Astrology and the law

Published : Jun 09, 2001 00:00 IST


DR. P.M. BHARGAVA, noted molecular biologist, and two others filed a writ petition in the Andhra Pradesh High Court praying for the issue of a writ of mandamus declaring as illegal and unconstitutional the action of the University Grants Commission (UGC) in proposing to start and fund degree and post-graduate courses (B.Sc. and M.Sc.) in Vedic astrology, called 'Jyotir Vigyan' in various universities.

In the affidavit in support of the petition, Dr. Bhargava stated that it was understood that the UGC had formalised the staff requirements to include one Professor, one Reader, two Lecturers, one library attendant and one computer operator for this course, and that a non-recurring grant of Rs.15 lakhs was to be provided for each such department, with need for more funds to sustain these courses. The expense to be borne by the UGC for this purpose will run into several crores of rupees.

Dr. Bhargava stated that astrology had never been regarded, and could never be regarded, as a science. It had never been supported by any scientific research or study. Several leading scientists in India and all over the world had opposed the attempt of the UGC to introduce vedic astrology in the universities as a branch of science, he said. It was ultra vires Sec. 12(b) of the UGC Act, as it did not serve any national purpose, the affidavit stated. Under Article 51 A of the Constitution, one of the fundamental duties of the citizen was to develop scientific temper. The action of the UGC, far from creating a scientific temper, would strengthen superstition, which went against the grain of scientific temper, the affidavit said. The tax-payer's money should not be used for such purposes, it argued.

The High Court dismissed the writ petition in limine at the admission stage. It is respectfully submitted that the two reasons given for that by the High Court are unsound.

It is stated that as no final decision has been arrived at, as is evidenced by the prayer in the writ petition, the court would not at this stage interfere with the decision-making process of the UGC. The main purpose of a writ of mandamus is to prevent an illegal act from being committed. The petitioners came to the court when almost everything was done - the issuing of guidelines, the proposing of the staff and the indication of funds to be set apart - was done; in fact, short of the formal act of directing the universities to introduce B.Sc. and M.Sc. courses in 'Jyotir Vigyan'. The very purpose of praying for the issue of a writ of mandamus has been nullified by the court's refusal to interfere at this stage.

The second ground for dismissing the writ petition is also unsound. The court stated that the opinion of experts would differ and also change from time to time and as the court was ill-equipped as regards such matters, it adopted the doctrine of self-restraint and left such matters at the hands of the expert committee of the UGC. It is true that the Judges are not expected to know everything under the sun, but they are expected to learn about the subject matter in dispute with the aid of expert witnesses and reports of expert committees and choose the right view. Their duty is to decide. They cannot simply throw up their hands and say that they are unable to decide. Innumerable cases have come up and are coming up in courts, involving subject matters that are not familiar to the Judges. They strive their best to come to a decision. For example, in cases of medical negligence or matters involving motor and air accidents, experts may differ on whether it is the mistake of the individual concerned (doctor, driver or pilot) or the instrument. However, the Judges do arrive at a decision after hearing expert witnesses. Even in the recent Narmada claim case, the Supreme Court considered the reports of various expert committees differing on the question of the height of the dam and came to a decision. The A.P. High Court should have examined the experts in the UGC and also several scientists and pronounced whether the expert committee of the UGC had applied its mind and come to the right decision. At any rate, when so many eminent scientists are against the move, it should have directed the UGC to conduct a national debate before coming to a final decision.

If the UGC is not prepared to face a decision from the scientific community on the question of whether vedic astrology is a science, it will lend support to the suspicion that under the garb of science, it is trying to introduce a part of vedic religion as a subject. In that case, it will be violating Article 28 (1) of the Chapter on Fundamental Rights, which forbids religious instruction being provided in any educational institution wholly maintained out of state funds. If the UGC is convinced that astrology is indeed a science, it should satisfy the public as to how it came to that view, especially having regard to the stand taken by eminent scientists to the contrary. Until and unless it can establish by logical reasoning that astrology is a science, it has no business to introduce it in the universities.

Thus, in any case, the step taken by the UGC is a hasty and unwarranted one. Apart from questions of legality and constitutionality, it is highly improper to waste crores of tax payers' money on the dubious subject of astrology when India does not have sufficient funds to spend on elementary education, health and so on. When Western nations are making phenomenal progress in the field of science, it is unfortunate that India should waste its meagre funds on astrology and allied subjects.

To quote the distinguished scientist A.P.J. Abdul Kalam: "Many friends, while asking me questions relating to space flights, sometimes slip into astrology... As an art I have nothing against astrology, but if its acceptance is sought under the disguise of science, I reject it" (Wings of Fire, Universities Press, 1999, p. 15). I would go a step further and exclude such an irrational subject from the university curriculum altogether.

Justice Alladi Kuppuswami is a former Chief Justice of the Andhra Pradesh High Court.

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