NEW DELHI: Three joint statements issued by various groups of scientists, now numbering more than 2000 signatories, both offline and online, have expressed their concern with what they perceive to be a rising trend of intolerance, bigotry and sheer irrationality in the public discourse on various matters of social and cultural concern in India today. While the statement by the Inter-Academy Panel on Ethics in Science of the three Academy of Sciences in India is the mildest, seeking refuge from accusations of political bias in the shadow of a lengthy quotation from Tagore, the other two are notable for their forthright language.

Among the specific issues agitating the scientists has been the assassination of the rationalist, secular and critical thinkers Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi, who had previously received threats from assorted groups with fundamentalist views, some of whom clearly do not shirk from violence.

However these events, it is evident, are situated in an atmosphere of the erosion of tolerance and reasoned debate. This climate has on the one hand erupted in violence against hapless individuals in a number of cases. On the other hand intolerance is being stoked by a variety of acts of commission or omission from the highest levels of governance in the country. The re-furbished campaign against the procuring, storing, and eating of beef, despite the existence of adequate anti-cow-slaughter legislation across the country, has led to a number of acts of extreme vigilante violence at different locations. The responsibility of the political formations associated to the ruling dispensation in promoting this campaign is a matter of record. At the same time, the reaction to such incidents from the highest offices of the government has been weak and halting and lacking in firm and outright condemnation. Other voices from these political formations have been at pains to construct arguments “explaining” such acts, in effect justifying them.

It has been argued by ruling party spokesperson, and echoed by a section of the television media, that the responsibility for all such violent incidents somehow rests primarily with the government of the day and therefore responsibility for such incidents lies equally on all political formations. Hence, it is argued, that somehow the “timing” of these statements is “unfair” and and takes away from their legitimacy. As a dissenting film-maker noted with grim wit, this is akin to holding the Nehru government responsible for the assassination of the Mahatma. Surely, are not the hands that open the stable doors, by virtue of their campaigns and propaganda, to unleash such violent forces, the ones that should bear the primary responsibility, in political and moral, even if not legal, terms? And is not the subsequent pious hand-wringing of the former of little value?

It must be emphasised that the scientists' statements do not attribute responsibility solely to the ruling party as such but express profound concern at what are societal developments. All of us are aware that various political formations too bear responsibility, to a greater or lesser degree, for the lack of development of scientific temper and the spread of irrationality and bigotry, on the issues of caste, creed and gender. Having said this though, the rising activity of political forces and groups, with ideological affinities to the ruling dispensation, with a long track record of promoting an irrational reverence for the “traditional”, identified always with a particular majoritarian interpretation of the past, and an aggressive intolerance to contrary opinions, all couched in language that increasingly tends to the abusive, is, I believe, also the source of their immediate concern.

Equally significantly, the scientific community's confidence in the current government's commitment to its constitutional responsibility to promote scientific temper, has been sharply undermined by the promotion of all kinds of anti-scientific and irrational views by leading government figures. Among other things, such statements typically make absurd claims that all manner of modern scientific and technological advances had indeed been achieved in some mythical past. A steady stream of such pronouncements have been made ever since the ruling dispensation came to power.

The accusation of “manufactured rebellion” levelled at the signatories in some quarters does not hold water, since their very range, across differences of rank, age, institutions, and disciplines, points to the spontaneity of their action. Nor does the accusation, “why now and not on earlier occasions” directed at the scientists, or other such protests, bear serious scrutiny. Dissent in democracy is not a right contingent on a “track record” of protest, and the right to protest on individual issues in the manner and time of one's choosing is inalienable. Scientists, as a community qua scientists, have also expressed themselves before on issues relevant to their profession and its ethical and moral underpinnings. Notable among the previous occassions when scientists and other intellectuals were forced to protest as vociferously was when, in the earlier stint of the NDA in power, astrology and the so-called “Vedic” mathematics were thrust into the university curriculum.

The message that the scientists' statements seek to convey is plain and simple. A tolerant, pluralistic, intellectually free, and secular social order that upholds a scientific temper is both a part of our national tradition and the foundation of its existence as a modern nation. Science, or indeed development in a holistic sense, in India cannot flourish in an atmosphere of growing unreason and intolerance of dissent in the public sphere. The powers that be would do well to heed the substance of the message rather than shoot at the messengers.

(The writer is Chairperson of the Centre for Science, Technology and Society at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.)