Featured image credit: ratha/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.
I hadn’t heard of the Millennium Plaque of Honour before yesterday, January 3. From what I was able to read up before filing my report in The Wire (about embattled Hyderabad University vice-chancellor Appa Rao Podile receiving the plaque at the ongoing Indian Science Congress):
- It has been awarded by the Indian Science Congress Association since 2003, when it was instituted as the ‘Science & Society Award’
- Its name was changed to the New Millennium Plaque of Honour in 2005
- It carries a citation, a literal plaque and a cash component of Rs 20,000 “to cover incidental expenses”
- It is awarded to two eminent scientists at the Science Congress every year
If the annual event was considered prestigious or even very laudable until 2014, I’m not entirely sure (although it certainly wasn’t a very gala affair). But in 2015 and after, it’s certainly taken a beating. In 2015, particularly, the congress was invaded by right-wing nuts convinced that Vedic age scholars had flown planes to Mars and transplanted animal heads onto human bodies. Proceedings were relatively free of controversy in 2016 before taking another turn for the worse in 2017: by giving a Millennium Plaque to Appa Rao (as well as to Avula Damodaram, but that’s a lesser problem we’ll come to later).
A day or so ago, in a conversation on Twitter, both R. Prasad (The Hindu‘s science editor) and Gautam Desiraju (a celebrated chemist at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru) agreed that many Indian events had off late been banking on legitimacy ‘loaned’ from foreign institutions. For example, a large part of the Indian Science Congress’s public outreach every year involves blaring that X Nobel laureates will be in attendance. Nobel laureates are eminent
people men, sure, but often they don’t do much other than give a talk and just be in attendance. And their presence doesn’t do much for the quality of the conference, overall in a decline, either (see footnote). In December 2012, P. Balaram, the director of IIT-Madras, wrote in an editorial in the journal Current Science,
… few practising scientists of note consider the Congress as an important event. Pomp and ceremony take precedence over substance. Over the years the Congress has been reduced to an occasion where the inaugural session appears to be the raison de etre for the meeting. The traditional opening address by the Prime Minister predictably reiterates governmental commitment to support science and invariably promises to remove the many bureaucratic hurdles that sometimes loom larger than life in the minds of many scientists. The presence of the executive head of government invests the inaugural event with an importance that is often not commensurate with the quality of the scientific sessions that follow. The occasion is also used to showcase a couple of Nobel laureates, who fly in to speak to audiences with little appetite for excessively technical talks. The organisers, bolstered by considerable government backing, are always good hosts; the distinguished foreign presence ensuring that the Congress always acquires a degree of respectability rarely supported by the scientific program.
In such times, the value of reinforcing local rewards, recognitions, symbols, ideals, etc. is as important as respecting and re-legitimising them as well. This means that an award like the Millennium Plaque of Honour (despite its pompous name), instituted as it has been by the Indian Science Congress, should be given on every occasion to scientists truly deserving of the award and, more importantly, never to anyone who will lower by association the prestige accorded to the award.
Appa Rao is capable of doing the latter. Particularly after Rohith Vemula’s suicide last year (and more generally for a half-year period before that), Appa Rao, as vice-chancellor, was responsible for allowing partisan interventions from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to interfere in university student politics as well as for violently quelling student protests that followed on the University of Hyderabad campus. Shortly after the news of Vemula’s death broke, the Times of India also reported that Appa Rao had acquired his vice-chancellorship through political connections, especially with BJP minister Venkaiah Naidu and Telugu Desam Party chief Chandrababu Naidu.
A relevant passage from our coverage of the incidents:
Police, CRPF and RAF forces came to the campus, and students assembled on the lawns outside the VC’s lodge were brutally removed and lathi charged. Some students were badly injured and had to be taken to hospitals, sources have said. Students have also said that they were abused and insulted, and female students were threatened with rape. Students from minority communities were allegedly called “terrorists”.
It’s impossible to overlook the fact that his only presence in recent memory was as a craven but powerful stooge, and in fact almost never for his work as a scientist. He hasn’t done anything memorable of late nor as he displayed the integrity due a vice-chancellor of a public institution. In fact, shortly after the student protests, I had also published evidence of plagiarism in three of his research papers. If he has won a Millennium Plaque, then it only means the ‘honour’ doesn’t stand for research excellence anymore as much as for neglecting one’s duties and for perverting the all-important autonomy of an important position.
Worse yet, it seems an award of the Indian Science Congress has become subverted into becoming an instrument of negotiation for political agents: “You let me interfere in your duties, I will give you a fancy-sounding award”. The other recipient of the same award this year, Avula Damodaram, doesn’t inspire confidence, either – although I concede I have no evidence following my suspicions (yet). Damodaram is the vice-chancellor of Sri Venkateswara University, Tirupati, the same institute that’s hosting the science congress this year. Binay Panda, a bioinformatician and friend, wasn’t surprised:
Footnote: Mukund Thattai, a biologist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, conducted a poll on Twitter asking why people took to science. The option ‘once saw a Nobel laureate’ clocked in last:
Seventy-four is not a great sample size but 1% is a far more abysmal number.