Yesterday, Pushpa Mittra Bhargava, a veteran scientist and the founder of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, announced his decision to return the Padma Bhushan award he had received in 1986. Bhargava said that he was doing so because “the future of democracy is at stake.” During several interviews, he also expressed concern over the fact that people from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh had attended a recent meeting of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research Labs and was critical of the government’s reduced funding for this venture. The scientist noted,“I hold no brief for the earlier UPA regime and I criticised it in my book. However, you must give credit as they did not want to decide what we eat, what we wear and how we behave."
On 28 October 2015, a day before Bhargava made this declaration, 107 distinguished scientists from across the country issued a joint statement online. This statement highlighted the growing “climate of intolerance, and rejection of reason that has led to the lynching in Dadri of Mohammad Akhlaq Saifi and the assassinations of Prof Kalburgi, Dr Narendra Dabholkar and Shri Govind Pansare.” Bhargava was a signatory to this document. Yesterday, he spoke to Atul Dev, a web reporter at The Caravan, over the phone. During this conversation, he elaborated on why he decided to return the award, what he thought the impact of the ongoing protests would be, and how the political climate across the country was adversely effecting the quality of academic research.
Atul Dev: The joint statement issued the day before yesterday by the scientific community of India showed concern for the “active promotion of irrational and sectarian thought by important functionaries of the government.” You have had a long career, and such problems are not unique to this government. What prompted you to take this stand now?
Pushpa Mittra Bhargava: There are multiple reasons; I will give you the three central ones. Firstly, the government has lost the path of democracy and is treading on the path of what I may call Hindu religious dictatorship. That worries me. The second reason is that the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] is the political front of the RSS; as it turns out, it acts on the behest of the RSS, which is a Hindu fundamentalist organisation. I can not be in favour of any fundamentalist organisation, irrespective of its religion. And lastly, there is the issue of scientific temper. Our constitution, in its article 51 A’s subsection ‘h’, says that every citizen of India should develop a scientific temper. So, you see, reason and scientific temper are our two very important commitments as citizens. But as we have seen, the government itself doesn’t have a scientific temper. And as someone who was partly responsible for having this clause inserted—I had worked closely with the then education minister Nurul Hasan, who was a close friend of mine—this is of grave concern.
Then one of the results of this growing tide of intolerance is that that non-Hindus—Muslims and Christians—in the present regime feel like second-class citizens of India. Churches have been burned, and you know what happened in Dadri. All this worries me.
Another important reason, I would give you, is that so far in our history, of course governments have done something which we have found unacceptable. But they have never told you what to wear, what to eat and how to behave. This sort of moral policing is something that is unique to the present government.
AD: You additionally stated that you would be returning your Padma Bhushan. You would be joining a running list of intellectuals who have returned their awards in protest. But do you think this form of dissent will have any effect on the current political discourse?
PMB: I doubt it.
See, if what is happening today in India—the writers and the artists and the scientists returning their award as a form of dissent—had been happening in Britain, in France or in America, the government there would have been very concerned about it. But here, now, this government has no sensitivity towards the creative ability or intellectuals. So, for the government it doesn’t matter. They just say that all of us have some agenda. That it is a political move. But the truth is that these are very personal decisions. The only people I consulted before making the decision were my wife, my son, my daughter and a very close family friend.
In the atmosphere that surrounds us, I felt that I must do something; this is the only thing that I could do. This award is something that I received from the government, and now I have decided to give it back.
AD: Certain members of the government and its supporters have claimed that these awards are being returned for personal interests—for fame and notoriety. How do you react to that?
PMB: As I said earlier, this was an internal compulsion. It had to be done. To be honest, I had no idea that my returning of the award will have any impact on anybody. I wouldn’t have dreamt that I would be kept busy by the media from eight o’clock in the morning; it is four in the evening, and I haven’t had five minutes to myself. This was not something that I had expected.
As for the comment about this being done for fame and notoriety, it is a very easy and convenient criticism. By saying this, they shift the blame and get rid of all the responsibility. It is the easiest way out, and has no value to it whatsoever. The government is dismissing the dissent, but I think it is a very positive sign, it shows that the spirit of the intelligentsia is still alive.
AD: In 1981, you were one of the signatories to a document titled, A Statement on Scientific Temper. This statement voiced the anxiety that, “scientific temper has been beleaguered and besieged by deep-rooted structures of an ancient society.” How do you see the situation now?
PMB: The situation is much worse today. At that time, in 1981, we felt that scientific temper was being compromised. It wasn’t triggered by an incident; it was a feeling that many of us shared, so I got the Nehru Centre in Mumbai to fund a four-day meeting of eminent scientists in Coonoor, and out of that meeting came out that statement. And remember, that statement made tremendous impact: there were debates about it across the country and it was translated in many languages.
Today, I don’t think that in the union council of ministers, there will be a one person who is committed to scientific temper or are even familiar with the term.
It wasn’t like this in 1981.
AD: How does this climate of intolerance affect academic and scientific research?
PMB: This government has no commitment to science or scientific research. The budget of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research has been cut by half; scientists and laboratories are being asked to raise their own money. It is absurd. It does have a psychological impact as well. For example, when the prime minister of the country says that in ancient times we could transplant the head of an elephant on top of a human torso, imagine what an organ transplantation surgeon would be thinking.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Atul Dev is a staff writer at The Caravan.