One man was responsible for the death of Indian science, Saiyid Nurul Hasan, the education minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet in the 1970s. Her pact with the Soviets in 1971 sounded the death knell for Indian science. The Indian education system started getting influenced by the Russian political outlook.
In the first article of this three-part series on Indian science in the G20 (and S20) context, we emphasised the importance of India assuming the G20 presidency at this pivotal moment. The point of Indian civilisation being accommodative of individual liberties and freedoms is worth reiterating, especially because science and religion in India have never been in conflict with each other. On the other hand, they have been in positive synergy.
Modern science, and by that we mean Western science, because it originated elsewhere, lacked the philosophical understanding inherent in our civilization. Undoubtedly, modern science has given us immense facilities and done a lot to reduce the hardship of daily life, but it has been disruptive and violent for our people at the social, mental and psychological level.
With all due respect to modern science and its handmaiden, the modern idea of “development” has been instrumental, in more than one sense, for all the major problems that we see around us today. These include war and terrorism, inequality, environmental crisis, natural resources depletion and most importantly, lack of faith among the educated classes.
We had also given a hint at the end of the first article, that not everything is hunky-dory in Indian science. Anyone who wishes to see better days for Indian science should be a trenchant critic of the way in which Indian science has been managed, done, and organised in this country.
There are three things that went fundamentally wrong with Indian science and its administration.
First, when India gained independence from colonial rule in 1947, there was a dearth of resources. Grants or allocation towards science was not the priority for a newly independent nation. The fledgling nation had too many bigger problems to solve simultaneously. Historically speaking, the best science occurred in countries or kingdoms that allocated abundant resources for scientific pursuit. India, 2,000 years ago; America, about a century ago and Europe, about a few centuries ago. Wherever we go, the richest nations in the world did the best science.
A common counter argument to the above can be as simple as, “how and why did people like C.V. Raman get the Nobel Prize, that too when India was a colony and not at all wealthy?” This notion and line of questioning is not just fallacious, but also provides a peculiar sense of feeling good about our earlier achievements. Even the poorest countries have produced some brilliant minds, and will continue to do so. Such examples of excellence keep recurring sometimes, regardless of the social, economic, and political conditions that society around them may present.
They should not be taken as representative of anything.
Second, the biggest obstacle to scientific pursuit is the colonial mindset that we Indians continue to have today. After the two world wars, the United States dominated scientific pursuit. All vassal countries like the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany started to receive grants graciously from the Americans for similar pursuits. These nations continued to set the rules for the entire world. The American way of pursuing science had become the “legitimate” way of pursuing science. Today, however, this is being slowly challenged, with different poles of powers emerging across the world, making it truly multipolar.
However, just having enough resources does not in itself mean science is being pursued correctly. Such money intensive science is a brute force method, which focuses primarily on obtaining results quickly and can sometimes be an overkill. Today, the trend of pursuing postdoctoral study in Germany, Japan, the US, and the UK, in effect chasing the Western model, is common enough. Our social settings are quite different from the West. Hence, decoloniality is a must in Indian science.
Third, there was one man, more than anyone else, who was responsible for the death of Indian science. This was Saiyid Nurul Hasan, the education minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet in the 1970s. Her pact with the Soviets in 1971 (by which the communists in India endorsed and supported, politically speaking) sounded the death knell for Indian science. The Indian education system started getting influenced by the Russian political outlook. Hasan was the executor of this grim agenda, which was systematically embedded into the system. A Marxist-Leninist approach to science was given a platform in India, because of the political environment of the 1970s.
Without excellent science, there cannot be technology. Many scientific milestones in India are, unfortunately, a result of borrowed scientific knowledge from other nations. It is not a result of our indigenous genius. While India notes the likes of highly paid expat CEOs like Sundar Pichai and Satya Nadella, we must be focused on producing homegrown vision leaders like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. A highly paid CEO is not reflective of any advancement in science and technology. What we need are startups based on DeepTech. An evangelisation on these lines is necessary.
Apart from all of this, the Indian bureaucracy is laidback and relaxed; political interference and the lack of any will to introduce deep-seated reforms have contributed to the overall scenario: Indian science is in a haphazard condition today. Globally, our universities are ranked far below the Western ones. The single author paper citations are average at best. The volume of papers published will simply not matter, if they are not well cited.
A combination of a colonial mindset, influenced by communism and disabled by an imperfectly implemented reservation system (whose true utility needs to be optimised) has limited the growth of scientific excellence in this great nation of ours. India needs to achieve the political will to overhaul the aforementioned. How do we go about it? This will be hopefully addressed in the third and the final part of this three-part series on Indian science in the G20 context.
Gautam R. Desiraju is in the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, and a member of the S20 Engagement Group of the Government of India.
Sharan Setty is an S20 project associate at the Indian Institute of Science.