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Mainstream, VOL LX No 33, 34 New Delhi, August 6, August 13, 2022 [Independence Day Special]

Prof P M Bhargava, scientist and renaissance man - an excerpt from his biography | Chandana Chakrabarti

Saturday 13 August 2022, by Chandana Chakrabarti

A tribute to Dr P M Bhargava (22nd Feb 1928 to 1st Aug 2017) - public intellectual, biologist, institution builder, administrator, crusader for scientific temper, and a connoisseur of art on his 5th death anniversary

(Excerpt from Breaking Boundaries a biography of Dr PM Bhargava by Chandana Chakrabarti, under publication)

The year 2017 saw the loss of several stalwarts of Indian science who have not only contributed to science but have led from the front in the propagation of scientific temper - Dr P M Bhargava, Prof Yashpal, Dr UR Rao, and Dr Lalji Singh.

Science and scientific temper have never in the history of India been under such attack from the party that rules the country. And therefore at this critical juncture, for us to have lost the strongest proponents of science and scientific temper is an unimaginable loss.

Indian scientists, by and large, are known to lead dual lives – a life in the lab that demands a rigorous scientific attitude, questioning, and critical analysis, and a diametrically opposite one in their private sphere where they would have no compunction in throwing the same scientific attitude to the four winds, and to lead lives that are no different from obscurantists. Dr P M Bhargava (PMB) stood out as a torchbearer for rationalism, atheism, and humanism, owing to his relentless fight against irrationality and consistent public stand against obscurantism.
Prof P M Bhargava | Photo credits: Chandana Chakrabarti
PMB always made it a point to remind people and the powers that be that Democracy allows reasoned dissent and there can be no science without dissent. That space for dissent has already greatly shrunk in our present environment. About the current threat to India’s enviable diversity, PMB often reminded people of the biological axiom; diversity leads to evolution and homogeneity leads to extinction.

My association with Dr Bhargava, began decades ago at Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), giving me a ring-side view of all his various endeavours including promoting scientific temper. I was simply fortunate to be a part of this journey, where I got to participate in all the work he did since 1983 till the day he left the world. For me it was a wonderful journey, a great opportunity to learn. In fact, in many ways, it shaped my life and my way of thinking. So here is a glimpse of the man he was, and his contributions to society. What I have written here does not include his contributions to science or the institutions he built that were way ahead of their times.

When I joined Dr Pushpa Bhargava’s (PMB) team in CCMB in the early eighties, he was not only carrying out research in cancer biology and reproductive biology, but also building an institution, the likes of which very few countries had seen. And that was not all. He was equally involved in the writing of a school textbook of integrated science for NCERT, besides resurrecting a science exhibition in Hyderabad. Each of them he did with equal passion. We always wondered where did he get his energy from and how was 24 hours a day enough for him.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that PMB, as all his colleagues and friends called him, was made of stuff that legends are made of. He was a visionary, scientist par excellence, writer, thinker, institution builder, administrator, a great patron and supporter of all forms of art, a proactive citizen who took his duties as a citizen seriously, and above all a fearless man. He loved calling a spade a spade, even when he was a government scientist. And didn’t care for consequences.

PMB’s involvement with the people’s science movement began very early in his career. After he got his PhD at the age of 21 from Lucknow University, he left Lucknow and came to Hyderabad, which he would make his home till his death, except for periods when he worked in America, UK, and France.

PMB was on the first Executive Committee of the Association of Scientific Workers of India (ASWI), a trade union of scientists, founded in the late 1940s, of which Nehru was the first President. One of the main objectives of ASWI was to build up scientific temper. Between 1950 and 1953, he was also the Secretary of the Hyderabad branch of ASWI.

By 1963 ASWI started declining and it was clear that it could not be revived. With Satish Dhawan, the distinguished space scientist who later became the Chairman of Indian Space Research Organization, and Abdur Rahman, a well-known historian of science, PMB decided to set up the Society for the Promotion of Scientific Temper. They were convinced that there was dire need for a national society exclusively for promotion of scientific temper. A statement on scientific temper and its importance was made and membership was open to any person above the age of eighteen provide they were willing to sign a declaration that they subscribed to the basic premise, which said:

“I believe that knowledge can be acquired only through human endeavour and not through revelation, and that all problems can and must be faced in terms of man’s moral and intellectual resources without invoking supernatural powers.”

