TIFR crisis: Modi’s surgical strike on science and rational thinking

Starving the premier Tata Institute of Fundamental Research of funds is Modi government’s latest attack on the alma mater of country’s eminent atomic and space scientists

Photo Courtesy: Social Media
Photo Courtesy: Social Media

Gauhar Raza

Media have been in a tizzy whipping up jingoism ever since the blitzkrieg bombing by the Indian Air Force across the border, describing the air raids as befitting act of revenge against the killing of over 40 CRPF jawans by a Jaish-E-Mohammed-inspired fidayeen Kashmiri youth.

The war cry and claims about the scale of revenge created such a cacophony that every other voice was silenced. Nationalism wielding vigilantes were on streets and supporter of the present disposition were shamelessly claiming that now no one can defeat BJP in the coming elections.

They were happy because they were confident that all other ‘surgical strikes’ carried out by the Modi government during the past five years will be erased from the public memory. The youth, farmers, workers, Dalits, minorities will forget what BJP did to them during all these years. Nationalism will paralyse brains of the masses and people will forget indiscriminate destruction of judiciary, RBI, CBI, HAL, universities and institutions of learning. If not permanently at least for next two crucial months, all misdeeds and acts of misadventure of this government will be pushed to the backburner.

Within one month of coming to power, Prime Minister Modi launched the first surgical strike on rationality and scientific temper. He gave a public statement that ‘Lord Ganesha is an evidence of plastic surgery’. He and his speechwriter obviously did not know the difference between plastic surgery and transplant.

He opened the floodgates of irrationality and what followed was bizarre and grotesque. His army of central ministers, chief ministers, MPs and even Judges, made most outlandish claims. The nation, which soon after independence had boasted of the third largest scientific and technical manpower in the world, had to suffer humiliation of once again being called ‘the land of myths and superstitions’.

Funding for science and technology progressively reduced and the meagre available funds were diverted to do sham scientific projects. IITs, CSIR, IARI and other institution were forced to conduct investigations on such projects as ‘Panchgavya’, ‘mythical Saraswati River’ and ‘Impact of Havan on rains’. The attack on scientific institutions was intense, but media sought not to expose these ‘surgical strikes’.

Institutions, one after another, built over the last 70 years, were targeted. In some cases the government and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) resorted to carpet-bombing. The Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), University of Hyderabad and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) were attacked with meticulous planning and high level of precision. The RSS propaganda machinery painted these institutions as the bastions of left politics, which breed anti-nationals. Many believed them, without realising that science and rationality was becoming the target.

There were no takers of saner voices, who kept warning the nation that comment of Lord Ganesha was not a mistake committed by a politician, but was a signal to withdraw support for science and technology. Nehru went to the public with the agenda of scientific temper and garnered support for building scientific institutions. Here was a prime minister who started attacking rationality, the next logical step was to destroy all scientific institutions.

Stifling Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) of funds to the extent that they cannot pay salary to their staff is the latest surgical strike. Let us not forget that this institute was built by Homi Jahangir Bhabha, the father of Indian Nuclear Programme. Even before independence Bhabha, a great visionary, wrote to JRD Tata and Nehru, and repeated it in many of his lectures, that once India achieves independence we will need large number of trained scientists who should be able to provide solution to our many problems. The passionate letters written by him garnered financial support for creation of, TIFR first and followed by the Atomic Energy Commission.

The truth is that TIFR is unable to pay salaries to its scientists, staff and research scholars. Which means that there is no money for research

Let the nation also not forget that ISRO and Atomic Energy Commission were incubated in TIFR, which still remains the most prestigious institute, both within the country and abroad. Let us also remind ourselves that it was built when India was counted among the poorest countries. British had left India in 1947, but not before squeezing the last drops of blood. We were a poor country but our desire to become a scientifically tempered nation and excel in science was robust. Therefore, the government and public both supported scientific research and institution building enthusiastically. The newly born pauperised India never let its scientific community feel that there were no funds for research and their salaries.

Today the Prime Minister is never tired of reminding us that during his tenure India has remained the fasted growing economy, though independent economists tell us it is just one of the many lies that he has repeated ad nauseam. The truth is that TIFR is unable to pay salaries to its scientists, staff and research scholars. Which means that there is no money for research.

There is always a lag between investment in research and benefits it brings to a nation. This gestation period depends on the extent of investment and the nature of scientific research. It took decades before we started witnessing positive results of Nehruvian vision. We did exceedingly well in areas such as space sciences, nuclear technology, drug development and agricultural sciences. Green and white revolutions were products of scientific research. Our young generations are today reaping benefits of science because we started supporting institution build seventy years back. Let there be no doubt that if we withdraw this support, as this government has done, the negative results will also have a lag period. The heat will be felt after some time and will haunt us for a long period.

The damage that we have witnessed is the worst form of antinational act. It will have intense and far-reaching impact like an atomic bomb, which keeps on paralysing generations to come. Destruction of scientific institutions will cripple both, the scholarship and as well as our national ability to develop, or even absorb future technologies.

The political parties, which have completely forgotten about their constitutional duty to spread scientific temper, spirit of inquiry and humanism, will have to bring it back to national agenda. They will have to rise above the political arithmetic and resist the attack on science and scientific institutions.

(The author is a former Chief Scientist at National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources).

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Published: 09 Mar 2019, 6:00 PM