There has been much debate over the politicization of the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award conferred by the government. In the past, BJP-leaning journalists like Swapan Dasgupta had questioned the Congress over favouring a left-leaning ideologue with historical connections to the Congress like Aruna Asaf Ali for the award. Of course, no one can question her contribution to the freedom struggle, first in a non-violent capacity and later, even going underground as a violent revolutionary in the 1940s like Jaiprakash Narayan (JP) and Rammanohar Lohia, or her struggles for the legitimate rights of women and the poor after independence. However, as Dasgupta points out, neither JP nor Lohia were conferred the Bharat Ratna by the Congress (though JP was posthumously awarded it by a BJP-led government in 1999). Likewise, with this BJP government in power, questions have been raised over favouring right-wing ideologues like Madan Mohan Malviya, who passed away before India’s independence, being conferred the award. Some contended that historical figures who passed away before 1947 should not be considered, though again, Malviya’s contribution to Congress-led non-violent movements for freedom, while also being a moderate leader of the Hindu Mahasabha who never engaged in communal hate-mongering, and his role in the sphere of education and starting the ‘scout and guide’ movement in India can again not be questioned. The pattern of ideological favours is disturbing to an extent, even though the recipients have usually been arguably deserving. Speaking of the politics associated with the award, one may recall some rants before the national elections in 2014 by Chandan Mitra, a BJP leader, to strip Amartya Sen of the Bharat Ratna for Sen’s personal disapproval of the idea of Modi being India’s PM (just by the way, I agreed with Sen on the issue of Modi not being worthy of being India’s PM, having much to answer for in connection with the carnage in Gujarat in 2002, and still share that sentiment, though I understand the then bottling up anti-UPA frustration*), which Mitra later rightly expressed regret for, or even by a Congress leader, Janardan Chandurkar, though in a relatively more subtle fashion, to strip Lata Mangeshkar of the same for Mangeshkar’s endorsing Modi for PM.
The Bharat Ratna also attracted attention with a growing demand for it to be conferred upon Sachin Tendulkar for his undoubtedly having done India proud on numerous occasions on the cricket field. However, there were those making the valid point that other equally eminent sports personalities predating Sachin in their achievements (like the “wizard of hockey” Dhyan Chand) equally deserved it, and they should be conferred the same before Sachin. Nonetheless, Sachin was conferred the award in 2013 by the UPA, but as an Indian, I am disappointed with Sachin. Obviously, his achievements as a cricketer are undeniable. However, as an MP in the Rajya Sabha since 2012, he often missed parliament sessions, though continuing with advertisements. As of February 2014, he did not spend even a paisa from the funds allocated to him as an MP, leave alone making a single legislative proposal or bringing to light any public policy issue (even of the sports ministry) of concern on the floor of the house (unlike some other nominated MPs in the past like dancer Rukmini Devi and cartoonist Abu Abraham, who made concrete observations and recommendations pertaining to public policy). Such conduct is unbecoming of a Bharat Ratna awardee, and I fully support the idea of stripping Sachin of the award (a matter which was, and perhaps still is, being tried in the judiciary), however much I do admire him as a cricketer and for his apparent humility otherwise. That said, as a lover of science, I was glad to see that eminent chemist CNR Rao was conferred the honour along with Sachin in 2013. Yet, he has only been the third scientist in the list, his predecessors being CV Raman (who had already won the Nobel Prize back in 1930) and APJ Abdul Kalam. This is bizarre, for several eminent scientists of the post-independence era don’t find their name in this list. Take, for instance, Vikram Sarabhai, the father of India’s space programme and under whom Dr. Kalam had started his scientific career. Kalam had much praise to offer to Sarabhai in his writings, pointing out how Sarabhai, other than being a great scientist, had rare leadership qualities, particularly recalling how when politicians and bureaucrats were not being helpful enough in allotting land for ISRO, Sarabhai convinced a progressive Indian Catholic bishop Reverend Dr. Peter Bernard Pereira to lend his church premises and his own house in Thumba for the national cause. Or to cite other examples, Homi Bhabha, the father of India’s nuclear programme, MS Swaminathan, the architect of the Green Revolution and as per the UNEP, considered to be the father of the economic ecology movement globally, Salim Ali, an eminent zoologist with internationally acclaimed work on birds (and who, as a Muslim, had opposed Rajiv Gandhi’s move to appease regressine Muslims in the wake of the Shah Bano verdict), Satyendra Nath Bose, a very prominent physicist who, according to the European Organization for Nuclear Research chief in 2012, ought to have won the Nobel Prize in Physics, Meghnad Saha, another very acclaimed physicist, and TR Seshadri, with commendable work in the field of organic chemistry. Recently, eminent Indian physicist UR Rao had rightly remarked that eminent scientists like Vikram Sarabhai and Homi Bhabha (both of whom were associated with his discipline physics) should have been awarded the Bharat Ratna. The good news is that they still can be posthumously conferred the same.