The society was launched at the occasion of an international symposium on nucleic acids held in RRL in January 1964 in the presence of leading molecular biologists from across the world, including Francis Crick. Eminent leaders of the Communist movement in India, Mohit Sen, and Maqdoom Mohiuddin, were also present at the launch of the Society.

But to their horror, scientist after scientist across the country refused to sign the declaration. Why on earth would any scientist hesitate to commit to a declaration that merely reflected the basic spirit of scientific temper? There were hardly any takers in the scientific community for this basic premise. The utter lack of scientific temper in the scientific community of our country was only beginning to unfold.

The Society for the Promotion of Scientific Temper died before it could take off. The chapter closed by bringing to naught PMB’s early attempt at promoting scientific temper in the country, but it taught him many lessons; that it was wrong to assume a natural commitment to scientific temper from a scientist in India; that commitment to scientific temper was just as important for scientific and technological advancement as it was for social and economic progress of our country; and that lack of scientific temper affected the quality of science in the country as much as it created innumerable ills in society. This early disillusionment would by no means dampen PMB’s spirit, it would only strengthen his steely resolve to crusade against irrationality.

Statement on Scientific Temper

In the early seventies, PMB became one of the key architects of the widely known Statement on Scientific Temper, issued jointly by a group of liberal, committed, and rational high-achievers of the country. The Statement issued over four decades ago has been debated and discussed in several fora, and it continues to be referred to even today.

Article 51A(H)

He played an important role in having scientific temper incorporated as a duty of the citizens of our country, in the 42nd constitutional amendment in 1976.

Method of Science Exhibition

In the late 1970s, Dr Bhargava set up the famous exhibition on The Method of Science in Delhi. He wrote, directed, created and mounted the Method of Science Exhibition, closely involving a whole team of scientists, artists and social activists. The exhibition was about the four steps that the method of science uses – Question, Hypothesis, Experiment and Answer. It was a multimedia exhibition at Bal Bhavan, supported by NCERT.

The exhibition drew a clear line between the dogmatic systems, which demand implicit belief, and conclusions arrived at through the scientific discipline of doubt, observation, reasoning and proof. It examined the claims of godmen, the skills of magicians, astrology and homeopathy. Yet the exhibition never asked its viewers to accept any of the statements of science without due examination. On the other hand the viewers were asked to think for themselves and to question everything including what had been said in the exhibition.

When Janata Dal government came to power, the exhibition was vandalized overnight, stolen, and dumped in a godown just before it was inaugurated. It shook the establishment and threatened those in power at the time, just as it does today.

Apparently, they did not want it to be shown anywhere. After all, the method of science is all about questioning, and no totalitarian government wants people to be told that it is their right to question. The Government feared that the opening of the exhibition could lead to a snowballing effect.

Not one to give up easily PMB bravely fought a prolonged legal battle against the government for justice and then began rebuilding it all over again. The vandalized exhibition was brought to Hyderabad and resurrected, thanks to the then Chief Minister and bureaucrats who understood its importance.

The exhibition was filmed by Films Division and serialised in several periodicals. A large number of young people were influenced by this exhibition. It was written about in the two prestigious journals, Nature and in Science.

Much to our chagrin, it was later taken by Birla Science Museum and given its final burial there. The Birla museum was only interested in the paintings of the exhibition.

CCMB

While all this was happening PMB was also building an institution, the prestigious Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad. He began to be widely regarded as the architect of modern biology and biotechnology in India. Not many Indian scientists would have had the privilege of interacting with over 60 Nobel Laureates. More than half of them visited CCMB in Hyderabad. And a large number of them were close friends from much before they got the Nobel. Reams could be written about CCMB’s scientific infrastructure, but more importantly, it had a unique culture. From the minute one drove through the electronic gate of the 14-acre green campus dotted with large trees, it was as if one had stepped into another world. It had virtually no hierarchy and a tradition of openness difficult to imagine. The services operated round the clock, the labs never had a lock, there were no departments and divisions, the Centre functioned as a single financial unit with all resources shared, no permissions were required to work on any instrument or in a facility as long as one was trained to do so, and researchers could work till the wee hours of the morning and be assured of a ride home. It was the first centrally air-conditioned laboratories in the country with compressed air, gas, vacuum and hot water online, uninterrupted power, and more than 400 crucial points (for a lab to function and long experiments not destroyed) digitally monitored 24x7 – all these considered luxuries in a lab about four decades ago!

