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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 4, New Delhi, January 9, 2021

Science Awakning In India: Saga of A Journey | Gouri Sankar Nag & Manas Mukul Bandyopadhyay

Saturday 9 January 2021

by Dr. Gouri Sankar Nag & Dr. Manas Mukul Bandyopadhyay

Ancient Indian seers believed that the universe was composed of scientific laws and even the human body was full of science. In ancient times of the Vedic age, people had faith in eternal values like Satyam, Shivam and Sundaram (i.e. truth, god and beauty). It was a period when platonic abstractions and idealistic thought ruled the world but now information and communication technology is the summum bonum of the world at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The present epoch is driven by modern scientific principles in the fields of data science, artificial intelligence, robotics and nanoscience. But we can hardly forget that modern science is based and developed on the foundation of traditional mathematical laws, which were testified or justified over time from the various perspectives such as trial and error, observing the situation in deeper perspectives etc. Basically, science acquires force through the transference of knowledge in many ways such as transfer through propagation, demonstration and sharing. Of course, the most prominent methods of science transformation in the context of the modern era is schooling. In this regard Stephen Hawking says ‘our earth could only sustain through proper nourishment of science’ and he adds that ‘if we are unable to make mass awareness towards science and its fruits and ill-aspects, then certainly we would destroy our mother earth very soon’. So it becomes the paramount responsibility of all members of the academic community to make science available to all sections of the rank and file so that they could be enthused and motivated to explore the true possibility of science for human welfare and climate sustainability.

At the very outset if we look back it would certainly impress us that the pathway of India’s journey towards modern science is very interesting although fraught with challenges. The foundational challenge was our metaphysical orientation of knowledge-seeking, although western influence and Bengal Renaissance had ushered in a strong current of rationalism. Although Vidyasagar was not a scientist in the technical sense of the term, yet his use of words and emphasis on vocabulary in his seminal work Barnaparichoy and other writings were either drawn or influenced by materialist orientation and objective outlook. Thereafter discussion of science received primacy in the writings of Ramendra Sundor Trivedi (1864-1919) and Akshoy Kumar Dutta (1820-1886) who shaped and developed language for scientific expression.

The distinct touch of modernity came with Jagadish Chandra Bose who went further than Marconi and invented response to stimulus in plants. But his major contribution lay in the efforts to institutionalize scientific research pioneered and expounded at the laboratory of famous Bose Institute. Another pillar of extraordinary devotion to science education in contemporary India was Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy (1861-1944). What he did was to nurture love of science among his young scholars from Satyendra Nath Bose to Meghnad Saha, who later constituted the galaxy of modern science in India. Hereby modern science, we mean Fundamental Science like Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry although various branches flourished later on. Much before Calcutta or Bombay or Madras University came into being, it was Presidency College, now Presidency University which had served as the great seminary of training of mental faculty in science. In the early 1950s when Indian scientists like S.N Bose made a prolific contribution in the field of quantum mechanics, while in Chemistry Indian scientists like Asima Chatterjee did path-breaking works in the synthesis of important chemical compounds and phytomedicine.

The point to be noted is that science education in India could spread and was able to overcome the barriers of British policy because of patronage by Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee who selected this brilliant young batch for teaching and later many of them also shifted to Dhaka University popularly perceived to be the “Oxford of the East”. By that time Indian Science Congress had started to acquire its momentum. Here two points could be mentioned, one was Gurudev Tagore’s idea of rural reconstruction for which he had sent his son Rathindra Nath abroad for training in agricultural science. It had wider implications for the direction of science in India which was a predominantly agrarian economy. Tagore was not only a powerful and exuberant litterateur but his vision were modern, and at the same time he strongly favoured rural reconstruction for laying the foundation of what he later meant to uphold—a doctrine of Atmashakti, i.e. reviving society’s inherent power and spirit of self-initiative and enterprise.

Secondly, Bapu’s vision towards science also needs to be appreciated. “It is often assumed”, writes Shriman Narayan, “that Gandhiji was against the use of machinery as such, in agriculture as well as in industry.” But, “This is an erroneous notion”, hence we need to remove this misgiving about Gandhian thought. So, let us be clear that Gandhi was not against “invention made for the benefit of all”. Rather what he detested actually was “the craze for machinery” and “its indiscriminate multiplication”. This deeper perspective is very pertinent in today’s context when we are moving towards specialization and automation. Today when we are talking about Atmanirbharata or national self-reliance in the Covid-19 perspective, this thread of Gandhian thought is important reminder of seeking to restore a balance between mindless industrialization and mechanization and our labour-intensive traditional manufacturing. In fact, science cannot suggest a one-fits-all approach. Rather every country has to strive to solve problems with intelligence and insight instead of falling back on foreign technology.
Although it does not mean bland opposition to technology and note that technological support was crucial for the modern state formation in India. So, it was almost impossible to relegate technology to backburner slot because the assertion of the modern Indian state was coterminous with dependence on technology, hence the ideology of modern Indian leadership was not only scientific but technocratic as well.
Obviously, western technology received tremendous patronage under the first Prime Minister Pandit Nehru. His famous book ‘The Discovery of India’ (1944) is a testimony of his approach not only to explore and discover India but it also manifests the urge to build the knowledge-based scientific society. If we think how it was possible to achieve the transformation from Gandhian value orientation to shift towards modern scientific proclivity, we have to keep in mind the point as aptly put by the Rudolphs that “if there was a tension and conflict…there was no fundamental break…”. Obviously, the situational conditions writ large to expand the sphere of state action and to justify its policies that no doubt resulted in the triumph of science and technology.

