Questions on the National Scientific Temper Day and the erasure of Ambedkar

Updated: Aug 22

August 20 is commemorated as the National Scientific Temper Day in memory of rationalist and physician Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, who was assassinated on the same date in 2013. Dabholkar, a doctor by training and a social activist, was instrumental in fighting for the promulgation of the Anti-Superstition and Black Magic Ordinance in Maharashtra, which was promulgated 4 days after his assassination.

However, in the current Indian science ecosystem’s engagement with concepts surrounding science and scientific temper, one cannot help but notice the overarching allusion to Nehru, the supposed "fact" that he coined the term “scientific temper”, and an overwhelming erasure of Dr. BR Ambedkar’s contribution to Indian science and anti-caste movements. This post is just to rejig our memories, present some alternative facts, and of course, call out the immense casteism being perpetrated in the everyday practice of science in India, even while we all clamour about scientific temper. This is also to let readers know that I have not “produced” any of the knowledge below — I have just compiled evidence and information from various sources, a task I sincerely hope Indian scientists start doing for themselves before alluding to incorrect information and erasing the contributions of Ambedkar, probably on whose shoulders modern India stands.

When I tweeted about this erasure, I was promptly corrected by somebody that Ambedkar did not introduce the term “scientific temper” in the Indian constitution. Rather, it was the 42nd amendment in 1976 that introduced the clause, "[It shall be the duty of every citizen of India] To develop scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform". I accept this factual flaw in my Tweet. However, it is still true that Ambedkar and his contributions to modern-day rational thinking has been systematically and systemically erased in India, especially in the sciences. As I write, science institutions remain some of the most casteist places in the country, with no willingness to change the situation. Moreover, I have my own set of corrections to point out.

But before that, let us also look at the press release published by the All India People’s Science Network (AISPN). It says, “This year the campaign focuses on the need for Scientific Temper to fight Covid and the need to oppose promotion of Astrology by Governmental efforts”. Yet, in the need for scientific temper to fight COVID, it does not talk about the burden of the pandemic falling unfairly on crematorium workers. It does not talk about Ambedkar’s commentary against Hindu theology and upper-caste fundamentalism and it does not talk about the “unscientific” practice of untouchability that continues to exist in India to this date. It does not talk about Rohith Vemula, Fathima Latheef, Aniket Ambhore, S Anitha, Najeeb Ahmed and many others who we have unfairly lost to casteism and islamophobia in science institutions and universities. Can a country like India, where there is no bigger lived reality than that of caste, claim to talk about scientific temper without addressing casteism? What is the use of a National Scientific Temper Day, if it is not even questioning the fundamental casteism on which our top educational institutions function even today?

Nehru and scientific temper

Despite popular belief (e.g.: this and this and this), Nehru did not coin the term “scientific temper”. A simple Wikipedia search throws up names of at least two more people (while reminding us that the term has been in use for a very long time): Thomas Aloysius Hughes, who used the term in 1893, and Bertrand Russell, who used the term in 1922. Of them, Russell says the following:

We have had in recent years a brilliant example of the scientific temper of mind in the theory of relativity and its reception by the world. Einstein, a German-Swiss-Jew pacifist, was appointed to a research professorship by the German Government in the early days of the War; his predictions were verified by an English expedition which observed the eclipse of 1919, very soon after the Armistice. His theory upsets the whole theoretical framework of traditional physics; it is almost as damaging to orthodox dynamics as Darwin was to Genesis. Yet physicists everywhere have shown complete readiness to accept his theory as soon as it appeared that the evidence was in its favour. But none of them, least of all Einstein himself, would claim that he has said the last word. He has not built a monument of infallible dogma to stand for all time. There are difficulties he cannot solve; his doctrines will have to be modified in their turn as they have modified Newton’s. This critical undogmatic receptiveness is the true attitude of science.

For Russell, then, scientific temper is "critical undogmatic receptiveness". Nehru does complicate this notion further by the use of rhetoric. He says, “The scientific temper points out the way along which man should travel. It is the temper of a free man.” He goes ahead to provide a longer definition of what he means, but let’s deliberate on this for a moment. If scientific temper is the temper of a free “man”, then how can we inculcate scientific temper when all of us are not free? People from marginalized castes, marginalized genders and sexualities, people with disabilities and neurodivergent people are all living shackled lives. Science as an institution, and science institutions, have pathologized and excluded us from an active pursuit of science. How, then, can we propagate scientific temper without calling out these axes of marginalizations?

