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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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.