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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 11 New Delhi March 2, 2019

A Tale of Two Events and Two Cultures

Sunday 3 March 2019


by L.K. Sharma

The Science Congress and Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), held in India every January, attract Nobel Laureates and inspire youngsters to dream. The Science Congress is inaugurated by the Prime Minister, a tradition started by Jawaharlal Nehru, who ensured that India’s Constitution included a reference to “scientific temper”. Tje JLF invariably invites the State Governor or the Chief Minister which guarantees official support.

The two prestigious events are divided by the gulf highlighted by C.P. Snow in his famous lecture The Two Cultures. One assumes that the Science Congress will have content as foreign to that of a literature festival as light to a coal mine. However, since the arrival of Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister, the Science Congress regularly features Hindu mythology that is included in the JLF’s fare.

Politics with its all-pervading influence permeates events and institutions in India. It disrupts unity but also yokes strange bed-fellows together. No firestorm is caused when some speakers at the Science Congress undermine the importance of evidence. Similarly, at the JLF those arriving to drink deep into the Pierian springs bear with politicians and the crowds running for food, fashion and selfies. Purity and authenticity become debatable issues.

The JLF does not take the risk of presenting only pure literature. It bows to the market for confrontational debates created by the TV channels showing political cockfights. The invited political stalwarts propagate at the JLF their partisan views and see passion shooting up at their sessions. Poets cannot compete with politicians.

The JLF agenda has accordingly been fine-tuned. In a balancing act, the opponents of the freedom of expression are given an equal opportunity to have their say. If bigots have heated arguments with the liberals, so much the better. On a couple of occasions in the past, crusaders belonging to one religion or the other influenced the festival’s agenda. They spared the JLF this year, having successfully vetoed the speakers’ lists at two other literature festivals.

This time one saw a kind of osmosis between the Science Congress and Jaipur Literature Festival. Both events are the largest of their kinds in the world. The JLF has withstood competition from other literature festivals but sensed a new danger from the Science Congress featuring fiction based on Hindu mythology, especially the two epics—Ramayan and Mahabharat.

The Science Congress, held a few days before the JLF, got tremendous publicity, not due to a path-breaking scientific paper but because of some entertaining lectures and outlandish claims about science in ancient India! A university Vice-Chancellor claimed that the stem cell technology existed in India thousands of years ago and that hundred Kauravas of the Mahabharat were created from a single embryo that was split into parts grown in separate earthen containers! He said ancient India had mastered aviation technology with the help of the Rig Veda and the demon king, Ravana, had 24 types of aircrafts. Also, the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu predated Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

This scientist was in good company as another speaker claimed that the theories of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein were wrong and would be disproved. As a result of the new work, gravitational waves should be renamed as Modi Waves named after the Prime Minister and the gravitational lens effect should be named after the Science Minister.

The Science Minister told the same forum last year that Stephen Hawking had proved that a Vedic theory is far superior to Einstein’s famous equation. The Minister follows a trend set by the Prime Minister who said Lord Ganesh having an elephant’s head was an illustration of ancient India’s expertise in plastic surgery. A BJP Chief Minister once claimed that India had the internet during the Mahabharat war.

Some Indian scientists, having measured the force of the political wind, want to banish the principle of empirical evidence from their discipline. They seem keen to bridge the gulf between science and superstition. A journalist wrote that “India’s ruling party has empowered a clutch of people to vocalise their pseudo-scientific beliefs without fear of ridicule, leavealone consequence”. Provoked by this trend, he had commented that a country with aspirations akin to India’s on the science front might have shunned a man unhinged in his opinions of science but in India such a Minister is protected by a culture that exalts and makes excuses for political and bureaucratic patronage.

The foray of the Science Congress into mythology was obviously not appreciated by the two JLF directors, both writers. The Science Congress poached on the Festival’s territory. As if angered by the onslaught on scientific temper, they decided that the JLF must stress the critical importance of evidence-based facts! Every action has equal and opposite reaction. With the Science Congress selling fiction, the JLFdived into the sea of facts and featured scientific disciplines ranging from genetics to cosmology.

So, the keynote address at the JLF was delivered by Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for uncovering the structure of the ribosome. He is a structural biologist and the first Indian President of the Royal Society of Great Britain. Citing the Royal Society’s motto Nullius in verba (Latin for “on the word of no one” or “take nobody’s word for it”), he said: “In science, it does not matter who you are or where something is written, but an idea is accepted because it is testable by experiments that can be reproduced by anyone anywhere in the world with the required training and expertise. ”

This aspect of science, he said, took root as a result of the enlightenment in Europe and the freedom it fostered to think and speak out against authority. In an era of fake news, where even the existence of objective truth is questioned, there is much at stake. Science, with its insistence on evidence-based facts, offers a counter to some of the threats today.

