A champion of reason

For P.M. Bhargava, methods of science were inseparable from pursuit of justice

Written by Kalpana Kannabiran | Published:August 5, 2017 12:29 am
Pushpa Mittra Bhargava, PM Bhargava death, indian scientist death, indian scientist death, indian express news Born in Rajasthan’s Ajmer, P M Bhargava studied at Theosophical College, Lucknow and Queen’s College, Varanasi and completed his BSc in 1944 in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics.

With the passing of Pushpa Mittra Bhargava (1928-2017), we have lost a rare public intellectual,who was committed to building knowledge, institutions, movements, arts and aesthetics, the scientific temper, science, the humanities, democratic governance and resistance strategies. What set him apart was the depth with which he engaged with each of these fields, the connections he was able to make between them and his sustained involvement over decades with issues and concerns that tested the determination and strength of thought and action.

His commitment was expressed through his generosity with his time and ideas and his willingness to listen and engage with co-travellers, without displaying impatience, inattention or disrespect. This is not to suggest that there were no disagreements but rather to point to the ways in which he negotiated disagreements and divergent viewpoints. Particularly in the times we live in today, his conduct in public life — both in terms of the wide canvas he straddled as well as his methods of engagement — hold significant lessons.

His work in founding the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) and his contribution to the field of biology and biotechnology and to the growth of science in general are well known. What is less known, especially to the post-1990s generation, is his commitment to rationalism, atheism and the scientific temper. His belief that the pursuit of science is inseparable from the propagation of the scientific temper is an endeavour scientists in India must commit themselves to.

Scientific laboratories were not (and could not afford to be) ivory towers. Article 51A of the Indian Constitution says it is a fundamental duty of every citizen “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”. Bhargava made this his life’s mission. In 1981, Bhargava, along with Raja Ramanna and P.N. Haksar released the Statement on the Scientific Temper, a document which defined his intellectual pursuits right till the end. As a co-founder (with scientists S. Dhawan and A. Rahman) of the Society for the Promotion of Scientific Temper, he invited citizens to join this society: “We in India need today, more than at any time before, the development and practice of an objective and scientific outlook to replace antiquated, emotional and irrational approaches… that derive from implicit faith in superstition… dictates of religion, custom, convention and tradition… in direct conflict with scientific knowledge and an open attitude of mind.” The basic premise of this Society was that “knowledge can be acquired only through human endeavours and not through revelation, and that all problems can and must be faced in terms of man’s moral and intellectual resources without invoking supernatural powers”. His commitment to this premise was unswerving.

But importantly, Bhargava did not see science in India as a purely technical tradition, but rather one that had the potential to synthesise long traditions of humanism and human values from a plurality of traditions and civilisations, which could be “a major contribution to world civilisation, leading to the creation of new values in science”. He marked the unique boundaries of science in India through his engagements with campaigns to protect food sovereignty and biodiversity and his vociferous resistance to GM crops on the one side, and his total and absolute commitment to justice for the victims of the Bhopal disaster. His deep involvement and immersion at every level with the Sambhavna Trust over 20 years, and his knowledge of the minutiae on Bhopal is unparalleled. The first time he missed a Trust meeting in 20 years was in the past year when he was too unwell to attend.

Justice was a goal that had to be relentlessly pursued; and the resistance to the combined depredations of state and multinational corporations in the global south was at the core of this pursuit of justice. It was also at the core of his understanding of the methods of science in an unequal world.

However, associational freedoms must be also learnt and imbibed by the educated, intellectual elite — scientists especially. An isolated, individualistic pursuit of science could not, in his view go further than the limits prescribed by individual lives and their specific circumstances.

A founder of the Association of Scientific Workers in India, of which Jawaharlal Nehru was president, Bhargava argued that scientists are workers who have a collective interest and pursue a common good and therefore needed to organise themselves into a trade union. And he persuaded the prime minister of the country to head the trade union. At a time when we are witnessing the assertion in the national congresses of scientists that mythological figures are evidence of our “scientific” forbears, the far-sightedness of Bhargava in drawing the canvas of science and tirelessly reiterating its premises, can scarcely be understated.

