Above the mundane?

Over the last week, we have read innumerable stories on the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle (APSC) vs. IIT-Madras battle. Was it a ban or de-recognition? Was it ‘merely’ a show-cause notice? Were the students ‘involved’ in the episode just indulging in demagogic propaganda, disturbing the peace of the campus?

To these ‘campus questions’ are added larger ones: Is being opposed to the policies of the government or for that matter the prime minister an act that demands ‘remedial’ action? Was the HRD ministry correct in requesting comments on an anonymous complaint? Is not a letter from the ministry asking for ‘comments’ a veiled threat?

In between all this, political parties have constructed their own narratives to the happenings, with open letters of support from some, condemnation from others. Among these, the most bizarre is the appropriation of Ambedkar by one Hindu front that had demanded the banning of the APSC! A caste-based break-up of the professors, assistant professors et al employed at IIT-M is doing the rounds. There is also the online bullet-point superficial debate on Ambedkar and Periyar.

In the course of all the finger pointing, one idea has been peering out of the discourse. “IITs are places for study, not venues for socio-political discussions and agitations.” With the corollary: “These groups corrupt the minds of students and distract them from their primary goal — science.” “Have these students gone to IIT to study or indulge in politics?” some asked.

We do not hear this admonition when strikes or protests take place at what used to be called ‘Arts’ colleges and are now known as Institutes for the Humanities. But when it comes to science, there is a strong feeling that “This cannot be allowed in places of scientific learning.” At a very basic level, we Indians see pure science and its allied subjects as far more serious, even sacred, compared to the social sciences. This belief arises from our notion of the intellect framed by math and science.

The study of science is seen as being above ‘mundane’ social issues, leave aside conflicts. Science is not meant to engage in the whimsicalities of humanity. An individual immersed in science is seen as being detached from the politics of life. The science student or the scientist cannot be found indulging in political activity, since it brings him down to the level of a fickle irrational human being. Emotional squabbles are left to ‘ordinary’ people. Would-be engineers and scientists are to experience life through honest scientific enquiry.

In this is implied the notion that ‘the rest’ is inherently flawed while science is a pure search, almost bordering a spiritual quest. Hence science and religion can be seen in fact as natural partners. They may differ in their view of the world but there is very little contradiction in how people feel about engaging with them. The argument is that both require a deep, intense, almost selfless surrender to something else; call it Rama or a complex equation. Therefore, unlike the way economists, sociologists or historians view life through the eyes of human fallibility; scientists and bhaktas see life as being beyond the manipulations of man. Sociologically we have placed science and religion on a kind of altar beyond which there is only the sky! The sanctified priest and the science professor are semi-divine.

And oddly enough, I find here a resonance in the universe of our classical music. We feel superior; music after all is the fastest and simplest way to moksha! We inhabit nada’ and once we are in music we are beyond caste or gender politics. We are in contact with that intangible divine, elevating people, nourishing their souls. Even if uncomfortable facts stare us in our face, we wave them aside. We, in the Carnatic world, go one step further. We not only claim that our music is bhakti laden; we constantly prove that ours is one of the most ‘scientific’ of systems. We believe both the rational and the spiritual reside in us.

But only the blindfolded would believe that science, religion and classical music are above or outside the real world. Every human being has to battle the emotionality of being an individual and part of a collective. If we do not allow for that we will continue to be dominated by artificial social orders that ask adherents of Ambedkar and Periyar to ‘fall in line’.

Originally written for The Hindu

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