In a country where Science is rather stereotypically (and as someone who was a Humanities student, I would even say unfortunately) emphasized as being the best academic stream, it is ironic that our scientists aren’t popular public figures. Speaking of our national heroes and heroines, while everyone would have heard of Milkha Singh (even before the movie on him starring Farhan Akhtar), PT Usha and Leander Paes or sarodh maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan and sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar, is everyone familiar with the names of the eminent scientists referred to above? Let us ask ourselves honestly, how many of us knew Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam’s name as a scientist before his having become the president? And with this being the case, when our society doesn’t seem to have eminent scientists as its role models, how can we ever hope to achieve our true potential in this sphere, which we haven’t, as Infosys head Narayana Murthy and vice president of India, Hamid Ansari, recently lamented about? Furthermore, with all our fancy gadgets like mobile phones, our lack of scientific temperament is reflected also in our forwarding religion-related messages that threaten divine displeasure if the message is not forwarded! (Hard to believe that this is this is the same India of ancient scientists like Arya Bhatt, Vaharimihir, Charak and Sushrut or the same India where even an atheist thinker like Charvak could be revered as a rishi, and which, along with Persia and ancient Europe, inspired and provided the basis for the many great scientific achievements of the medieval Arabs!) Likewise, another incident reflecting our lack of scientific temperament as a country is reflected in this incident – Sanal Edamaruku, a rationalist, debunked the myth of water flowing from a statue of Jesus in Mumbai in 2012 as being no miracle but merely capillary action from a drain near the statue, following which a police complaint was filed against him by devout Catholics and he was actually going to be arrested for “outraging religious sentiments”, which led him to leave India for good. Not to forget the murder of anti-superstition and anti-untouchability activists Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare in Pune and Kolhapur respectively.
The role of our scientists in national security is also often forgotten, which is why one hardly hears of any commemoration of our nuclear scientists who died under mysterious circumstances during the UPA tenure, to which the then government also turned a blind eye for quite some time.
Speaking of the current government, while it is unfortunate that Modi and some of his associates have, from time to time, promoted an un-historical history of science that conveniently undermines the scientific creativity of all non-Hindu civilizations (to claim in a baseless fashion that all knowledge was “stolen” from here) and promotes Hindu religious texts as undisputed history, with supposedly much science in them, that doesn’t bode well for promoting a scientific temperament** (and there are indeed such counterparts among Muslim rightists, including the preacher Zakir Naik, too), besides there have been long delays in appointments in important scientific research bodies and even some other instances of mismanagement as well, the Modi sarkar has taken some laudable initiatives in the sphere of scientific research. One is having scientists head delegations in science conferences instead of politicians. Yet another is having professional scientists teach in schools and colleges. A person considered for the same is Indian-American mathematician Manjul Bhargava, who has won the Field Medal, equivalent of the Nobel Prize in mathematics, and also interestingly employed Sanskrit texts by ancient Indian mathematicians in his research.
Perhaps the most significant initiative of the Modi sarkar in this regard is the Rashtriya Avishkar Abhiyan to promote original scientific research among school children in laboratories, starting with the northeast, which was Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam’s brainchild and has been renamed after his demise, with his name added at the outset. As someone who, with a friend, invented a cleansing agent in high school that made it to the national level of the Intel Science Fair in 2005, facing numerous challenges, I would, with all humility, say that the APJ Abdul Kalam Rashtriya Avishkar Abhiyan, if properly implemented, can indeed yield great results in terms of facilitating access to resources for scientific innovation to children.
