The Indian Science Congress and its Relevance
Rajesh Singh

At the annual Indian Science Congress (ISC) conference in January 2015, a paper co-authored by two academics claimed that aircraft had not only been manufactured during the Vedic period but also that these planes were far superior to the ones we have today. At another annual session, the ISC’s then general secretary pronounced that the Kauravas had been born out of stem cell and that Lord Vishnu possessed heat missile technology. Not to be outdone, an incumbent Union Minister said algebra and Pythagoras’s Theorem were India’s gifts to the world of science. According to yet another claim, cows carried bacteria which could turn anything they consumed into gold — 24-karat ones, no less.

Understandably, these and similar other remarks outraged a number of scientists and experts. Some like astrophysicist Jayant Narlikar said it was good to be proud of ancient Indian science, but he cautioned against going overboard and making a mockery of the issue. Others were less charitable; they demanded that the ISC sessions be scrapped since they had turned into arenas for promoting unscientific and ludicrous propositions. Pushed to the wall, the ISC had to state that more stringent norms would be created for selecting papers that were to be read at the prestigious meet.

The demand to abolish the ISC annual sessions is a knee-jerk reaction, and it does nothing to re-establish the reputation of the country’s premier scientific organisation. Moreover, it seeks to undo the greater good that the Institution has done in the more than a century of its existence in inculcating and promoting scientific temper in the country. Stray outlandish statements cannot become a reason for reversing that trend.
The ISC Association was formed in 1914 with the following broad objectives: Promote the cause of science in India; hold an annual congress; and publish papers, journals etc. that reflect on the advancements in science at home and abroad. None of these objectives has outlived its purpose. If anything, there is a greater urgency to reinforce them and refuse space to unscientific claims. With rapid scientific advancements across the globe, India cannot be left behind in the race, and the ISC is an important vehicle to keep pace with the developments. The centenary edition of the ISC, which was hosted by the University of Calcutta in 2013, was on the theme, ‘Science for Shaping the Future of India’, a subject that gains added relevance after Prime Minister Narendra Modi offered the slogan, “Jai jawan, jai kisan, jai vigyan, jai anusandhan” at the most recent ISC annual session held in Punjab.

The ISC’s activities have over the decades expanded and flourished in many ways. The Congress began with a little over 100 members; today, it boasts a membership of nearly 30,000 scientists. The first ISC session had just about 35 papers presented; more recent sessions saw over a thousand papers. The ISC’s interest areas too have grown, now encompassing forestry and agricultural sciences, plant science, anthropological and behavioural sciences (archaeology, education and psychology), mathematical science (Statistics), etc. Besides, the ISC has stepped up interactions with a host of foreign scientific institutions and associations with a view to both sharing and gaining.

The stray comments have the potential to grab eyeballs and newsprint, but the ISC is not beset with that problem alone. There are others which hardly make it to the headlines. One such challenge is to reform the ecosystem in which scientific study is done in the country. As Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh had been told in 2012 by an advisory body concerned with the subject, a “warlike effort” was needed to tackle the problems which plagued the “overall environment for innovation and creative work”.

One is reminded of the 1990 award-winning Hindi film, Ek Doctor Ki Maut, where the protagonist, a physician-and-researcher, portrayed brilliantly by Pankaj Kapur, is hounded by the system — fellow doctors jealous of his achievement, the bureaucracy etc. — because he comes into the limelight for having discovered a vaccine for leprosy after years of struggle both in the medical field and in the ecosystem which placed obstacles in the way of pathbreaking work. The doctor is finally rewarded by an offer from an international institution to be part of its team, which he accepts. The film concludes with a dual message: One, competence eventually wins. Two, a system that fails to appreciate the worth of its own, is the ultimate loser.

Things are perhaps are not as bad now as they were then. Yet, the issues that dog the world of science and scientific research are dominant enough. The ‘warlike effort’ still needs to be made. Those efforts must be the direction of bringing together the advancements of modern science and the wisdom of our ancient science. Take Vedic maths, for example. Nobel prize winners Niels Bohr and Erwin Schrodinger as well as noted physicist Werner Heisenberg were committed students of the Vedas and the Upanishads and firmly believed that those sacred texts contained a great amount of mathematical knowledge which has contemporary relevance. Heisenberg is quoted as having said: “Quantum theory will not look ridiculous to people who have read Vedanta.” We have a more recent case of Manjul Bhargava, who has won the prestigious Fields Medal (awarded to mathematicians under 40 years of age at the International Congress of the International Mathematical Union). He simplified a 200-year old number theory with the help of ancient Sanskrit scripts. In an interview, he spoke of a German maths wizard finding — that of two numbers, each a sum of two perfect squares, when multiplied, give a result of also two perfect squares. Bhargava recollected seeing in the age-old Sanskrit manuscripts which his grandfather used to refer, a similar generalisation of the same law.

There are some who relish, by exploiting ill-informed statements in the garb of science, in thrashing India for its unscientific temper. There is an attempt to project that science is sought to be dislodged from its pedestal and replaced by myths in the era of a Right-wing (read, Hindutva) regime. This is scare-mongering. Incidentally, people who hold the West as the hotbed for true scientific research, must reflect on the following passage in the famous 1776 United States Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Does science hold that men were “created’? No, they evolved. Were they endowed by their ‘Creator’ with Rights? No, those rights came from decades and even centuries of struggle. And yet, nobody says that the foundational premise of the US is based on myth and not science.

(The writer is an author, political commentator and public affairs analyst.)

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