he has little interest in promoting scientific and technological research. It is thus that he has allowed Hindutva ideologues to wantonly interfere in the functioning of the IITs. Whereas, in the past, directors of these institutes were chosen by their academic peers alone, under the Modi regime shortlists are actively scrutinised by right-wing apparatchiks, with those likely to follow their line being chos­en. Once in office, some directors of IITs pay elaborate obeisance to sanghi dogma, disparaging Indians who eat meat, opening gaushalas on camp­us, disinviting independent-minded scho­lars from speaking to their students.

The ideological penetration of Indian science by Hindutva was starkly illustrated by a series of nine linked tweets issued by the secretary of the department of science and technology last month. These lavishly praised the Indian Institute of Astrophysics in Bangalore for designing a system that allowed sunlight to shine on the deity in the new temple at Ayodhya on Ram Navami.

Before taking up his job as the head of the government’s scientific establishment, the person issuing the tweets had been director of one of the best IITs located in Kanpur. His tweets therefore attracted sharp comment on social media. Some critics went so far as to say that what the secretary was praising as a great contribution of Indian science could have been accomplished by a clever high school student.

I took the matter to a friend, who did a PhD in physics in a great American university before spending several decades teaching and doing research in India. He patiently explained to me how, by artfully designing lenses and mirrors and placing them at strategically suitable places, and by calculating the disjunctions/conjunctions between the solar and lunar cycles, sunlight had been made to shine on the idol in Ayodhya on the designated day. The science was thus moderately sophisticated, but by no means ground-breaking, and certainly not worthy of being praised in this breathless manner by the top scientific mandarin in the country.

It is possible that the DST secretary is a devout Hindu. Yet he is surely aware that it was for political rather than spiritual reasons that the prime minister inaugurated the temple just a few months prior to the general elections, while presenting himself as its chief initiator and motivator, indeed, as its head priest itself. The DST secretary must also know that the Indian Institute of Astrophysics is mandated to do rather more significant scientific work than merely shine a light on a stone idol.

Nonetheless, he chose to highlight what may be one of the most trivial scientific tasks ever done by a prestigious institute. That the matter concerned a pet political project of the prime minister, and that this was just a few days before polling began, is unlikely to be a coincidence.

The Modi government’s attacks on the press, its politicisation of the civil services and the diplomatic corps, its attempts to de-secularise the armed forces and its suborning of independent regulatory institutions – these have all been widely documented. Less noticed is its undermining of the practice of science in India. Perhaps those ill-chosen (as well as ill-timed) tweets of the DST secretary will finally make us more aware of the damage this regime has done in its regard.

The race theory of the Nazis destroyed German science. The political dogmas of Marxism set Russian science back by decades. Now, in our own country, researchers in our best institutes are asked to tailor their work to the greater glory of Hindus, Hindutva and Narendra Modi. What effect will this have on the practice of science and the morale of scientists in India? When the interests of science are so utterly subordinated to those of politics and religion, which brilliant researchers working here will resist tempting offers from abroad? And which scientists trained overseas are likely to return to work in their homeland?

Ramachandra Guha’s latest work, The Cooking of Books: A Literary Memoir, has just been released. His email address is

This article first appeared on The Telegraph.