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Into the brave new age of irrationality

Much has been written and said about the assault on liberal arts under way in India since the new political era dawned. But the real assault is on science and rationality. And it has not been difficult to mount this attack.

For long, India has as a nation proudly claimed to be a society of belief. And Indians like to assert that faith is a ‘way of life’ here. Terms such as modernity, rational thinking and scientific analysis are often frowned upon, and misdiagnosed as disrespect to Indian culture.

In recent years, we have entered a new era. I call it the Era of Irrationality. The new Chief Minister of Tripura, Biplab Kumar Deb, is the freshly minted spokesmodel of this bold, new era.


There appears to be a relay race among people in public positions, each one making an astonishingly ridiculous claim and then passing on the baton. Mr. Deb’s claim that the Internet existed in the times of the Mahabharata is the latest. But there have been several other persons before that: Ganesh was the first example of plastic surgery, Darwin’s theory of evolution is hokum because nobody has seen monkeys turning into humans, and that Stephen Hawking had said that Vedas have a theory superior to Einstein’s E = mc2.

Such statements have made us the laughing stock of the global scientific community. But more importantly, they also undermine the significant scientific achievements we have made post-Independence.

We cannot even dismiss these as random remarks by the fringe, the babas and the sadhus. These claims are often made by public officials (it’s another matter that the babas and sadhus are now occupying several public offices). The assault on rationality is a consequence of a concerted strategy of political forces. As rational thinking thins, the same political forces fatten.

We Indians have never really adopted the scientific temper, irrespective of our education. It’s evident from our obsession with crackpot sciences such as astrology and palmistry in our daily lives. However, in the past four years, the belief in pseudo-sciences has gained a political fig leaf as have tall, unverifiable claims on science.

The cultivation of scientific temper involves asking questions and demanding empirical evidence. It has no place for blind faith. The ruling political dispensation is uncomfortable with questioning Indians. But at the same time, it also wants to come across as a dispensation that champions a 21st century modern India. Therein lies a catch-22 situation.

So, they have devised a devious strategy to invest in the culture of blind belief. They already have a willing constituency. Ludicrous statements like those mentioned above — made by leaders in positions of power with alarming frequency — go on to legitimise and boost the Era of Irrationality.

An unscientific society makes the job of an incompetent ruler a lot easier. No questions are asked; not even basic ones. The ruler has to just make a claim and the believers will worship him. Rather than conforming, a truly rational community often questions disparity, exploitation, persecution on the basis of caste, religion or gender. It demands answers and accountability for such violations, which are often based on irrational whims. Hence rationality must be on top of the casualty list followed quickly by the minorities, Dalits, women, liberals. For the ‘Irrationality project’ to succeed, the ruler needs a willing suspension of disbelief on a mass scale.

The vigour with which the government is making an assault on the scientific temper only confirms that it is actually frightened of it. This is the reason why authoritarian regimes are often intolerant of those who champion the spirit of science, but encourage scientists who will launch satellites and develop nuclear weapons — even as they break coconuts, chant hymns and press “Enter” with their fingers laden with auspicious stones.

These ‘techno-scientists’ are what I call ‘the DJs of the scientific community’. And they are often the establishment’s yes-men and yes-women.

The founders of the Constitution were aware of this. Hence the words “scientific temper” and “the spirit of inquiry and reform” find place in the Constitution, along with “secular” (belatedly), “equality” and “rights”. To dismantle secularism, dilute equality and pushback rights, it is imperative to destroy a scientific temperament.

The indoctrination against the scientific temper begins very early in our lives. It starts in our families and communities where young minds are aggressively discouraged from questioning authority and asking questions. An upper caste child for example may be forced to follow customs, which among others include practising and subscribing to the age-old caste system. The same methodology is used to impose fixed gender, sexual and religious identities. As a result, we are hardwired to be casteist, majoritarian and misogynist.

The final step in the ‘Irrationality project’ is to inject with regularity, preposterous, over-the-top claims about the nation’s past. It effectively blurs vision of the present.

The world is busy studying string theory, the god particle in a cyclotron, quantum mechanics. But we are busy expanding our chest size with claims of a fantastic yore.