ON SCIENCE AND SECULARISM by T. Jayaraman
There is no need to recall here the details of the terrible happenings at Ayodhya on December 6th, 1992, events aptly described as the greatest blow to the Indian polity and to secularism in this nation since the assassination of the Mahatma. Every secular-minded citizen perhaps has his or her way of relating to the barbaric demolition of the sixteenth century Babri Masjid and to the aftermath. The unchecked effort of the Hindutva forces over 24 hours to construct a `temple' at the site of the demolished mosque; the wave of communal conflict and violence that swept the country subsequently; the weak response of the Central Government to the most criminal and blatant violation of the Constitution and the rule of law; and the unrepentant and triumphant crowing of the Hindu fundamentalist forces leading to fresh demands from them on the mosque at Mathura and the Gyanvapi mosque at Varanasi--these must trigger in any rational, secular-minded Indian the deepest foreboding.
Understandably, the immediate response to the situation in media coverage and commentary has been in terms of the political background of these events and the political implications for the future. There is no doubt that politics--in this case, a cynical and cold-blooded political mobilisation strategy and a pathetically inadequate response--provides the key to our understanding of what has happened. However, to concentrate exclusively on the political aspect would be to miss the wider nature of the danger faced by the Indian system and society. Hindu fundamentalism has been mustering its forces on a notably broad front; it has penetrated many sections of society with its propaganda and has acquired apologists, spokespersons and publicists in all walks of life. It has cultivated with a measure of success intellectuals, journalists, lawyers and scientists--not always those at the forefront of their professions but enough in number for their voice and point of view to be heard everywhere. There has been, as many commentators have noted, a significant communalisation of Indian society in the past decade.
These intellectual camp-followers of the forces of Hindutva have sought to advance the fundamentalist point of view and create confusion on a number of questions and in a variety of disciplines. Understandably, history has been the battlefield of particularly intensive struggle, after the Bharatiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh-Vishwa Hindu Parishad combine zeroed in on the Ram janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue as its chosen route to power. Here, too, the Hindutva forces have encountered their sharpest intellectual challenge, with a broad coalition of historians exposing the unscientific and untruthful nature of fundamentalist history at every turn. In fact, India's finest historians led by Romila Thapar, Sarvepalli Gopal, Irfan Habib, R. S. Sharma, K. N. Panikkar and Amiya Kumar Bagchi have done the nation proud by being at the forefront of the struggle against the communal abuse of history. But it is useful and important to examine the role of the Hindutva forces in other disciplines as well and it is to the sciences that attention must be turned.
The immediate reaction of any serious scientist or science worker to the Ayodhya events is unmitigated horror at the sheer mediaevalism exhibited there. We live today in an age of global scientific and technological interdependence. Six months ago, at Rio de Janeiro, the political leadership of all nations gathered together in an effort to discuss one of the key issues facing humanity, the problem of sustainable ecological development. The world is preoccupied with protecting the ozone layer; the computer revolution continues its headlong progress; medicine and biology constantly open vast new areas of knowledge; but in India, a horde of fanatics bent on redressing a `wrong' allegedly committed some four centuries ago--there is not a jot of scientifically entertainable evidence that any temple existed at the site where the Babri Masjid was built around 1528--occupy centrestage. In a nation which boasts the greatest mass of poverty in the world and where development should preoccupy both Government and citizen, the attention of both has been successfully diverted to the bloody antics of the forces of Hindutva.
Yet the scientist cannot afford to shrug his or her shoulders. Hindu fundamentalism is no longer a fringe phenomenon. It is necessary to take a closer look at what Hindutva has to offer for the scientist and science in India, to examine the track-record of fundamentalism in relation to science both in India and elsewhere. For in India today the battle lines are drawn and one has to make a basic choice, to stand on the side of secularism or to line up against it. Is there a freedom to choose between secularism and ``something else'' and still retain a genuine commitment to science? Is science value-neutral with regard to secularism?