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Analysis Science

Immunity for scientists? Err…

On the sidelines of a screening of the semi-fictional biopic of beleaguered ISRO scientist Nambi Narayanan, the Madhavan-starrer Rocketry: The Nambi Effect, Narayanan told journalists on August 1 that “scientists should” receive immunity against “arbitrary police action” (source).

“It is not just ISRO… scientists working in the Department of Science and Technology, the Department of Atomic Energy and others too. As part of their job, they travel a lot. … They have to be protected from random police action, else you can go on booking people and put them behind the bars”.

This is a strange statement to make, with quite a bit to unpack.

No one – not just scientists – deserves to be at the receiving end of arbitrary police action. Singling scientists out here transforms a right into a privilege and scientists into an arbitrarily exceptional class of citizens. Narayanan suffered considerably after the Kerala police falsely accused him of espionage and derailed his career and life, and the response to this should include among other things the elimination of all arbitrary action, instead of vouchsafing the cruelty of it for some non-elite group.

Narayanan’s statement is also vague about what he considers to be “arbitrary” and whom he considers to be “scientists”. If he is using “arbitrary” as a synonym for ‘baseless’, his statement is immediately a statement about the arrests and harassment of journalists, activists and political leaders around the country. The police and state governments also arrested and harassed social scientists. To want scientists alone to be protected in this regard is disingenuous – and in the process raises the question of “protection from what?”.

Baseless police action against scientists who spoke up is baseless police action against scientists who spoke up against state failure and overreach. These scientists are not simply – to use a cliché – doing their jobs, as Narayanan was, but also exercised their rights as citizens of the country to call out and protest communalism and corruption. Narayanan on the other hand was persecuted for two decades for having done nothing at all. Both actions were wrong but for significantly different reasons. Importantly, cases like his have been rare while those unlike his are the norm today.

And finally, Narayanan’s statement presumes an implicit distinction between scientists’ work and their political engagement. He seems to invoke, by asking for immunity, that exceptionalism again: that there is nothing worth taking police action over as well as that scientists are above it all. Granting them and only them immunity from police action could consequently render their comments on political matters (even more) irrelevant, coming as they will from a position of incredible privilege, but it is far more likely that senior scientists (an important distinction because younger scientists have on average been better) will interpret the decree to mean they’re obligated to the state to stay in their lane.

The only part of Narayanan’s statement that makes sense is the one that expects the police to give scientists, and for that matter people of any profession, the benefit of the doubt – to admit, essentially, that a conspiracy isn’t the only explanation for a researcher in a well-funded research facility to travel to or be in touch with their counterparts from other countries.