Science for social change

Print edition : January 05, 2002

The Ninth Congress of the All India People's Science Network highlights the need to uphold the spirit of inquiry in the context of the threat from communal and obscurantist forces.

MORE than 400 activists committed to the popularisation of science in India gathered in Chennai at the Ninth Congress of the All India People's Science Network (AIPSN) from December 19 to 22, 2001.

Students, teachers, scientists and social activists, with a background and not only physical and natural sciences but also social sciences, deliberated on a wide range of issues, always emphasising the need to uphold the spirit of inquiry in every walk of life. Several eminent speakers highlighted the importance of this spirit in the context of the threat from communal and obscurantist forces.

In his keynote address at the inaugural session, Professor K.N. Panikkar, historian and Vice-Chancellor of the Sri Sankaracharya Sankrit University in Kerala, provided a framework for cultural action that would promote social transformation. Panikkar linked the two dominant processes in Indian society - globalisation and the rising tide of communalism - to develop a framework in which cultural action aimed at social transformation could take place.

Dr. Prabir Purkayastha, secretary of the Delhi Science Forum, addressing the 9th All India People's Science Congress in Chennai.-R. RAGU

"Indian reality," Panikkar said, "is fast-changing, and changing for the worse." Referring to globalisation and the growing power of trans-national corporations, he said: "An empire is forming before our eyes." He said that sections of society had come to accept the dominance of the market in social relations "as an ideal" and that the situation is ripe for "the making of an uncritical mind and a conformist mindset". Panikkar said that although the 'empire' promised modernity and affluence, it actually promoted social obscurantism and cultural backwardness. Panikkar argued that the forces of communalism and empire complemented each other and had commonly shared interests. He said that the Indian government's reaction to the Afghan war had clearly demonstrated the Indian ruling class' "uncritical acceptance of the dictates of the empire".

Panikkar said that activists working to develop a "counter-culture" had to realise that "culture is an area in which social power is exercised". He emphasised that this action was not a cultural programme, nor was it a performance or a spectacle based on various art forms. Only social activity on a continuous basis, aimed at the "radicalisation of civil society", could develop such a counter-culture, in the process unsettling the existing equilibrium. He urged the People's Science Movement (PSM) to bring cultural action centre-stage.

Panikkar referred to three factors that impede progressive cultural action - the changing relationship between the individual and the outside world, the influence of the market and the spirit of consumerism that it enforces, and the rise of religiosity and communalism. These factors create a "myopic vision that is insensitive to social reality". The rise of the market results in the growing alienation of the individual from society. Consumerism, as the "ideology and the culture of the masses", creates a situation in which people's material aspirations are largely unrealistic. Panikkar argued that the anxieties generated by this contradiction formed the ground in which religiosity and communalism throve.

Panikkar suggested two areas for cultural action. In the "creative realm", he suggested the use of art forms for cultural action. He referred to the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust's (SAHMAT) effective campaign against communalism, using paintings, music, street plays and other methods. However, he said that the drawback with this type of cultural action was that it was largely sporadic. Panikkar suggested that cultural action in the constructive realm would be more effective as they would be far more sustained. Action in the constructive realm would enable the formation of cultural communities. Such communities could be either imagined or local. "Imagined communities are those that internalise common values and interests and their members relate to a common source of origin," he said. The intervention of Eklavya, a non-governmental organisation, in the field of education in Madhya Pradesh was an example of the development of such a community, he said.

Local communities constitute the other type of counter-cultural action. They are "local" not because they address local issues, but because they undertake action on issues that are universally valid. Issues such as environmental degradation are prime areas that provide the basis for the development of such a community. Panikkar said such communities offered the possibility of "continuous engagement, a necessary precondition for the creation of social consciousness." Panikkar said that cultural action was needed to "de-ideologise civil society from the influence of globalisation and the logic of communalism." Referring to the inherent contradiction between the "interests of globalisation and the ideology of cultural nationalism", Panikkar said that the contradiction offered local communities the space to initiate counter-cultural action. In developing such a culture there was a need to revitalise indigenous cultural resources, while ensuring that they were not snared in obscurantism and revivalism, Panikkar added.

IN his welcome address, Sridip Bhattacharya, general secretary of the AIPSN, said that the PSM has played a key role in the struggle to extend the benefits of science to society at large. He said that it had also played an important role in preventing the misuse of science. Prof. R. Ramachandran, former Director of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, spoke about the need to emphasise the spirit of scientific inquiry in all walks of life. This, he said, would dispel the common notion that science was an activity that was carried out by a few specialists in laboratories.

The rise of obscurantism in the field of education figured prominently in a plenary session on science and reason at the Congress. Referring to the controversy over the introduction of astrology in universities, T. Jayaraman, physicist, Institute of Mathematical Sciences, said that there was never any real demand for such courses. He said that the protests from scientists and academics had been ignored by the government. Referring to "Vedic mathematics", Jayaraman said that the body of work in the tradition of Varahamihira, Aryabhatta and others had no relation to the obscurantist ideas that were being floated in the name of Vedic mathematics. Referring to Iqbal Ahmad's work on fundamentalism in Pakistan, Jayaraman said that fundamentalism loved technology but hated science. He said that the rightwing was comfortable with the bomb but displayed great unease in dealing with issues on the basis of the scientific method of inquiry.

Speaking at another session, on the ongoing controversy over history textbooks of the National Council of Educational Research and Training, Panikkar said that the issue was not one of a fight between two groups of historians." He explained: "It is a fight to preserve the method of history. That is what is at stake."

A wide range of issues were deliberated upon in the plenaries as well as in the several parallel workshops. Among the issues discussed were instruments of resistance to globalisation, health education and policy, the state of social and economic infrastructure under liberalisation, women's empowerment and globalisation and its impact on science and technology. Delegates also discussed the state of the AIPSN and ways to improve the scope and depth of its reach among the people. The AIPSN, the apex federative body of more than 40 organisations in the PSM with a presence in more than 15,000 villages across 20 States, was formed in 1987.

Speaking at a public meeting on globalisation and the living conditions of the people, P. Sainath, journalist-activist, said that the process of globalisation caused the "re-subordination of national economies". He said that there was a "relentless assault on every possible survival strategy of the poor." Economist Amiya Kumar Bagchi termed the philospohy of globalisation thus: "What is mine is mine, what is yours is also mine." Bagchi was speaking on the challenge of globalisation and resistance on the third day of the congress. He said that under the onslaught of globalisation, there is a conspiracy to break the power of labour and to increase the power of capital.

Speaking at the valedictory session, N. Ram, the Editor of Frontline, praised the PSM for the impressive results that it had delivered in the last two decades. He said that the official claim of India being a knowledge society concealed the pathetic progress that the country had achieved in the eradication of illiteracy and in health and other basic parameters of development. Although there were islands of excellence, the country had failed to provide basic facilities to its people, he said, and added that the development of the AIPSN was a "response to the duality of high development on the one hand and the lack of progress on the other." In a "spirit of friendly criticism", Ram pointed out that the congress had neither raised nor discussed the issue of universal primary education.

Dr. B. Ekbal, Vice-Chancellor, Kerala University, said that at the time of the last Congress in Nalanda in 1998, there was a general air of pessimism in the AIPSN. However, since then things had improved, he said. He said that the movement had not only sustained, but widened. Ekbal urged the PSM to conduct campaigns that were related to people's lives. K.K. Krishnakumar, an executive committee member of the AIPSN, said that although the PSM had grown remarkably in the last decade, it faced new challenges in the face of globalisation and the rise of communalism.

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