Yesterday, Pushpa Mittra Bhargava, a veteran scientist and the founder of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, announced his decision to return the Padma Bhushan award he had received in 1986. Bhargava said that he was doing so because “the future of democracy is at stake.” During several interviews, he also expressed concern over the fact that people from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh had attended a recent meeting of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research Labs and was critical of the government’s reduced funding for this venture. The scientist noted,“I hold no brief for the earlier UPA regime and I criticised it in my book. However, you must give credit as they did not want to decide what we eat, what we wear and how we behave."
On 28 October 2015, a day before Bhargava made this declaration, 107 distinguished scientists from across the country issued a joint statement online. This statement highlighted the growing “climate of intolerance, and rejection of reason that has led to the lynching in Dadri of Mohammad Akhlaq Saifi and the assassinations of Prof Kalburgi, Dr Narendra Dabholkar and Shri Govind Pansare.” Bhargava was a signatory to this document. Yesterday, he spoke to Atul Dev, a web reporter at The Caravan, over the phone. During this conversation, he elaborated on why he decided to return the award, what he thought the impact of the ongoing protests would be, and how the political climate across the country was adversely effecting the quality of academic research.
Atul Dev: The joint statement issued the day before yesterday by the scientific community of India showed concern for the “active promotion of irrational and sectarian thought by important functionaries of the government.” You have had a long career, and such problems are not unique to this government. What prompted you to take this stand now?
Pushpa Mittra Bhargava: There are multiple reasons; I will give you the three central ones. Firstly, the government has lost the path of democracy and is treading on the path of what I may call Hindu religious dictatorship. That worries me. The second reason is that the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] is the political front of the RSS; as it turns out, it acts on the behest of the RSS, which is a Hindu fundamentalist organisation. I can not be in favour of any fundamentalist organisation, irrespective of its religion. And lastly, there is the issue of scientific temper. Our constitution, in its article 51 A’s subsection ‘h’, says that every citizen of India should develop a scientific temper. So, you see, reason and scientific temper are our two very important commitments as citizens. But as we have seen, the government itself doesn’t have a scientific temper. And as someone who was partly responsible for having this clause inserted—I had worked closely with the then education minister Nurul Hasan, who was a close friend of mine—this is of grave concern.
Then one of the results of this growing tide of intolerance is that that non-Hindus—Muslims and Christians—in the present regime feel like second-class citizens of India. Churches have been burned, and you know what happened in Dadri. All this worries me.