"Science" in India

Vidyasankar Sundaresan vsundaresan at HOTMAIL.COM
Tue Oct 24 23:56:46 UTC 2000

I thought I would take Prof. Kochhar's advice and keep quiet for
a while, but I've decided to do it after this one last missive.
For all my interest in Vedanta and Yoga, I find it difficult to
remain sAkshi-mAtra or dRzi-mAtra here.

I have strongly held opinions, and I convey them in a strident
tone, in order to drive them home. Perhaps I am too strident for
the liking of some, but chalk it down to youthful enthusiasm. If
I am bitter about anything, it is at the direction that this list
has taken of late. I am gratified that people find me competent
and scholarly, but really, my credentials are completely besides
the point. I raised it only in connection with a larger issue.

Everybody who sends a mail to the listserv asking for subscription,
and who receives a reply approving his subscription, has a right
to be on this list. No one, no matter how exalted, has the right
to even begin to question it. If you think existing members should
have a right to decide who the newer members are going to be, take
it up with the list-owner. Dominik has created enormous room,
through his "lurking" option, but in practice, it is problematic.

When I joined this mailing list five years ago, I felt privileged
to have obtained the opportunity to talk to a variety of scholars.
I have learnt a lot from various people here. I don't feel that
way any more, sadly enough. To cite just two examples, does anyone
wonder why Prof. George Cardona doesn't actively participate here?
Nor does Prof. Patrick Olivelle. For those who may have forgotten,
both of them used to post messages here, till about three years ago.
For all I know, they may have already withdrawn from this list, an
option that Prof. Hock has now told us he will consider. Hock's
post makes it clear that he would like to distance himself from all
the posturing that is going on. That does not automatically make
him a "fascist", nor does it indicate even that he is remotely
sympathetic towards some individuals. It would be a pity if he
left, and if things go on in the present vein, many more are going
to leave too. Some other notable scholars already seem to have
instituted a policy of the barest minimum participation. As a result,
this list looks like the private fiefdom of a few individuals with
a certain political agenda.

A number of my countrymen on this list assume that being an Indian
helps them understand ancient Indian texts better. Having grappled
with some of these texts, I know that it doesn't. At the same time,
I will emphatically assert that studying ancient Indian texts DOES
NOT help you understand contemporary India better. There, an average
Indian is situated in a much better position.

Inspite of the fact that we are told to keep politics out of this
list, I find that our distinguished Harvard professor invariably
brings it up, ALL the time. It may be that a certain king named
after nine jewels is a fascist. It may be that a certain crow of
sweet speech mistranslates RV verses. But why do such people loom
so large in the consciousness of some people here? If such people
talk ill of Western Indologists, why don't you all treat it as
water off a duck's back? And why do people who are not Indian
citizens involve themselves with contemporary Indian politics?
That is something for *Indians* to fight out. When all is said and
done, Western Indologists have no place in the nitty-gritty of
politics in India. I find all this brouhaha about Indian fascists
just a tad pompous, especially when some people quote Emerson and
Thoreau to us in this regard. Not everyone wants to jump on to
certain bandwagons under the leadership of people who seem quite
xenophobic themselves. Maybe they are not really so, but public
perception counts. We have other ways of combating fascism in our
native land.

Let us go back to the Frontline article, shall we? There needed
to be discussion of the entire issue in print somewhere, but the
medium matters too. Nobody in academia really likes it when people
run to the press, without talking about things in professional
journals. Notwithstanding the growth of technology, this list and
private websites do not completely replace professional journals.
Ultimately, Rajaram's horse deserves nothing more than a footnote
in a revised edition of Possehl's book on failed attempts at
decipherment. But even that is not a big problem. When I find it
being deplored that such publishing houses like "Voice of India"
exist, I wonder why it is anybody's business how someone chooses
to spend his money. He may have questionable political motives,
but that need not be your problem. Let other Indians take care of
that. If you were to just open your eyes and see, you will find
that every political ideology in India is being countered by an
opposite political ideology. Let the Indian people decide things
for themselves. I find it immensely irritating to have to remind
people that India is a democracy, with the rule of law. Everybody
is free to do as they please, and to engage political opponents
on their own turf. Why should it unduly bother others? When I see
a non-existent horse being labeled after Piltdown, I wonder why
there was not even a small inset giving rudimentary details about
the original hoax of the Piltdown man. Contrary to what scholars
may think, an average reader of Frontline would have known nothing
about the non-existent British man. When I see a professor emeritus
from the University of Manitoba described as not "mainstream", I
wonder if Prof. Witzel's idea of the main stream is a very narrow
stream after all.

When I read a statement that it should be a concern for Indian
education policy makers that some Indian engineers concoct some
fantasies, I see a highly questionable generalization being made.
When I then read a statement about the residential address of some
of these Indian engineers, I see something more there. When one of
the authors talks about the "abysmal state of what passes for
science education" in India on this list, this impression gets
confirmed. When the other author jumps into a population number
game, to compare education in Japan and India, do forgive me for
concluding that there is more than a little xenophobia involved. I
am not alone in coming to such a conclusion, but I am sorry to see
Prof. Witzel associating himself with such thinking. Let me talk
about some more math here. I am sure the word normalization means
something to all of you. The factors to be accounted for would be
such things as literacy rate, GDP, per capita income, expenditure
outlay for education, purchasing power parity, the relative value
of the currency, and a host of other social and economic variables.
I am going to be blunt here. A Harvard professor of Sanskrit who
talks of fuzzy mathematics should not need a biochemical engineer
from Caltech to point out things from the social sciences.

In effect, what is happening is this. India is a major supplier of
labor in the international scientific and technical marketplace.
What these two experts have now told their government and the Indian
government is that the Indian education system is "dumping" shoddy
goods into the foreign market. These shoddy goods are now in the
business of exporting questionable ideologies back to India, from
foreign shores. And believe me, when a Harvard professor says such
things, people take note, even if they may not immediately agree
with it. With all due respect, I don't think Prof. Witzel and Dr.
Farmer are really qualified to evaluate the technical competence of
the products of Indian education. But in general, it doesn't matter
what the Harvard professor's field of expertise really is, so long
as he is an India expert. So, when things boil down to passports
and visas and rupees and dollars, they get extremely sticky. If
you don't like these debates on this forum, tell your distinguished
professional colleagues to observe a little decorum themselves, and
to think hard about how the average man will view their public
statements, and the potential consequences ensuing from that. The
niceties of academic distinctions are washed out in most public
discourse. By taking the non-existent horse to the public media,
and by further making other broadly interpretable statements, it
is Prof. Witzel who has opened the door to a host of problematic
political issues. In that case, do recognize that other kinds of
political voices have legitimacy too. Or if you would rather not
get into politics, don't hold a few Indian greenhorns on this list
solely responsible for introducing it in the first place.


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