Moreover, Modi himself, in his address to the Indian Science Congress in Mumbai in January 2015, rightly mentioned that India has much to learn from China in terms of promoting scientific innovation to boost income growth (a certain share of China’s GDP comes from patent royalties), and also that scientists should also be seen as role models by the society (following which this Times of India editorial gave some interesting suggestions on how to achieve the same). In an interview in April 2015, he emphasized the importance of innovation and R&D, pointing to the Atal Innovation Mission launched by his government. In a speech in April 2015, Modi hailed and asked the youth to emulate Jawaharlal Nehru’s scientific temper and commitment to promoting science and technology (by way of satellites, laboratories, IITs etc., something even most ardent critics of Nehru cannot deny). The Modi sarkar’s suggestion portal http://mygov.in has even sought suggestions to boost India’s scientific innovation potential. I hope they also correct this anomaly of eminent scientists being neglected for the Bharat Ratna, and I have made this recommendation (based on what UR Rao said) on the Modi sarkar’s suggestion portal, as you can see here. UR Rao has also interestingly suggested that scientists, rather than bureaucrats, ought to head government bodies like the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), and this is indeed yet another suggestion this government ought to ponder over.
Interestingly, even Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has appealed to private corporations to come up with technologies to help with governance issues like solid waste management.
Speaking of the Bharat Ratna, the award not being conferred upon the eminent scientists referred to above, as also other very eminent personalities like social activist Baba Amte, and Verghese Kurien, the architect of the White Revolution, does not, in any way, diminish the contributions of these great personalities, but does reflect very poorly of the governments that have ruled India.
*I may also clarify that while I agree with Amartya Sen on Modi not having been a deserving PM-candidate owing to what happened in Gujarat in 2002, I also feel that those particular Muslims and left-leaning non-Muslims of the subcontinent who who shy away from condemning Jinnah for the Direct Action Day riots (before which Jinnah said he wanted India divided or destroyed and after which he said he didn’t want to discuss ethics) or are willing to give him the benefit of doubt, those who shy away from condemning Kashmiri separatists like Yasin Malik for killing and driving away the Kashmiri Hindus or are willing to give them the benefit of doubt (as for the conspiracy theories and rationalizations offered about the exodus of the Kashmiri Hindus, also known as Kashmiri Pandits, from their homeland, have a look at this piece, and it is noteworthy that none of the Kashmiri Muslim perpetrators have been convicted, unlike hundreds rightly convicted in connection with the Gujarat riots for the massacres in the Best Bakery, Ode, Sardarpura and Naroda Patiya, and the Kashmiri Hindus haven’t even been rehabilitated the way the Muslims driven out from the village of Atali have, and while the media has rightly consistently supported the Muslims of Atali, it has actually been biased against the Kashmiri Hindus on some occasions – so much for our national media, on the whole, being supposedly biased against Muslims) and those who shy away from condemning Azam Khan for the riots in Muzaffarnagar and Sahranpur (it is noteworthy that he has not even been “chargesheeted” in spite of sting operations suggesting his involvement, while Maya Kodnani was rightly convicted, and my point is not with respect to how much evidence is available in which case for what sentence, but whether the narrative of “Hindu riot-instigating politicians always go scot-free and Muslims are only victims, not perpetrators of riots” is true, and I believe that the issue should be ‘powerful vs. non-powerful’, ‘vote-bank politics vs. the spirit of democracy’ and so on, rather than ‘Hindu oppressors vs. Muslim oppressed’, which would actually be half-true or even false in many contexts) or are willing to give him the benefit of doubt (and I emphasize that I am not stereotyping all Muslims – there are many of them who condemn the likes of Jinnah, Yasin Malik and Azam Khan in unambiguous terms) have no business to be spitefully critical of those shying away from condemning Modi or those who give him the benefit of doubt for what happened in 2002.
**Going by the Jewish texts, even Solomon had a flying vehicle, and many science-fiction stories by writers like Joules Verne have mentioned things really invented later, but that does not mean those stories were true when they were written, nor does referring to real places like Delhi or Mumbai or Hastinapur or Kurukshetra in a story make that story necessarily true, and as Karan Thapar, whether you love him or hate him, logically points out – “how do you account for the fact the scientific knowledge and achievements you are boasting of have been lost, if not also long forgotten, and there is no trace of any records to substantiate they ever occurred?”. Rather than spreading awareness about the documented scientific achievements of our civilisation, by boasting of scientific achievements from religious lore, we would only largely make a laughing stock of ourselves!
(With inputs from my friends Akash Arora and Uma Lohray.)