Trouble at the doorstep

When an alumnus of the IISc wanted to organise an astrology workshop at the institute’s premises in 2017, students and various members of its teaching faculty rose in protest and wrote to the director to have the event cancelled, and it was cancelled. Their voices died down quickly after and didn’t emerge when astrology workshops popped up in other places around the city or even the country. The Union culture ministry launched a portal earlier in 2019 celebrating ‘ancient Indian knowledge’ that included essays on the ‘scientific validity’ of astrology penned by another IISc alumnus, and there wasn’t a peep.

And here we are again, when the institute’s students and some teachers have raised their voices against an event on mental wellbeing by the godman Sri Sri, scheduled to happen yesterday. There is certainly increasing – and never too late – awareness of the importance of access to good and timely mental healthcare for students in academic and research institutions, and props to the protestors for separating the right ways to respond to mental stresses and illnesses from the wrong.

However, these voices were silent until Sri Sri showed up at IISc’s doorstep and this I find troubling. With the astrology workshop, it seemed as if the protestors didn’t just draw a line between science and pseudoscience but also one between IISc and the rest of society, and reserved the expression of their disappointment towards pseudoscience inside IISc alone. That seems to be the case now as well: if there are conscientious people within IISc that are also motivated to collectivise and agitate (irrespective of how vehemently), their not doing so is only conspicuous by absence in other instances where it is similarly necessary.

(Deferring to the synecdoche) If IISc can rise up, it must rise up all the time. This isn’t a veiled caution against rising up altogether but to recall that selective outrage is irredeemably useless as well as to encourage students and practitioners of science to protest as often as they can – not just by pouring into the streets as they did when their funding was under threat but also for example writing against events and ideas they recognise to be dangerous – because their educational qualifications and academic situation vests theme with a measure of authority that non-scientists can’t passively accrue.