By Dushyant Shekhawat Dec. 22, 2018
2018 can be defined as a year full of corkers of greater affronts to science and history. Tripura CM Biplab Kumar Deb’s “internet Mahabharata” remark and Satyapal Singh’s dismissal of Darwin's theory have made them pioneers of alt-facts.
When I was in school, struggling to score passing marks in chemistry exams, India’s president was Dr APJ Kalam. The rocket scientist-turned-leader had a distinguished, learned air about him, seemingly the embodiment of the “scientific temper” Jawaharlal Nehru spoke of when the nation was young. At the time, because of erudite personalities like Kalam, I never thought I’d see a day where I could claim to have a better grasp of scientific principles than those in charge of our country. But if 2018 has proven anything, it’s that you can never say never.
To be fair, our politicians have been making tone-deaf statements long before Kalam was ever on the scene, and have continued to do so without a care. But as the BJP government pursues its agenda of pushing ancient India as some sort of utopian Shangri-La, scientific fact finds itself challenged more often than Rahul Gandhi’s credibility. Make no mistake; the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Reserve Bank of India aren’t the only institutions under threat as we get set to usher in 2019 — rational thought itself is in danger of being dropped by Indian society faster than the Congress dropped Sajjan Kumar after his guilty verdict.
After thousands of scientists lent their voices in protest marches and outraged online against the rise of obscurantism in India last year, their pleas were promptly forgotten by our ruling establishment. The year 2017 featured classic gems like a BJP minister from Rajasthan declaring that cows produce oxygen, and that peahens are impregnated by peacock tears. Keeping up the trend of making ludicrous statements was one area where the ruling party had no problem improving its performance, and 2018 is chock-full of corkers of greater affronts to science than a Nithyananda speech.
As a self-appointed seer, Nithyananda is not exactly the kind of person you go to looking for scientific advice anyway. But when it comes to ministers holding public office, you expect better than the half-baked ramblings of a fully stoned baba. So it was distressing to see Union Minister Satyapal Singh start off the year in January with an attack against Charles Darwin’s widely accepted theory of evolution. Singh said that since our ancient texts do not mention any apes turning into humans, our ancestors must not have witnessed evolution taking place, therefore, it must not have happened. According to Singh’s logic, this means since I never saw my great-grandfather actually paying an English officer lagaan, the British Raj didn’t exist.
Satyapal Singh is not alone in his obstinate reliance on ancient texts as the definitive record of human history. Too many BJP ministers happen to think like him, and some of them, like the first-ever BJP CM of Tripura Biplab Kumar Deb, then proceed to give vent to brain-farts that make national news. In April, Deb took the Mahabharata a little too literally when he announced that Sanjay narrating the events of the battle of Kurukshetra, which was taking place many miles away, to the blind king Dhritarashtra, was evidence that internet technology existed during the Mahabharata. I don’t want to be a damp squib at this mythology appreciation party, but I’m not believing that claim until I see selfies of Karna showing off his golden armour in an #OOTD shot for Instagram, or read a live-tweeted eyewitness account of Abhimanyu breaking into the chakravyuh.
The unquestioning acceptance of religious and historical texts as scientific tomes, is what has led to some of our leaders becoming peddlers of alt-facts.
But for some of our ministers, even the Mahabharata is not old school enough. Union Minister (for Science and Technology!) Harsh Vardhan chose to reach back to even more ancient texts, the Vedas, when he said that Stephen Hawking believed the Vedas contained a theory of relativity superior to Einstein’s famous equation of e=mc2. Of course, no reliable record of Hawking ever having said such a thing exists, but far be it from our Union Minister for Technology to spot fake news online.
The unquestioning acceptance of religious and historical texts as scientific tomes, is what has led to some of our leaders becoming peddlers of alt-facts, and now, they’d like to impart the same attitude to students across the country. Syllabuses, those formerly dry collections of facts that would bore students to sleep, have morphed into romps through a fantasy world. In October, the All India Council of Technical Education introduced a new textbook for engineering students, which claimed ancient Indian rishis were the ones who made scientific breakthroughs like inventing flying machines before the Wright Brothers, inventing the battery (even before we had electricity), and wrote the Newtonian Laws of Motion thousands of years before Isaac Newton was around to lend his name to them. It’s tempting to dismiss these claims. After all, outside of rural electrification schemes and newly inaugurated expressways, it’s not like the BJP has a penchant for taking credit for someone else’s work.
We’ve come to a point where the unscientific attitude of our netas has led to them getting even their own rewritten version of reality mixed up. The month of December began with UP CM Yogi Adityanath declaring that Lord Hanuman was a Dalit and an adivasi because he dwelled in the forest. Another BJP legislator chimed in with his view that Hanuman was Muslim because (and I wish I was joking) his name rhymes with Islamic names such as Salman or Rehman. And even more recently, a third BJP member added that he believed Hanuman was a Jat, presumably because he was bored.
If my Chemistry-failing student-self could see the kind of statements our politicians are making today, he’d have felt a lot better about his marksheet. But I’m also glad I didn’t have my head filled with this kind of nonsense when I was at an impressionable age. While the BJP’s efforts to make science more exciting and appealing to kids (of all ages) are undoubtedly spirited, it’s probably time to ring the bell and let the students go.