This Article is From Oct 21, 2015

Why Aren't Scientists Returning Awards?

Well, I may or may not qualify as a writer but I am very certain that I am a committed reader. I am as sure of this as I am of the fact that Nayantara Sahgal wrote Prison and Chocolate Cake or that the BJP won the Indian General Elections of 2014 with an unprecedented majority. And now we have another unprecedented moment. Impressive numbers of distinguished writers and artists have been returning their national awards in protest against recent horrors such as the Dadri lynching and the cold-blooded shooting of the Sahitya Akademi award-winning writer MM Kalburgi. From my perspective as a common or garden variety of reader, the sort who dives into a book without thinking to check whether it has won an award, I'd therefore like to raise a couple of naive questions. How is the voice of the writer different from that of the ordinary citizen who might well experience a similar disquiet? Also, how is it that we have not so far had a single case of a scientist returning his or her national award although we may infer that the murder of free-thinking rationalists would upset scientists just as much as writers?

Surely it would be absurd to argue that writers feel more strongly than others the wrongs done to their fellow citizens or that they have more moral authority. It would be equally strange, I believe, to maintain that the politics of awards do not apply to prizes in the sciences. Yet, one group of national awardees, the writers, has spoken up strenuously. The other, comprising scientists, has not. Why? If the spate of Award-wapsi is a 'motivated protest' by persons who have been patronized by the Congress or the Left, that would be as true of the scientists. Why then have few, if any, scientists protested publicly? Are they immune to motivation?

I suggest that, as postcolonial inheritors of the British system of education, we return to CP Snow's memorable distinction between the 'two cultures' of the sciences and arts. Snow's thesis is typically invoked when there is talk of 'culture wars', as in our country today. His specific conjecture was that the UK system of education made too sharp a distinction between these streams, wherein the humanities were unduly privileged to 'speak for' the culture, while the sciences, despite their powerful intellectual contributions, constituted a place of cultural silence. He pointed out that ignorance of Shakespeare was considered a social lack but this snobbery did not appear to extend to a parallel ignorance, say, of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In short, there was a deep, incipient 'intolerance' in British society.

This was not an intolerance based on class, race and other 'real' enmities. It was sustained and mutual mistrust in the realm of ideas. People in the humanities and social sciences seemed licensed to hold forth on cultural issues; scientists not. Snow believed that this schism in the educational system had greatly hurt his mid-fifties British culture. We must ask the difficult question, then: does it equally diminish ours in twenty-first century India? My view is that the recent and rare concerted action we have witnessed in the arts and social sciences has opened up a new cultural space.  

A year or so ago, I attended a memorial meeting in Delhi for the rationalist Narendra Dabholkar a qualified medical doctor, a scientist whom I did not know at all but had read about. I went because I respected him for robustly attempting to bring in laws against superstition and spurious magic in his native state of Maharashtra. Like so many others, I was appalled at the brutal gunning down of this man simply because he held certain views, views that were apparently not anti-religion at all but more against the exploitation of religious faith. On that occasion, I recall that there were barely 50 or 60 people in the room and even fewer of Delhi's glittering intelligentsia.

Today, this notable indifference seems, miraculously, to have been reversed.   

As not just writers but, most recently, 73 sociologists have spoken in one voice to condemn what they see as a growing atmosphere of intolerance in the country, the new space coming into being is what we may call "collective dialogue for action". It is no longer a matter of us, the so-called 'professional protesters' in the humanities and social sciences, signing all sort of petitions that, as far as we know, have limited effects on the ground. Something more fundamental is happening.

The media today, like it or not, brings to all of us news of ghastly hate crimes, of child rapes, of vigilante violence, with an everyday certitude that cannot but shock and dismay. In this 'in your face' or 'in your Facebook' world, we are thus being systematically forced as a collective to confront the big questions again. What does it mean to be Indian? Are our vaunted values of "pluralism"
and "toleration" just meaningless words for millions of India's citizens at the awful receiving end of religious, caste and gender prejudice? And, btw, what are we going to do about it? For long, the cocooned middle-classes paid scant attention to this last question. That, to my mind, is what seems poised to change.

Writers from Sadat Hasan Manto to Harishankar Parsai to Kamala Das have always been fearless in their social critiques and I have nothing but unqualified admiration for those who have returned their awards in the past month or so. But we do need to ask about their present readership.

Today, we have a generation that reads literary books, if at all, alongside 1) chillingly savage news items; 2) seductive advertising slogans of instant success; 3) an educational ideology that emphasizes the superior status of the sciences. That's precisely why we need the scientists to speak in a society that has huge respect for them. Not necessarily by returning awards but by explaining to an India with a startlingly young demographic how scientific achievements and aspirations also promote the dynamic ideal of an egalitarian and tolerant India. This is a sort of moral obligation. Once, we had a green revolution by India's scientists which made us proudly self-sufficient in food grains; today, we must not be distracted by the false colours of a pink revolution. Much more imperative is to try and bridge that old 'two cultures' divide. For there could be no better demonstration of our abidingly syncretic and open culture.

The brute fact is that we live in a country that has not been able to ensure the precious gift of being able to read for nearly a fourth of its citizens. Pious sentiments notwithstanding, no political establishment has made it their first priority to create an educational environment where the discussion of ideas, whether in the sciences or humanities, is paramount. We have failed to bring up our young in an atmosphere where even the right to life is assured, let alone 'free speech'. Today, we face the consequence of this long-standing neglect of the basics of a humane education. In our 'tiffin-box paradigm' of social existence, our personal lives, our political selves and our spheres of work have occupied separate compartments. But today it appears that we cannot any longer peacefully eat our tiffin in our individual corners should we so choose. The contents of our hitherto private tiffin-boxes are now open not only to scrutiny but to ghastly routines of grab-snatch-and-spit-in-your-face. The metaphor of prison and chocolate cake seems back, albeit in desi idiom. How should we react?

The common reader, increasingly young and often confused, looks to its intelligentsia, right-wing and left, scientists and artists, to open their mouths - and hearts - at this critical juncture. Food for thought.

(Critical theorist and writer Rukmini Bhaya Nair is a professor at IIT Delhi. She is the author of several academic books.)

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