Ram temple at science ‘festival’

The Surya Tilak project had courted controversy in the past with Trinamool Congress’s Mahua Moitra flagging it on social media in November 2021. The CSIR officials, however, defended the project arguing the scientific calculations that went into making the system.

‘Surya Tilak at Ram temple at the India International Science Festival backed by the Union Science Ministry’, Deccan Herald, January 18, 2024

This is a succinct demonstration of science’s need for a guiding hand. The Indian Science Congress isn’t happening this year, which is both for the better and otherwise, but given the vague allegations that have cast its status in limbo, I remain suspicious that its star declining (further) at the same time that of the India International Science Festival (IISF) is rising isn’t a coincidence. The latter has a budget of Rs 20-25 crore, according to the Deccan Herald article quoted above, “contributed by various scientific departments”.

The absolute value of India’s expense on scientific research is increasing – a horn the national government has often tooted – but as a percentage of the GDP as well as of the total annual budget, it is dropping. In this milieu, it’s amusing for the government to suddenly be able to provide Rs 20-25 crore for the IISF, when in fact the Department of Science and Technology has been giving the Science Congress a relatively lower Rs 5 crore and which last year alleged unspecified “financial irregularities” on the part of its organisers.

But as with the Science Congress, it wouldn’t be fair to dismiss the IISF altogether for some problematic exhibits and events. This said, CSIR officials contending the “Surya Tilak” of the upcoming Ram temple in Ayodhya deserves to be exhibited at the IISF because “scientific calculations” went into designing it is telling of the relationship between science, religion, and the Indian state today.

Considering there are government regulations stipulating the minimum structural characteristics of every building in the country, any non-small structure in the country could have been included in the IISF exhibit. Don’t be absurd, I hear you say, and that’s just as absurd as the officials’ reasoning.

Natural philosophy in many ancient civilisations, including those in India, was concerned with the motions of stars and planets across the sky and seasonal changes in these patterns. So as such, using the principles of modern science to design the “Surya Tilak” isn’t objectionable, or even remarkable.

But the fact that IISF is being organised by Vijnana Bharati, an RSS-affiliated body, and that Vijnana Bharati’s stated goal is “to champion the cause of Bharatiya heritage with a harmonious synthesis of physical and spiritual sciences” makes the relationship suspect – in much the same way the Vedas and other parts of India’s cultural heritage have become tainted by association with the government’s Hindutva programme. And these suspicions are heightened now thanks to the passions surrounding the impending consecration of the Ram temple idol.

A practice of science that constantly denies its political character is liable to be, and has been, appropriated in the service of a larger political or ideological agenda – but this isn’t to say science, more specifically the national community of science exponents, should assume a monolithic political position. Instead, it’s to say this is precisely the cost of misunderstanding that science and politics, as human endeavours go, are immiscible. It’s to say that scientists’ widespread and collective aspiration to be apolitical implicitly admits political influence and that we should all understand that it’s not desirable for science to be appropriated in this way. And when it is, we must bear in mind how these unions have become deleterious and how the two of them can be, or ought to be, separated so that we understand what science is (and isn’t) and what sort of legitimacy it should (and shouldn’t) be allowed to grant the state.

Defying awareness of the value of separating science and (a compromised) state strikes to me as being fundamentally antisocial because such awareness is the first step to asking how and in what circumstances they ought to be separated. It undermines the possibility of this awareness taking root. This isn’t new but in the increasing fervour surrounding the Ram temple, and India’s temple-state dis-separation the event will consummate, the importance of its loss seems heightened as well.