As India celebrated its 71st Independence Day, many of us rejoiced and paused to deliberate how far we have progressed as a nation. On many counts, we have indeed done tremendously well. A society with 16 per cent literacy and a life expectancy of 27 have come a long way to reach close to 80 per cent literacy and a life expectancy of nearly 70.
As Shashi Tharoor’s astutely-researched The Era of Darkness on the dark history of British rule in India says, India grew at a disappointing 0.001 per cent from 1900 to 1947 but has done much better post-1947 by growing at an average of 3.5 per cent till 1991 to near double-digit growth under UPA 1. Our per capita income too has grown exponentially since 1947.
Many people would present a different opinion by pointing out to the terrible human development indices and how we lag behind when it comes to education health and sanitation. But apart from all of this, has our nation marched forward in time when it comes to critical thinking and scientific temper?
Today’s youth seem to be growing more conservative in their political choices while they are a contradictory bunch when it comes to social choices. They seem to have embraced modernity in their attire and professional life, but seem satisfied to remain conformists in matters of religion, marriage, and other social commitments.
Pandit Nehru was the first to use the phrase “scientific temper” in his seminal work The Discovery of India in 1946. Nehru wrote, “What is needed is a scientific approach, the adventurous yet critical temper of science, the search for truth and new knowledge, the refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity to change previous conclusions in the face of new evidence, the reliance on observed fact and not on pre-conceived theory, the hard discipline of mind-all this is necessary, not merely for the application of science but for life itself and solution of its many problems.”
In India, brainwashing of children begins at home. They are taught about religions, gods, and goddesses at a young and impressionable age. Schools perpetuate it in many ways in an atmosphere of spoon-feeding where discipline is the watchword that in turn kills curiosity in the child.
Even colleges, which are supposed to be liberal bastions that impart fragile thought, the influx of professional courses and the semester system have converted them into factories churning out homogeneous graduates. Even before many young men and women get into a college, parents would have taken the most important decision in their life on their behalf by actively influencing their choice of a career.
The Tinder generation is quite conservative in their choice of life partners and their outlook in life fluctuates wildly. It is tough to make sense of this phenomenon of hate and bigotry permeating through a generation of millennials that didn’t have the baggage of partition or any such horrific collective memory to contend with.
The general excuse you come across is that most people don’t get the time to read beyond the routine propaganda and WhatsApp forwards. Quite untrue. People generally read, imbibe and prefer to follow stuff that validates their core belief systems and prejudices. Psychology defines it as “confirmation bias”.
Coming back to The Discovery of India, Pandit ji contended that scientific temper went beyond the domains to which science is conventionally understood to be limited to as it also dealt with the consideration of ultimate purposes like beauty, goodness, and truth. Nehru also reckons that scientific temper is the opposite of the method of religion, which relies on emotion and intuition and is wrongly applied to everything in life, even to those things which are capable of intellectual inquiry and observation.
“Religion tends to close the mind to produce intolerance, credulity, superstition, emotionalism and irrationalism and the temper of a dependent, un-free person; a scientific temper is the temper of a free man,” he wrote.
Nehru also states that it goes beyond objectivity and fosters creativity and progress. He envisaged that the spread of scientific temper would be accompanied by a shrinking of the domain of religion and “the exciting adventure of fresh and never-ceasing discoveries, of new panoramas opening out and new ways of living, adding to life’s fullness and ever making it richer and more complete”.
Nehru goes on to add: “It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people.”
The internet generation of half-intellectuals, which thrives on blaming Nehru and his faith in Fabian Socialism for all their ills, might also read and introspect on what he wrote about developing a scientific temper before doing it.
On a personal note, Dead Poets Society (1989) is one film that left a lasting impression in my life. The film’s protagonist played by Robin Williams – prof John Keating – probably made more impact on my psyche at a young age than any teacher in school had.
It tells the story of a teacher and an elite conservative school who inspires his students to think for themselves and rebel against an oppressive system which expects them to remain conformists.
A few people might argue that herd mentality existed and still exists in all cultures. But how can that be an excuse for prejudice and hatred and a general lack of compassion? When educated folks who can read and analyze things voluntarily choose the side of bigotry, do they deserve to be given the benefit of doubt for being sheep?
I wonder how many of our youngsters today would follow their instincts in questioning norms, customs, and practices and assert themselves than merely remain conformists.
Shouldn’t scientific temper also be a yardstick when it comes to gauging the giant strides taken by our country? The bigger question remains who is to be blamed, the educated photoshopped savvy youngsters who create fake news working the recently established propaganda industry or the tech savvy youth who read them as WhatsApp forward or fake blogs and remain silent without rationalization or analysis?
[BibhuSiddharth is a fellow at Gandhi Smriti Sadhan and currently working as business analyst in Tata Consultancy Services.]