Now coming back to science, what is important is to mention that so far Newton’s principles were deterministic. But modern science guided by Quantum mechanics believes in the principle of uncertainty. So new direction and research were developed which found its way into all sciences. 1950s, 60s and 70s were extremely rich in terms of research initiatives. Roychowdhury equation, named after renowned Physics teacher namely Amal Kumar Roychowdhury (1923-2005) was a case in point which was an excellent formulation demonstrating the strength of Indian scientists in general relativity and cosmology, preceding other doyens like Penrose and Hawking. This trend of research in fundamental science is one of the salient features of modern Indian scientific pursuit. Even today Ashok Sen of Harish Chandra Research Institute is working indefatigably to bring out a more sophisticated version of String Theory.

Two more features also deserve mention. One is our association with modern science, especially Positivism as a philosophy and ideology which transmitted a new spirit (one can refer to the Book Positivism in Bengal by Geraldine Forbes) has evolved with changes in society. Thus, if we deeply trace the trajectory of change, we would discover that now science has become highly popular and many professional openings are available in many research institutes, both government-funded and in private sector. So, science is now a lucrative professional choice of middle-class families. Even now brain drain is commonplace which could not be imagined before. But before such tendency of brain drain started we find in the life story of Mani Bhowmik, who was an architect of vision correction laser technology, how an extremely meritorious chap could emerge from his poor rural background. Simultaneously it was indicative of the quality of our pedagogy. The genius of Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920) who died at a young age was also flourished at the rudimentary level by the ordinary school course that he had.

Now with the advent of globalization, we find India’s scientific research pursuit has got diversified with upcoming fields like bioengineering, astrophysics, Black Hole research etc. No doubt researchers in fundamental science fields are working with excellence as we find through Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar awards. Finally coming back to the issue of modernity, can we say India’s Tryst with modern science is able to carve out an image of a distinct stamp of Indian Modernity? Or it remains a derivative of the West? This point needs to be pondered over because it seems that despite India’s tryst with modern science, there is a dilemma due to the setting of the traditional Indian society where priest and positivism co-exist. Needless to say, this co-existence in the sociology of science is one of intense unease and irreconcilable contradictions, though not a stand-alone irony given the nature of third world society at large. Hence imbibing of modern scientific awareness and identity formation is occurring in the polymorphous nature of the journey. This journey continues till date when we look at the contribution made by M. S. Swaminathan in Green Revolution or when we speak of Yash Pal in the context of experimental satellite that conjoined the remote villages of Assam to the progressive panchayats of Kerala or Ramanujan’s formulae used in supercomputers or Homi Bhabha’s seminal contribution that boosted Indian nuclear programme. Even we feel ecstatic about the ground-breaking achievement of India’s women scientists in rocket science when India succeeded in putting a satellite into orbit around Mars. Yet at the bottom, we find somehow an admixture of science in school curriculum which gets compromised by the persistence of witchcraft and exorcism in the remote countryside. This scenario can only be explained in terms of lackadaisical nature of the state which wants to rule but fails to ideologically penetrate the society at a deeper level. Not only that it’s increasingly coercive and suspect functioning which often robs the space of civil society organizations is a problematic aspect insofar as it sustains certain inhibitions and fails to leverage the role of micro-level science organizations which otherwise could supplement to further scientific campaign which in turn could have strengthened the hands of the state. Hence, in the absence of mass movement or widespread science campaign which gets obstructed by the rise of authoritarian political forces bent on monopolizing the social space, the state of science awakening in India depicts a conundrum of tinseled glamour of conferences at the apex but whose roots at the lowest rung have been lost in the groove of narrow professional pursuit on one hand and struggle for access on the other hand for decent education and nutrition which remains elusive for poor families till date. India’s poor ranking in terms of public spending on higher education and moreover diversionary tactics by triggering debates whether JNU students should pay more for education exposes the priority of the present Indian state in the perspective of which we can hardly expect any benign change in public policy to promote and popularize science.

(Dr. Nag is Professor and Head of the Department of Political Science & Co-coordinator of the Centre of South Asian Studies, Sidho-Kanho-Birsha University, Purulia, W.B.
Dr. Bandyopadhyay is Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, Hooghly Mohsin College, West Bengal )

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