Indian scientists protest intolerance against rationalists

K. S. Jayaraman

doi:10.1038/nindia.2015.146 Published online 29 October 2015

India's scientists, whose complaints have traditionally been limited to inadequate facilities for doing science or poor salaries — and who have been reluctant to voice their collective opinion on non-scientific issues — are now becoming part of a "new awakening" being witnessed by the country.

Several senior scientists have joined scores of artists, film directors and authors who have returned their national awards, in protest against what they describe as “growing intolerance” in the country. Their anger was provoked by many recent incidents of assaults on free speech and freedom of expression resulting in the lynching and murders of rationalists by extremist groups and the lack of official condemnation of these groups.

A five-member inter-academy panel on ethics in science set up by India's three scientific academies noted "with sadness and growing anxiety several statements and actions that run counter to the constitutional requirement of every citizen." In a statement issued 28 October 2015, they took the government to task for a "rash of bigoted acts and attacks on minorities and Dalits which show no signs of abating."

Pushpa Bhargava, 87, founder-director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad became the first scientist to return the Padma Bhushan, the country's third highest civilian award that he received in 1986. "Religious beliefs are personal choices and the government should not interfere. I am worried Indian democracy is at stake," he told Nature India adding he was returning the award as a mark of protest.

Bhargava's decision followed an online statement1 signed by over 100 senior scientists (the figure has since reached 460) on 28 October expressing concern at the "climate of intolerance" and "the ways in which science and reason was getting eroded in the country. We reject the destructive narrow view of India that seeks to dictate what people will wear, think, eat and who they will love,” they said.

At least five of the signatories are recipients of the civilian Padma awards. On 27 October 2015, 135 other scientists from across the country signed an online petition addressed to President Pranab Mukherjee expressing concern over the recent incidents of “intolerance, polarization and spread of communal hatred resulting in the death of innocent people, rationalists."

A highly polarised community "is like a nuclear bomb" that can explode any time and drive the nation to utter chaos, it said. Rather than developing "scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry what we are witnessing is the active promotion of irrational and sectarian thought by important functionaries of the government," the scientists warned.

Scientists joining the protest has however not impressed Bharat Ratna awardee and former science advisor C. N. R. Rao. "Fighting for freedom of speech is no doubt a wonderful thing to do, but how about freedom of doing science?" he asked. Rao, who is not a signatory to any of the protest statements, said he is not going to surrender his Bharat Ratna. He hoped that by focusing on other issues, Indian scientists will not lose their battle for increased support for science. "Hope they will carry the fight for science with the same vigour as they do for freedom of speech."