Interview: Dr Pushpa Mittra Bhargava

‘Government is abandoning road to democracy’

Print edition : November 27, 2015

P.M. Bhargava. Photo: Mohammed Yousuf

Interview with the scientist Dr Pushpa Mittra Bhargava.

Dr Pushpa Mittra Bhargava, who founded the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad in 1977 and was its director for an unbroken 13 years, has joined a long and growing list of public figures who have returned the awards conferred on them by the state, as a mark of protest against what they perceive as the Bharatiya Janata Party government’s gradual undoing of the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. Bhargava, 87, is the first scientist to return the country’s third highest civilian award, the Padma Bhushan, which was conferred on him by the Congress government headed by Rajiv Gandhi in 1986.

Bhargava said recent incidents such as the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri for allegedly possessing beef had “upset” him so much that he decided to give up something that “is very precious to me”, the Padma Bhushan. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline at his residence in Hyderabad:

A number of writers and academics have protested against what they call a growing intolerance, particularly with reference to the Dadri lynching incident. They are blaming the BJP government at the Centre for this. But you have returned an award that was given to you by the Congress government.

Well, it is symbolic. I am upset at what has been happening. And my reasons for being upset are somewhat different from those of the writers, film-makers and artists. And when you feel so strongly about something and you have no other means of protest, what do you do? You part with something that is very precious to you.

Why not write about it?

That would have had no impact. This has had an impact. I write articles. I have even written for Frontline years ago. In fact, this [the returning of the award] has created an unexpectedly huge impact. It has shaken this [Narendra Modi] government. There’s no question about it. The returning of the award was, in some ways, the last straw.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitely has called this “manufactured dissent”. Citing excesses during Congress rule, he has maintained that writers have never done such a thing before.

That is an easy way of dismissing everything. In fact, what he has said is laughable. How do you manufacture dissent? It makes no sense and his statements will not make an impact. Allow me to say that if this had happened [returning of awards] in any other civilised country, and I have lived in four countries—France, Germany, the United States and Britain—and even smaller ones, instead of blaming the people who returned the awards the governments would have sat down and asked where they had gone wrong. You don’t dismiss a whole set of intelligent people like this! It only shows a poverty of ideas.

The BJP has said that you are a Congress sympathiser and have been traditionally inimical to it.

They [the BJP leaders] must refer to my book An Agenda for the Nation. There is a critique of the Congress-led UPA I & II [the two terms of the United Progressive Alliance]. We have covered the entire gamut of government policies. In fact, we said this to them at 10 Janpath, at Sonia Gandhi’s [Congress president] residence.

Pranab Mukherjee, Mani Shankar Aiyar and Jairam Ramesh [Congress leaders] were present. It was at their invitation.

We said that the Congress may have brought us independence, but all the problems the country is facing [today] were on account of the Congress. But they did not dismiss us.

What in the current political climate upsets you the most?

What upsets me the most is that the present government is not on the road to democracy. It is abandoning the road to democracy. Instead, it is taking the country on a road to Hindu religious autocracy, a kind of dictatorship. That’s my biggest concern.

And, there’s a lot of proof for it, such as the Dadri incident. It has come out now that this incident was pre-planned. It probably involved the fringe organisations. And I must tell you, this whole question of beef is a very interesting question because in ancient India beef was permitted.

Qualities of beef are described in Charaka Samhita [an ancient text on Ayurveda]. Those who call themselves Hindus were permitted to eat beef, and beef had certain qualities, which are documented. So what is the problem?

There have been arguments that over the years, the practice of eating beef has come down drastically.

So what? If somebody wants to eat beef, why do you prevent it?

Your concern is that the argument against beef consumption is a religious one?

The argument here is who should decide what I eat? What I should or should not wear? Whom I should and should not love, in the sense of caste distinctions? In north India you have khap panchayats.

How would you describe the National Democratic Alliance government’s relationship with the scientific community?

It has no relationship. Very recently, the Science and Technology Minister, Harsh Vardhan, was at the CCMB. I was invited and I had lunch with him. He said all the laboratories should earn their own money from industry. They [the government] want all the laboratories to come up with something that can be immediately converted into something useful for the people. That’s not the way research is done! [Laughs]. And which industry is going to give you money for basic research? And if you don’t do basic research, you will always be a follower. You will never be a leader. They don’t understand how science operates. It is amazing. I have never had this experience before, even with the [Atal Bihari] Vajpayee government [1998-2003].

Would you have been happier had the Prime Minister shown concern right after the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq?

Yes, I think the Prime Minister should have expressed his concern instead of the Finance Minister saying all kinds of things.

You were instrumental in shaping the trajectory that science would take in the country early on. Are you concerned that the trajectory will change under the new government or be eroded?

That’s the worry. You see, science is progressing at a very rapid pace. If we lose these [next] four years, it will take us another 100 years to get back to where we started.

What more can civil society organisations do to register their protest?

They can come together and make the government realise that they are not entirely under its control. A meeting is being held in Delhi, which will be attended by a thousand people. I am not going because I am not well. The BJP is the political front of the RSS. It cannot do anything that the RSS does not want it to do. The only motive of the RSS is to spread Hindutva. And Hindutva is not democracy.

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