In a session on his book, Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome, Sir Venki threw light on the enormous ancient molecular machine, the ribosome, that decodes genetic information to build all life forms.

Cosmologist Priyamvada Natarajan spoke on the nature of our universe. She talked about the stellar graveyard instead of reciting an elegy written in a country churchyard. The JLF audience, that comes to understand the enigma of arrival, heard about the enigma of Black Hole. Prof Natarajan maps the Heavens, not the mind of a fictional hero. She lit up the large screens to show the universe—illumined galaxy cluster, distorted light-rays and the tiny-looking earth. Exposed to her hour-long presentation, one tends to view in a different light the contentious issues of migration, boundary walls and the religious “Other”. In literary sessions too, one kept hearing that the novel has no boundaries and that the migrant is the everyman of the present century.

The JLF sessions on scientific topics were immensely popular. The youngsters mobbed eminent scientists as if they are film stars or cricketers. A girl in school uniform who attended a presentation by Priyamvada Natarajan told her: “Ma’m, I have done research on you and I want to be cosmologist!”

In the scientific sessions, questions came up from the audience about the strange statements made at the recent Science Congress. Sir Venki said these were not made by serious scientists. Once earlier, he had said that the Science Congress had been turned into a circus. Someone commented that faith was holding up scientific progress in India. What else can one expect when a High Court judge merrily announces his scientific theory that peacocks do not mate but procreate through tear drops?

Unfortunately, the autonomous institutions of learning and professional organisations do not speak up when political leaders and others make stupid statements related to science. The community of scientists in India is a bit constrained because most of the scientific research is done in the public sector. When some young scientists organised a protest against the state’s anti-science policies, the government banned the participation by its scientists.

Science is characterised by “organised scepticism” but scientists watch in silence when superstition holds sway, or the freedom of expression is threatened. Dissent comes from writers, poets and artists. They are watched with suspicion by a political establishment determined to push through a uniform agenda and one single narrative. The Modi Government had the first taste of dissent when eminent writers protested against the attack on the freedom of expression by returning the state awards.

Writers and lovers of literature harbour a healthy disrespect for the authority. Inevitably, at the JLF there was much to displease the state-supported vigilante groups ever looking to nip dissent in the bud. At a session on the Moghul rulers’ contribution to arts, architecture and music in India, someone raised the issue of the destruction of Hindu temples by the Moghul rulers. The historian said the destruction of temples was not invented by a Moghul emperor and much before him, the warring Hindu kings trying to expand their kingdoms used to do the same. It was not a matter of religion but of political domination.

Another politically-sensitive subject came up in an evolutionary biologist’s talk. Fortunately, no Hindu Right-winger was present to challenge the findings about the origin of the Aryans or the migrants’ patterns in ancient India. David Reich, Harvard professor named by Nature magazine as one of 10 people who matter in all of science, escaped hostile attention at the JLF. The session on “Ancient DNA: Who We are and How We got Here” brought together eminent geneticists and paleoanthropologists Daniel E. Liberman and David Reich. They discussed “the emerging picture that is one of many waves of ancient human migrations where all populations living today are a mix of ancient ones and often carry a genetic component from archaic humans”.

Talking to these scientists was Indian journalist Tony Joseph whose book, The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From, covers the finding that the Indian civilisation is the result of multiple ancient migrations. It describes how new research using ancient DNA is rewriting the prehistory of India. Joseph has earlier commented on the study led by geneticist David Reich titled, The Genomic Formation of South and Central Asia.

He wrote that the findings will be unpalatable to many Hindu nationalists who have been attacking eminent historians defending the theory of Aryan migration. For them, there is cost to admitting that the Aryans were not the first inhabitants of India and that the Harrapan civilisation existed long before their arrival. It would mean acknowledging that Aryans and their Vedic culture were not the singular fountainhead of Indian civilisation and that their earliest sources lay elsewhere.

“The idea of mixing of different population groups is also unappealing to Hindu nationalists as they put a premium on racial purity. There is also the additional issue of the migration theory putting Aryans on the same footing as latter-day Muslim conquerors of India.”

By a sheer coincidence, this scientific study’s key theme figured at the JLF’s inauguration. British poet Ruth Padel did not come to defend her great-great-grandfather, Charles Darwin, who was sought to be diminished at the Science Congress. She came to read poems. One of these recited at the opening session bridged the gap between the two cultures. More than that, The First Cell on Earth conveyed a message to curb the growing insanity:

“Born in a deep-sea vent, synthesized by lightning in a reducing atmosphere or carried here by meteorite, we’re all from somewhere else...”

(Courtesy: Open Democracy)

The author is a senior journalist and writer who worked in India and abroad (notably Britain) in several major newspapers. Now retired, he is a freelancer.

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