In leaving this legacy behind, Bhargava’s unparalleled work and indefatigable energies should guide us out of the morass of our present predicament into an India that is plural, just, free, tolerant and where reason and justice prevails over all else.

The writer is professor and regional director, Council for Social Development (CSD), Hyderabad. Bhargava was chairman of CSD

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  1. R
    Raman
    Aug 6, 2017 at 4:48 am
    I do not agree with the tenet of this article. Seems to me that he was less of a scientist and more of a politician, and gentle in nature. Who cares? Advance the science in India which is why you were chosen or leave. He wasted someone else's chances!
    Reply
    1. G
      Gopal
      Aug 5, 2017 at 3:41 pm
      This article tells me how science was politicized for gaining political access. The talk of "justice" is classic elitist talk of how they know what is right and how they want to control what we read and what we think. How many know that Stalin wrote a book on linguistics? For decades, the Marxists held that they knew the answer to everything including science. In the process, Indian science was destroyed. I suppose Mr Bharagava played a role in that sad story.
      Reply
      1. R
        Raman
        Aug 6, 2017 at 4:50 am
        Spot on! And there are many like him in India. The utilize their powerful position to advance wrong cause.
        Reply
      2. R
        Raman Govindan
        Aug 5, 2017 at 12:30 pm
        we live in an environment where Pakistan defines it self on jihadi and fundamental religious politics. and China on its ultra national and imperial designs to commercially exploit less prosperous fellow nations. adopting pure scientific , rational temper, aesthetics may not be correct approach in all matters. consider China it proclaims it is an atheist nation but supports jihadi and fundamental religious Pakistan. also the ruling party is communist but emphasizes and prefers trade and relations with well developed nations. we should adopt pure scientific , rational temper, aesthetics within our nation and the with others who share it with us, but be pragmatic with others.
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        1. M
          Madhukar Nikam
          Aug 5, 2017 at 12:09 pm
          PM Bhargava was more of a manager than a scientist, since his equation with late Mrs Indira gandhi was good, he brought CCMB to Hyderabad, but in reality today private sector is way ahead in this field. He was a quasi naxal, supported the naxal frontal organisations all his life, he was more of a hype than merited . The author herself is well know extreme left leaning person ...the tributes therefore are to be taken with pinch of salt
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          1. O
            Onkar Singh
            Aug 5, 2017 at 10:37 pm
            Do you mean to say rightists are the only people to talk about science?
            Reply
            1. S
              sunkari satyam
              Aug 7, 2017 at 11:47 am
              Author has tried to explain what is Dr. P.M. Bhargava's contribution to the scientific temper and highlighted the relevance of diverse opinion which was advocated by Dr. P.M. Bhargava maintaining highest values of intellectuals and scientists like sir (Dr. P.M. Bhargava). But not all in terms of seduction, intolerance and forceful or any irrational opinions. if some body feels it is in leftist centric, rightist may reject. It doesn't matter.
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            2. R
              Ram
              Aug 5, 2017 at 4:09 am
              Manju Bhargava was a typical left-marxist academician, a parasite who lived off tax money and ruling congress party funds/privilages/awards with no remarkable contribution to his area of science, he was just a science bureaucrat creating white elements and filling them with below average talent loyal to him and his left/congress masters. Comparing him with likes of Raja Ramanna is an insult to great nuclear physicist. This hypocrite who sealed his mouth al these decades, be it emergency in 1975-77, nationalist minority Sikh lynchings by Rahul congress goons or so many murders/kilings by left/marxist anti-nationals finaly opened his mouth to protest on some made up kilings, a family dispute casulty of lieks of Kalburgy to be part of congtres-communist sponsored 'award wapsi drama' to please his masters. Young scientists should learn from him, by not becoming like him but real scientists of notable real contributions. No wonder left/maoist like kannabean writes apologizing article !
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              1. M
                Madhukar Nikam
                Aug 5, 2017 at 12:10 pm
                very well put
                Reply
                1. M
                  Madhukar Nikam
                  Aug 5, 2017 at 12:24 pm
                  Very well put!
                  Reply
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