(To appear as a contribution to an edited volume — detailed reference will be provided when ready for publication)
Two political projects have characterised the India of the last two and a half decades. The first is the advance of Hindutva, India’s own particular brand of religious majoritarianism, with elements of fundamentalism and obscurantism, linked to a revanchist view of the origins of the Indian state. The second is the neo-liberal turn in the economic policy of the Indian state, often described more benignly as economic reform. Both emerged on the national stage in rather rapid fashion in the early 90s, strikingly similar in their common charactertistic of a radical departure from the ideals that in the previous nearly half a century were taken for granted as underpinning the idea of India. Even after almost two decades and a half since their emergence as significant features of national life, both appear to be projects that are still underway, especially in the view of their most active proponents, who consider that their gains have not yet been consolidated in stable form. Despite the apparently irreversible changes that have been made to the economy and economic policy-making in the country by so-called “reform”, the constant clamour for further advance still continues. As for the proponents of Hindutva, in view of their agenda of rewriting the entire ideological basis of contemporary India in the pursuit of their majoritarian vision of the future, it is evident that they must constantly seek new avenues and arenas of confrontation with the secular, pluralistic and inclusive trends in Indian society.
To those who have viewed the emergence of these projects with concern and even alarm, both appear to have indeed made significant advances, giving rise to the danger of a dual polarization of Indian society. Economic reform on the one hand, can be argued to have significantly contributed to widening inequality in society, with persistent large-scale deprivation coexisting with the creation of a relatively narrow stratum of beneficiaries, even within whose ranks, apart from a section of the super-rich, the increase in incomes is accompanied by greater insecurity. On the other hand, the Hindutva project threatens a long-term polarization along religious divides, while also intensifying divisions along the fault lines of caste, setting aside even the modest gains obtained over the decades towards the making of a democratic and inclusive economic, social and political order.
Both these projects strike at other core elements of what one may call a “national” vision that for a few decades after independence was taken for granted. Perhaps their most chilling effect has been on the building of science and scientific temper, arguably among the most positive aspects of the perspective that characterised India’s path of development for the first few decades after independence. This is not to suggest that science or scientific temper in India prior to the nineties was not beset with many difficulties. But it was a period when, it could be argued, there was increasing clarity on what needed to be done to overcome these and some hope that the configuration of social and political forces required for realizing these goals could eventually be successfully mobilized. One of the positive features that gave hope for such a mobilization was the increasing realization, though often not well or fully articulated, of the close connection between the actual practice of science with the larger social and economic conditions that made for a scientific temper.
But post the nineties, not only do the prospects for such a mobilization appear to have retreated, but a variety of new challenges have risen from new and unexpected quarters. In part, due to these challenges, the setbacks to science in this country due to the two-pronged attack from both reform and Hindutva have not received their due consideration. These new challenges to be more precise derailed in particular the emerging effort at understanding the relationship between science and the social, economic and political conditions of its advance.
It is the contention of this note that science and scientific temper in India are on the threshold of a crisis and that they face a situation that is unparalleled in its seriousness. In elaborating and critically understanding the origins of this crisis, we will do so in an impressionistic account, based in part on the author’s own personal experience and learnings from his involvement with science and science movements in the country. Even if this account does not entirely satisfy the more analytically minded reader, we trust that she would consider this as a series of working hypotheses awaiting further detailed study (or studies) that we do not attempt here.