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.