But this write-up is more about PMB’s social conscience and consciousness, so back to the story of scientific temper!

Godmen

In his crusade against superstition, he did not spare well-known and powerful godmen, be it Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his claim of levitation or Sathya Sai Baba and his third-rate magic. Neither did he spare people occupying the highest positions in the country who openly paid obeisance to charlatans.

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

In 1977, in Hyderabad, PMB had a direct encounter with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the originator of the technique of Transcendental Meditation (TM). He propagated that if 1% of the world population practiced TM, it would transform the world as all human problems would disappear, a process that he and his followers called the ‘Maharishi Effect’. He had also famously claimed that he had initiated some 3,000 people into the art of flying and they had become ‘flying yogis’.

Mahesh Yogi knew how important it was to woo scientists in order to gain credibility from the rigour of science. Among Mahesh Yogi’s ardent admirers who endorsed his claims was an eminent physicist, E.C.G. Sudarshan, who was the first one to propose the existence of tachyons, particles that travel faster than light: a man who was passed over for the Physics Nobel Prize on more than one occasion. He cleverly avoided the innumerable requests made by responsible people for a live demonstration of the act of flying under experimentally controlled and verifiable conditions. PMB would have several open encounters with Sudarshan over the years.

At one of the conferences in the series held at Hyderabad on 7 August 1977, PMB was invited to speak. PMB accepted the invitation after making it abundantly clear that he would speak as a sceptic, lest they regret their decision. PMB spoke his diametrically opposite mind loud and clear, despite it being difficult to find even ten people in the audience of thousands, who would support his view. Mahesh Yogi was livid and there was pandemonium among the organizers, who had to rework the entire programme to stage a strong defense and a rebuttal to the damage PMB had caused. Sudarshan tried to make it light by saying how he admired PMB’s exceptional courage. PMB was called a ‘doubting Thomas’. In fact earlier that afternoon, as everyone was proceeding for lunch at the conference, an unknown person from the crowd whispered in PMB’s ear that he should keep away from having lunch with Mahesh Yogi! PMB had taken his advice for there was no saying what tricks such people could resort to.

Sathya Sai Baba

When Sathya Sai Baba died in April 2011, the media made it appear as if the nation was mourning an irreparable loss. PMB’s article published in The Hindu, coldly demolished one by one, the edifice on which Sathya Sai Baba’s divine stature rested. PMB wrote the phenomenon of reincarnation or rebirth was scientifically untenable and such claims the world over were found to be fake when investigated.

The national tragedy was his being given a State funeral, a state of official mourning being declared, and country’s political leaders cutting across parties, including the Prime Minister and the Chairman of NAC (National Advisory Committee), spending precious time and resources to have his last darshan, relegating to the background the nation’s constitutional commitment to scientific temper.

Given the mood of the disciples and the media’s implicit support, it was indeed a brave act to criticize the godman openly without mincing words. The anger of blind supporters came through hundreds of vituperative and abusive letters.

Homeopathy

PMB who never let any opportunity go by to cite homeopathy as an example of extreme irrationality, always maintained that if homeopathy was right, all of science had to be wrong.

On 5 July 2003, PMB was invited to speak at a meeting organised by the Federation of Atheist and Rationalist Associations. PMB demanded de-recognition of homeopathy as a `medical’ system and ending of the government aid to it. He said that the government had no business spending tax-payers money on irrational practices such as homeopathy. In a democracy people have a right to pursue their beliefs including going to homeopaths or witch doctors, but how could the government endorse anything that is unscientific, especially since its constitution commits it to scientific temper. The next day a mob of 200 homeopaths descended on our office in Tarnaka and vandalized it. Who says Homeopathy is soft medicine?

Astrology

PMB had written and spoken extensively at various platforms against astrology. In 2001, under the BJP-led NDA Government, the University Grants Commission (UGC) decided to encourage courses in our universities that would lead to a BSc and MSc degree in vedic astrology, called ‘Jyotir Vigyan’. Plenty of inducements were dangled to entice universities to take the offer.

The introduction of vedic astrology in university courses was a part of the NDA Government’s agenda of saffronization of education. Several leading scientists of the country drew the govt’s attention to a statement issued in 1976 by 186 leading scientists of the world including eighteen Nobel-Prize winners, titled ‘Objections to Astrology’.

