Why Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s concept of ‘scientific temper’ is very critical to the future of our children?Tweet
The future belongs to science and those who make friends with science.
– Jawaharlal Nehru
Nehru’s birthday, November 14, as we all know, is celebrated as Children’s Day every year in India. On this occasion, it is appropriate to pay tribute to a formative leader of India who illuminated a lot during his lifetime and beyond. Through his intellectual legacy, he continues until this day to guide India on the path of liberal democracy. His vision of India was that of a secular and modern nation. A flamboyant personality and yet a clear thinker, he held his own during much of the freedom struggle.
Nehru led from the front, expressing his positions during the course of various constitutional, political and other debates in the colonial period thereby indelibly stamping free India-to-come with his vision. He became India’s first Prime Minister and held that post for almost 17 years. He has been described severally as architect of modern India, world statesman and great administrator.
In the days that freedom fighters were incarcerated, many of them took to writing. Nehru showed his capacity as a historian of the first order, even though his own first degree at Trinity College, Cambridge, England was in the natural sciences. The strength of his scholarship lingers on in the form of the ‘Discovery of India’, ‘Glimpses of World History’ and ‘An Autobiography.’ It is difficult to condense the thought of such a complex body of work in such a short space. In this post, I choose to focus on the concept of “scientific temper” that was very dear to Nehru. He considered science to be rational, universal and inspired by the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment.
This was not to be mistaken with scientific expertise or building resources in science and technology, the latter having been pursued in different ways. For Nehru, who was an agnostic, science had multiple functions to perform: not only was it an instrument to solve the economic problems of a developing society like ours, it also had to make India a strong and self-reliant country with scientists competent to hold their own in the world scientific community. Part of this policy was the building of top-notch scientific educational and research institutions that Nehru promoted like the IIT’s, CSIR, ICMR, ICAR, and, aided by business houses, institutions like the IISc and the TIFR.
While many celebrate the fact today that its India’s large pool of managerial and scientific manpower that is winning accolades worldwide and also bringing in the moolah, very few acknowledge that it was Nehru’s educational and scientific policies that made possible such an achievement including the Indian “IT revolution” [R. Guha, p. 1962]. That makes him a great visionary who though much derided for his economic policies could peep into the future and build the foundation for the Knowledge-based Economy (KBE) that we are all busy celebrating as the current and future source of wealth-generation.
What was important to Nehru was not just the change in the mere economic status of his country but also a change in the attitudes or the narrow-mindedness of its citizens. He said, “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. . . . Who indeed could afford to ignore science today? At every turn we have to seek its aid.”
But what did he mean by scientific temper? Srirupa Roy in her book “Beyond belief: India and the politics of postcolonial nationalism” notes that Nehru’s emphasis on the need for scientific temper predated independence (p.123). The features of scientific temper were mainly two-fold as Roy elaborates:
1. Scientific temper referred to a mentality or an outlook rather than a specialized body of knowledge. It addressed itself to universalist concerns of “values of life” rather than to narrow and specialized questions of scientific research and application (Roy, p.124)
2. Unlike scientific expertise alone, the project of scientific temper was a call for the diffusion of “science mindedness” throughout the population. The growth of scientific temper was measured by the extent to which ordinary people were using the methods of science to life’s problems (Roy, p.125)
Clearly what the above meant was that science would not just play a role in building scientific expertise but also help reject superstition, prejudice and injustice As Prof. Yashpal has noted, “science will also have to come forward in changing our thoughts and eradicating various social evils, including casteism, extremism…”(Times of India, 16th May 2005). India, in Nehru’s vision, could become a great country if the people adopted such a ‘scientific temper.’ Nehru pointed to the contradictions in the lives of scientists themselves who uphold science in the laboratories but discard science in everything else they do in their life.
Beyond Nehru’s lifetime, the propagation of the concept of ‘scientific temper’ was negligible and became reduced to a debate among intellectuals of various hues. As part of the 42nd amendment to the Indian Constitution in 1976, ‘scientific temper’ joined the list of Fundamental Duties of every Indian citizen vide Part IV-A, Article 51-A (h): ‘to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.’
A group of intellectuals led by P. N. Haksar released a “Statement on Scientific Temper” in October 1980. It has on and off been noticed at the highest levels of governance as a concept bearing great transformative potential. In his first Independence Day address to the nation from the Red Fort in 2004, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also called for the promotion of scientific temper, which he added must become a “national movement” and not a prisoner of bureaucracy or ideology.
A full and proper assessment of the impact of ‘scientific temper’ in the 62 years since independence is yet to be made. There is countervailing data that superstition, occult, irrationality, prejudice, gender inequality and injustices are very resilient in Indian private and public life, in other words, the idea of ‘scientific temper’ has not sufficiently penetrated Indian society. These days, because of the electronic media, news travels faster and there is greater awareness of these issues. A positive fallout of such media analysis and debates might be greater skepticism of superstitions and their peddlers. A moot point for research could be the ways in which the concept has panned out in the context of urbanization.
In the final analysis, to do justice to Nehru’s vision for India, ‘scientific temper could be a useful concept in ‘deschooling’ our society from received wisdom about obscurantist and superstitious practices that it is led to believe is in its interest. Scientific temper has to be an essential component of the socialization of our populace and needs to be promoted as an integral approach to nation-building. If that succeeds, then there can be no greater tribute to Jawaharlal Nehru and the millions of children who form the destiny of our nation.
1. R. Guha, ‘Verdicts on Nehru’, Economic and Political Weekly, May 7, 2005.
2. Srirupa Roy, “Beyond belief: India and the politics of postcolonial nationalism”(Duke University Press, USA: 2007).
***An important recent contribution to the discussion on scientific temper is Prof. Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian : Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity (Penguin, 2006).
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