Mainstream, Vol. XLVI, No 23
Nehru’s Scientific Attitude
Wednesday 28 May 2008, by
Science has brought all these mighty changes and not all of them have been for the good of humanity. But the most vital and hopeful of the changes that it has brought about has been the development of the scientific outlook in man.
Nehru’s understanding of science in relation to the country’s development was penetrating. He, unlike some of his senior contemporaries, viewed science with an unbiased and realistic attitude. His belief in the scientific method was unshakable. He thought of an advanced India with a heavy commitment to industrialisation through science and technology. But the most striking aspect of his scientific thinking was the importance he attached to the scientific outlook.
The major conflict in the world, according to him, was between the method of science and the methods opposed to it. In the early period of the development of science, there was a serious conflict between religion and science. Nehru did not find any real conflict between the two: “Religion must put on the garb of science and approach all its problems in the spirit of science”, he used to say.
THE last few decades have transformed all societies and development has become synonymous with scientific advance. And what is needed of a leader is the appropriate scientific attitude. Few men at the top of political affairs even in the most advanced countries can boast of such an outlook. And one wonders what a man like Nehru would have achieved if he had the requisite scientific techniques at his command. J.B.S. Haldane, when he left Britain and settled in India, said that he was doing so because of the then Indian Prime Minister’s scientific attitude.
After Independence, India made some very important commitments to science, under Nehru’s leadership. He agreed that countries like ours should go in for expenditure on scientific research and development equivalent to at least one per cent of the national income, if anything concrete is to be achieved, though even now, India’s scientific budget provisions are nowhere near this target. Nehru wanted to achieve it. His keen interest in the affairs of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and the Atomic Energy Commission is a clear indication of his scientific aspirations.
He was the main inspiration behind the adoption of a national science policy and the formulation of the Science Policy Resolution.
He invited the top scientists of the world to visit India and give their appraisal of what our country should do in the field of science. He would miss any appointment but never a gathering of scientists. Scientists like P.M. S. Blackett and J.D. Bernal were always welcome in Nehru’s India: Blackett, in fact, influenced Nehru considerably in evolving his approach to such important issues as disarmament and nuclear weapon. The way he once called a visiting British scientist and science writer at quick notice because he was coming from China and Nehru wanted to have a clear idea of what was happening in Mao’s land to promote science, was remarkable. Even several eminent scientists were not aware of the visitor’s presence in New Delhi whereas Nehru took pains to be posted with his views.
The meetings of the Scientific Advisory Commmittee to the Cabinet were extremely lively during Nehru’s time and the decisions were implemented immediately after they were taken. After the Chinese aggression in 1962, there was too much pressure on the government to divert part of the allocation for scientific research to the Defence needs. It was almost unanimously agreed that a ten per cent cut would not make any considerable difference in our scientific activity. Nehru intervened and saw to it that no such step was taken. For, the research itself could be made Defence-oriented instead of depriving it of a portion of its meagre resources.
THE Indo-Pakistani conflict had also given rise to some such thinking and it was argued that a cut in the research allocation was desirable. In the absence of Nehru, this time Bhabha argued on the lines of his late associated and supporter and the proposed cut was restored. With both the stalwarts of a conscious scientific society lost, one wonders what the future has in store.
Nehru’s ideas regarding the use of atomic energy for peaceful purposes were highly imaginative. He wanted the country to enter the atomic era without any delay and it was mainly due to his own initiative that we figured in the top-most councils and research organs on atomic science fairly early and we now have a considerable tradition of research in the subject.
He welcomed the idea of acquainting the layman with the intricacies of the atom and readily accepted the suggestion to hold popular exhibitions all over the country demonstrating its likely use in the development programmes. He looked upon the portfolio of Atomic Energy important enough to be his own preoccupation.
Nehru’s concern for the scientific advances in developing countries was immense. He thought that these countries could achieve remarkable successes by a long-term programme of mutual give and take. He always encouraged the dissemination of information between developing countries regarding the problems of science and technology. The symposium on ‘Science and the Nation’, held in New Delhi in July 1964 under the auspices of the Association of Scientific Workers of India, had the blessings of Nehru. He, in fact, had given new ideas to promote science in developing countries, though he did not live to attend the symposium.
The recent symposium on collaboration between the countries Africa and Asia for Utilisation of Science and Technology, ‘Caaust’, was a follow-up action of what had been conceived during the time of Nehru. The success of the ‘Caaust’ in laying the foundation of an Afro-Asian technological brotherhood is a fitting tribute of the scientists of our country to the memory of the man who was always their unfailing champion.
Even after Nehru’s death the importance of such ventures can hardly be undermined, whatever the efforts of some Western countries to do so. Nor can we forget the general scientific outlook that he so sincerely practised and propagated, “his unquenched thirst for truth, his questing mind that admitted no man-made barriers, his essential humility, his constant willingness to learn and to teach”, to quote from the condolence resolution of the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Cabinet.
The author is a veteran journalist associated with Mainstream for several years; he now edits a publication Alp-jan, focussing on the issues and problems of minorities.