Why should India’s National Scientific Temper Day be more Ambedkarite?

The reason is simple: Modern day India owes Ambedkar greatly for promoting rational thinking. Despite being a “non-scientist”, Ambedkar was greatly influenced by the philosopher John Dewey. As Subhasis Sahoo writes in Recast(e)ing scientific temper in democracy: the eccentricities of Ambedkarian science,

Ambedkar followed Dewey in believing that the content of modern scientific theories demanded rational acceptance by all people, universally, because these theories are the products of the most systemic practice of the scientific attitude. He believed that with modern science, a new kind of knowledge was born that could replace the theological, metaphysical and supernatural foundations of knowledge accessible only to the pure and wise, with the fallible, testable experiences of reality available to all.

Ambedkar saw science as a great democratizing force, one that makes knowledge available to those who were systemically and systematically forbidden from accessing knowledge under Hindu Brahmanism and casteism. And for Ambedkar, rationality was crucial to democracy.

Moreover, according to Sahoo, rationality and equality are not independent of each other. In Ambedkar’s fight against the caste system, Sahoo sees “the scientific outlook [as] a protection against the arbitrary exercise of power.” Ambedkar’s idea of liberation from the caste system, which was based on unscientific dogmas and arbitrary control of resources by Savarna individuals, was based on liberation from what Sahoo calls “ideological manipulations”.

Even in Ambedkar’s embracing of Buddhadhamma, Ambedkar did not let go of reason. As Sahoo points out, Ambedkar translated Buddha’s final words as follows:

Be your own guide
Take refuge in reason
Take refuge in truth.

Is not, then, the erasure of such a man from the discourse on scientific temper not only unfair, but untrue to the history of science in India? In fact, the Wikipedia page on Dabholkar also mentions, “Between 1990–2010, Dabholkar was active in movements for the equality of Dalits (untouchables) and against India's caste system and caste-related violence. He advocated renaming the Marathwada University after Babasaheb Ambedkar, who is the author of India's constitution and fought for the equality of Dalits.” Isn’t it interesting that Dabholkar, whose unfortunate assassination the National Scientific Temper Day commemorates, had realised the importance of bringing the Ambedkarite anti-caste discourse in the practice of scientific temper, but current-day scientists fail to even take Ambedkar’s name while talking about scientific temper?

Sahoo has also pointed out various characters of Ambedkarian science in his paper, which I strongly urge readers to read. I shall not repeat the points here. However, I do have two more things to add.

There are two political reasons to remember Ambedkar and uphold Ambedkarite values while talking about not just scientific temper, but also while talking about science practice in India itself. One is the fact that people from marginalized caste backgrounds have been able to access science and scientific training as a direct result of reservations that were spearheaded by Ambedkar almost a century ago. If as people in the science ecosystem we believe that having diverse perspectives in science is beneficial to the practice of science itself, then one must thank the man whose grit, determination and perseverance allowed diverse opinions to be brought into Indian science.

The other reason is that scientists and science institutions in the country remain to be some of the most casteist spaces, even today. Even in their claim of being apolitical, people from top-notch science institutions have vehemently opposed reservations. Reservation guidelines in institutions are violated regularly. Recent incidents like that of Seema Singh hurling casteist abuses at students from marginalized caste backgrounds and students with disabilities in a classroom are only a scratch on the surface of the casteism that is perpetrated in Indian science and science institutions. In such a scenario, isn’t it ironic that the National Scientific Temper Day (and conversations around scientific temper) do not discuss caste and casteism in Indian science practice?

In conclusion, I urge the Indian science community to take a step back and think about what it might mean to inculcate scientific temper in the modern times. Isn’t scientific temper also about critical thinking? When will the Indian science ecosystem critically evaluate its discomfort with Ambedkarite politics, and acknowledge Ambedkar as a reckoning force who contributed to both the theory and praxis of rational thinking in India? When will the Indian science ecosystem deliberate on caste and casteism in their own glass bubbles, and work towards the annihilation of caste in science practice? I (im)patiently await the day.

Update on August 22, 2o21: The Wire Science has republished this piece with minor edits here.

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Science writer, communicator and journalist