The ideologues cometh for the IITs

In July 2019, when the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched its Chandrayaan 2 mission, the spiritual guru Jaggi Vasudev was present in the control centre, along with other dignitaries, getting a close view of the launch from a balcony. After the launch, he was seen taking photographs with the scientists in the room. Many people (myself included) were irked as to how, of all the people ISRO could have chosen to invite for such an occasion, it picked Jaggi Vasudev, who regularly makes pseudoscientific claims in public and has floated questionable initiatives like ‘Cauvery Calling’ even as his foundation has angered locals for encroaching ecologically sensitive land, damaging water resources and farmland in Tamil Nadu. Surely there were better invitees?

A year or so later, someone who is highly likely to have been aware of the true circumstances of Jaggi’s presence in the control room told me that ISRO didn’t invite him. Jaggi just showed up at ISRO’s doorstep, and they were obligated to let him in and show him around. We had assumed there had been an invitation because it is not possible for the rest of us to simply show up and be let into the control room gallery. After the launch, Jaggi tweeted, “#Chandrayaan2 is the outcome of the brilliance and extraordinary commitment of our scientists of @ISRO and also the political will. This phenomenal achievement is the pride of our nation. Just couldn’t help being there.” The mention of ‘political will’ in that tweet was an important indication. Even if it wasn’t as ostentatious as later tweets by others would be, it didn’t prove anything. It was just of a piece with events two months later.

In September 2019, the Chandrayaan 2 mission’s lander crashed on the lunar surface, leaving only the orbiter part of the mission to succeed. But the then ISRO chairman K. Sivan dubbed the mission a “98% success” (without explaining his calculus) even as the rest of the organisation withdrew into a shell, cutting the information flow into a feeble trickle. We didn’t know that Vikram, the lander, had crashed or the telemetry data based on which ISRO had reached that conclusion, until later.

Today, on November 18, 2022, an Indian company called Skyroot Aerospace launched its first indigenous rocket from ISRO’s spaceport in Sriharikota – an important achievement, a milestone in the country’s reforms to increase private sector involvement in the spaceflight sector. But before and after the launch itself, the telecast was concerned inordinately with the glory of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and of his government. Piyush Goyal called it “an achievement led by PM” – a patently false assertion that also overlooked the scientists and engineers who had worked on the mission.

In December 2021, IIT Kharagpur published a “Vedic calendar” prepared by an Indian Knowledge Systems Centre at the institute of eminence. It was riddled with ahistorical claims, twisted in a way to support, among other things, the idea that the Aryans were the native people of Bharat rather than immigrants from Eastern Europe and that, to borrow historian Meera Nanda’s words, “the well-known “Pashupati seal” found in Mohenjo-Daro in 1928, which depicts a figure seated in a yoga-like posture, wearing a horned head-gear with animals surrounding him, is no “proto-Shiva” but a full-fledged Vedic-Puranic Shiva who is the “column of cosmic light and aeons of time” (whatever that means).” A centre for ‘Indian knowledge systems’ already exists in IIT Gandhinagar as well and, Nanda speculated, IIT Kanpur could be next in line.

Speaking of IIT Kanpur: on November 11, the institute tweeted from its official handle that spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar would conduct a “national induction” on the same day “for the first-year students of all the national institutes of importance” (there are 25). The tweet asked people to visit Ravi Shankar’s “Art of Living’s YouTube channel” to view the talk.

Finally, two days back, the University Grants Commission (UGC) asked universities across the country to hold lectures on November 26, Constitution Day, to push the idea of India as the world’s “mother of democracy” and that ancient India had a democratic government in its Vedic period. The incumbent UGC chairman, M. Jagadesh Kumar, made a name for himself as the Jawaharlal Nehru University vice-chancellor who did nothing as a small mob of miscreants, affiliated with the youth wing of the BJP, went on a rampage through the campus, damaging property and attacking students. Now, Kumar has written to 45 universities, 45 deemed-to-be universities and to the governors of states (who are the chancellors of state universities) to “encourage” these lectures.

This is what the BJP’s ideological programme taking over India’s ostensible centres of scientific research excellence looks like – not by (physical) violence, not by harassing professors and students who oppose their ideology, not by jailing peaceful protestors, but by opening the door in small increments, using the universities’ names and symbols on propaganda material, by adding ‘centres’ and ‘lectures’ to them instead of subtracting their powers, and by taking control of the public narratives of their achievements.

Featured image credit: Dewang Gupta/Unsplash.