In 1947, India’s ruling elite set out a development blueprint for the nation that was surprisingly rational for the country’s income levels. Ravaged by two centuries of colonialism, while India was one of the poorest countries in the world in 1947, its Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru spoke of technology and progress. Nehru even coined the term “scientific temper”, which would be a goal of the Indian state in this new age. The prime minister was an agnostic writing to Gandhi in 1933 that he had “drifted away” from faith and his personal rationalism it seems, set the bar for independent India. The Indian state’s new “temples” would be dams, institutes of technology and science. The messiness of religion, both as ideology and communal identify was sought to be hidden away.
Even in the Nehruvian age, though, while the narrative in Delhi was all about science and rationality, the states were already jostling to use faith as driver. For example, starting from just after Nehru’s death, state governments started to pass laws which restricted the freedom of Hindus to adopt other faiths, injecting a theocratic agenda into matters of administration. By the 1980s, the old Nehruvian agenda had been weakened enough for this theocratic agenda to start to target the Centre.
The Bharatiya Janata Party started its massive agitation for a temple at the site of the Babri Masjid. Overturning Nehruvianism, the BJP explicitly grounded its politics in faith. The religious faith of lakhs of Indians would overturn any legal process, claimed senior party leader Lal Krishna Advani. By 2014, the Hindutva movement had delivered its greatest success: under Narendra Modi, the BJP had been able to garner a Lok Sabha majority. This also meant a new low for the Nehruvian agenda of rationalism and scientific temper.
Modi set the bar
Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself set the ball rolling with amazing claims that cosmetic surgery and genetic sciences existed in ancient India. A minister from Goa wanted to “cure” people of homosexuality and in Rajasthan, rape accused “godman” Asaram Bapu is featured as a saint in a Class III textbook endorsed by the state government. While religion in politics has, to some extent, always been there, the new dynamics post May 2014 are even pushing it into higher academia which has, till now, been insulated from this sort of irrationality.
The new BJP government kicked things off with history, appointing Yellapragada Sudershan Rao the chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research. Not only was Rao unknown as a historian but he also thought that the caste system was a good thing and considered the epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, to be literally true. Given that the ICHR was a funding body for historians, it was quite clear the direction in which academia was now turning. In October, 2015, Delhi University organised a seminar where flying chariots and televisions sets from the Mahabharat were discussed in all seriousness.
Ramdev in JNU
A fortnight ago, Baba Ramdev, the television yoga guru who now also runs a pharmaceutical company, was asked to be the keynote speaker at the valedictory ceremony of the 22nd International Vedanta Congress at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Now Ramdev might be a good televangelist, but to lecture to scholars on theology is a bit much. After all, he holds views which suggest that yoga is a cure for AIDS and thinks that homosexuality is a reflection of “criminality and sick mentality”. While Ramdev’s invitation to JNU was cancelled as outraged students protested, this tweet did ensure that most right-thinking people won’t be inviting him back as a scholar of theology any time soon.
The recently concluded Indian Science Congress, which Nobel Prize winner Venkatraman Ramakrishnan called a “circus”, didn’t fail to disappoint, discussing topics such as the health benefits of blowing a shankh (conch) and “Lord Shiva as a greatest environmentalist in the world”. As a full circle, back to where it all started in the 1980s, news broke on Tuesday that Delhi University will allow a far-right organisation to hold a seminar on the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya on the campus. On its website, the organisation argues that since “For a great majority of Indians, Lord Shri Rama is central not only to their spiritual life but also their physical being”, a temple at Ayodhya needs to be built.
Retreat of rationalism
This retreat of rationalisation from the academic space is an especially dangerous development. While letting in people with less than academic views into campuses is often spun as an issue of free speech, that is a false, if common, argument used by the religious right across the world. Creationists in the United States have argued that not letting Intelligent Design be taught in schools is a violation of free speech, a specious argument that has been struck down by US courts. Freedom of expression is a right to be allowed to say or think what one wants; it is not a right to be allowed into a particular campus or textbook.
In many ways, of course, views such as these have existed in India for a long time, but have only now been given this sort of elite exposure. This, though, is hugely troubling development because by giving these kooky ideas an official stamp of legitimacy, it will encourage their rapid spread. To get an idea of the harm that legitimising such ideas can do, one only needs to peek across India’s western border where Islamist dictator Zia-ul-Haq kicked off proceedings by organising conferences on “scientific miracles” in the 1970s. The apogee of this sort of complete devaluation of rationalism is that Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, a top Pakistani nuclear engineer, has published papers proposing that djinns be tapped to generate energy.
This might seem hilarious – and it is – but India needs to use this as a dark example. Already, we have the somewhat odd sight of the chief of the Indian Space Research Organisation publicly going to a temple to have space mission being blessed by a deity. It does not bode well that our elite classes today present faith and not rationality as a virtue to be emulated.