Infectious mindlessness

When I was admitted to MS University in Vadodara exactly 30 years ago, I knew it was not a place to receive world class education. The machinery in the department of textiles did not really work. The single jacquard unit had last been used in weaving a (admittedly very fine) likeness of Jawaharlal Nehru when he had visited the place another three decades before my time. 

The looms and the ginning and spinning units were as installation art. They were never turned on, and quite possibly were not even electrified. We were shown how to use them in a sort of comical practical-but-really-theoretical manner. I took a diploma after two years of under-instruction and was relieved to leave and begin working at the age of 19. 

But even then, when I had joined in 1987 with no illusions, there was the sense that this once was and possibly continued to be a noble and possibly great institution. It had dignity in not a few ways. It had a terrific art school, perhaps the most important one in India after Shantiniketan. Many of the university’s buildings were actually palaces because it was helped set up by, and named after, Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III. His ancestors, who were Marathi horsemen, conquered us Gujaratis in the 18th century and held on to their winnings after the British tamed India.

Other than his patronage of the university, “MS” did two notable things. He showed his back to the king, Emperor George V, during the coronation at the Delhi Durbar of 1911. This apparently caused a scandal. The other thing Gaekwad did was fund B R Ambedkar’s education at Columbia University. This helped produce the one Indian mind which was trained in cold American pragmatism. Ambedkar returned from New York without (and perhaps he never had) the socialist ideals and/or romanticism about India that England-educated Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Sardar Patel returned with. But we digress and are distracted. 

I was saying that MS University may probably have long been in decline when the Bharatiya Janata Party took over Gujarat in 1995. But it had not yet succumbed to Hindutva. The faculty of technology and engineering had a little temple exactly opposite the weaving department and it was tended to lovingly by an old Muslim man. This was almost never remarked upon because there was nothing unusual about it. I am not making pre-Babri Gujarat out to be some sort of secular idyll, it wasn’t, but the state hadn’t gone totally bonkers yet. 

In 2007, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad vandalised an exhibition by an MSU fine arts student, Chandra Mohan, calling it obscene. Then chief minister Narendra Modi stepped in to do the right thing, which was of course to jail the artist for five days. After art, has now come the turn of science. 

The Indian Express reported something this month that did not surprise me but dismayed me profoundly. It was carried under the headline “MSU diary with sadhus as inventors brings disrepute to India: Ex-student, Nobel Laureate”. The official university diary, the report of March 24 said, “hails Sushrut as the ‘father of cosmetic surgery’; Acharya Kanad as the one who ‘developed nuclear technology’; Kapil Muni as the ‘father of cosmology’; Maharshi Bhardwaj as the one who ‘discovered rockets and aeroplanes’; Charak Rishi as the ‘father of medicine’; and, Garga Muni, as the ‘scientist of stars’. The sages share space with eminent scientists like J C Bose, Vikram Sarabhai and C V Raman.” 

The Nobel-winning MSU alumnus is chemist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who said: “India has produced many great discoveries in the past. The most striking example is the invention of zero and the positional number system, which transformed arithmetic and mathematics in general. There were also many great discoveries made in the 20th century by people like C V Raman, S N Bose, J C Bose and Meghnad Saha. In fact, the Science Museum in London is planning a special exhibition on Indian contributions to science and mathematics in connection with the 70th anniversary of Indian independence.” 

He added: “Instead of giving prominence to these real contributions, it is disappointing that the university chose to print an official diary that ascribes to figures from religious scriptures discoveries that belong to modern science, such as nuclear technology, airplanes and cosmetic surgery. The people who did this may think they are being patriotic, but in fact they are bringing disrepute to the university and to India generally. I urge the university to renounce these features in the official diary and consider reprinting the diary.” 

I found his views to be eminently sensible and balanced, and warming. If such minds were produced at MS University, clearly the place was doing many things right. 

Illustration by Binay Sinha
Alas, the University Senate member who bunged this rubbish into the diary (and who shall not be dignified by having his name published in Business Standard), responded to Ramakrishnan with this: “Just because he is a Nobel Laureate, whatever he says does not become true. He has the right to object. It is my right to say that the MSU diary should have these details about the sages, and it is his right to object to it.”

Yes, science in Gujarat is not based on evidence but freedom of expression and equal rights. Who is even surprised? These theories about Puranic head transplants, Mahabharatan test-tube babies and avatars bearing nuclear weapons come directly from the prime minister. His propensity to stuff institutions with — How to put this delicately? — chamchas is not limited to a film institute and the censor board. This is what happens when the fantasies of Hindutva are extended to science. 

Having studied Pakistan for many years — I am the longest-serving Indian columnist in its newspapers — I used to giggle often at the idiocy of that nation’s scientific claims. 

One of Pakistan’s nuclear scientists, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood wrote a paper on how a captured djinn would provide energy for the whole nation (apparently one djinn properly harnessed would suffice). Ha ha! What a bunch of cretins. Serves me right for thinking lazily that we Indians were very different and inoculated by scientific temper against such rubbish. We’re not and my university bears proud witness to it. The infection that produces mindlessness is spreading in India.

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