Who discovered the theory of gravity? Not English mathematician Isaac Newton, argued Union Minister for Human Resource Development Ramesh Pokhriyal on Saturday. Instead, Pokhriyal credited India’s ancient scriptures for the discovery. He was speaking at an event organised by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliate Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas to discuss the new education policy.

This is not the first time a leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party has sought to credit ancient India for modern scientific discoveries or even directly debunk modern science itself. In 2018, Uttar Pradesh’s deputy chief minister claimed that ancient Indians knew about test tube babies, television broadcasts and aeroplanes. BJP MP Satyapal Singh has repeatedly questioned the theory of evolution, proposing instead that humans are actually the descendants of rishis or sages. Not to be left out, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has himself claimed that ancient Indians knew about genetics and the presence of an elephant-headed god, Ganesha, in the Hindu pantheon was proof of plastic surgery.

At one level, it is easy to see why India produces leaders who would say such absurd things: a large numbers of Indians, poor and bereft of education, do live their lives with similar beliefs. However, democratically elected politicians are also responsible for upholding the Constitution. In Article 51A, part of the Directive Principles of State Policy, the country’s founding fathers instruct every Indian citizen to “develop the scientific temper”.

Inculcating scientific temper is a crying need in India. Lack of basic hygiene amongst Indians – note the dogged refusal to use toilets and defecate in the open – results in millions of deaths every year. In some cases, the fatalities due to lack of a culture of science are more immediate: in 2018, a couple in Uttar Pradesh murdered their own daughter on the instruction of a guru.

That said, in some spheres, the Indian government is taking steps to bring in a culture of science. After education was made a right in 2010, India has achieved universal primary education enrollment, an essential first step in creating a scientific temper. Currently, India is attempting to land a probe on the surface of the moon. If it the mission is successful, India would be only the fourth county in the world to do so. The interest in science such a project will engender amongst Indian children is immense.

In spite of these steps, however, the push towards the irrational by BJP politicians seems almost deliberate. Pokhriyal, for example, is a long-time offender. As a member of the previous Lok Sabha, the Uttarakhand MP has said “science is a pygmy compared to astrology” and claimed that ancient Indians had conducted a nuclear test – all in the middle of a parliamentary debate.

Remarkably, Pokhriyal was promoted after this. When Narendra Modi won in 2019, he appointed Pokhriyal as his minister for human resources development, a position that must frame the country’s education policies.