Astrology on a pedestal

Published : Jun 18, 2004 00:00 IST

The Supreme Court judgment on the introduction of astrology as a field of study in universities is a setback to the efforts to promote scientific temper in society and runs counter to the secular foundations of the Constitution.

IT is former Minister for Human Resource Development Murli Manohar Joshi's parting kick as it were. On May 5, the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the University Grants Commission (UGC) in 2001 to introduce courses in Vedic Astrology (Jyotir Vigyan), leading to under-graduate and post-graduate degrees. A special leave petition (SLP) challenging the decision and seeking to restrain the UGC from starting these courses had been filed by Pushpa M. Bhargava, an eminent biologist and former director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderababd, K. Subhash Chandra Reddy, former head of the department of political science at Osmania University, and Chandana Chakrabarti, a writer and a consultant.

The Supreme Court verdict comes exactly three years after the UGC accepted the proposals of as many as 20 universities for starting new departments of Jyotir Vigyan. This is a serious blow to the efforts of the scientific community and rational-minded people who have been relentlessly campaigning against the pernicious move. Even the highest judicial body has now failed to stop it. The saving grace, perhaps, is the fact the Bharatiya Janata Party with its plank of religious fundamentalism, which included support to obscurantist practices such as astrology and vastu shastra under the pretext of upholding "traditional Hindu culture" - has been ousted from power and the Minister, who has wreaked havoc on the educational framework at all levels, is out of the political reckoning, at least for the present.

The Bench comprised Chief Justice K. Rajendra Babu and Justice G.P. Mathur. Unfortunately for the petitioners, the judgment came on a day when the CJI had to deliver as many as 27 judgments on a single day and this judgment was authored by Justice Mathur. The language of the judgment actually betrays an undercurrent of sympathy for astrology. Consider this: "(Astrology)... requires study of celestial bodies, of their positions, magnitudes (sic), motions and distances etc. Astronomy is a pure science. It was studied as a subject in ancient India and India has produced great astronomers long before anyone in the Western world studied it as a subject. Since astrology is partly based upon movement of the sun, earth, planets and other celestial bodies, it is a study of science at least to some extent" (emphasis added).

The petitioners' arguments, made on their behalf by Counsel Prashant Bhushan were essentially three. One, a course in Vedic Astrology cannot be termed as a course of scientific study as astrology has never been regarded as a science as it lacked the basic attributes and tenets of pursuit of science. Scientific truths are universal and are not dependent on the whims and fancies of individuals whereas the practice of astrology in different parts of the world is varied. Astrology does not use the accepted scientific method of inquiry that is characterised by fallibility, verifiability and repeatability. It has never been supported by any scientific research or study conducted according to stringent scientific procedure. In fact, it has been conclusively demonstrated by well-designed investigations that astrological predictions are no better than random chance coincidences. Two, introduction of astrology in the curriculum would erode and negate Article 51A of the Constitution, which entrusts a fundamental duty upon the citizens of the country to develop a scientific temper, humanism and spirit of enquiry and reform. And, three, teaching of Vedic Astrology amounted to saffronising education and imposing Hindu values in higher education, which violates the secular values inherent in the Constitution. It was also argued that the money proposed to be spent on each university (a non-recurring grant of Rs.15 lakh per department plus the recurrent expenditure in the newly established departments, recruited staff and other operational expenses) for promoting irrational disciplines would run into several crores while other programmes, particularly primary education, are deprived of funds.

The petitioners moved the Supreme Court after a two-member Bench of the Andhra Pradesh High Court comprising Justices S.B. Sinha and V.V.S Rao summarily dismissed the public interest petition filed on April 11, 2001. In its ruling on April 27, 2001, the High Court had said that astrology was a subject that required further studies. Further, invoking Article 226 of the Constitution, it ruled that in exercise of its powers, as enshrined in the Constitution, it cannot interfere with a policy decision of the UGC and, as such, the UGC (at that point of time) had not taken any final decision on the matter. The judgment had come in for criticism even by members of the judiciary such as Justice Alladi Kuppuswami (Frontline, June 22, 2001).

In its counter-affidavit, the UGC said: "In a country like India, there are various subjects in which instructions need to be imparted in a structured manner in view of relevance of these subjects to society... Indian wisdom... encompasses things, such as belief in rebirth and cosmic existence (sic). Mysteries of nature have not been fully fathomed by the human mind and, therefore, it would not be proper to denounce any such belief as being utterly unworthy of recognition... (E)ducation and instruction should, in a liberal and pluralistic society, must accommodate as far as possible all points of view and provide for all sections of society. In fact, a number of national dailies and magazines carry astrological columns as a regular feature, which are read by large number of people with interest." Clearly, by arguing thus, the UGC has amply displayed its irrational perspective and, in particular, total lack of scientific temper.

According to the counter-affidavit, the issue of introducing courses in Vedic Astrology was first mooted in the Commission on July 16, 2000. The UGC constituted a nine-member expert committee on August 14, 2000. On the basis of its recommendations the Commission decided on January 25, 2001 to introduce the courses and approved a set of guidelines for the new courses (Frontline, April 13, 2001). In an interview to this Correspondent, S.K. Joshi, a member of the Commission, had stated that the issue of Vedic Astrology was raised by the then Education Secretary M.K. Kaw (an avid Hindutva proponent) even though the matter was not on the agenda for that meeting (Frontline, April 13, 2001). Further, in the meeting that approved the guidelines, the report of the expert committee was not placed before the Commission. Only the recommendations were presented. It is clear that the matter was bulldozed through the Commission.

