October 7, 2003
A few days ago, newspapers carried a picture of the minister of state for human resource development, Dr Sanjay Paswan, with two cobras coiled around his neck. He had just demonstrated a walk on fire in front of 2000 people gathered in Patna to take part in a gathering of tribal healers, shamans and other ‘‘witch doctors’’. This display of ‘‘irrationalism’’ by a high functionary of the state was criticised. Paswan, instead of being defensive about his actions, was at his combative best. ‘‘This is all futuristic science and hence needs promotion by the state, media and civil society,’’ he retorted. And as HRD minister, he intends to start two institutes to research into these practices. These institutes will prepare a data bank of different types of healing practitioners in Bihar, have a website and build a team of teachers for those aspiring to learn the practices.
This would be farcical if it was not so tragic. Enough damage has been done by his ‘‘boss’’, Dr M.M. Joshi, and this country can ill afford another such person hell bent on pushing his pet agenda into the school books and hence the minds of innocent children. All this is accepted by almost everyone who professes to have a scientific temper. But another vital point is missing in this debate on state sponsorship of superstitions and conduct of ministers. That is a comparison of this behaviour with other ‘‘acceptable’’ behaviour.
A few years ago I went to a conference on particle physics at Chennai. It was inaugurated by lighting a lamp in front of a statue of Goddess Sarasvati and some hymns were sung in her glory. When some of us objected to this display of religiosity at a scientific meet, we were told this is a part of our composite culture and we were being western in deploring such acts! This is not an isolated incident. Almost all public functions have similar displays of ritualism by top functionaries of the state. The idea is that it is not religion one is glorifying but rather ‘‘our culture’’.
How is it that this kind of public display is acceptable? How is it that ‘‘our culture’’ is being defined as one that is possibly alien to a majority of our population? I am talking here of the vast majority of the tribals, dalits and others who are outside the brahmincal fold. This vast majority holds a belief system in which tribal healing, exorcism and other such ‘‘superstitious’’ tripe is important. But this is at odds with our ideas of scientific temper while starting a conference with Sarasvati Vandana is not?
In 1976, Article 51-A was added to our Constitution. A fundamental duty of the Indian citizen, the article instructs, is ‘‘to develop the scientific temper, humanism and spirit of inquiry and reform in our citizens’’. Public servants, irrespective of their personal beliefs, are expected to display scientific temper in their actions. We need to condemn glorification of superstition, irrationalism and use of public money to promote such ideas. What we don’t need are double standards that ignore one kind of unscientific behaviour and condemn another, just because it is unfamiliar.
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