In 2003 PMB and I filed a writ petition in the Andhra Pradesh High Court against UGC, declaring their action as illegal and unconstitutional. Our affidavit stated that astrology had never been regarded, and could never be regarded, as a science. It said that the action of the UGC, far from creating scientific temper, would strengthen superstition which went against the grain of scientific temper. Tax-payer’s money should not be used for such purposes, it argued. When Andhra Pradesh High Court dismissed our plea, we took it to Supreme Court.

Supreme Court dismissed it with the judgement that the opinion of experts would differ and also change from time to time and as the court was ill-equipped as regards such matters, it adopted the doctrine of self-restraint and left such matters at the hands of the expert committee of the UGC. Fortunately for us, NDA lost the elections and Jyotir Vigyan in Universities was not pursued by the Congress government.

Challenge to Astrologers

A meeting of astrologers was held in Hyderabad – an open debate between astrologers and scientists - but were careful to choose scientists who clearly believed in astrology so that at the end of the meeting they would have the stamp of science. Some journalists telephoned PMB and after explaining the ploy, urged him to attend the meeting uninvited.

When PMB arrived at the meeting venue, the organizers asked him to participate in the debate –– it would have been too obvious if they had ignored his presence. Not only did PMB tear astrology into bits through arguments, but also threw a challenge to all the astrologers. He had gone prepared with horoscopes of four individuals, between the ages of twenty and hundred, whose lives were well documented, and one of them was not alive. His challenge to the astrologers was that for every right prediction they would make about the individual whose identity would not be revealed, he would pay him or her Rs 10,000. But for every wrong prediction, the group would need to pay him only Rs 1000. He was willing to deposit the money with any referee the Committee would nominate. He also said he was by no means rich but he was willing to give all he had. Not a single taker emerged from the body of ‘distinguished’ astrologers who had assembled there.

Fish Medicine

Hyderabad became famous over the years for the biggest quackery, called fish medicine to treat asthma. On 8th June every year hoards of asthma patients arrived from all over the country to receive the fish medicine from the Goud family who claim it as divine medicine received by the family through revelation. The family also claims that the divine medicine will lose its potency if they reveal its composition. Patients are made to swallow a live fish with the medicine in. PMB joined Jana Vigyan Vedika’s efforts to expose the fraud. He not only stood in the field distributing pamphlets and dissuading those who came for it, but also moved the court to have the so called medicine scientifically tested. The report revealed the presence of steroids in it. As a result of these efforts, the Court directed that “fish medicine” be called “fish prasadam”, and the numbers of those who came to receive the medicine has fallen from several lakhs to a few thousand.

Uncompromising – courage of conviction

PMB was elected to all the national science academies of the country. While scientists usually clamour for such memberships, PMB chose to resign from all the academies when he realized that the academies showed little concern for societal issues and had never taken an informed stand on any raging public issue, even against the utter lack of scientific temper among those holding responsible and highly visible positions. He was go-to man for anyone fighting injustice of any kind.

France’s highest civilian award – Legion de honeur was a recognition of not just his work in science but all the other areas of public interest that he contributed to.

Superstition and obscurantism of the worst kind continues to thrive, irrespective of class or educational status. This must be the single greatest failure of our educational system that children don’t learn critical thinking, they don’t learn to question, and they do not emerge as free thinkers. In fact, a potent combination of obedience, fear, blind acceptance of so called facts, and an unquestioning attitude is demanded of students. As a result of this, scientific temper, a constitutional duty of every citizen, has taken a severe beating. The people’s science movement has a big and arduous task cut out for itself given the shape our democracy is taking.

Postscript: My dear friend Somasekhar Mulugu just reminded me of Ramar Pillai, a scamster who claimed he could produce petrol from leaves. Department of Science and Technology in what wisdom one cannot fathom, decided to give the conman a wide berth instead of trashing his ludicrous claims. PMB tore the man and his fraudulent claims to bits at a public event in Hyderabad in the presence of the then Secretary of DST, and also made a scathing comment on the scientific establishment that was bent on lending credence to the fraud. They had kept aside some funding for Ramar Pillai to prove his concept and were taking him around the country!

When it was claimed Ganesh statues across the country had started drinking milk one fine day, PMB left all his work aside and hopped from event to event, tv studio to tv studio, explaining to people the phenomenon and urging them not to fall for such religious trickery! How many scientists would do that today?

(Author: Chandana Chakrabarti is a writer, columnist, consultant, actor, and activist - was a long-time colleague of Dr P M Bhargava)

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