On February 23, 2001, proposals were invited from universities for setting up of departments of Jyotir Vigyan with May 5, 2001, as the deadline. On June 13, 2001, the expert committee examined the proposals received from 41 universities (in 16 States) and recommended the creation of independent departments in 20 select universities. On June 27, 2001, the Commission approved the recommendation of the expert committee and on July 21, 2001, the decision was communicated to the said universities.

Significantly, the UGC has not placed the report of the expert committee in its counter-affidavit. In fact, it has not even revealed the names of its members. Strangely the judges hearing the case did not press for the placing of the report before the court even though their judgment hinges crucially on an uncritical acceptance of the report. The names of the universities that have sent in proposals and those that have been approved are important to get an idea of the criteria adopted by the UGC for its decisions.

It is, however, interesting to note from the counter-affidavit that the UGC has climbed down a bit from its earlier stance that was evident in the guidelines approved on January 25, 2001. At the June 27, 2001 meeting, as against the original proposal for introducing Jyotir Vigyan as science degree courses, it was decided to create courses leading only to B.A, B.A. (Hons), M.A. and Ph. D degrees. However, curiously enough, the Commission also decided to allow the selected universities to frame the required syllabi andto include subjects such as astronomy, cosmology and mathematics along with the main subject. The idea perhaps is to corrupt even these well-defined disciplines of science with the Hindutva tilt. For instance, there has been an upsurge in the propagation of the so-called `Vedic Mathematics' in recent years.

The central premise of the Judges of the Supreme Court in dismissing the case as outlined in the judgment: "The precise question as to whether Jyotir Vigyan should be included as a course of study having been considered and examined by an expert body of the UGC and they having recommended for including the said course for study and award of degrees in universities, it will not be proper for this court to interfere with the aforesaid decision specially when no violation of any statutory provisions is demonstrated."

While, in principle, it is proper that the court should not interfere in academic matters such as curricula of schools and universities, it must be pointed out that in 1991, in the civil writ petition No. 860 by M.C. Mehta against the Union of India, Justices G.N. Ray and A.S. Anand directed the UGC and other agencies in charge of education to introduce a course on environmental studies at all levels. Faced with the non-implementation of this directive, the court issued fresh directives in December 2003, to comply with its orders. (Subsequently, there were instances of the Delhi University and the Education Boards of the Centre and many States introducing courses with the court-approved syllabi. Given this, it is not immediately apparent why the court could not intervene in the matter of astrology, which has been shown to be unscientific by numerous studies.)

There is a minor difference between the two cases, however. While in the case of astrology Article 51A (Fundamental Duties) of the Constitution has been invoked, in the case of environmental studies Article 21 (Fundamental Right to Life) has been invoked. While the latter can be enforced by the court, the former, being part of the Directive Principles of State Policy, cannot be. Even so, the judgment does not reflect that this point has been given due consideration by the honourable judges.

The Bench rejected the contention of counsel for the petitioners that the introduction of Jyotir Vigyan in the curricula militates against the concept of secularism inherent in the structure of the Constitution. The judges cited a case in 1971 that challenged certain provisions of the Guru Nanak University Act, which provided for the study of the teachings and life of Guru Nanak. The petition was struck down on the grounds that this could not be construed to be amounting to religious instruction.

According to Bhushan, the petitioners argued that the very term `vedic' in Vedic Astrology implied that the subject had the Hindu religion as its basis. In any case, it is pertinent to emphasise that even if the subject is called Jyotir Vigyan, and not Vedic Astrology, the use of the word Vigyan (science) is inappropriate because it is a proven fact that astrology is not a science.

What is likely to be the next step of the UGC? "Nothing," says A.S. Nigavekar, the UGC Chairman. As to what would become of the guidelines issued as well as the approvals to the 20 universities to start these courses, he says that these were done as part of the Ninth Plan. Now that the fund approvals for even the Tenth Plan have already been made, which do not include provisions for these courses, there can be no action by the UGC on this front. He admitted that, in principle, the universities could revive their proposals during the mid-term review of plan allocations. Till then, it will be status quo. This probably offers a window of opportunity to those with a rational viewpoint. Scientific academies, scientific associations and the intelligentsia, in general, can bring pressure upon the UGC to reverse this irrational and harmful decision.

Counsel for the petitioners believes that there is room for a review petition when the court reopens after the summer break. But this, in his opinion, is unlikely to go very far as the Bench that is likely to examine the case will include the new Chief Justice and Justice G.P. Mathur himself. Even a curative petition, he feels, may not help very much. He too feels that, in the post-election situation where the Hindutva forces have lost power, the best course of action would be to influence the UGC to bring back sanity and rationality to its functioning.

Union Minister for HRD Arjun Singh and Minister of State for Science and Technology Kapil Sibal should work towards reversing the UGC decision on a priority basis.

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