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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Converting science into obscurantism



The cult of hindutva first appeared on the political horizon in the 1980s as a movement to build a temple in Ayodhya where a mosque stood. Over the next decade, its leadership stoked the most primal of mankind’s urges, religious bigotry, and helped vault its political front, the BJP, to power in coalition with several other political parties. Finally, in May 2014, hindutva found utterance in the formation of a majority government headed by Narendra Modi, a self-described pracharak of the mother organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Now three years into its terms, the government is being shown up as inept and clueless about governance. There are many instances of its abject failures on the policy front as it tries to promote its hindutva agenda. What follows is the story of an attempt to paint science policy in saffron hues.

According to a report in The Hindu, the Modi government has directed the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) “to generate half of its funds and start sending report cards to the Centre on how each… laboratory (is) focusing its resources on developing specific lines of inventions which would contribute to the social and economic objectives of the Narendra Modi government for the poor and the common man”.

For the record, CSIR was established in 1942 to fund and develop original scientific and industrial research. Starting out as a testing and quality control unit, the organisation sadly failed to evolve to fulfil the grandiose dreams of its votaries, and has degenerated into an ineffectual bureaucracy that’s done what a bureaucracy does best: expanded its turf to affiliate 40 ‘research laboratories’. Unsurprisingly, its list of achievements in 75 years of existence is unimpressive.

At first glance, the government’s directive is not unconscionable. CSIR has grazed in the fields of public funding all these years to produce very little of consequence. To that extent, the June 2015 directive, announced at what the Hindustan Times dubbed a “chintan shivir (think camp) for scientists” in Dehradun was welcome.

However, nothing is uncomplicated or untwisted in the world of hindutva champions. The optics suggested that the Modi government wants to use the rod against CSIR and whip it into shape. In the so-called Dehradun declaration issued at the end of the summit, The Hindu quoted a senior official who attended the meeting as saying, “The most worrisome aspect was representatives from Vigyan Bharati, an organisation affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), being part of this discussion. The idea was to ensure ‘indigenous science’ was promoted. But what was the RSS doing in this meeting?”

The plan seems to be to reward foot soldiers of hindutva with jobs and lucrative projects in RSS-favoured fields, especially research and development of ‘indigenous’ science, a thinly-veiled nudge for cow urine pharmacology and therapy. Bypassing the ministry of science and technology, the AYUSH ministry has taken charge of the project.

Thus, AYUSH minister of state Sripad Naik announced in Parliament, that “CSIR through its constituent laboratories has conducted research studies… on cow urine distillate for its anti-oxidant and bio-enhancing properties on anti-infective and anti-cancer agents and nutrients. Four US patents have been secured… and one pharmaceutical product containing cow urine distillate with anti-oxidant property is available in the market”.

In a scathing critique of “the government’s cow urine craze,” The Wire, a news portal, expressed concern about the AYUSH ministry promoting obscurantism. Since November 2014 when it was constituted, just five months after the Modi government assumed office, the ministry began to sprout saffron wings.

Intended to serve as a knowledge and resource centre for traditional medicine systems, it was set up in 1995 as a department in the health ministry, the outcome of a 1993 push by Sam Pitroda to incorporate traditional Indian systems of medicine into a holistic public health offering. To that end, Pitroda established I-AIM (Institute for Ayurvedic and Integrative Medicine), whose major focus was on creating a database of medicinal plants. From there to the department of Indian systems of medicine and homeopathy (ISMH) was a short hop. In 2003, the BJP-led government attempted to burnish its hindutva credentials after four years of non-performance: it transformed the department of ISMH into the AYUSH ministry.

Now more than a decade later, the Modi government seems to have concluded that it needs to do more to woo the base; hence, its focus on the cow. To marry this to its ‘development’ agenda, it convened the chintan shivir of scientists in Dehradun. The idea seems to have been to impart a modern touch to its obscurantism, seeking to make cow urine a CSIR focus, an initiative that fits into its Make in India, Skill India, IT plus IT equals IT manifesto of acronyms that are a unique feature of this non-performing regime.

Lamentably, a commendable academic effort to document traditional medical knowledge has been subverted by hindutva obscurantism to a profound absurdity and object of ridicule.

(From Education World, June 2017.)