Whose science should we fo­cus on?

The cur­rent de­bate over an­cient In­dia's sci­en­tific feats is less about science and more about a cul­tural `feel good' fac­tor

Down to Earth - - LAST WORD - DOWN TO EARTH

Icertainly bask­ing in the glory of its an­cient NDIA IS sci­en­tific achieve­ments. Start­ing from the dis­cov­ery of the “zero” to the “first” flight, the high and mighty in the po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship have added a cer­tain cu­rios­ity to the oth­er­wise dull Na­tional Science Congress. Sud­denly, the im­age of an­cient In­dia emerges as an “im­pec­ca­ble sci­en­tific su­per power”. But it is also con­tra­dic­tory. The same po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship in­ter­est­ingly refers to con­tem­po­rary In­dia as an “emerg­ing soft power”.

This mag­a­zine has been an ar­dent chron­i­cler of the his­tory of science and ecol­ogy,and in­no­va­tions in both the In­dian and global con­text (re­cently we pub­lished a book called En­vi­ron­men­tal His­tory Reader). Its founder edi­tor, the late Anil Agar­wal of­ten lamented about science be­ing a po­lit­i­cal or­phan in the coun­try. So, should we cel­e­brate the new-found fo­cus on science in the po­lit­i­cal space, no mat­ter how na­tion­al­ist and un­sci­en­tific it is?

No, be­cause the de­bate is se­lec­tive in its fo­cus. And more im­por­tantly, it is not a sci­en­tific de­bate over the his­tory of In­dian so­ci­ety’s sci­en­tific evo­lu­tion.I em­pha­sise that science is de­fin­i­tive and its use is al­ways po­lit­i­cal. But the cur­rent de­bate on claim­ing each and ev­ery bit of con­tem­po­rary day-to­day tech­nol­ogy or knowl­edge as “In­dian” is not po­lit­i­cal. Rather,it is more of a cer­tain type of cul­tural and re­li­gious pro­pa­ganda. The on­go­ing de­bate over sci­en­tific an­cient In­dia has ob­jec­tives that are di­a­met­ri­cally op­po­site to science and its day-to-day uses.

Let us look at what the politi­cians of a cer­tain ilk are fo­cus­ing on. They talk about streams of science like aero­dy­nam­ics, ge­net­ics, or­gan trans­plan­ta­tion and in­ter­plan­e­tary move­ments that even mod­ern sci­en­tists are still grap­pling with.What do our prime min­is­ter and his min­is­ters find use­ful in spend­ing time on such de­bates in the con­text of his­tory? More puz­zling is the fact that all of them look for­ward to non-In­dian sources of ba­sic science like gen­er­at­ing elec­tric­ity from so­lar power,ir­ri­gat­ing our farms and also build­ing wooden houses.

This is where science loses its po­lit­i­cal mean­ing.The claims of sci­en­tific ge­nius in an­cient times are mostly about what peo­ple pop­u­larly call “mus­cu­lar”science.And it is no sur­prise that in most of such claimed su­perla­tives, con­tem­po­rary In­dia is grossly be­hind other coun­tries. It is a cul­tural “feel good” phase in In­dia that in­ci­den­tally used science.

At the same time,the po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship never speaks about the an­cient sci­en­tific knowl­edge that dic­tated our tra­di­tion and cul­ture but seem­ingly with­out the mus­cles that the cur­rent world or­der recog­nises. For ex­am­ple, no politi­cian from Ra­jasthan speaks about the sci­en­tific knowl­edge that made pos­si­ble the most densely pop­u­lated desert in the world. But the state politi­cians still take pride in host­ing In­dia’s nu­clear weapon-testing site. A politi­cian who be­longs to Uttarakhand even claimed that In­dia ex­ploded a nu­clear bomb early in his­tory.He for­got to take pride in his state’s tra­di­tional wheat mills us­ing streams that are now be­ing used to gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity.

There is no doubt that an­cient com­mu­ni­ties were sci­en­tific enough to mas­ter the art of living off the Earth’s most pre­cious nat­u­ral re­sources.They cod­i­fied science in their ways of life like do­mes­ti­ca­tion of rice or in­nu­mer­able foods that en­sured food se­cu­rity. But when a de­bate that se­lec­tively and with­out sci­en­tific codes flexes mus­cles, a so­ci­ety suf­fers the most.No so­ci­ety can sur­vive with­out some sci­en­tific tem­per,but the cur­rent de­bate ig­nores this as­pect. It is try­ing to seg­re­gate science on cul­tural and to some ex­tent re­li­gious ba­sis. Science is be­ing pro­jected as the knowhow of only those things that yield some cul­tural su­pe­ri­or­ity. This brings the de­bate to the moot point: whose science should we fo­cus on?

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