Three murders, a suicide and a rash of political appointments at universities have thrown Indian academia into an uproar against the conservative (right-wing) government. Prominent artists, writers, historians and scientists are speaking out against an intensifying climate of religious intolerance and political interference in academic affairs.
“What’s going on in this country is really dangerous,” says Rajat Tandon, a number theorist at Hyderabad Central University. Tandon is one of more than 100 prominent scientists, including many heads of institutions, who signed a statement protesting “the ways in which science and reason are being eroded in the country.” The statement cites the murder of three noted rationalists — men who had dedicated their lives to countering superstition and championed scientific thought — and what they see as the government’s silent complicity.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi leads the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which won the 2014 general elections in India in a landslide victory. The BJP and Modi, in particular, are aligned with the extremist right-wing group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS. (This unholy alliance is comparable to the relationship between the Republican Party and the Tea Party, but the RSS is a paramilitary group with more violent overtones than the Tea Party has shown so far.) Together, the BJP and RSS promote the agenda of Hindutva, the notion that India is the homeland of Hindus and all others — the hundreds of millions of Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and others in this sprawling, secular democracy — are interlopers.
“The present government is deviating from the path of democracy, taking the country on the path to what I’d call a Hindu religious autocracy,” says Pushpa Mittra Bhargava , who founded the prestigious Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology in Hyderabad.
Despite his blatantly anti-secular stance, Modi’s stated goals for economic development are wildly popular, particularly among the country’s majority Hindus. But academics and intellectuals have been protesting the erosions on academic freedom almost from the start.
In January 2015, at the 102nd session of the Indian Science Congress, several members of the BJP government led a session on ancient Indian science and claimed that thousands of years ago, Indians had built planes that could fly not just on earth but between planets. There were other outlandish claims — that the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha is proof that Indian ancients knew the secrets of cosmetic surgery, for example. Scientists were dismayed, and some did call for the session to be canceled, but their primary response then was still ridicule, rather than outrage.
In February 2015, economics Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen stepped down as chancellor of Nalanda University in Bihar, protesting the “considerable government intervention” in academic decisions. That same month, gunmen attacked a left-wing politician called Govind Pansare and his wife; Pansare later died of his injuries. Then, in August, gunmen killed Malleshappa Kalburgi, a leading scholar and rationalist, at his home. “They were a threat, so they were eliminated,” says Tandon.
The attacks shocked the academic community and ignited protests from writers, filmmakers and historians; many returned their national awards as a symbol of their dissent.
Scientists were late to the table, which is not surprising, given that most of Indian science relies on government funds. Still, in October, three separate groups of scientists made statements — the total signatories now number nearly one thousand — protesting the government’s inaction against the acts of violence. (Bhargava returned his Padma Bhushan, one of the highest civilian awards in India, to the president.)
“Other people were protesting and we scientists were keeping quiet, and all these things were going on around us,” says Tandon. “Keeping quiet just didn’t seem right.”
The latest controversy is over the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a graduate student in life sciences at the University of Hyderabad. Vemula was a Dalit, a member of an oppressed caste in India. In July 2015, he and a group of other students had clashed with the student wing of the BJP on campus. University administrators then barred the students from public spaces on campus and withheld their fellowships, citing administrative delays as the reason.
There have many other such reported incidents of discrimination against Dalit students over the past two years. Some level of discrimination has always existed in India, says Bhargava, but “now the discrimination has increased many-fold, has come out in the open and is clearly supported by the Government, as it is an integral part of the Hindutva philosophy of RSS and BJP.”
On 17January, Vemula hung himself, saying in his suicide note, “my birth is my fatal accident.” His death has rocked academia, with unabated protests on the Hyderabad campus and elsewhere. Even before the incident, Tandon and others openly referred to Appa Rao Podile, the university’s vice chancellor, as the famed institution's first political appointee. Appa Rao has since left the university on indefinite leave.
Not everyone agrees that scientists should join in the fray.
“If you’re a social activist, if you’re a politician, if you’re a journalist with strong political view, no problem, you take part in the debate at whichever part of the spectrum you want to,” says , head of the Department of Biotechnology, the largest grant-making organization in the life sciences. “But I don't think it’s an issue which is a core scientific one.” He says the debate runs the risk of detracting scientists’ focus away from more pressing public health and scientific problems in the country.
The protesters disagree, saying every scientist is a citizen first.
“I signed [the petition] as a scientist but this is something I would have signed even if I was a professor of English,” says Sharath Ananthamurthy, a professor in the physics department at Bangalore University. “If we are quiet and if we let this kind of rubbish be propagated without strong dissent, a lie told a 100 times becomes a truth,” he says. “Talking about it, protesting, clarifying is the right thing.”