It did not help that China landed a spacecraft on the dark side of the moon while the Indian Science Congress was being held. But, even without this happening, this assembly of the best and brightest of Indian scientists would have sounded like a bad joke. Credit for this goes to the Vice-Chancellor of Andhra University who read a paper at this conclave that claimed that stem cell and test tube technologies were so evolved at the time of the Mahabharata that it was possible for one woman, Gandhari, to produce a hundred Kaurav sons without this extraordinary birthing feat killing her off. This was not the only startling ‘scientific’ information presented by G Nageshwar Rao. He also claimed for India the theory of evolution on the grounds that the 10 avatars of Vishnu came before Charles Darwin.
Tempting though it is to mock Mr G Nageshwar Rao, it needs to be said that his claims were of a piece with other ‘scientific’ claims made in recent times. The Prime Minister himself said, at the opening of a medical facility, that plastic surgery must have been known in ancient India for Shiva to have given his son Ganesha the head of an elephant. Other senior ministers have claimed that the Internet existed in ancient India. As did airlines. Ravana apparently had a fleet. These ‘scientific’ discoveries from ancient India inspired a judge to claim that peacocks were immaculately conceived by a peahen drinking the tears of her ‘husband’.
As one of only a handful of political columnists who has openly supported Narendra Modi, I feel the need to explain why these idiotic claims annoy me enough to write a column about them. Having spent my growing years in the company of secular, socialist, westernised Indians who had a disdain for all things ancient Indian, mostly because they knew nothing of them, I was hoping that the advent of Modi would bring a renaissance. Sushrut is actually celebrated all over the world as the first plastic surgeon but Indian children grow up without knowing of his life or his skills. They also grow up without any knowledge of ancient India’s contribution to mathematics, architecture, philosophy and literature. The only way to bring about an Indian renaissance is for these things to be examined and taught so that renewal becomes possible.
Unfortunately, the advent of Modi has brought to the fore the daftest kind of Hindus filled with prejudice and imbued with an inferiority complex so deep that revivalism is their only resort. Revivalism alas is the opposite of a renaissance. In any case, no renaissance has ever been led by people with an inferiority complex because they need revivalism to prove that they were superior once.
The Hindus trying to establish their superiority today are also those who hate Muslims because from their history books they have learned that Muslim conquerors destroyed ancient Indian texts, libraries, temples and universities. This did happen but it is stupid to blame Muslims today for what happened then. Is it not good enough to know that although India was broken in the name of Islam, the Islamic Republic that resulted is considered a failed State? India has managed to do better economically, politically and even otherwise.
Hindus who have found their voice since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister seem obsessed with Muslims and Pakistan. Or they may have noticed that it is China that India needs to compete with. The Economist last week said this of China’s scientific achievements: ‘An analysis of 17.2m papers in 2013-18, by Nikkei, a Japanese publisher, and Elsevier, a scientific publisher, found that more came from China than from any other country in 23 of the busiest fields, such as sodium-ion batteries and neuron-activation analysis. The quality of American research has remained higher, but China has been catching up, accounting for 11% of the most influential papers in 2014-16.’
So can we please awaken from our mythical dreams and start dealing with the world as it is today? Can we begin by ensuring that no more idiotic claims are made at conferences that are addressed by the Prime Minister and that are supposed to be the highest scientific gatherings in India. It is terrific that we are aiming, as the Prime Minister reminds us often, to send a spacecraft to the moon in the next couple of years, but can we pay attention to the Chinese one that is already there?
The main reason for many of modern India’s failures, like our inability to provide clean drinking water, are to do with our failures in the field of science. We need for this to change. We certainly need for people in high academia to stop making the sort of claims you expect from sadhus in the Kumbh Mela, who have not allowed science and reason to penetrate their Himalayan caves.
Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @tavleen_singh